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On Rereading

In Sowing, the first volume of his autobiography, Leonard Woolf casually records that his widowed mother, Marie Woolf, got herself a copy of Dr. Johnson’s Rasselas, kept it by her bedside, and reread it “dozens of times.”

As one who has so far failed to make it through Rasselas even once, I consider Marie Woolf’s devotion to the book a matter worth pondering. If what her son says is true—and who would doubt such a man as Leonard Woolf?—Marie Woolf was probably the world’s biggest fan of Rasselas, just as I myself might claim to be the world’s biggest fan of Slowly Down the Ganges, a wonderful travel book by Eric Newby, which I have been rereading more or less continuously since 1965.

Now, both Dr. Johnson and Eric Newby have written other books—possibly even better books than Rasselas or Slowly Down the Ganges—but where Marie Woolf and I are concerned they might as well not have bothered, since we already had the Talismanic book we needed from them. No serious rereader rereads to please the teacher.

What I am wondering is whether Marie Woolf and I are the exceptions rather than the rule in the murky, semi-secretive world of rereaders. Are there, perhaps, rereaders who are not quite so stuck on one book?

The late Sir Kenneth Clark, docent of Civilization itself, edited a hefty book called Ruskin Today so that he could reread his favorite passages from that master without having to dig them out of the famous thirty-nine-volume Library Edition.

But here the picture blurs. Did Sir Kenneth dip into Ruskin Today every day? Or did he merely indulge occasionally? His elder son, the politician Alan Clark, claims to keep a volume of James Lee-Milne’s Diary by his bed, working through the eleven-volume set night by night; then, when he’s finished, he starts over. This is very civilized rereading: a set of these same Diaries is within a yard of my own bed, though they have not yet gained precedence over Slowly Down the Ganges.

The late Anthony Powell, dance-master of the music of time, devoted twenty minutes at bedtime to rereading Shakespeare before going on to the kind of book that might occasionally bring a tear to his eye: Surtees could manage it. Powell does mention that he could cheerfully reread The Sun Also Rises every six months, an admission that humanizes him a little.

Virginia Woolf produced two much-cherished volumes of essays called The Common Reader and The Second Common Reader. In my opinion what we need now is The Common Rereader, in order to determine who is rereading what. The just-departed Susan Sontag reread Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt and fiercely attacked any suggestion that Dreiser was clumsy. Borges reread Stevenson, Poe, and Kipling in his cool way, but neither Borges nor Susan Sontag could ever be mistaken for common rereaders; nor, for that matter, could Anthony Powell, who reviewed books professionally for more than fifty years, meaning, as the decades mounted, that a certain amount of rereading became part of his job.

Reversal of fortune can, I suspect, be a spur to rereading; where once one had read for adventure, now one rereads for the safety of the unvarying text. Marie Woolf didn’t expect her husband Sidney to die at age forty-seven, but one day in 1892 Sidney Woolf did just that. The much-respected Mr. Floyd, tutor to the young Woolfs and himself a Rasselas fan—he kept a copy in his pocket—probably suggested the book to Marie Woolf. Rasselas cannot have entirely consoled her for the loss of a husband, and yet it was something. The husband was gone, the book remained, a small comforting thing whose absolute sameness could be counted on.

I’ve spoken elsewhere of the effects of heart surgery on my own reading: the knife that takes away the flaw can also remove, for a time at least, the personality of the flawed. After that surgery, my name seemed to me to be no more than a loose rubric under which, at intervals, aspects of myself occasionally reassembled and functioned.

It was about that time that I too, like Marie Woolf, began to reread in my search for security. At first I reread a few great travel books—there are only a few great travel books. Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is one and Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands is another. I’ve reread the latter a few times and find it rather too intense for day-to-day rereading. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon will just do for day-to-day rereading. Survival means adjustment, and, if reading has for a long time been the central activity of one’s life, as it has of mine, then a shift in the patterns of reading and rereading is no small thing.

Bernard Berenson once said that the formation of the great library he assembled at I Tatti was his greatest achievement. I feel much the same way about the library (as distinct from the bookshop) that I’ve put together in Archer City. The collection—or, more properly, the accumulation—now numbers about 28,000 volumes. If I were beamed up tomorrow my library would attest to the fact that a reader had once been there.

Good enough.

Now, though, I’ve become principally a rereader, a habit that’s prevailed for nearly a decade. I still service the big library, buying new books and scouting up old books by or about the writers I cherish or the subjects I’m still curious about. Forming my library brought me fifty years of pleasure; when I’m in it now I feel a faint pride but only a weak attachment. Emotionally I’ve already bequeathed it to my son and grandson. I’m the ghost that found the books, but I don’t visit my old library often, or think about it much.

Passing books along is as good a thing as gathering books in.

I once had the pleasure of walking through Edmund Wilson’s library, at the University of Tulsa—at that time, ironically, it was shelved in the storage stacks right next to Cyril Connolly’s library, an eloquent proximity, in my view. Cyril Connolly, he of the Modern Movement, Horizon, and much distinguished literary work, was a bibliophile insofar as his means allowed, which was really not very far. It looked to me as if, when it came to a choice, as it must have, Cyril Connolly opted for expensive women over expensive books.

Edmund Wilson was never over-burdened with means, either, and didn’t really require expensive women, though a few required him. He wasn’t a bibliophile, though Vladimir Nabokov had drawn his wondrous butterflies in a few of the books that he bestowed on Wilson. There they were, amid the biblical studies and a sizable hodgepodge of literature and scholarship, mostly in modest, or even shabby, editions. It was clear from a glance at the books that Edmund Wilson was a persistent rereader. His books were very well thumbed. How many times had he delighted in The Ingoldsby Legends before he wrote his little piece on their author, Canon Barham? And, I suspect, he probably reread many now nearly forgotten authors whom he never quite worked up into an essay or a book.

I don’t think Edmund Wilson reread his books for security, as I frequently do now, but it is clear that he took a particular comfort from browsing again in the old family books in his upstate house in Talcottville, New York.

It was a long time ago when I saw the libraries of those two great rereaders side by side in Tulsa. They were then in a storage room on metal shelves; perhaps they’ve now moved to more gracious quarters. I hope so, for these were the books that provoked the passionate attention of two great men of letters—could their shades have met they would probably have soon been arguing hammer and tong, maybe about some Master both had written about. Valéry, perhaps?