Pliny’s Library: Why We Reread Books

I prefer old Penguins!

Pliny, the  Roman orator, politician, lawyer, and writer (ca. 61 A.D.-113 A.D), wrote in a letter that he kept his books in a cupboard shaped like a public library at his villa.  These books, he explained, were special.  They were “not books for reading but for rereading again and again,” or, in the original Latin, non legendos libros sed lectitandos.

And there we have it:  Pliny is a member of our rereading club.

Yes, I also prefer rereading. We do not, we confess, want to read Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, though  Ron Charles at The Washington Post and other critics hail it.   Though I loved Kingsolver’s earlier novels, especially Prodigal Summer, which reads like a 21st-century novel by Edith Wharton,  I am still recovering from her last novel, Unsheltered, which seems to be a series of political opinions pasted on a visible outline of two linked stories about struggling middle-class families. To be fair, I learned a lot about college debt, Cuba, the fall of the middle class, the resistance to Darwin, the pursuit of tenure, health insurance, and the crumbling American dream.  But it was less subtle than Kingsolver’s usual writing.

Some rereaders are even more comically critical of new books than I am. One cranky gentleman of the press who, along with other writers, was supposed to recommend new books for holiday shoppers, made the following irascible admission.  

Nothing that’s reached me in recent times do I wish to keep on the shelf and reread; nothing of the calibre of Kingsley Amis, Beryl Bainbridge or Muriel Spark exists. I’m sorry she died and everything, but I did think Hilary Mantel frightfully overpraised. Her novels will be placed by history next to Mrs Humphry Ward’s – stock impossible to shift in antiquarian bookshops.

Heavens, I thought.  He is far more severe than I am. Even I have read a few good new books this year, possibly six or seven.  And, I confess, I am fond of Mrs. Humphry Ward.

Yet I do prefer rereading classics and older books to reading new books.  I am happy to curl up with the cranky gentleman’s favorites, Kinglsey Amis and Muriel Spark, or some of my own favorites, which I will recommend at the end.

Standards of writing in every century are low, but they are dropping fast in our miserable times.  Why are books so long now? Are people buying by the pound?

And why does the Acknowledgements page go on for pages and pages?   The writers express gratitude to teams of editors and their many, many friends, whole writing groups, and first readers.  Too many cooks…?  How does this process work?

But I do adore books, and let me recommend a few of my favorite dead 20th-century authors ,  Molly Keane,  Alice Thomas Ellis, and Jean Stafford.  The great novelists have complex ideas, know how to shape dramatic scenes, write convincing dialogue, develop a distinctive voice, and interweave serpentine themes into  their magical narratives.

And now let me return to my very good, very old book:  a rereading, naturally!

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