Stumbled across this quote recently, attributed to Martin Tupper: “A good book is the best of friends, the same today and forever.” It struck me as rather sweet and innocuous, at first, but then I thought about it for a moment and realized something.
It’s complete nonsense.
Well, to be fair, almost complete nonsense. Unless you keep buying new editions every few years, odds are that the cover and words on the page aren’t going to change. You reread an old book that you read years ago, one that has been sitting patiently on your shelf for all those years, and odds are that the book, true enough, has not changed at all.
But there’s a pretty damned good chance that you have.
Take any book off the shelf that you first read years ago, one that moved you profoundly. Something that got you excited to turn the page, kept you reading past your bedtime when there was work/school the next day. Try reading it now and see if your experience is the same today as it was four or five or twenty years ago. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
So how did that go?
To be fair, I’ve met readers for whom every time they come back to reread a book is the first time. It’s not a zen thing, they just immediately forget everything about the book within a week or two after they’ve finished it. We’re not even talking about the sort of cookie-cutter books that one could easily devour like potato chips. They could be time-tested classics of world literature and the same thing would happen. Sometimes I envy those readers, because forgetting the kind of book that rocked me on my heels, opened up a new perspective and made me see the world through different eyes just so I can read it again for the first time? I wouldn’t mind trying that, but I never had the knack. I do tend to remember, and from what I can tell, that’s pretty typical of most readers.
And yet here’s the thing—there is a way in which those two types of readers’ experiences in rereading a book are very much alike. Remember that bit above about people changing? That happens. Chances are you know more today than you did yesterday, you noticed something about the world that you hadn’t realized before. You discovered a new restaurant, tried a new drink, read a news article that got you thinking. Little things, big things, whatever they might be, all are experiences that you’ve had now that you didn’t have the first time you read that book. So you read it again and it’s not the same because you’re not the same. For the reader who can’t remember what they’ve read, it may as well be the first time but it’s not going to be the same first time. They’re going to notice things they didn’t notice before, recognize a theme they’d missed the first time, make a connection that eluded them before.
If it’s the right sort of book, that’s what you’re going to do, too. You probably noticed over the years that it doesn’t always work that way. Quite often, the book will remind you of that first experience, but it’s not going to give you any new ones. The really good ones will. Those are the ones I try to keep on my shelf. A good book really is the best of friends, yes, but the same, today and forever?