Reading something for the second time is so much more satisfying than that first read-through. So many books withhold their full treasures from the first-time reader. Not that the first time can’t be special too, of course: surfaces are beautiful, and not to be taken lightly. During that first, heady encounter with a text, it is not merely the words that entrance us. The typefont, the design, the texture of the paper, the look and feel of covers and slipcovers, even the smell of the bindings – if new – or the patina that comes with good use: these too are manifest occasions for pleasure and surprise.
But few of us possess the skill as readers to avoid succumbing to that first-time excitement and finishing the book too soon. And to lay it aside at that point, never to return, would constitute not simply callousness but profound disrespect. Unless the book at hand be some cheap, manupulative thing, in which case even a single reading amounts to little more than “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” as Shakespeare once said about something else entirely.
As a reader, I must always aspire to do better next time and never become satisfied with my current techniques. If I know that my first time through a book tends to be a bit on the shallow side, I may change strategies and begin by lightly skimming through what look like the best spots, or re-visiting it at unexpected times and places, dipping into it just enough to whet my appetite for the first, prolonged session. But by then the first reading is really the second, or the third – it doesn’t matter. I’m no longer keeping score.
The kinds of books I enjoy most don’t necessarily need to be sampled in a set order, and sometimes I like to start with the last poem or chapter and work my way slowly toward the front. Or sometimes it’s fun to start in the middle and work toward both ends, alternating between the front half and the back. Hence, I suppose, my disdain for tightly plotted novels that insist on rigid conformity with standard procedure. Plus, given my addictive personality, I hate to get sucked into a book like that because I know I won’t be able to sleep, eat or do much of anything else until it’s done. Ten or twenty hours later I’ll emerge from the novel as if from a parallel universe, shaking with adrenaline and ready to drop from exhaustion at the same time. After an experience like that, it will take me several days to undo the spell and fully return to my own, familiar weltanschauung.
There was a time in my youth when I thought that kind of full-throttle excitement was indispensable to the enjoyment of a book. But as I near the threshold of maturity I find myself craving a calmer and – I would argue – deeper form of immersion. This doesn’t rule out novels altogether, but it does definitely favor the second reading over the too-hasty first one. The plot once exposed for the artful contrivance that it is, one is free to take one’s time and relish the writing for its own sake. All goals have been abandoned aside from the most general: to advance in pleasure through insight – or is it vice versa? Unless one has some ghoulish analytic project to complete, some heartless application of the whips and restraints of academic theory, one can dwell within the garden of the text almost indefinitely for the colors and the scent alone. The mind explores gently and almost by instinct now, enfolded in a matrix where word, image and meaning are coterminous and virtually indistinguishable. The senses return to an almost Edenic innocence. Freed of judgements and distances, the patient reader at last attains a kind of high plateau, every pore fully open and flooded with the clearest, coolest light.
What the writer finally wants to save,
laboring into the white afternoon
at her kitchen table,
adrift in drafts,
ringed in scraps for
the compost, is just this savoring
of time’s luxuriant spread.