Paradise Lost isn’t the same book on a second read. You remember the plot, you remember the characters, but on a first read, you struggle to see the arc of the book. A good teacher can help you see the most obvious themes and significant images, but Paradise Lost on a first read is like seeing Mt. Everest from twenty miles away. It’s beautiful. It’s mysterious. And after you’ve seen it, you know it, but only in the most basic and general sense. Actually, a month later, you might not even be able to identify a picture of it. It’s one of a hundred mountains, really. One of a thousand.
A second read of Paradise Lost puts you at the foot of the mountain, though. A few of the details come into view. You can actually see the trees—or some of them, at any rate. From the foot of the mountain, the general shape of the thing gives way to a bit more personality. There are trees, of course, but there are also many kinds of plants, flowers, boulders, and so forth. Similarly, a second read proves the most obvious themes from the first read barely concealed many subtler images, nuances, momentous details. What was quite confusing the first time is less confusing the second. What was a little clear becomes quite clear. What was carefully hinted before seems obviously suggested.
There’s a sense in which Paradise Lost on a second read is an entirely different book than Paradise Lost on the first read. While the poem is technically the same words on a page, one reads the words differently the second time—and even reads different words. The first read is full of nouns and verbs (the body), the second read is full of adjectives and adverbs (the soul). Likewise, there are details in a painting you can’t see until you’ve gazed at it for several minutes. After two seconds, El Greco’s Christ Carrying the Cross is a painting of Christ carrying the cross, but after two minutes, the viewer finally notices the Lord’s eyes, the glint of light in them, and begins to piece together what Christ is looking up at it. And after three minutes, well… It’s a painting with which one could form a lifelong relationship.
If Paradise Lost is a different book on a second read, and even more different still on a third read (or fourth), we have to ask, “Which Paradise Lost is famous?” When people talk about Paradise Lost, which one are they talking about?
Allow me to submit that the Paradise Lost of fame and renown, the Paradise Lost which schoolmasters praise as one of the greatest works of literature, is not the Paradise Lost of the first read. It is the Paradise Lost of a second read.
It’s tempting to say that the “real” Paradise Lost is the twentieth read, but that would be wildly pretentious and standoffish, and I don’t think that’s really the case— but there’s some truth to it.
The decision to read a classic book for the second time is an interesting one. There are plenty of people who read classics just to say they’ve read them, and I think that’s a fair enough reason, but the motive for reading a classic book a second time really needs to be investigated. If a man reads a Tom Clancy bestseller for the second time, he does so because he wants to relive the pleasures and thrills of the first read, which probably aren’t quite so pleasurable and thrilling, but are still there.
And yet, classics do not primarily exist for the sake of pleasures and thrills. This means a classic is a bit like an actual person—classics are books which get better the longer you know them. The pleasures of Paradise Lost are not like the pleasures of Patriot Games. We don’t read bestsellers again because we didn’t really understand them the first time. We read bestsellers again because we “like the part where…” In some ways, we read classics a second time for the same reason we say The Lord’s Prayer or the Jesus Prayer over and over again. We need such things to sink in deeply, and our hearts are hard enough and our skulls are sufficiently thick, they don’t sink in quite deeply enough the first time. In this way, reading a classic for the second time is an admission it could be profitably read ten more times, or twenty.
Reading Paradise Lost a second time proves it was read rightly the first time. The second read proves the reader is digging, humble, obedient. It is our need to dig into the book, to be humble and silent before it, which has made it famous. As a mere retelling of the Fall, it doesn’t have much value. We already know that story.
On this score, one could sum up the task of a classic literature teacher by saying that a book has been taught well if the student ever reads it again, on their own, during the whole course of their life. The classic literature teacher who asks himself, “How do I teach Paradise Lost so that my students will someday read it again?” has found the true path. Such a teacher knows his students cannot master Paradise Lost. It is enough for them to master themselves.
It is one thing for teachers to tell students Paradise Lost is worth a second read, and another thing to show them. What if—before graduating—students took a literature class wherein they read the best books from high school a second time? What if they even read some of the better books from fifth and sixth grade again? And what if it was their fifth and sixth grade teachers who came back and taught them Johnny Tremain once more—not for an entire quarter, but just for a week or two? What if a number of old teachers came back to teach their texts again? Wouldn’t their early teachers love to see what sort of adults they had become? Would it not give them greater hope in their labors? My mind races with possibilities. What if senior year was a sort of greatest hits tour: the Odyssey, Beowulf, the Comedy, Hamlet? Wouldn’t it be something to show students how to do a second read? To prove to them how rewarding a second can be, after the difficulty of a first read is out of the way?
There would also be something gloriously inefficient about teaching books a second time. If a classical education is really the labor of free men, there’s no need to get as much done as possible. An entire high school class devoted to second reads would daringly confirm the notion that a classical education isn’t about progress and usefulness, but depth and goodness. Much, not many, as we like to say.