Do you ever get the feeling that you read too much too early in life?
I was looking over my bookcase today. I'm one of those people (assuming there are other people who do this) who can spend hours in rapt contemplation of their bookshelves, experiencing a sense of exhilaration that is part communion and part sensual delight. But as I ran my fingers over the spines of these old friends, some of whom I haven't opened in years, I couldn't help feeling a sense of sadness, of loss. The way one looks back to a childhood love affair and thinks of how foolish, how immature one was. How things could have turned out so differently if only one had known better, been more experienced.
It's the same thing with books, in a way. Can I really claim to have read them - these books that I devoured when I was 17 or 18? How much must I have missed in them, how much must I have read and forgotten that might speak to me now, ten years later, the way it never could in those distant days. Sure I loved them, even then, loved them with a passion that, if anything, was less critical than it would be now. But did I really appreciate them? Or was it a foolish, unthinking, boyish love?
At times like these I want to start over, read them all again. Yet something tells me I'm never going to find the heart to do this, will never gather either the time or the energy to reopen all the Woolfs, the Sartre's, the Marquez's of my youth. Because everywhere I look new books tempt me, novels I've never got around to reading, ignored classics expressing their superior claim. Wouldn't it be unfair of me to deny them, to return, selfishly, to my old loves? Wouldn't it be illogical? Wouldn't it be - that worst of all fates - stagnation? What was it Poe said: "A voice from out the Future cries / "On! on!" - but o'er the past / (Dim gulf!), my spirit hovering lies"
And even if I were to read them once again - who's to say it would stop there? If reading is truly such a Heraclitean pleasure then who's to say that ten, even five years from now I wouldn't need to go back and re-read them again? Who's to say I won't look back at my 28 year old self, perhaps even at this post, and shake my head in despair at the immaturity, the blindness of who I used to be? Is that why I keep putting off re-reading these books? Saving that pleasure for an unspecified 'later', when I shall finally be ready to experience them in their deserved fullness. A 'later' that will, of course, never come.
Or for that matter, who's to say that my enthusiasm for these books will have survived the intervening years? Some books, after all, are meant to be read when one is young. Could I worship Keats or Shelley with the same ardor today as I did when I was 16? I doubt it. So perhaps it's best that I read those books when I did. Perhaps. As Hemingway writes in a novel of which I now remember nothing but the last line - "Isn't it pretty to think so?"