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Lifelong Intellectual Partnerships vs. Books You Only Read Once

As an amateur film critic, I find it hard to watch a movie I know I’m only going to see once. As a teacher of great books, I find it hard to read a book I know I’m only going to read once. If I am not going to develop a lifelong relationship with a book or a movie or a piece of music, I rarely encounter it in the right frame of mind, for I am more likely to pick out its faults than search for its virtues.

When I sat down to watch Paul Thomas Andersons’s The Master in the theater several years ago, I knew I was beginning a long term intellectual partnership with the film. I already trusted Anderson. I knew him. I had spent many hours on Punch Drunk Love and Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, so there was no question of whether The Master and I would be friends. The only question was what kind of friends we would be. Because I knew I would come back to The Master many times, there was no pressure to like the film on the first go around. The Master and I were marooned on the same academic island together, unlikely to escape any time soon, and so it would suit us better to figure out how to get along than to bicker.

The man who reads a book he suspects he will never read again is never in a leisurely frame of mind. He is hectic. He has to get all the good stuff out of the book quickly, and if he misses anything, he misses it forever. Or else he is lazy, and only picks up the stones which catch his eye. The man who only reads a book once never finds any geodes. Of course, no man knows for certain he will only read a book or see a film once, but he doubtless has his suspicions that Enemy of the State is not the kind of the story which yields fresh insights on a second run through. The kind of book or film which is only good once does not appeal to a sense of wonder, but a lust to know.

Developing lifelong intellectual partnerships with writers, musicians, and filmmakers helps a man curb his appetites, as well. A man with absolutely universal tastes is endlessly hunting for what is new, but the man with deep comraderies is always enjoying something good. Better to watch Gattaca for a third time than spend ninety minutes hunting for something which looks interesting. The man with lifelong intellectual partnerships governs his mind like an aristocrat; in order for a new book or film to enter into the Versailles of his soul, it needs letters of introduction. I trust British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer with the life of my mind, and so when it was announced Glazer was shooting a novel written by one Michael Faber, I found his book and read it with the understanding a vetted friend vouched for him. When I read Faber’s book, I read it generously, for a friend of Glazer’s is a friend of mine. I am now reader Faber’s Under the Skin a second time, and will doubtless return to it every Autumn for the foreseeable future. I have a small coterie of such friendships which I have developed over the years. Sofia Coppola, Thom Yorke, Bernard Sumner, Kazuo Ishiguro, Steve Coogan… I never wonder if I will like their work. I have made commitments to these people. Part of being myself is appreciating their work. Knowing that you will like a movie before you even see it is one of the only safe ways to watch a movie, for no small strand of the classicist spirit is a fear of wasting time.

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