Before I Grow Too Old to Read
By Lee Chang-kook
One of the pleasures or privileges I have as a retired English professor is to re-read at my infinite leisure the works of English literature that I have read or taught before.
Since I have no obligation to teach the students or to write scholarly papers, I don't have to read them with any sense of duty, purpose or direction.
I don't, therefore, read any work to the end always, nor memorize anything about it, nor finish it within the limited period of time. Usually I forget what I have read immediately after, but I don't care. I just let it go with a smile.
Now I read only to please myself and enjoy the moment of reading. Therefore I stop at a fine passage now and then, and take enough time to appreciate it as a traveler stops to savor a lovely scene in a landscape as much and long as he likes to. I freely choose or change from one work to another following my caprice or whims.
The problem is that there are too many good works for me to read. The world of English literature is like a vast garden with too many beautiful flowers in it, or like a large box full of precious stones.
Often I feel confused about what to read among so many, like a bee hesitating on which flower to sit. I feel often tempted to cover and taste all of them, but I refrain myself to realize anew my advanced age and declining eyesight.
Often I think of the days approaching when I will be totally unable to read, and then I feel busier than ever like a traveler hastening home before it grows too dark to walk.
This morning I took out a heavy book from the bookshelf. It happened to be The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I was glad to have it in my hand again. I have not touched it since I retired.
It was like seeing an old friend after many years of absence. I opened the book and turned several pages, and there I found many memorable passages underlined by me in red. They all looked familiar like the faces of my old friends'.
With the weighty tome in front of me I recollected the days when I started my career as a young student of English literature at college. I was full of ambitions then, vague as they were. With my poor knowledge of English I tried to read as many literary works written in English as I could.
Often I have experienced deep frustrations before the insurmountable height of English literature, and once or twice I seriously considered abandoning it.
Many did. Among thirty classmates who had entered English department in the same year all but me left or changed their aim of English study from literature to more practical one before and after graduation.
But I stuck to it without realizing what I was doing. Very fortunately I became professor of English literature at a university, and could spend most of my time in doing what I liked.
I still remember very vividly how and when I bought this book. It was when I was a college freshman in 1960. One day I went to a bookstore downtown Seoul. It was the only foreign bookstore in Seoul at that time.
So many books of English literature ― novels, poetry books, dramas, anthologies, ― all imported from abroad were on display like gems of various sizes and colors shining and twinkling at a jeweler's store. Among them was it.
The price was horrendously high. It was far beyond my financial as well as linguistic ability, but I bought it after many hesitations and visits to the bookstore. I can still feel its weight in my hand when I carried it home triumphantly.
The other triumph came more than 20 years later ― during my days as a young professor of English. This voluminous book was always with me and I read some of his works from time to time for my need.
One day I decided to read the entire works of William Shakespeare one by one very carefully and intensely with my improved and increased knowledge of English for no particular purpose. And I finished reading them all completely, at least once, before I retired. Still I feel very proud of the fact. I consider it as an achievement in my life.
During my intensive reading of Shakespeare's works I became ambitious again and this time with reason and purpose. I thought I would become a great scholar of Shakespeare in the world by writing an outstanding book on him.
But, alas, this ambitious enterprise of mine turned awry from the beginning and did not proceed as I wished and planned. The native hue of my great resolution simply did not materialize. I retired leaving nothing behind.
What was left behind, I found now, was only the scribbles all over the margins and underlining all over the printed texts I had made here and there throughout the book.
I looked back with wistfulness at the time when I made them all. They looked like the mortal remains of my youthful ambitions and futile endeavors. I felt sad, angry and ashamed at the same time.
I opened the book, turned several pages and my eyes fell on a rather long passage. It was the well-known and frequently quoted soliloquy in ``As You Like It,]] which begins as ``All the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players."
In it Shakespeare summarized man's life in seven acts ― infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, old man and the last scene that ends our life ― second childishness and mere oblivion. I found where I stood.
It is time for me to be old. Time to be satisfied with what I have done and with what I am. I must be ready to accept the inevitable as well as the unavoidable terms of life. No time to be ambitious. Time to leave the many and hold the few.
Soften the fall with wary foot. And most of all, it is time for me to prepare myself, like a bird trimming its feathers to the gale, for the hardest time coming, when I grow too old to read.
Lee Chang-kook is a professor emeritus at Chung-Ang University. He can be reached at email@example.com.