Philip Roth once described his nightly routine as one involving dinner, a walk, and then reading. He said that he’d been re-reading authors he loved when he was young, and I admired him for it. But I also thought: Why would anyone want to re-read something? There’s so much one hasn’t read. Re-reading seemed not like a waste of time, exactly, but also not the best use of whatever time we might have at the end of a long day. For every book you re-read, there’s another book (or magazine) you haven’t read, that you’re not reading.
I was in my 20s when I read that about Philip Roth, and now I’m in my late 30s. And now, I find myself re-reading books I read years ago. Sometimes I’m looking for the intellectual epiphanies those books unlocked in me during my 20s, epiphanies that have grown far fewer and further between as I’ve aged, settled into my ways, and become more concerned with the day-to-day matters of living than I am with big questions of Meaning, Identity, and Love. Sometimes I’m giving a book that had disappointed me a second chance. Sometimes I’m reading to see if I might have a new perspective on a book now that I’m older, and though not necessarily wiser, at least more experienced. And sometimes, I’m just looking for a good read.
In recent weeks, I’ve picked up three books I’d read sometime in the past 20 years: Age of Iron, by J.M. Coetzee; Patrimony, by Philip Roth; and The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom. I’d read the first two within the past decade, but I hadn’t touched Bloom since college. My reasons for re-reading these three books are all different, and the outcomes have been too. Coetzee’s novel resonated far more this time around than when I first read it, when despite my love of his work at that time, it felt flat. I simply wasn’t tuned in. I re-read Roth’s book because it’s largely about sickness, death, and dying, and for reasons I won’t go into now, those topics have been on my mind. Bloom’s book was hugely influential to me and my cohort during college in the early 1990s, and I wanted to see what it might offer me now, as a teacher, 20 years on.
I don’t regret re-reading any of these books — and to be truthful, I’m still reading Bloom’s. (It’s a big book.) I don’t feel I’ve neglected any other books or magazine features, even though I have, and suspect that I’ll keep up the habit of raiding my own bookshelves for company on the subway.
But still, I wonder: Is this the intellectual equivalent of ceasing to buy new clothes — or for that matter, making new friends — after the age of 35? Have I grown stale?
I’m inclined to say no, but then again, I’m also pretty set in my ways.