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…

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