Why do people want to read faster? Not least because life is short: “So many books, so little time,” as the saying goes. We don’t want to miss something special, especially if we miss it because we simply run out of years. This is understandable, and when such thoughts pass through my mind I can feel a brief rush of panic. But … it’s rather odd that I tend not to feel that same panic at the the thought of not having time to reread books I already love, even though I know that such rereading will surely be pleasurable. The possible pleasure of an unread book weighs more heavily on me than the sure pleasure of one I already know.
That’s Alan Jacobs in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. This passage has been rattling around in my brain off and on for a week or so now for a couple of reasons.
It’s the dilemma, isn’t it, of there being so many good books to read that I want to read faster so I can read as many of them as I can because my lifetime in limited. I know that sense of panic Jacobs mentions and you probably do too. We wish for more time from Santa in our Christmas stockings or Hermione’s time turner in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Or we wish we didn’t have to sleep or that we could read in our sleep with the book under the pillow, quietly absorbing the words (what dreams those would be!). Sometimes I’ve found myself wishing for two heads like Zaphod Bebblebrox in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or barring the nuisance of two heads, that at least I could hold a book in each hand and have one eye read one book and the other eye the second book.
Do people who don’t read wish for silly things like this? Like, do golfers dream of 24/7/365 golf courses? Or do philatelists worry about not collecting all the stamps they want? I definitely don’t feel as though my life will somehow be incomplete if I miss reading a good book. So what does it matter if I don’t read everything? Because I am not going to read everything.
While wishing I could read more and faster occupies my thoughts now and then, what really made me pause in Jacobs’ passage is the bit about not worrying whether there would be a chance to reread a favorite book. Do you worry about this? I don’t.
Jacobs makes an interesting observation that the possibility of pleasure from an unread book is more desirable than the known quantity, the guaranteed pleasure of a book I have already read and loved. Why is that? In part at least, it is due to the human brain and its desire for novelty. It’s why we like shiny gadgets and social networking websites, and piling up new book purchases. Our brains get excited by new things, the unknown, the unexplored, so it is no wonder from that perspective why rereading is often not such a high priority.
Sure, we know that good books are different every time we read them; we will discover something new we had not noticed before. But when my brain is trying to choose between 300 pages of completely new book or 300 pages in which I might find one or two new things, gimme the completely new! I want the buzz please.
I still feel like I should reread more books though. I try to reread a couple books every year and I am always glad that I do. However, the books I plan to reread are never the books I reach for first when I am ready to start a book. I feel resigned, almost morose and Eeyore-ish, “well I guess I’ll reread Mrs. Dalloway.” As if rereading one of my favorite books is like taking medicine. It never is and I always enjoy myself and end up liking the book more than I did the last time I read it. But there is still always the initial reluctance.
So thinking about rereading, on a whim I requested On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks from the library today. It is about her year-long project of rereading. There are no holds on it so I should have it in a few days. I know some of you have read it already. And while I’ve not seen any I-loved-this-book-so-much-you-really-need-to-read-it reviews, they’ve still been pretty positive. In contemplating rereading, the irony of reading a new book on the topic tickles my funny bone. Shouldn’t I reread one? Or maybe I will have to reread Spacks’ book after I have read it once? Nah, too many other new books to read.