I find another thing about getting older is that your library gets not bigger but smaller, that you return to the key writers who seem to speak to you with a special intimacy. Others you admire or are bored by, but these writers seem to awaken something in you.
For me the two, the twin peaks, like two mountains, are Saul Bellow and Nabokov. And those two I go on reading and rereading. And the great thing about the great books is that it’s like having an infinite library, because every five years you can read them again and the books haven’t changed but you have. And they seem to renew themselves, transform themselves for you.
So you can never say you’ve read a novel. Nabokov always said, funnily enough, you can’t read a novel, you can only reread a novel. If you listen to music, you don’t say, “That’s it.” If it speaks to you then you play it dozens of times, and you probably won’t like that piece of music until you get to know it. It’s the same with a novel. You have to know the kind of thing a novel is, you have to know what it’s about, and the second time you read a novel you can see how this is achieved.
When I teach literature I always tell them, these would-be writers (we don’t do workshops, we just read great books), I say, “When you read Pride and Prejudice, don’t if you’re a girl identify with Elizabeth Bennet, if you’re a boy with Darcy. Identify with the author, not with the characters.” All good readers do that automatically, but I think it’s helpful to make that clear. Your affinity is not with the characters, always with the writer.