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LETTERS TO MY SON ON THE LOVE OF BOOKS;\o7 By Roberto Cotroneo; Translated from the Italian by N.S. Thompson; (The Ecco Press: 154 pp., $23)\f7

THE BOOKS IN MY LIFE;\o7 By Colin Wilson; (Hampton Roads: 304 pp., $15.95)\f7

A DANGEROUS PROFESSION: A Book About the Writing Life;\o7 By Frederick Busch; (St. Martin's: 256 pp., $23.95)\f7

May 30, 1999|MICHAEL FRANK | Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review

All reading is rereading. Consider: It is said that in order to learn a new word, children must hear it repeated on average 72 times. Their first books are splendidly versatile objects, part toy, part teething tool, part picture gallery, part--largely--containers of magical shapes that compel an adult to speak the same sounds over and over, making a rhyme or a story reappear out of (it seems) ether. No one who has spent even a few hours in close company with children can fail to observe the way young expanding minds thirst for repetition in play, in domestic rituals and in reading alike. "More!" comes the command, "Again!"; and the same board book is flipped back to the same gnawed cover so that its skeletal narrative can be told, and heard, anew.

Bound in this tightly whorled bud of a beginning reader is a taste--more than that, a need--for circularity that seems fundamental to the act of reading. One more commonly thinks of reading as a linear experience: From title page to final period, the eye and the hand tug the brain forward. Yet the brain does not always comply. It wanders. It skips ahead. It loops back and makes connections to earlier events in the story. It remembers and makes connections to other stories and books entirely. And once the book is completed, the circularity continues: Sometimes (or in some future time) it consists of actual rereading; often it means mentally sifting through what has been read; occasionally, with beloved books especially, an association forms to the circumstances in which the book first came into the reader's hands so that moments of reading become joined with moments of experience. This circle of reading, which begins in childhood, is enlarged and enriched all through one's reading life; it constantly spirals overhead, or in one's head, like a persistent wind.

If the reader also happens to be a writer, he may be moved to throw a net up into that circulating wind and report on what has been captured in it. In the most general terms, this is the shared impulse behind "Letters to My Son on the Love of Books" by Roberto Cotroneo, "The Books in My Life" by Colin Wilson and "A Dangerous Profession" by Frederick Busch, three authors of different origin (Italy, England and America, respectively), background and talent who, passionate lifelong readers all, come together in the common belief that, as Cotroneo observes, literature "isn't simply a game of the intellect, but a way of understanding the world."

Cotroneo's charming "Letters to My Son on the Love of Books" is the incarnation of pedagogic tenderness, perhaps because his intended audience is his young son, Francesco. In advising Francesco how to read, Cotroneo is in essence teaching him how to think critically and independently: By his example, he is showing his son how to frame his opinions with nuance, a moderation of personality and some respect for, and faith in, their intended audience.

Cotroneo, who is a literary critic, fiction writer and the cultural editor of the Italian news magazine L'Espresso, bestows upon his son the product of years spent in his own reading circle. He also, inevitably, presents pieces of his autobiography, using books to introduce the young Francesco to the young Roberto. The book addresses an unpredictable collection of reading material; each letter pairs a text with (though ranges well beyond) a named theme: "Treasure Island" (anxiety), "The Catcher in the Rye" (tenderness), "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Waste Land" (passion) and Thomas Bernhard's "The Loser," a novel based on the life of Glenn Gould (talent).

Cotroneo's lifetime-to-date of careful reading has caused him to accrue wisdom that is at once literary and existential. Always put your faith in a person who reads, he counsels his son. Only stupid people run out of subject matter. Do not trust people who have no desire to learn about the past. Books should be treated well, but they are never sacred. Admiration should be the end, not the beginning, of the reading experience. Great books impart the feeling that everything is comprehensible, until you realize that it actually isn't. All books are "interpretative machines endowed with a conscience, which is yours, the reader," yet "the important thing is that the interpretation is sustainable and not arbitrary."

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