Tuesday, February 04, 2014

`I Find These Here'

The theme nags me and I’m alert for writers who address it: our evolving experience of certain books across a lifetime. Some volumes we read as children or youths and quickly
forget (at least until dim memory flares, though this is rare: Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling C. Holling, for this reader). Others we remember but permanently shelve in the Museum of Childish Things (Thurber, Steinbeck, Street Rod). A few titles we read as children or teenagers, and they remain in regular rotation. The latter category, for this reader, includes Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe and some of Dickens. Not included are such fleeting and now unfathomable enthusiasms of youth as Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper and most of Twain. Elizabeth Bowen suggests another category – “books to which one remains attached because of the powerful element of nostalgia” – but for me it takes more than the pull of the past to spur rereading. In “Books that Grow Up With One” (Listening In: Broadcasts, Speeches and Interviews, Edinburgh University Press, 2010), a BBC essay from 1949, Bowen writes: 

“What, then, of the books of which one asks something more: `Grow up with me! Move through the stretch of years this is my life, with me, at once abreast and ahead of me!’ Of what books, what kind of books, does one ask this never in vain?” 

Bowen treats the subject seriously and shrewdly, not as a bill-paying journalistic lark, and the best I can do is to summarize a few of her conclusions. About books still being reread in “the closing decades of life,” she writes: 

“By this time, the reader’s personal memory will present itself to him as a long perspective. He is likely to find himself looking back more often than he finds himself looking forward [true of more than just books]. His own pace will have slackened. He may of hoped, at least, to have gained detachment. But, alas, there may also have set in a certain hardening of the mental arteries. His age of intake is over: he has to try – but may fail – not to offer resistance to something new. When he reads, he may tend to return to the loves of youth. And, in the book we imagine, the book read at intervals through his life, he is most likely – now – to look for the summing-up.” 

All true, with qualifications. The “long perspective” noted by Bowen is a dawning source of reading pleasure. When rereading, we’re simultaneously renewing acquaintance with former selves. When the calibration is right, the pleasure is amplified. The sensation can resemble nostalgia, except our younger selves are not always pleasant or interesting company. We hope we’ve grown as readers, and don’t confuse reading with spinning our bookish wheels – much noise, little progress. As virtues, change and novelty are not absolutes. When an older reader tells me he enjoys reading new books because they are new, I’m skeptical. Who wants to read a new book that’s lousy? I confess, however, that most of my favorite books, the ones I have internalized, remember in some detail and return to with regularity, I first read before the age of, say, twenty-five. Recent acquisitions are rare. Bowen says she demands of books “something more than one expects in the happiest relationship with a human being – universality.” She makes a critical point: 

“I have spoken, so far, as though the book came into existence only at times of reading. On the contrary, its existence within us, when it has been even once read, is continuous. Absorbed into the consciousness of the reader, the book is at work in him all the time. As, also, the reader’s memory is at work on the book.” 

On her list Bowen places Emma (“I find Shakespearean wisdom in this prose comedy”), L'Éducation sentimentale and War and Peace. Of the Tolstoy she writes: “The ordeal inherent in being human; the taking shape of destiny; reconciliation with its great final calm – I find these here.”

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I love Paddle-to-the-Sea. Last summer I was fortunate to get up to Lake Superior for the first time since I was a kid. There's something magical about that body of water and part of it is the impression that book left. (The film too, which you can watch for free on the Canadian film board's website.)