Tuesday, May 20, 2014

`A Different Experience, a Different Age'

“I like to reread the classics. Many years ago I read them because I had to. Today I read them to understand why I may not have liked them then.” 

Laura Demanski has interviewed Judith Nadler, who is retiring after forty-eight years working for the University of Chicago Library. She started there in 1966 as a cataloger of foreign language materials (Nadler sounds virtually omnilingual) and leaves as library director and University librarian. Her first language was German, and she remembers reading Goethe and Schiller as a girl, along with Gone with the Wind in English. Now she has returned to Stefan Zweig (“something that I read many years ago, and I bring to it a different experience, a different age”) and Max Frisch. What especially interested me was Nadler’s reason for rereading the “classics” rather than the current tripe – “to understand why I may not have liked them.” Unlike many Amazon.com reviewers, Nadler understands that disliking a book may not be the book’s failing but hers. 

Some “classics” I loved at first sight, effortlessly – War and Peace, Moby-Dick, King Lear, Invisible Man, Tristram Shandy. If “classic” (our neighborhood library shelves To Kill a Mockingbird and Atlas Shrugged in that category) retains any meaning, it describes books that take as their subject human essence, not the time- or place-dependent. Anyone who qualifies as human and literate can be moved by Homer or Isaiah. Joseph Epstein once asked in an essay which writer working during the previous half-century was likeliest still to be read in another fifty years. His answer, and it’s a good one, was Isaac Bashevis Singer, and here’s how he explained it in an interview: 

“I think this because Singer wrote about the mysteries posed by human existence, dealt with the great questions connected with man’s purpose on earth, and did so with unsurpassed storytelling power. His writing has always seemed timeless, which is another way of saying that he passes the test of time.” 

Some “classics” I actively disliked on first acquaintance and still do (Goethe’s Faust, Don Quixote, Vanity Fair, all of Virginia Woolf, The Scarlet Letter, The Faerie Queene, Les Misérables). Others I prized, but the thrill was soon gone (Ezra Pound, Studs Lonigan, Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann). And still others I rejected at first but later embraced (much of Henry James, Colette's Julie de Carneilhan, Jane Austen, The Golovlyov Family, George Eliot). And yet another category, the most difficult to describe briefly and in detail: writers about whom my feelings have always been mixed (Dickens, Wallace Stevens, Mark Twain). 

Try to imagine a computational model of your reading life, a visual representation of every book you ever read, reread, started but didn’t finish or lied about having read. The result would be more complicated, denser with connections, than your family tree, something approximating a shelf or two in Borges’ “Library of Babel.” It might resemble a truer autobiography than a mere recitation of events. More importantly, few conclusions could be drawn from the results. No “meta-theory” could be manufactured to make it all consistent and understandable. That is quintessentially human, and timeless. 

[Be sure to read Nadler’s interview to the end so as not to miss her L.B.J. anecdote.]

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