The Art of Rereading by Arthur Elmore Bostwick

“I have nothing to read,” said a man to me once. “But your house seems to be filled with books.” “O, yes; but I’ve read them already.” What should we think of a man who should complain that he had no friends, when his house was thronged daily with guests, simply because he had seen and talked with them all once before? Such a man has either chosen badly, or he is himself at fault. “Hold fast that which is good” says the Scripture. Do not taste it once and throw it away. To get at the root of this matter we must go farther back than literature and inquire what it has in common with all other forms of art to compel our love and admiration. Now, a work of art differs from any other result of human endeavor in this—that its effect depends chiefly on the way in which it is made and only secondarily upon what it is or what it represents. Were this not true, all statues of Apollo or Venus would have the same art-value; and you or I, if we could find a tree and a hill that Corot had painted, would be able to produce a picture as charming to the beholder as his.

The way in which a thing is done is, of course, always important, but its importance outside of the sphere of art differs from that within. The way in which a machine is constructed makes it good or bad, but the thing that is aimed at here is the useful working of the machine, toward which all the skill of the maker is directed. What the artist aims at is not so much to produce a likeness of a god or a picture of a tree, as to produce certain effects in the person who looks at his complete work; and this he does by the way in which he performs it. The fact that a painting represents certain trees and hills is here only secondary; the primary fact is what the artist has succeeded in making the on-looker feel.

While Sorolla is painting a group of children on the beach, I may take a kodak picture of the same group. My photograph may be a better likeness than Sorolla’s picture, but it has no art-value. Why? Because it was made mechanically, whereas Sorolla put into his picture something of himself, making it a unique thing, incapable of imitation or of reproduction.

The man who has a message, one of those pervasive, compelling messages that are worth while, naturally turns to art. He chooses his subject not as an end, but as a vehicle, and he makes it speak his message by his method of treatment, conveying it to his public more or less successfully in the measure of his skill.

We have been speaking of the representative arts of painting and sculpture, but the same is true of art in any form. In music, not a representative art, in spite of the somewhat grotesque claims of so-called program music, the method of the composer is everything, or at least his subject is so vague and immaterial that no one would think of exalting it as an end in itself. There is, however, an art in which the subject stands forth so prominently that even those who love the art itself are continually in danger of forgetting the subject’s secondary character. I mean the art of literature. Among the works of written speech the boundaries of art are much more ill-defined than they are elsewhere. There is, to be sure, as much difference between Shelley’s “Ode to a Skylark” and Todhunter’s “Trigonometry” as there is between the Venus de Milo and a battleship; and I conceive that the difference is also of precisely the same kind, being that by which, as we have seen above, we may always discriminate between a work of art and one of utility. But where art-value and utility are closely combined, as they are most frequently in literature, it is, I believe, more difficult to divide them mentally and to dwell on their separate characteristics, than where the work is a concrete object. This is why we hear so many disputes about whether a given work does or does not belong to the realm of “pure literature,” and it is also the reason why, as I have said, some, even among those who love literature, are not always ready to recognize its nature as an art, or mistakenly believe that in so far as its art-value is concerned, the subject portrayed is of primary importance—is an aim in itself instead of being a mere vehicle for the conveyance of an impression.

Take, if you please, works which were intended by their authors as works of utility, but have survived as works of art in spite of themselves, such as Walton’s “Compleat Angler” and White’s “Natural History of Selborne.” Will anyone maintain that the subject-matter of those books has much to do with their preservation, or with the estimation in which they are now held? Nay; we may even be so bold as to enter the field of fiction and to assert that those fictional works that have purely literary value are loved not for the story they tell, but for the way in which the author tells it and for the effect that he thereby produces on the reader.

I conceive that pure literature is an art, subject to the rules that govern all art, and that its value depends primarily on the effect produced on the reader—the message conveyed—by the way in which the writer has done his work, the subject chosen being only his vehicle. Where a man who has something to say looks about for means to say it worthily, he may select a tale, a philosophical disquisition, a familiar essay, a drama or a lyric poem. He may choose badly or well, but in any case it is his message that matters.

My excuse for dwelling on this matter must be that unless I have carried you with me thus far what I am about to say will have no meaning, and I had best fold my papers, make my bow, and conclude an unprofitable business. For my subject is re-reading, the repetition of a message; and the message that we would willingly hear repeated is not that of utility but of emotion. It is the word that thrills the heart, nerves the arm, and puts new life into the veins, not that which simply conveys information. The former will produce its effect again and again, custom can not stale it. The latter, once delivered, has done its work. I see two messengers approaching; one, whom I have sent to a library to ascertain the birth-date of Oliver Cromwell, tells me what it is and receives my thanks. The other tells me that one dear to my heart, long lying at death’s door, is recovering. My blood courses through my veins; my nerves tingle; joy suffuses me where gloom reigned before. I cry out; I beg the bearer of good tidings to tell them again and again; I keep him by me, so that I may ask him a thousand questions, bringing out his message in a thousand variant forms. But do I turn to the other and say, “O, that blessed date! was Cromwell truly born thereon? Let me, I pray, hear you recite it again and again!” I trow, not.

The message that we desire to hear again is the one that produces its effect again and again; and that is the message of feeling, the message of art—not that of mere utility. This is so true that I conceive we may use it as a test of art-value. The great works of literature do not lose their effect on a single reading. One makes response to them the hundredth time as he did the first. Their appeal is so compelling that there is no denying it—no resisting it. There are snatches of poetry—and of prose, too—that we have by heart; that we murmur to ourselves again and again, sure that the response which never failed will come again, thrilling the whole organism with its pathos, uplifting us with the nobility of its appeal, warming us with its humor. There is a little sequence of homely verse that never fails to bring the tears to my eyes. I have tested myself with it under the most unfavorable circumstances. In the midst of business, amid social jollity, in the mental dullness of fatigue, I have stopped and repeated to myself those three verses. So quickly acts the magic of the author’s skill that the earlier verses grip the fibers of my mind and twist them in such fashion that I feel the pathos of the last lines just as I felt them for the first time, years ago. You might all tell similar stories. I believe that this is a characteristic of good literature, and that all of it will bear reading, and re-reading, and reading again.

But I hear someone say, “Do you mean to tell me that those three little verses that bring the tears to your eyes, will bring them also to mine and my neighbor’s? I might listen to them appreciatively but dry-eyed; my neighbor might not care for them enough to re-read them once. All about us we see this personal equation in the appreciation of literature. Unless you are prepared, then, to maintain that literature may be good for one and bad for another, your contention will scarcely hold water.”

Even so, brother. The messenger who told me of the safety of my dear one did not thrill your heart as he did mine. She was dear to me, not to you, and the infinitely delicate yet powerful chain of conditions and relations that operated between the messenger’s voice and my emotional nature did not connect him with yours. Assuredly, the message that reaches one man may not reach another. It may even reach a man in his youth and fall short in manhood, or vice versa. It may be good for him and inoperative on all the rest of the world. We estimate literature, it is true, by the universality of its appeal or by the character of the persons whom alone that appeal reaches. The message of literature as art may thus be to the crowd or to a select few. I could even imagine intellect and feeling of such exquisite fineness, such acknowledged superiority, that appeal to it alone might be enough to fix the status of a work of art, though it might leave all others cold. Still, in general I believe, that the greatest literature appeals to the greatest number and to the largest number of types. I believe that there are very few persons to whom Shakespeare, properly presented, will not appeal. In him, nevertheless, the learned and those of taste also delight. There are authors like Walter Pater who are a joy to the few but do not please the many. There are others galore, whom perhaps it would be invidious to name, who inspire joy in the multitude but only distaste in the more discriminating. We place Pater above these, just as we should always put quality above quantity; but I place Shakespeare vastly higher, because his appeal is to the few and the many at once.

But we must, I think, acknowledge that an author whose value may not appeal to others may be great to one reader; that his influence on that reader may be as strong for good as if it were universal instead of unique. We may not place such a writer in the Walhalla, but I beseech you, do not let us tear him rudely from the one or two to whom he is good and great. Do not lop off the clinging arms at the elbow, but rather skilfully present some other object of adoration to the intent that they may voluntarily untwine and enfold this new object more worthily.

The man who desires to own books but who can afford only a small and select library can not do better than to make his selection on this basis—to get together a collection of well-loved books any one of which would give him pleasure in re-reading. Why should a man harbor in his house a book that he has read once and never cares to read again? Why should he own one that he will never care to read at all? We are not considering the books of the great collectors, coveted for their rarity or their early dates, for their previous ownership or the beauty of their binding—for any reason except the one that makes them books rather than curiosities. These collections are not libraries in the intellectual or the literary sense. Three well thumbed volumes in the attic of one who loves them are a better library for him than those on which Pierpont Morgan spent his millions.

This advice, it will be noted, implies that the man has an opportunity to read the book before he decides whether to buy it or not. Here is where the Public Library comes in. Some regard the Public Library as an institution to obviate all necessity of owning books. It should rather be regarded from our present standpoint as an institution to enable readers to own the books that they need—to survey the field and make therefrom a proper and well-considered selection. That it has acted so in the past, none may doubt; it is the business of librarians to see that this function is emphasized in the future. The bookseller and the librarian are not rivals, but co-workers. Librarians complain of the point of view of those publishers and dealers who regard every library user as a lost customer. He is rather, they say, in many cases a customer won—a non-reader added to the reading class—a possible purchaser of books. But have not librarians shared somewhat this mistaken and intolerant attitude? How often do we urge our readers to become book-owners? How often do we give them information and aid directed toward this end? The success of the Christmas book exhibitions held in many libraries should be a lesson to us. The lists issued in connection with these almost always include prices, publishers’ names, and other information intended especially for the would-be purchaser. But why should we limit our efforts to the holiday season? True, every librarian does occasionally respond to requests for advice in book-selection and book-purchase, but the library is not yet recognized as the great testing field of the would-be book owner; the librarian is not yet hailed as the community’s expert adviser in the selection and purchase of books, as well as its book guardian and book distributor. That this may be and should be, I believe. It will be if the librarian wills it.

Are we straying from our subject? No; for from our present standpoint a book bought is a book reread. My ideal private library is a room, be it large or small, lined with books, every one of which is the owner’s familiar friend, some almost known by heart, others re-read many times, others still waiting to be re-read.

But how about the man whose first selection for this intimate personal group would be a complete set of the works of George Ade? Well, if that is his taste, let his library reflect it. Let a man be himself. That there is virtue in merely surrounding oneself with the great masters of literature all unread and unloved, I can not see. Better acknowledge your poor taste than be a hypocrite.

The librarian can not force the classics down the unwilling throats of those who do not care for them and are perhaps unfitted to appreciate them. There has been entirely too much of this already and it has resulted disastrously. Surely, a sane via media is possible, and we may agree that a man will never like Eschylus, without assuring him that Eschylus is an out-of-date old fogy, while on the other hand we may acknowledge the greatness of Homer and Milton without trying to force them upon unwilling and incompetent readers. After all it is not so much a question of Milton versus George Ade, as it is of sanity and wholesomeness against vulgarity and morbidity. And if I were to walk through one city and behold collections of this latter sort predominating and then through another, where my eyes were gladdened with evidences of good taste, of love for humor that is wholesome, sentiment that is sane, verse that is tuneful and noble, I should at once call on the public librarian and I should say to him, “Thou art the man!” The literary taste of your community is a reflection of your own as shown forth in your own institution—its collection of books, the assistants with which you have surrounded yourself, your attitude and theirs through you toward literature and toward the public.

But, someone asks, suppose that I am so fortunate and so happy as to sit in the midst of such a group of friendly authors; how and how often shall I re-read? Shall I traverse the group every year? He who speaks thus is playing a part; he is not the real thing. Does the young lover ask how and how often he shall go to see his sweetheart? Try to see whether you can keep him away! The book-lover reopens his favorite volume whenever he feels like it. Among the works on his shelves are books for every mood, every shade of varying temper and humor. He chooses for the moment the friend that best corresponds to it, or it may be, the one that may best woo him away from it. It may be that he will select none of them, but occupy himself with a pile of newcomers, some of whom may be candidates for admission to the inner group. The whole thing—the composition of his library, his attitude toward it, the books that he re-reads oftenest, the favorite passages that he loves, that he scans fondly with his eye while yet he can repeat them by heart, his standards of admission to his inner circle—all is peculiarly and personally his own. There is no other precisely like it, just as there is no other human being precisely like its owner. There is as much difference between this kind of a library and some that we have seen as there is between a live, breathing creature with a mind and emotions and aspirations, and a wax figure in the Eden Musee.

Thus every book lover re-reads his favorites in a way of his own, just as every individual human being loves or hates or mourns or rejoices in a way of his own.

One can no more describe these idiosyncrasies than he can write a history of all the individuals in the world, but perhaps, in the manner of the ethnological or zoological classifier, it may interest us to glance at the types of a few genera or species.

And first, please note that re-reading is the exact repetition of a dual mental experience, so far at least as one of the minds is concerned. It is a replica of mind-contact, under conditions obtainable nowhere else in this world and of such nature that some of them seem almost to partake of other-worldliness. My yesterday’s interview with Smith or Jones, trivial as it is, I can not repeat. Smith can not remember what he said, and even if he could, he could not say it to me in the same way and to the same purpose. But my interview with Plato—with Shakespeare, with Emerson; my talk with Julius Caesar, with Goethe, with Lincoln! I can duplicate it once, twice, a hundred times. My own mind—one party to the contact—may change, but Plato’s or Lincoln’s is ever the same; they speak no “various language” like Byrant’s nature, but are like that great Author of Nature who has taken them to Himself, in that in them “is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” To realize that these men may speak to me today, across the abyss of time, and that I can count on the same message tomorrow, next year and on my death bed, in the same authentic words, producing the same effect, assures me that somewhere, somehow, a miracle has been wrought.

I have said that one of the minds that come thus into contact changes not, while the other, the reader’s, is alterable. This gives him a sort of standard by which he can measure or at least estimate, the changes that go on within him, the temporary ones due to fluctuations in health, strength or temper, the progressive ones due to natural growth or to outside influences.

In his “Introduction to Don Quixote,” Heine tells us how that book, the first that he ever read, was his mental companion through life. In that first perusal knowing not “how much irony God had interwoven into the world,” he looked upon the luckless knight as a real hero of romance and wept bitterly when his chivalry and generosity met with ingratitude and violence. A little later, when the satire dawned upon his comprehension, he could not bear the book. Still later he read it with contemptuous laughter at the poor knight. But when in later life, he lay racked on a bed of pain his attitude of sympathy returned. “Dulcinea del Toboso,” he says “is still the most beautiful woman in the world; although I lie stretched upon the earth, helpless and miserable, I will never take back that assertion. I can not do otherwise. On with your lances, ye Knights of the Silver Moon; ye disguised barbers!”

So every reader’s viewpoint shifts with the years.

Our friend who welcomes George Ade to his inner sanctuary may find as the years go on that his reaction to that contact has altered. I should not recommend that the author be then be cast into outer darkness. Once a favorite, always a favorite, for old sake’s sake even if not for present power and influence. Our private libraries will hold shelf after shelf of these old-time favorites—milestones on the intellectual track over which we have wearily or joyously traveled.

There will always be a warm spot in my heart and a nook on my private shelf for Oliver Optic and Horatio Alger. Though I bar them from my library (I mean my Library with a big L) I have no right to exclude them from my private collection of favorites, for once I loved them. I scarcely know why or how. If there had been in those far-off days of my boyhood, children’s libraries and children’s librarians, I might not have known them; as it is, they are incidents in my literary past that can not be blinked, shameful though they may be. The re-reading of such books as these is interesting because it shows us how far we have traveled since we counted them among our favorites.

Then there is the book that, despite its acknowledged excellence, the reader would not perhaps admit to his inner circle if he read it now for the first time. It holds its place largely on account of the glamour with which his youth invested it. It thrills him now as it thrilled him then, but he half suspects that the thrill is largely reminiscent. I sometimes fancy that as I re-read Ivanhoe and my heart leaps to my mouth when the knights clash at Ashby, the propulsive power of that leap had its origin in the emotions of 1870 rather than those of 1914. And when some of Dickens’ pathos—that death-bed of Paul Dombey for instance—brings the tears again unbidden to my eyes, I suspect, though I scarcely dare to put my suspicion into words, that the salt in those tears is of the vintage of 1875. I am reading Arnold Bennett now and loving him very dearly when he is at his best; but how I shall feel about him in 1930 or how I might feel if I could live until 2014, is another question.

Then there is the book that, scarce comprehended or appreciated when it was first read, but loved for some magic of expression or turn of thought, shows new beauties at each re-reading, unfolding like an opening rose and bringing to view petals of beauty, wit, wisdom and power that were before unsuspected. This is the kind of book that one loves most to re-read, for the growth that one sees in it is after all in oneself—not in the book. The gems that you did not see when you read it first were there then as they are now. You saw them not then and you see them now, for your mental sight is stronger—you are more of a man now than you were then.

Not that all the changes of the years are necessarily for the better. They may be neither for better nor for worse. As the moving train hurries us onward we may enjoy successively the beauties of canyon, prairie and lake, admiring each as we come to it without prejudice to what has gone before. In youth we love only bright colors and their contrasts—brilliant sunsets and autumn foliage; in later life we come to appreciate also the more delicate tints and their gradations—a prospect of swamp-land and distant lake or sea on a gray day; a smoky town in the fog; the tender dove colors of early dawns. So in youth we eagerly read of blood and glory and wild adventure; Trollope is insufferably dull. Jane Austen is for old maids; even such a gem as Cranford we do not rate at its true value. But in after life how their quiet shades and tints come out! There is no glory in them, no carnage, no combat; but there is charm and fascination in the very slowness of their movement, the shortness of their range, their lack of intensity, the absence of the shrill, high notes and the tremendous bases.

Then there is the re-reading that accuses the reader of another kind of change—a twist to the right or the left, a cast in the mental eye, or perhaps the correction of such a cast. The doctrines in some book seemed strange to you once—almost abhorrent; you are ready to accept them now. Is it because you then saw through a glass darkly and now more clearly? Or is your vision darker now than it was? Your rereading apprizes you that there has been a change of some sort. Perhaps you must await corroborative testimony before you decide what its nature has been. Possibly you read today without a blush what your mind of twenty years ago would have been shocked to meet. Are you broader-minded or just hardened? These questions are disquieting, but the disturbance that they cause is wholesome, and I know of no way in which they can be raised in more uncompromising form than by re-reading an old favorite, by bringing the alterable fabric of your living, growing and changing mind into contact with the stiff, unyielding yardstick of an unchangeable mental record—the cast of one phase of a master mind that once was but has passed on.

Here I can not help saying a word of a kind of re-reading that is not the perusal of literature at all with most of us—the re-reading of our own words, written down in previous years—old letters, old lectures, articles—books, perhaps, if we chance to be authors. Of little value, perhaps, to others, these are of the greatest interest to ourselves because instead of measuring our minds by an outside standard they enable us to set side by side two phases of our own life—the ego of 1892, perhaps, and that of 1914. How boyish that other ego was; how it jumped to conclusions; how ignorant it was and how self-confident! And yet, how fresh it was; how quickly responsive to new impressions; how unspoiled; how aspiring! If you want to know the changes that have transformed the mind that was into the very different one that now is, read your own old letters.

I have tried to show you that pure literature is an art and like other arts depends primarily upon manner and only secondarily upon matter. That the artist, who in this case is the author, uses his power to influence the reader usually through his emotions or feelings and that its effects to a notable extent, are not marred by repetition. That on this account all good literature may be re-read over and over, and that the pleasure derived from such re-reading is a sign that a book is peculiarly adapted in some way to the reader. Finally, that one’s private library, especially if its size be limited, may well consist of personal favorites, often re-read.

When the astronomer Kepler had reduced to simple laws the complicated motions of the planets he cried out in ecstacy: “O God! now think I Thy thoughts after Thee!” Thus when a great writer of old time has been vouchsafed a spark of the divine fire we may think his divine thoughts after him by re-reading. And Shakespeare tells us in that deathless speech of Portia’s, that since mercy is God’s attribute we may by exercising it become like God. Thus, by the mere act of tuning our brains to think the thoughts that the Almighty has put into the minds of the good and the great, may it not be that our own thoughts may at the last come to be shaped in the same mould?

“Old wine, old friends, old books,” says the old adage; and of the three the last are surely the most satisfying. The old wine may turn to vinegar; old friends may forget or forsake us; but the old book is ever the same. What would the old man do without it? And to you who are young I would say—you may re-read, you first must read. Choose worthy books to love. As for those who know no book long enough either to love or despise it—who skim through good and bad alike and forget page ninety-nine while reading page 100, we may simply say to them, in the words of the witty Frenchman, “What a sad old age you are preparing for yourself!”


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