I have a shelf at home where, up until recently, I kept the books I hadn’t yet read. It was three shelves, actually, stacked with the volumes I hadn’t had the time or chance to peruse. Many of the books have been there for quite a while, because I have a bad habit that, if you’re a serious reader, you may be familiar with: I reread books.
Yes, it’s a bad habit. I’ll finish a book, look over my choices for the next one, and go back to an old favorite, one I’ve read before and know I’ll enjoy. I consider it a bad habit because it can be limiting. You can never find a new favorite if you keep going back to the ones you know already.
But it isn’t that bad of a habit, because no matter how many times you may have read a book, if it’s good, it will be different every time. Back in college, I used to be obsessed with a few books in particular. Even when I had reading due for classes, I found myself picking up One Hundred Years of Solitude, or The Virgin Suicides, because I knew I’d get more pleasure out of them than I would from whatever dull and over-academic assignment I may have pending.
I read Lolita over and over in college, just because it was the first book without the accursed burden of “meaning.” It was an aesthetic pleasure most of all, and I realized that stories could just be beautiful, and not carry a didactic lesson in them, which was like a curative to the poison of academic literature, where we’re supposed to spend a lot of time thinking about what the author is trying to say instead of enjoying how the author said it.
But here’s the thing: I haven’t read Lolita in quite a few years now. I wonder if, now that I am older, I would feel the same way if I were to get into it again. I have bills, student loans, a fiance. I have shit to do, in other words. Maybe I’m reluctant to read it again because it will seem frivolous. A book that I enjoy but I learn nothing from may leave me feeling a bit empty.
The meaning we derive from books changes, not only because our familiarity with a book makes each read different, but also because we as readers change. Some books don’t entertain like they used to, we may have a new empathy for characters based on our own changing circumstances.
I said the shelf with the unread books existed only “up until recently” because the semi-coherent system I had in place was ruined when the entire bookcase had to be moved when we recently did some room rearranging. I’ve made vague attempts at putting the old order back together, but I’m not sure if it would be worth it. The slight increase in chaos was that upsetting, and I believe it will increase my chances of finding something new and unexpected, or an old favorite it would be nice to read again. I think I’ll let the new order stand.
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