The way you read a book is very dependent, I believe, on what stage of life you’re in at the time. It means that there is a perfect and a perfectly dreadful time to read every novel.
We were talking about this at work the other day. Specifically, we were chatting about what books we once loved that we’d like to reread (clearly, engaging in any actual work wasn’t high on the agenda at this point). Now, typically, I’m not much of a rereader – which renders my acres of bookshelves a little redundant you might think. But my bookshelves are both a big heavy comfort blanket and my armour against the world, so those puppies aren’t going anywhere.
Anyway, as I said, I’m not really one for rereading novels and in general I’m not really one for harking back. I have certain very beloved friends I have kept for years, but I don’t like to revisit the past so much. I’ve never been to a school reunion, for example. I just assume that they would descend into a competition to see who’s the saggiest or most successful before you all regress to playing the pimple faced roles you occupied as 17-year-olds. Or maybe they’d be a load of fun, who knows? Who cares? I won’t be finding out any time soon. Anyway, suffice it to say, I feel the same about books.
When I read Wuthering Heights I was about 16 and I thought it was the cat’s meow. I suspect if I read it now I would just get irritated by all that brooding obsession. I read The Great Gatsby when I was around 19 – that beautiful, heartbreaking book that’s really like an instruction manual for the early 20th century stalker. And that’s the thing – I loved that novel and I don’t want it to be overlayed with some of the junk that’s accumulated in my head in the years since I first read it.
Maybe you think I’m being a bit of a literary coward, and perhaps I am. But I know, for example that when I tried to reread A Catcher in the Rye a few years back it was big mistake. I originally read this when I was 20 and still young enough, I guess, to empathise with Holden Caulfield.
Thing is, I feel like I’ve become a more empathetic person as I’ve aged, but clearly my capacity for empathy has waned somewhat when it comes to whining, privileged teenage boys because when I read it anew, it just annoyed the living snot out of me. I couldn’t stop the internal voice that was shouting, “Oh for God’s sake kid, just get over yourself!”
And there you go, a fond book loving memory killed dead. So you’ll have to forgive my trepidation on these matters.
However, I do think there’s a case to be made for revisiting certain books. I think that in the current, clearly insane, world that is the American political landscape, there is a strong case to be made for revisiting Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. She wrote this at the beginning of the Reagan era in the States when the far right Christian lobby groups were making inroads into the political scene and creating some real influence. I assume she wrote it as a cautionary tale, a tale of where any kind of fanaticism can take you and I think it’s just as relevant today.
I’ll also be giving Jane Austen’s Emma a try. Now, this is a bit of a cheat, because I’ve never actually finished this one, given that I couldn’t stand the main character, Emma (something Jane Austen expected from her readers). But I feel like now (as opposed to when I was in high school), I’ll be able to appreciate the subtleties of her character that made her one of Jane Austen’s favorites. And hey, I’ve watched Clueless loads of times, so I figure I’ve got a handle on this.
So, I will be taking some of the oldies down off my shelf at some point this year. I’ll let you know if they’re still beloved or if I felt like taking them out to the backyard and setting fire to them.