Things like Kindle and publishers’ lists are filling with compendiums with generic titles like 100 of the great biggest slammingest books you have to must read before you die! The lists in the back catalogues are the usual worthy offerings- in fiction you’ll find Conrad, Cervantes, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, the usual excellent but safe canon. In Non-fiction luminaries such as Darwin or Machiavelli prevail, but there’s a problem.
Non fiction tends to date quickly as new discoveries occur. Anything written in human evolution before about 2010 will be instantly out of date as it lay before the discoveries of the Denisovans and all the main work of Professor Paabo. So to be frank, works like The Origin of Species, The Golden Bough or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire will provide only limited information on their ostensible subject matters-Biology, Anthropology and History. They are Great Works. But the danger, particularly to the uneducated is getting hung up on them. We came across fans of Sir James Frazer who thought they knew it all about human life, but completely missed the groundbreaking work of Rachel Carson in Silent Spring.
So, when to start reading, and when to stop? How often do you go over a favourite work like War and Peace before you’ve squeezed it dry? And what have you missed in the meantime? Anyone who has ever owned a watch will have noticed that there are only so many hours in a day, and you may have a life to live outside the pages of Literature.
We would love to know our readers views on what is essential learning, and what can be done without. Please use the comments spaces to tell us your opinions because this is a question that you will know the answer to better than us!
One thought on “Should you only read a book once?”
In your article you posit four questions:
1. How often do you go over a favourite work like War and Peace before you’ve squeezed it dry?
2. And what have you missed in the meantime?
3. when to start reading and when to stop,
4. what is essential learning?
The answer to your questions lies in the purpose of your reading. We read to learn to navigate through the intricacies of modern life, learning and for leisure. We know that low literacy levels are associated with poor health, poor education and negative social outcomes. Reading is also important for developing expressive language skills, the imagination and emotional intelligence.
So how much reading is too much? That depends the purpose of your reading and, on your responsibilities and duties to yourself and others. My mother, at 88, reads compulsively. Good on her I say. Her life is limited in many ways and reading stops her from becoming depressed. So even if you take an instrumental view on reading, reading for pleasure is an important skill for maintaining emotional and psychological wellbeing. If the reading is getting in the way of normal life and social relations then it is too much.
As to reading choices and rereading books, I am very wary of any elitist or prescriptive views about what a person should read.
When it comes to fiction, yes it may be good to stretch ourselves with reading ‘worthy’ literary fiction but it is equally valid to return to an old favourite or pulp fiction for comfort. I have lost count of the number of times I have read the Master and Margarita (Mikail Bulgakov) and Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series and make no apology for this. I enjoy Linda la Plante for her uncomplicated plots, limited cast of characters and simple narrative but once I’ve read them – that’s it, because there is not much more to be had out of them. Charles Dickens has written some of the finest prose fiction that I have ever read and I particularly enjoy Great expectations. Sometimes I dip in to find a favourite passage just to enjoy the sheer beauty of the language and narrative description. So yes – extend your reading choices to something new, take a risk with something novel (pun intended) but it’s equally OK to enjoy an old friend.
Reading non fiction for information and learning is different. Old textbooks can be dangerously out of date particularly in medicine and the sciences. Even in the humanities, critical perspectives of history and culture change so it is important to read current editions from trusted publishers. As a librarian I was often criticised for pulping old textbooks rather than selling them to raise money for the council. I always defended this because I was aware that often people on limited income would buy these for themselves or their children because they couldn’t afford to buy new ones and could be misinforming themselves.
Old works and editions do have a value though as historical source documents so should not be entirely discarded / ignored. Here we drift into the censorship debate where calls are made, with our ‘woke’ sensibilities, to bar/remove texts which are now considered offensive. Something which I am against and a subject for a whole new debate.
Useful websites on censorship