I am, as I write these words, the better part of the way through yet another reread of The Lord of the Rings. This time, I picked it back up because my oldest daughter, 8½ years old, responded to the gift of a paperback copy of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings exactly the same way I did at the same age: she loved it and has (reading a few other books along the way) made steady progress on it this spring.
I have read The Lord of the Rings some 20-odd times, perhaps now even over 30. For many years in my teens and into my early twenties, I read the book at least once a year, sometimes more than that. The past few years, I have read it only once a year or so; in 2020 I actually did not read it at all (though I reread a few other books).And if my pace has slowed a bit, I nonetheless continue coming back to The Lord of the Rings and expect I shall for the rest of my life.
Many people I know dislike rereading books. For my own part, I have always very much enjoyed it, though only for books I truly love. The first read is a different experience than the first reread. The second reread is something still different, and the third again, and so on. It is not dissimilar to tasting a favorite food. The delight of discovering a delicious new meal is different from the delight of savoring it the eleventh time — but they are both delights. That goes even for light fiction; I have read The Wheel of Time and The Martian and The Expanse and so many of the old Star Wars Expanded Universe novels many times. But it goes extra for truly great works, fiction and nonfiction alike.
I noted a couple months ago that I had never until John Webster been able to put into practice the advice I got in seminary: to find a thinker who I found particularly helpful and engaging to mind and soul, and then to commit to reading and understanding that thinker deeply and thoroughly. But I realize, in finishing up this little post this evening, that I wasn’t quite right about that. It’s just that the thinker whom I had found formative and worth revisiting time and again was Tolkien: an author primarily of fiction, rather than non-fiction. As I put it to one of my pastors (to a very bemused look) a couple years ago: my moral imagination and my deepest spiritual intuitions were deeply stamped in my childhood and my teens by Tolkien — both The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. And while it is good to now add Webster to the list (and hopefully others in the years ahead as well), I’m profoundly grateful for how reading Tolkien for some 25 years and counting now has stamped me. I’ll be rereading this till I die.