A Major Reader


I’m currently reading through The Best American Essays 2010 at rapid rates. I am thrilled with each essay I’ve read so far, and I was particularly smitten with the foreword by series editor Robert Atwan. His foreword introduced me to the idea of “major readers” and “minor readers,” both terms suggested in Vladimir Nabokov’s introduction to his Lectures on Literature. Nabokov writes, “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”

And this idea makes sense, because as Nabokov points out, the first reading is merely the act of moving your eyes across the page from left to right and becoming acquainted with the “world” of the book. I agree with him. However. I have serious issues with being a major reader. I want to be a major reader, of course. It is one of the things that I take the most delight in and that adds so much depth and richness to my personal life. But I tend to read in circles, instead of rereading, and the list of books I’d like to read grows longer every day. So, for me being a major reader equals a major dilemma.
The only book I’ve ever reread is Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. When we decided to hike in the Himalayas on our honeymoon, I decided I needed to read it again. Although it is not set in the Himalayas, it does in fact deal a lot with mountains, hiking, and more mountains. I thought it would be a good book to psyche myself up and get ready for our Annapurna circuit.

But, honestly? I have a fear of rereading. I am afraid that by rereading a book I’ve already read, I’m forfeiting time with another book I haven’t read. I know that sounds obsessive, but I am nothing if not obsessive about reading and books. (Not just books for what’s inside, but I am also seriously obsessed with books as objects, books as things.) There have been certain times in my life that I have read certain books and they have been completely of the moment for me. And there’s this idea in the back of my head that if I choose to reread a book, I’ll miss the “moment” I could have had if I had kept on reading new material.

It’s all quite melodramatic, isn’t it? I have a friend who rereads the same books over and over, and I don’t doubt that he finds something new and fresh in them each time. I do believe that great books will stand the test of a million rereads. "No book is worth anything which is not worth much; nor is it serviceable, until it has been read, and re-read, and loved, and loved again; and marked, so that you can refer to the passages you want in it, as a soldier can seize the weapon he needs in an armoury, or a housewife bring the spice she needs from her store." That’s John Ruskin from his lecture “Of Kings’ Treasuries” collected in “The Lamp of Memory,” which I read at the end of last year.

This is my dilemma. I’ve only so much time to commit to the act of reading (heck, to commit to anything before my time is up), and I can’t bring myself to spend that time rereading something. Can I ever be a Major Reader? And does it mean my reading is not worth as much if I’m not?

What books have you reread?
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