Advertisement

The same book twice

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

IN her 2005 anthology “Rereadings,” Anne Fadiman recalls reading C.S. Lewis’ “The Horse and His Boy” to her son, Henry, for the first time. Although she’d loved the book as a child, she couldn’t help noticing, as an adult, an uncomfortable racist and sexist subtext. But when she gently tried to raise this issue with Henry, he was uninterested in the implications; all he wanted was to know what happened next.

"[T]here,” Fadiman writes, “lay the essential difference between reading and rereading. . . . The former had more velocity; the latter had more depth. The former shut out the world in order to focus on the story; the latter dragged in the world in order to assess the story. The former was more fun; the latter was more cynical. But what was remarkable about the latter was that it contained the former: even while, as with the upper half of a set of bifocals, I saw the book through the complicating lens of adulthood, I also saw it through the memory of the first time I’d read it, when it had seemed as swift and pure as the Winding Arrow, the river that divides Cal- ormen from Archenland.”

Over the last several months, I’ve experienced a similar sense of double vision, since I’ve been on an extended rereading kick. I’m not sure what to make of this: Generally speaking, I don’t like going back to books, not least because there’s always so much new to read. Still, starting in late February, when I picked up a new edition of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel “Wise Blood” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 236 pp., $14 paper), I’ve found myself -- to steal a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald -- “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Such a process, as Fadiman suggests, offers something of a mixed blessing, since you never know how a book will stick the second time around, whether it will continue to resonate or leave you oddly unfulfilled. That’s what happened with “Wise Blood,” a book that I revered in my late teens and early 20s; when I reread it this year, at the age of 45, it seemed to me less like a fully realized work of fiction than a young writer’s pastiche, flat in its way, two-dimensional, not about life as it really is but a naif’s projection of the way life could be.

Advertisement

It’s depressing when you lose a book like that, which is exactly what has happened: I’ve lost “Wise Blood” for good. It makes you gun-shy, wary of returning to an author; although O’Connor’s second novel, “The Violent Bear It Away” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 244 pp., $14 paper), was also recently reissued, I can’t bring myself to reread it, since I don’t want it to dissipate for me as well.

And yet, this unpredictability cuts both ways. Over the summer, I went back to the novels of Jack Kerouac, inspired by the 50th anniversary of “On the Road” (Viking: 320 pp., $24.95). Here, unlike with O’Connor, I was (at least, in part) expecting to be disappointed. Kerouac had once been an important touchstone for me, but in recent years I’d begun to take a more nuanced point of view.

Revisiting his writing, however, turned out to be a revelation -- particularly “On the Road,” which I’d last dipped into at age 27. Reading the novel then, while traveling cross-country from New York to California, was like experiencing it as a kind of psychic road map, the identification so intense I could not get any distance on the work. Nearly 20 years later, I had nothing but perspective, which allowed me to see the novel not as a generational manifesto but as the story of a solitary seeker, young, uncertain, caught in the slippery middle distance between oblivion and possibility. The two main characters, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, bohemian role models when I was younger, were now confused man-children, only in their 20s themselves, frantic to avoid the suffocating strictures of postwar middle-class life. Somehow, I had never truly recognized their desperation, which on this reading emerged for me as the defining characteristic of the book.

During an appearance in Los Angeles last month at the Celebration of Jewish Books, Michael Chabon touched on a similar experience. Recently, he said, he reread “Anna Karenina,” and it turned out to be an entirely different book than the one he remembered reading as an undergraduate.

Advertisement

Partly, this has to do with the vagaries of memory, but even more, it’s a matter of the layers a great book offers us -- the story, yes, but also the subtext, the details, the little observations that we pick up (or don’t) depending on who we are. For Chabon, now a husband and father, the novel’s evocation of family has come to resonate, although he hardly paid attention to it in his college days.

That’s not to say that “Anna Karenina” is lost on the young, although there are books of which this might be argued: Frank Norris’ “The Octopus,” for one, which I was forced to read in high school and hated -- until I reread it as an adult and appreciated its scope and grace. But more to the point, a novel like “Anna Karenina” allows us to return to it again and again throughout our lives, each time taking away something new.

Chabon’s experience speaks to me because I’ve had much the same reaction to a pair of more contemporary masters -- Grace Paley and Raymond Carver, whose “The Collected Stories” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 386 pp., $17 paper) and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (Vintage: 160 pp., $11.95 paper), respectively, I’ve also reread this year. Both hold up, I’m more than a little relieved to say, but both move me in a fundamentally different manner than they did when I first read them 25 years ago. Back then, I was reading for style, looking for the crispness of the line, the acuity of the image, the way each of these two writers could make a small epic out of the most glancing situation. Now, like Chabon, I see myself reflected in their domestic dramas, see my friends, my wife and children, see the complications of middle age.

When Carver writes of an older man whose wife is ill that "[h]e understood that it only took one lunatic and a torch to bring everything to ruin,” I feel it as I never used to, informed by my sense of just how fragile we all are. So too with Paley, whose stories of parenthood can make me wince because I recognize myself. “Now listen to me,” a narrator tells her youngest child. “I want you to get out of here. Go on down and play. I need ten minutes all alone. Anthony, I might kill you if you stay up here.”

Who knew, when I first read Carver and Paley, that they would one day speak to me in such different ways? Then again, why shouldn’t they? Reading, after all, is not merely an intellectual exercise, but a matter of emotional connection, a place where art reflects our lives. We change, and our relationships with the books we’ve read change also; “If a book read when young is a lover,” Fadiman writes in “Rereadings,” “that same book, reread later on, is a friend."--

david.ulin@latimes.com


Advertisement