In his column “Personal Great Books,” R.R. Reno invokes Augustine’s distinction between use and enjoyment, confessing his own temptation to use books rather than enjoy them. I suspect that anyone whose profession centers on texts could identify with this propensity.
In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape castigates Junior Devil Wormwood for allowing “the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks about it to his new friends.” The senior devil knows that the salutary effect of a good book on the soul can be mitigated by a dose of intellectual pride.
Recognizing my own mixed motives, I have found rereading beloved books—the “personal great books” that Reno describes—to be a helpful corrective for my literary temptations. Reading a good book for the second or third time is a kind of rest, a way to cease striving in the quest to be well-read and up-to-date. It allows me to enjoy a book for its own sake, not for the sake of checking it off a list or gaining admittance to a conversation.
This summer I reread Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Eight years ago, when I read the book for the first time, it was very much the thing a literate Christian was supposed to read. (It won the Pulitzer in 2005.) I liked the book, but I’m not sure I would have admitted it if I hadn’t. When I read Gilead for the second time, I loved it. I closely identified with John Ames. Finding myself awake in the night, I turned on my lamp and let the good minister comfort me as he sought to comfort his own midnight fears. I imagine his reveries will be even dearer to me if I live to read them again when I am old.
I first read Middlemarch as a teenager. When I encountered Dorothea Brook, I felt like I was meeting myself. When I read the book again several years later, I puzzled over my previous reading. I felt sympathy for Dorothea, but nothing like identification. Could this be because I had had her example before me as a warning in the intervening years?
When we reread the books that have shaped us, we learn about ourselves. Reading a book that impacted me years ago is like driving down a well-worn path I haven’t traveled in years. I see landmarks that I’ve forgotten I’ve forgotten. I discover ideas that have become so integrated into my worldview I couldn’t have told you where I got them. And when I see them, I feel more than sentimental; I feel grateful.
Take up and reread!