Rereading

I think it was Schopenhauer who stated that a scholarly person does not read: He rereads. Many people find it odd seeing me rereading a book. Usually I tell them that in my view a book that's not worth a second reading isn't worth a single reading.

zen_motorcycle.jpgLately I revisited Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", for the fifth or sixth time – I'm not sure. I think it's a good opportunity to examine the special relationship I have with a few books.

With the current rereading of "Zen and the Art", it threatens the present champion, Calvino's "Invisible Cities", which I estimate has six or seven readings. Of course I do not include the record holders of my childhood that I read over and over again, Erich Kastner's "Animal Conference" and "Punktchen Und Anton". Each of them went under my hands at least ten times.

I won't go over the books I have read twice: the list is too long, but I can mention just some of the books I have read more than twice: Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-five" (four times); Nabokov's "Lolita", Bester's "The Star's my Destination" (three times each). And of course there are the ones which I turn to again and again, not reading them wholly but just reading in them, just leafing, recalling, and it's hard to frame our relationship in words or numbers. Some of those are Borges anthologies or Wittgenstein books.

So why reading "Zen and the art" now? As early as my childhood I discovered that books have profound impact on my mood, if it's due to their content, or for a time that they remind me. "Zen and the Art" hurls me straight back to my armor training time in the army. The romantic-philosophical light of the book shrouded the uncooperative steel monsters and turned them from "just" machines to spiritual entities, iron intellectual challenges. It sweetened the bitter pill that was called "basic training period" and transformed it into a spiritual quest, an insightful ordeal. I remember the first copy that was loaned to me by a friend in the 52nd armor brigade guard room. It was a rainy winter in the Jerusalem Mountains, and I was feeling lost and humiliated between the shouts of my commanders and the tanks that were an infinite source of work, frustration and mistakes that led to punishment. This book illuminated and warmed my miserable green recruit life like a bonfire in an ice-wilderness. I felt that nothing can touch me. My commanders' humiliations were just words. Some had a girlfriend back at home that encouraged them and helped them to continue, I had "Zen and the Art" in the machine-gun's bullet container next to my gunner's seat.

I have read quite a lot books in my life, but this one was the right book at the right time. Years after I found out that many armor trainees discover this book in the same period. One can find this book as a real savior during army service, considering he sees the world with intellectual eyes. And now, while I feel a little "stuck" in my laboratory research work, making stupid mistakes, and feeling a little unenthusiastic in front of the heavy task of Physics PHD I have undertaken, I knew this book is exactly what I need. I think that what I have stumbled upon is what Pirsig calls "gumption trap".

"But hey, don't you know what's going on in the book?" – This question that I hear from the ones that wonder about my rereading establishes itself more strongly when it comes to a sixth reading. Well, it surprises me a little bit that people ask that. People have no trouble seeing good movies over and over, although books encapsulate much more information, and a lot less details can be remembered from one reading to the next. I think that that sort of question comes from people who regard reading as a sort of chore. In my opinion, they haven't stumble upon the right books yet. Of course, reading is a more demanding action than watching a film, and requires more practice, before sheer pleasure is achieved. Besides, if a book holds nothing but its surprising ending, I return to my latter statement that it's not worth even a single reading. Good books always hold something more, and when you revisit them, after you have grown and developed, after visiting other books, maybe you will be disappointed, maybe you won't. Like Heraclitus' river, you can never really read the same book twice.

Maybe we can examine even deeper aspects of this. In "Critique of Judgment", Kant suggested that the very aesthetic pleasure that we get from works of art derives from some correlation between our mind and the piece at hand, as if there is some harmony between our inner spirit and the world without. When we recognize a pattern, we see something of ourselves outside, and get assurance to our existence, and experience joy. In the case of simple structures, we can become bored very quickly, but in the case of complex works that we like, the former knowledge strengthens our sense of self satisfaction – of course we should avoid illusions, vary and not stick to just one piece. Anyhow, when we reread, we meet ourselves again and confirm our existence and identity, by connecting the self of our past to the one of the present, bonding them in intimate unity.

I identify with the notion of reading not just as an action input receiving, as a reoccurring activity, like delicate fondle, an intellectual massage. Wittgenstein held philosophy to be an act of therapy rather being a search of absolute truth. I can understand orthodox Jews that read the Torah every year in a perpetual cycle, for they hold this book to have the largest number of aspect and dimensions, and they return to it ceremoniously year after year, singing, dancing, reading together. Reading not as the accumulation of data, but as an ancient purifying ceremony, like a rain dance, reading as breathing, in and out, and in again in a perpetual cycle.

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