Once is not enough

Life is short, there are too many people to meet, too many places to visit,
too many lives to live. Take a shortcut -- read good books.

THERE IS only one way to read a good book -- re-read it. There are books and there are more books. But generally we divide them into two broad categories: those we read and discard, and those we read and re-read.

A very wise man once said: "Without leaving the house one may know everything about the world. Without looking through the window one may see the way of heaven. The further one travels, the less one knows."

You may think the writer is a computer junkie hunkered down at home with his PC, Internet connection and sophisticated software to access libraries and databases anywhere in the new flat world.

Actually, he lived so long ago not even Google -- the company that wants to file every datum of information about the universe -- has any reliable record of his life. We don't even know what his real name was. For convenience, we simply called him the Old One or, Lao Tzu. Yes, he was the legendary founder of the Taoist way of life and thought.

And the words we quoted are from the opening section of his Tao Te Ching, a book of hardly 5,000 words, but crammed with evergreen insights and memorable quotes. It is a book worth re-reading for a lifetime. The story goes that one day Lao Tzu, who was a royal archivist, decided to retire from the affairs of the world. He saddled his donkey, rode towards the high mountains that separate Chinese civilization from the steppes of central Asia, came to the Jewel Pass and handed the Tao Te Ching to the keeper of the pass, and rode on into the wilderness, never to be seen or heard again.

Today, there is precious little frontier left for us to retire and roam free. Thankfully, though, the advent of cheap printing has given us millions of books (including countless reprints of the Tao Te Ching). Each opens a universe of frontiers to explore, to lose ourselves, to wander free. But most people are still locked into a life of petty, dismal routine. The French aviation pioneer and writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, in his book, Wind Sand and Stars, says:

"I looked about me... the worn old clerks. I heard them talking to one another in murmurs and whispers. They talked about illness, money, shabby domestic cares. Their talks painted the walls of the dismal prisons in which these men have locked themselves up.

"Old bureaucrats, it is not you who are to blame. No one ever helped you escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up with cement every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce.

"You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as man."

Wake up and live. Even prison walls cannot enclose the mind of a free man. It is said of two men looking out behind prison bars: one saw stars, the other mud.

For your own well-being, build a charmed circle of supportive friends -- the books that counsel, guide, entertain, instruct, inspire, and above all, liberate your mind. Every individual should invest in a library of such books, for profit and pleasure. At his own private leisure he can take a book and "shake hands with, and look an old, tried, and valued friend in the face, -- compare notes and chat the hours away," said the 18th Century essayist, William Hazlitt.

In an analysis of happiness, another essayist Thomas de Quincey writes: "It happens that books are the only article of property in which I am richer than my neighbours. Of these, I have about five thousand, collected gradually since my eighteenth year." (Confessions of an English Opium Eater)

Few read for the joy of reading and the health of their mind. Life is short, desires are many and circumstances compel us to work long and hard for a living. We are seldom able to travel to savour new sights and talk to interesting people. Books come to our rescue. They open a procession of worlds unknown and wonders untold. Through reading, we live many lives, suffer many woes, taste many pleasures and if the price is to die many deaths, what does it matter?

How should one read a book?
On this question, Virginia Woolf writes: "Few people ask from books what books can give us. Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our prejudices."

First, open your mind as widely as possible "to the fast flocking of innumerable impressions" so as to get the fullest possible value from what we read. Do not attempt to dictate to the author; try to become him.

Second, pass judgment on the book. Here, you are no longer the writer's friend but his judges; and just as you cannot be too sympathetic as friends, so as judges you cannot be too severe.

"Are they not criminals, books that have wasted our time and sympathy; are they not the most insidious enemies of society, corrupters, defilers, the writers of false books, faked books, books that fill the air with decay and disease? Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us then compare each book with the greatest of its kind."

Ultimately, says Virginia Woolf, the only opinion of a book that counts is from "people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity."

For another elegant opinion on books and reading, listen to 17th Century Chinese author, Chang Chao: "Reading books in one's youth is like looking at the moon through a crevice; reading books in middle age is like looking at the moon in one's courtyard; and reading books in old age is like looking at the moon on an open terrace. This is because the depth of benefits of reading varies in proportion to the depth of one's own experience.

"A man who knows how to read finds everything becomes a book wherever he goes: hills and waters are also books, and so are chess and wine, and so are the moon and flower. A good traveller finds that everything becomes a landscape wherever he goes: books and history are landscapes, and so are wine and poetry, and so are the moon and flowers."

What are the books to read?
In a Reader's Digest article (December 1962), John Kord Lagemann recommends making a list of "Some Things Worth Knowing". He quotes from an economist: "What do I want to know more about?" He began with the universe, got down to earth via the Solar System, followed events from the beginning of life to the appearance of man and then investigated man's various activities through reading in economics, psychology, anthropology and religion.

Lagemann also quotes the late US President John Kennedy as saying: "President Roosevelt got most of his ideas from talking to people. I got mine from reading."

There is actually a book, A Lifetime's Reading, by Philip Ward, a professional librarian. It lists "500 books to be enjoyed over 50 years". In the introduction, Ward writes:

"Like most professional librarians, I have at one time or another glanced across a library to see a man or woman of eighteen to twenty daunted -- even bewildered by the sheer richness of the literary treasures that are waiting to be enjoyed, of the great minds to be understood, of the poets' voices to be heard, of the characters of fiction to be encountered. My heart has been touched by the magnitude of their choice, and how much may depend upon it. I long to offer them the plays of Euripides and the stories of Isaac Babel, the love songs of Dante and the wisdom of Mencius...

"So I have written this book -- fruit of a lifetime's reading happily not quite yet over -- in the hope that it will give many thousands of hours of pleasure by advice offered at an appropriate point, when sought by the reader."

In books, he says, everything must be learnt afresh, individually experienced and personally known. "One cannot survived by instinct, by common sense or even by knowledge. Though many behave as if knowledge were an end in itself, its acquisition is merely a tool to understanding -- to wisdom. Chatting to friends or neighbours is a ludicrous waste of time if the same time could be spent in the company of the philosopher Epicurus or the poet Tu Fu."

Consider this aphorism that Philip Ward quotes from the 19th Century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: "The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short."

Life is short and there are books and there are books. What should we read? How should we begin?

Begin anywhere, open any book -- in the public library, in a book shop, among the forgotten book shelves of your home. Just read quickly, scanning from page to page. If the interest holds, read on and on. Only you alone can judge if it's a good book. If so, re-read it in a slower pace. Like all good things in life, once is not enough.

-- Francis Chin, first published in 1979 and updated for the Web on Nov 5, 2001.

Re-reading Dream of the Red Chamber | Bystander Front Page