Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Too much, too early

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?"

15 comments:

Alok said...

Do you ever get the feeling that you read too much too early in life?

Nope. I get the opposite feeling. My younghood was spent in blissful unawareness of complicated things like serious literature and now that i realize its importance i feel it is already late and I have to hurry.

The Black Mamba said...

Nope. But get the feeling even with the few books I have read, or movies I have watched. As I keep repeating - this is exactly why I keep putting off all the Bergman films - perhaps I will enjoy it more when I am older, more weary of the world.

Wouldn't it be - that worst of all fates - stagnation?

Nope.

And Proust to counter Poe. "The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes."

The hovering spirit can reinvent and rediscover the past and that makes a great Future too.

Falstaff said...

Alok: Hmmm. I have to admit this feeling of mine is just a passing phase - most of the time I'm overwhelmed by all that I haven't read and stare hopelessly at the number of books still on my pending list. Though I can't say that I regret not having read enough when I was younger. I just think it's impossible to ever have read 'enough'.

BM: No, no, NOTHING justifies putting off Bergman films. It's like not reading Dostoyevsky.

Agree with you about it not being stagnation - wasn't seriously suggesting that it was. The "seeing with new eyes" part is exactly what makes re-reading all these books such a tempting prospect. Though you have to weigh the marginal novelty of seeing an old book with new eyes vs. the novelty of reading a new book.

Also, btw, countering Poe with Proust is just unfair. It's like pitting a clever little spaniel against a tiger.

Pratima said...

Maybe its like childhood friends, would you befriend them if you met them today? would they bother about you if they met you for the first time today...
Or maybe am thinking too deep about what is your 'just a passing phase'!

Anonymous said...

Totally Identify with you on this ..have always felt the same

witnwisdumb said...

You don't say?! I don't think I can claim to have experienced what you described, personalleh. :P

I enjoyed them then... and I enjoy them now. Enjoy differently perhaps, but enjoy, nevertheless.

And I'm full certain, but I believe that's the last line of The Sun Also Rises.

Falstaff said...

pratima: Yes, that too. Though I tend to outgrow friends fairly rapidly, so I KNOW that I wouldn't get along with any of my childhood friends. At this point, I barely get along with anyone I knew in college.

anonymous: Good to know.

witnwisdumb: Yes, I know it's Fiesta / Sun also rises - but that's almost the only thing about the whole book that I remember - the last line. If you asked me what happened in the rest of the novel I couldn't tell you.

And the point is, I never get around to re-reading them, so I don't know whether I would enjoy them differently

bess said...

Read, take what you get and move on. Or is that too nike?

Aishwarya said...

I am normally trapped between the fear that I haven't read enough and the fear that I was too young to get anything meaningful out of what I did read when younger. Which is why there are certain books I choose to reread periodically (which isn't exactly a satisfactory solution, since I can't do it with all books and it takes up the time I could have used for new books)

I've spent the last couple of days sorting my bookshelves and trying to make space for things. Much time has been spent. If it wasn't for the dust it'd be the best thing in the world.

The Black Mamba said...

I take offence at your comparing Dostoyevsky with Bergman. D'sky is fun at any age. There are so many crazy characters and weird things going on - my fav. as a little person was The Idiot. Chekov, now he is someone I could see being compared to Bergman.

I agree "seeing with new eyes" isn't as appealing. It can be like watching a remake of a classic.

It was either Coelho or Proust. Be glad, I picked Proust. ;) Can call Poe a raven atleast.

Arthur Quiller Couch said...

Serves you right for reading Woolf and Sartre when you should have been scrounging for back-issues of Playboy.

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