Reading and Rereading

I grew up in a United States — perhaps a whole world, but I’m staying with my experience — that was a youth culture.

Older people ran things, of course, and still do, despite the youngish tech billionaires of the day, but the concept of what is cool and good and the thing to do is built around youth.

And of course, I am from that generation that said “never trust anyone over thirty.”

I am considerably over thirty now.

This is not a rant about what’s wrong with young people. I like young people. Generation Z reminds me of my activist and hippie youth.

I think they’re smart and have a lot of great ideas and we should listen to them.

But one thing I keep figuring out is that I understand things more deeply now than I did at 19. Or, for that matter, at, say, 27.

We writerly types tend to also be readers and one of the things that comes up regularly is re-reading books that mattered passionately to us when we were young.

Catch-22I have, in fact, just checked Catch-22 out of the library. I wrote a major paper on it in college. I read it again in 2001 after the September 11 attacks and the launching of “Homeland Security.”

I’ve just started my re-read. It’s possible that Heller will be one of the few male “literary” writers of the 20th century that I will be able to keep reading.

I read so many of those guys when I was young, working around their misogyny, identifying with the male characters and learning to despise certain kinds of women. I can’t do that anymore. It was destructive then; it’s just too painful now.

But there are writers who shouldn’t be thrown out with the bath water, so to speak, even if they are “of their time” as the polite term has it.

Rereading books is how you discover which ones to keep.

The thing is, when you have been reading and otherwise paying attention to ideas for a very long time, you grasp things that you missed or weren’t ready for when you were young.

In fact, there are some books you probably shouldn’t read when you are 16, not because of their “mature” content, but because you will likely miss the point.

I hated The Scarlet Letter when I was 16 because I thought it was a puritanical text about the evils of sex. When I read it in my fifties, I realized that a major chunk of it was satire of the Puritan tradition — something that it never occurred to me that a 19th century writer would do.

(It’s also got a lot of male romantic ideas in it, but Hawthorne was a man and probably shared those ideas. I find them amusing, but his satire on the Puritans and the witch trials is hilarious on purpose and absolutely brilliant.)

It’s also quite likely that you will find much less when you reread a book that mattered greatly to you at 21. A lot of what seemed cool in youth did turn out to be superficial, but I’m not sure it’s possible for most of us — me included — to see that without the benefit of time and experience.

I once embroidered a line from Asimov’s Foundation on a backpack — “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” — but while I still think that’s a great line, I don’t think I’ll put the book on my reread list.

Of course, some things will stay the same. I reread The Great Gatsby about fifteen years ago when so many smart people were raving about how great it was and found it was still a slight book about mostly awful people. It was beautifully written, but I don’t think it comes close to being the “Great American Novel” despite all the praise it gets.

It’s out of copyright now. I look forward to someone doing something interesting with it.

It’s funny. All those male writers from the first half of the 20th century had an obsession with the idea of writing the Great American Novel. I particularly associate it with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, though there were others who shared that dream.

(Dashiell Hammett wrote circles around both of them, but detective novels don’t count in the Great American Novel sweepstakes.)

Somebody finally did write the Great American Novel, but it wasn’t any of them. Beloved

It was Toni Morrison and the book was Beloved.

I probably should reread that, though I am not sure I have the courage. It was hard enough to read the first time. I’m sure I missed things, because I ended up reading it fast.

I couldn’t have read that as a teenager, because it wasn’t written until the 1980s. It came out in 1987.

But I wonder how I would have reacted to it as a teenager.

I notice it’s one of the books those who want to sanitize U.S. history are banning from the high school libraries and reading lists, but the reason it’s the Great American Novel is because it takes on one of the deep sins and crises of our history and makes the reader understand it.

Novels about male angst don’t have the same depth.

Beloved is a deep and complex book, but I think it will reward readers of any age.

Some truth is there on the page no matter how old you are.

5 thoughts on “Reading and Rereading

  1. There was a tremendous need for people to write the Great Australian Novel and the vast majority of novels that we are told are that have always been problematic for me. I still love Patrick White, however, so of all the male writers I was told were great when young, he is one of the most likely to survive reread. The first GAN was Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life. I was told that it was as great as works by Charles Dickens. Like The Scarlet Letter, you had to understand the place and time to get much out of it, but it was pushed on young readers. Young readers see it as melodrama. For some years I saw it as more than that, but now I see it as Gothic melodrama. And it most definitely is as great as work by Charles Dickens… by which I mean that Charles Dickens has never been wonderful, in my book. Entertaining, and with a social conscience (unless one is Jewish, of course, and then readers had to point out his bigotry before he realised he had it), but never a great writer. I would rather we had read George Gissing if we had to read an English 19th century male writer. George Gissing is in need of reread… so he’s lasted the years.

  2. My mother used to say Charles Dickens needed an editor. (My mother was a great editor, so she knew what she was talking about.) I recall loving A Tale of Two Cities in my youth, but I’m not sure I should re-read it. I have never been a fan of Dickens beyond that.

    I would be interested in what works might truly reflect Australia. I suspect that, as with the US, they might be ones that explored the more unsavory aspects of its history.

  3. I’d recommend Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful if you want a different take on Gatsby. I still don’t like the main story, but this was from the viewpoint of Jordan Baker as an adoptee from China.

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