Rilke on the Rewards of Reading and What Books Do for Our Inner Lives
By Maria Popova
“Oh, to be reborn within the pages of a book,” Patti Smith exclaimed in reflecting on her fifty favorite books from a lifetime of reading.
A century earlier, Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926), another poet for the ages, wrote with unparalleled lyrical grace about what books do for our inner lives in Letters to a Young Poet (public library) — the source of Rilke’s abiding ideas on how to live the questions, what it really means to love, and how great sadnesses bring us closer to ourselves.
In a 1903 letter to Franz Xaver Kappus, the nineteen-year-old recipient of these timeless words of wisdom, Rilke extols the rewards of reading:
A world will come over you, the happiness, the abundance, the incomprehensible immensity of a world. Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be repaid you a thousand and a thousand times, and however your life may turn, — it will, I am certain of it, run through the fabric of your growth as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments and joys.
In another letter to his young friend, penned half a century before Susan Sontag’s beautiful meditation on rereading as rebirth, Rilke looks back on one of his favorite books — Danish poet, novelist, and scientist Jens Peter Jacobsen’s 1880 novel Niels Lyhne — and reflects on the universal rewards of rereading:
The oftener one reads it — there seems to be everything in it from life’s very faintest fragrance to the full big taste of its heaviest fruits. There is nothing that does not seem to have been understood, grasped, experienced and recognized in the tremulous after-ring of memory; no experience has been too slight, and the least incident unfolds like a destiny, and fate itself is like a wonderful, wide web in which each thread is guided by an infinitely tender hand and laid alongside another and held and borne up by a hundred others. You will experience the great happiness of reading this book for the first time, and will go through its countless surprises as in a new dream. But I can tell you that later too one goes through these books again and again with the same astonishment and that they lose none of the wonderful power and surrender none of the fabulousness with which they overwhelm one at a first reading.
Complement this particular portion of the fabulously rereadable Letters to a Young Poet with Kafka on what books do for the human spirit, Rebecca Solnit on why we read, and Maurice Sendak’s little-known and lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading.
Published December 4, 2015