You were in high school when you read The Great Gatsby for the first time. You were just a kid when you read The Count of Monte Cristo or had someone tell you the story of Odysseus. Maybe it’s been many years now since you first picked up the Stoics, whether it was Marcus Aurelius or Seneca.
The point is: You got it right? You read them. You’re done, right? Nope.
“There is a select group of writers,” Stefan Zweig once wrote, “who are accessible to anyone, at whatever age or stage of life—Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac, Tolstoy—and then there are those whose significance is not properly revealed until a particular moment.” Specifically, Zweig was talking about Michel de Montaigne, a fellow traveler of the Stoics and one of the great essayists of all time. When Zweig had read Montaigne for the first time in his early twenties, it didn’t quite land. “His wisdom, so gentle and tempered,” Zweig wrote, “remained foreign for me. It had arrived prematurely.”
It wasn’t until Hitler sent Zweig into exile, it wasn’t until his books were burned in the streets and he was living as a refugee in Brazil that Zweig happened to bump back into Montaigne. But when he did, it was magical. The reconnection was instant. The wisdom that had been foreign and premature was suddenly relevant and perfectly molded for the moment. It was an awakening that would comfort Zweig for the remainder of his short time on the planet and inspire possibly his greatest piece of writing, a short book titled, fittingly, Montaigne.
This is why we cannot be content to simply pick up a book once and judge it by that experience. It’s why we have to read and re-read. It’s why we must linger on a number of master thinkers, as Seneca said. Because the world is constantly changing, we are changing, and therefore what we get out of those books can change. It’s not enough to read the Stoics once, you have to read them at every age, every era of your life. So too for Shakespeare and other great pieces of literature.
We never step in the same river twice, Marcus Aurelius said, and that’s why we must return again and again to the great works of history.