“Amid this exchange about the importance of recentering the essential literature of our history, I posed to Mac Donald a question that has been on my mind since my days as a student at The Haverford School: Should one make a habit of reading the same book twice?”
uring my Thinkspot days, the commentator Heather Mac Donald and I recorded a discussion that, though primarily focused on our shared frustrations with our alma mater and its recent political upheavals, soon morphed into a conversation about education more broadly. We discussed the purpose of education, and I presented, at one point, an idea voiced by George F. Will in his 2019 book The Conservative Sensibility. Channeling Woodrow Wilson favorably for once, Will described Wilson’s view that education properly practiced served as “a way of making young people artificially ‘old’ by steeping them in seasoned ideas.” (1) Mac Donald, in turn, emphasized the importance of engaging with the essential texts of what is often collectively referred to as “the Western Canon.” Amid this exchange about the importance of recentering the essential literature of our history, I posed to Mac Donald a question that has been on my mind since my days as a student at The Haverford School: Should one make a habit of reading the same book twice?
I related to Mac Donald—in that April, 2020 conversation—that one of our former teachers W. Stewart Alford, affectionately known among some of his Haverford students as “the great one,” had told us that a man should read Miguel de Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote every 20 years because he would draw something different from it at each stage in life. And he felt this was also true of a number of other works of literature. To that, Mac Donald made the rather compelling case that as much as she wanted to be sympathetic to that view, the sheer number of books (not to mention essays, films, and the like) that exists makes it difficult to assert that one would be better served using his limited time to reread a book. This is all the more the case when, in Mac Donald’s view, one can typically remember much of the works he has already read, particularly key themes and passages. Ruit hora, as they say, and with our limited time, we should explore new works.
On an appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience in June of 2019, the investor, podcaster, and author Naval Ravikant, who is also known to advocate jumping around in one’s reading and that, as George Constanza would say “finishing an entire book doesn’t prove anything,” took a different position to Mac Donald’s: “I would rather read the best 100 books over and over again until I absorb them rather than read all the books because your brain has finite information, finite space.” (Although the available research may not yet be able to respond conclusively to Ravikant’s suggestion that the limits of memory preclude one from being able to recall all that he is read, Douglas Smith, Director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, has suggested that “the brain’s memory storage capacity [is] something closer to around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes),” the equivalent of being able “to hold three million hours of TV shows.”)
Smith’s comments aside, practical experience tells us that it is difficult to remember everything in a given work of literature or nonfiction, particularly as more time elapses following the completion of reading. In her 1963 novel The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath has Esther Greenwood say: “The only reason I remembered this play was because it had a mad person in it, and everything I had ever read about mad people stuck in my mind, while everything else flew it out.” Sometimes, it is no doubt true that even when it comes to the most beautifully written or insightful works, the particulars can indeed fly quite quickly out of one’s mind. Although I would often, for instance, remark to friends how struck I was by the near perfect transitions and crisp sentences of V.S. Naipaul in his 1979 novel A Bend in the River, I would, in practice, find myself struggling to quote from memory a single line of prose or refer off the top of my head to any passages in particular, with the exception of the novel’s vaunted first line: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” (2) Yet, perhaps that evanescent quality of Naipaul’s writing remains part of its allure. Not quite an aphorist, Naipaul’s work, in my experience with it, cannot as easily be hewn into ready-made quips that are easy to imbibe and swift to recall. Perhaps that quality, paired with the Naipaul’s pacing, is the beauty of A Bend in the River. But this inability to recall, while arguably excusable in this case, remains persistently irritating to many readers. An exasperated sigh is undoubtedly released after questioning just how many facts can we recall from our high school biology textbooks, or how many lines from Hamlet can we quote from memory? (3)
Thinking along these lines makes one tempted to argue on behalf of the merit in rereading. And this same logic, when the subject of discussion is a film rather than a book, also applies to rewatching. Numerous film connoisseurs are stalwarts in the rewatching tradition and have gleaned new insights, for instance, with each rewatch of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now, a point alluded to by Netflix’s advertising when the film was available for streaming on the platform. Just the same, when one thinks of the 2001 David Lynch film Mulholland Drive, how could one even begin to grasp all of its twists and turns with just a single viewing? (3) And, surely, if one can justify multiple rewatches of Apocalypse Now, it is hardly then a stretch to suggest, as Alford did, that the great works of the Western canon tend to be worth a second look. Upon rereading, would one not understand better the psyche of Prufrock, as well as appreciate more fully the poem’s allusions? Similarly, it would be difficult to argue that one would not find commensurate value in revisiting Allan Bloom’s 1987 academic manifesto The Closing of the American Mind or seeing twice what The Blithedale Romance can teach us. Perhaps the onset of the warm weather might have us reading William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say” for the fourth time, and maybe on a third reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, we might finally emerge with a definitive answer of our own when it comes to the competing interpretations of the book’s themes.
On the other hand, as Mac Donald alluded to and as we all instinctively know and increasingly appreciate as we get older, time does what it does: It runs out. Given that reality, can one responsibly argue (or tell young people) that we are better served by rereading the best books time and again instead of branching out, or, say, tracing the genealogy of one work of literature back to its antecedents? Or perhaps one should simply pluck a book off of the library shelf at random. When doing just this, we might stumble upon writers who, for whatever reason, are not at the tips of our collective modern tongues. And then there are just so many subjects to learn about, from architecture to music to sociology, books from The Three Christs of Ypsilanti to Lawrence M. Krauss’ biography of Richard Feynman. In light of this, to use one’s limited free time only to read a few of the same books again and again appears to close one off to variety, especially when the ideas of the most famous of writers, such as those likely being imagined by Ravikant, have already seeped enough into our collective conscience that we already know the basics of their works. (4) (In fairness though to Ravikant, as one drifts to the lesser known authors, it is quite likely he will end up reading inferior literature at times, a fate that can be avoided perhaps when sticking to the “best books,” unless of course the consensus picks continue to be increasingly selected for reasons other than aesthetic merit.)
Now, surely, sometimes lost amid the sort of philosophical answer I am seeking to provide to this question is the simple matter of just enjoying it. A former girlfriend of mine used to pride herself on reading The Great Gatsby at the start of every summer. Surely, she already knew the plot and the characters, and I doubt she was reading to identify better its key themes or even commit to memory its key passages. (5) Rather, she must have simply just enjoyed doing this: an annual tradition of reading a beloved book, first discovered years ago. Just as one has a comfort food, a favorite vacation destination, or a television show that can always make him smile even when everything seems to be going against him, why would we criticize a person who enjoys returning to a favorite book? So long as that book is of reasonable aesthetic merit, one might however sensibly add.
As such, I propose an answer to the question: When reading for style or because one just loves a book, read it twice (or perhaps even a third time). For content, in most cases, read once. Now, perhaps if said content centers on something crucial such as, say, one’s finances or health or if it is a subject of particular relevance to one’s work, then a reread can be in order. (Warren Buffet, for instance, has referred to his purchase of The Intelligent Investor in the early days of his career as the best investment decision he ever made, so in that case multiple reads might make sense.) Perhaps like former President Bill Clinton, one should reread Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations when continually confronted by pressing challenges, and it is well known that many among the pious read the Bible over and over again. Or, personally speaking, given that Albert Camus’ 1956 book The Fall is discussed at some length in a forthcoming article I am writing on the subject of altruism, I found it worthwhile to reread it, though given its relative brevity this was not particularly time consuming. But, otherwise, Mac Donald’s argument largely now holds sway for me. With all due respect to Alford, one might be best served by remembering as much as he can of Don Quixote and then reading another author of whose work he is less familiar with his remaining, dwindling time.
I will pause briefly to add before closing that there have been notable efforts to solve aspects of this conundrum by providing summaries of said 100 or so best books and, thus, allowing one presumably to tick through them or zero in on books to explore further before heading to other, less universally revered selections. There was, for instance, the recently published (and often insufferably political) Kenneth C. Davis book Great Short Books: A Year of Reading—Briefly. (6) However, taking a page from the philosopher Frank Jackson, there is surely some quality about reading a work for which engaging with the proverbial SparkNotes is no substitute, and this is true even if, hypothetically, the distillation conveyed the central points as completely as the underlying work. I like to think this was part of the reason why another Haverford teacher, the poet W.D. Ehrhart, would quiz his students on the most minor of details in the books he assigned. He appreciated that gleaning the key themes from online summaries was insufficient for fully digesting a given work. And then there is the further concern of readers emerging overconfident about their grasp of literature from having read a few synopses, cheat sheets if you will. During my media criticism days, I would frequently worry aloud about the impact of Axios or Vox and their efforts to simplify complicated topics and, in the case of Axios, priding itself on keeping its articles under 300 words. Armed with a few tidbits of information, readers can find themselves overconfident of their knowledge about a particular issue, something that would be avoided without these “complex-ideas-delivered-simply”-type projects. As the French novelist André Gide once exhorted his readership, “Please don’t understand me too quickly.”
My friend Allen Hornblum, seconding a postscript to Sebastian Modak’s March, 2023 Wall Street Journal piece “Shred the Bucket List,” recently indicated to me his view that by Mac Donald’s logic one might be faulted for visiting the same vacation spot, whether the New Jersey Shore or the Pocono Mountains, each summer instead of heading off for Chile or Namibia. Nevertheless, as much as one might find value in repetition when cultivating a skill or learning his times tables, when it comes to innumerable works of literature or topics presented in books, my sympathies have increasingly moved in Mac Donald’s direction. There is only so much time, yet there remain so many more books to read, films to watch, and new anthologies to thumb through.
Erich J. Prince is editor-in-chief emeritus at Merion West.
- This observation is reminiscent of a line from John Jay in Federalist No. 5: “We may profit by their experience without paying the price which it cost them.”
- This is quite different from other books where certain lines prove unforgettable. How can one fail to remember, even years after completing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “His eyes were dimmed with tears, and, looking humbly up to heaven, he wept for the innocence he had lost” or, to quote another Irishman, “Above all—we were wet.”
- Although I can not go so far as Sohrab Ahmari and a plurality of respondents in the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)’s 2016 critics’ poll and say that I regard Mulholland Drive as the 21st century’s greatest film, it is indeed quite good, and I may, if I ever find the time, watch it for a second time.
- And this is not even to mention that part of living a well-balanced life means reserving ample leisure time for pursuits in addition to reading. Susan Wolf in her 1982 paper “Moral Saints,” argued that one would be unwise to spend all of his time endeavoring to be as moral as possible: “In other words, if the moral saint is devoting all his time to feed- ing the hungry or healing the sick or raising money for Oxfam, then necessarily he is not reading Victorian novels, playing the oboe, or improving his backhand.” Similarly, a reasonable life would likely not consist of trying to read as much as possible.
- I am inclined to join George F. Will (and Roger Ebert and Bill Nack) in asserting that the final lines of The Great Gatsby constitute the finest writing in American literature.
- Although I will note that reading Davis’ book did have its merits, in my view. For instance, it acquainted me for the first time with Alberto Moravia, and in its discussion of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening, it reminded me that today’s age of Google censorship is not too different from other eras where works deemed outside of the mainstream were effectively disappeared.