Thursday, August 8, 2013

Re-reading great books and Salinger

By Steve Weddle 

So folks on the recent Bookrageous podcast were all going all "Hey, I love re-reading books. Yeah. I once read this book and then immediately re-read that sucker like four more times" and I'm listening and I'm all like, "The hell?" I have, and I swear on the life of Bill O'Reilly tha that I'm not making this up, seventy-eight hundred and nine books in my TBR pile.

Kevin Smokler was on with that New England beer guy and that nice book lady to talk about Smokler's book about re-reading classics you haven't touched since high school. (Subscribe to the podcast. Seriously. Is great.)

I never read Brave New World or Lord of the Flies or Gatsby or any of those books in high school. They were probably assigned. I've read Gatsby since then, though most of the other high school classics I've shied away from.
The discussion about Gatsby and that book by JDSalinger got to the idea of being able to read for different reasons, with different results. You read about the life of Gatbsy/Gatz and, as a teenager, you're coming at it much differently than you would when you're 40 and have all this nostalgia and regret and despair. Same with Holden Cauliflower.

Maybe the first time you read a book, you're golfing with a five iron and a putter. Then when you come back to the book later -- married, a Kierkegaard scholar, wrinkles perfectly edging your eyes -- you've got a fuller set of clubs and can enjoy more of the course.

Or maybe not.

I've read all the published Salinger. I've read the stories, the novellas, the novel. When I was a grad student at LSU, I made it a project to go back and find everything, even the stories on microfiche down in the basement. I read "Elaine" and "Hapworth" and "Varioni" and all those. I collected them in a folder, three-hole punched, and read and read, looking at how the stories were built, how they held together. I did this because, when I was twelve, I read Catcher and thought, quite properly, what a goddamn great book it was. All those goddamn phonies. And as a grad student, reading through to maybe try to recapture some of that magic I'd found when I first read Salinger, I came across stories that people probably shouldn't read. Not if they want to hold on to that magic. Heck, isn't there that story in the Nine Stories collection in which a guy calls his best friend to say something like, "Hey, Bob, I think my wife's cheating on me." And they talk and talk and the whole thing is completely telegraphed, and at the end, of course Bob is lying in bed the guy's wife the whole time.

Some books, when you go back, you might spoil the fun.

There was this John Wesley Harding album I used to have. It had a song called "The Rent" on it. I lost it in some move, but for years I kept thinking about that song, trying to remember the lines and the music. It built up in my soul, the way these things do. It became its own myth. Eventually I tracked down the song, re-listened, and it was just another song. It was fine. Whatever.

We have these love affairs with books, at least if we're book lovers. We read them at a certain time in our lives, when the house is empty and the sun is just dropping down between the tips of the trees' fingers, and there's just enough whiskey left in the glass that you don't feel like you have to get up and refill it anytime soon, and we just settle in with these characters and it's just so feathery wonderful.

And if you re-read that book, you're liable to think that Seymour Glass was an asshole fondling a little girl's foot and you're frickin' glad he put a bullet through his damn head.


Dana King said...

The timing of this post is a little creepy. I had a similar discussion with myself last weekend, that too many books I was assigned to read in high school meant absolutely nothing to me then, but might now. I have THE GREAT GATSBY on hold at the library until I can get there on Saturday.

Sure, Fitzgerald was great, but what perspective can a teenage boy who had yet to leave the mill town he was born in have to relate to it? I read THE GRAPES OF WRATH about ten years ago--after not having looked at it since high school--and I don't think I've ever read a more moving book.

I think we do a disservice to both the kids and to literature and the act of reading by forcing "classics" on kids before they're ready. Better to have them read something they'll enjoy and have a reasonable chance of understanding, raising the bar for them a little at a time, than to risk losing them altogether and pat ourselves on the back, saying, "well, at least we exposed them to [fill in heavy reading here.]"

Steve Weddle said...

"I think we do a disservice to both the kids and to literature and the act of reading by forcing "classics" on kids before they're ready. Better to have them read something they'll enjoy and have a reasonable chance of understanding"

Dana, I was thinking just this thought when I was listening to the podcast -- TO WHICH YOU SHOULD SUBSCRIBE!!

Nicholas frickin Nicholbeez to a 15-yr-old kid whose never been outside Jerkwater, Missouri? or the Bronx or wherever? What is the kid supposed to learn from Villette? I mean, besides that Charlotte Bronte is the second worst Bronte around. TEAM ANNE FTW!!

You and I are on the same page here -- let a 16-yr-old kid read an appropriate book. It isn't a classic just because it's old, you know.

Hand them Joelle's THE TESTING or a thousand other YA books and let them read books they'll like.

Though this would probably kill the Cliff Notes industry.

Brian said...

Maybe its the book. I reread Catcher and shrugged. I reread Farewell, My Lovely. One first reading, I found it a good story. Rereading it, I found it a great book.

Anonymous said...

once i read every book i will start over. seems dumb to waste time rereading

sandra seamans said...

My senior year of high school we were assigned to read Ethan Frome, I reread it after ten years of marriage and finally understood why Frome did what he did.

Of course, I read Valley of the Dolls my senior year, too, and being from Podunk, PA I didn't understand half of it but enjoyed the hell out of the story :) I've never reread this one, but expect I'd be sadly disappointed in it.