Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Age at Which We Read

If you asked me what kind of book would have a profound affect on me at this stage of my life, one of my last choices would have been a book about the Jazz Age in the 1920s. After all, I took a whole semester of F. Scott Fitzgerald in college (only because it was the only lit class offered during the semester that I could fit in my crammed class schedule) and I hated it.

So. . . I buy books on tape, whatever’s available at the time, at a local charity thrift store. (Fortunately for me, someone with literary tastes like mine donates regularly.) So I ran through the Grisham and the Sharon Ewell Foster and the Cornwell and the Hillerman. So all that was left was The Great Gatsby. So I began to listen to it because it was narrated by KJV Bible narrator Alexander Scourby.

When I read Fitzgerald in my twenties, I was newly and happily married. I couldn’t muster up sympathy for alcoholics who danced in Manhattan’s fountains, years before my mother was even born. I couldn’t relate to the angst of those people with their marital problems that bled over into their writing. After all, my life was wonderful – and not only that, I had a whole lifetime ahead of me.

But now I am myself a novelist, and writing about issues that destroy people’s souls, that wash hope beyond the most distant shores, issues that demand re-evaluation because they determine where people will spend a mobius loop of eternity. Issues which demand our attention because ignoring them can put us in a position in which it can be too late, irretrievably too late.

For the first time, the description at the end of The Great Gatsby made sense to my soul:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I am a different person than when I first read that, years ago.

And now I think that I shall never recover from those words; the simplicity, the finality, the truthfulness of those words.


Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

A similar thing happened to me with The Martian Chronicles in high school. As assigned reading, I didn't take much interest in the book because I wasn't a fan of sci-fi, but the beautiful imagery of Illya's story stayed with me and I was drawn back to it in my late twenties. I then realized that the stories touched on different aspects of the human condition, and at that point, I read almost every book Ray Bradbury wrote. His stories were enriched by the perspective I had gained over the years, and I revisited some classics that I had been too young or inexperienced to understand the first time around. Who knows what I could glean from them, reading them again in my 50's?

Nichole Osborn said...

This post has made me want to reread the books in school I didn't like or really understand. Both of the books mentioned are in that list. Both were assigned reading and at that time in my life I really wasn't interested in lit. Thanks!

Latayne C Scott said...

A friend of mine told me recently that people like Abraham and David probably didn't know they were going to be "Bible characters" as they worked through their daily lives.

In the same way, I wonder if all great writers were aware they were writing "literature." I know that F. Scott Fitzgerald was meticulous in his writing and re-writing, but I wonder if, as he wrote his nearly-scandalous flapper books, he ever imagined that his books would some day be referred to as a classic in literature.

Maybe their perceptions of books they wrote changed when they read them later, too?

Patti Hill said...

Dare I reference C.S. Lewis again?

It's after noon and I'm not dressed yet, or as we writers like to call it: I'm doing business casual today. I'm feeling brave enough, for whatever reason, to step into swirling waters.

I first read The Chronicles of Narnia in college. I know, that's late, but reading wasn't part of my domestic heritage. But at college, all my friends were reading Lewis and suggested I start with the Chronicles.

I LOVED them! Magic. Talking horses. Right triumphs darkness, a balm in the morally ambiguous days of the 70s. I read through the books in a weekend when I should have been studying for a biology midterm.

I mentioned my enjoyment to a friend. "Oh," he said,"aren't the allegories of the Holy Spirit amazing?"

"Sure," I answered, not sure I knew what he meant by allegory.

I read the books again. This time, I plucked the subtle meanings of the stories like tasty morsels. The reading experience, albeit only a couple weeks later, became richer. I've read the Chronicles many times since then, often as read-alouds to my students, always with new discoveries to enjoy.

All that we've added to Latayne's astute observations is that the reader brings his life experiences along to help him interpret what he's reading. As writers, we're not alone when writing a story. Our readers complete the circle.

Kathleen Popa said...

I wonder if our capacity to perceive beauty doesn't improve with age and experience. Remember traveling through National Parks as a child, reading comic books in the back seat while your parents begged you to look at the scenery? I think reading is like that. Would I have loved Marilynne Robinson's Gilead as a young person? I doubt it. You have to have lived a bit to appreciate this passage:

"People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that's true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives."

You have to be older still to know that this is not sad, but beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful comments from everyone. Debbie and Nichole, I feel so often that there just isn't enough time in my life -- not time enough to read all the books I want to read -- let alone reading them twice. But there are times when I want to, even need to. And so I make time. But I often think of all the time we'll have during the millenium. No longer will I say, "So many books, not enough time."

Latayne, I wonder if it's the doubt of ever becoming a respected, time-honored author that drives the author to work hard enough to achieve what he never thought possible?

Patti: I didn't read Chronicles, or even know about them, until my children were about 6, 8 & 9. Then I read them aloud to them, and fell in love with our dear Mr. Lewis.

Katy, I do agree with you. But I also think even when we're young we can "see" the beauty around us. But not until we're older do we value it.

Bonnie Grove said...

Two literary moments stand out for me from high school - Shakespeare and Hemmingway.

In high school I began to see beyond the dullness of the teacher's presentation of Shakespear to foster an appreciation of his works on a whole new level (I was a drama geek, so I suppose that helped too). I began to see there was, in the midst of his low brow antics, well crafted, interesting writing and characters. Iago from Othello began to fasinate me. The nurse from Romeo and Juliet made me laugh, and Taming of the Shrew became my favorite book in all of grade 11 - I've always felt an odd affiliation with Katharina :D

Then Hemmingway - The Old Man and the Sea. Forced to read it, and soooo didn't get it at all. Even as I read, I had the feeling I was missing something - just beyond my reach, just couldn't quite understand. It bothered me - my inability to understand the book. I wanted to, could sense there was something important there, but I just couldn't see it. Later, in my 20s I saw a film adaptation of the book starring Spencer Tracey (to this day when someone says Hemminway to me, it is Spencer Tracey's name that pops into my head first - so rich and compelling he was in the film - he morphed into The Old Man so completely), and a portion of the story clicked for me. In my 30s I read it again - and cried.

Bonnie Grove said...

Okay, so here is hope for all writers out there! SECONDS after my comment (see above) went up, one of our amazing Novel Matters authors e-mails me - to point out both her great love for me as a person and the fact that I misspelled both Shakespeare and Hemingway!

If anyone is keeping track that is at LEAST the second time I've done something like that.

Ahem.... Okay, I thought about pulling the comment, but the truth is, I'm a WRITER not a SPELLER! :D

So take heart, aspiring writers - you can be published even if you can't spell - I'm living proof!

Ahhh....nice to have a laugh, eh?

Anonymous said...

Sweet Bonnie: not to put too fine a point on it, but you, ahem, spelled Spencer Tracy's name wrong too.

Bonnie Grove said...

Egads! Poor Spencer.

Well, perhaps a career at 711 would suit me better than writer.

Want a slurpee with that corndog?

With me in charge no one will know who anyone is anymore - assigning spellings and names willy-nilly. tsk tsk.

But of course it is Spencer TRACY.

They called the dog TRACEY.

And he had a sister named Traci.

I'm going to take a nap.

Latayne C Scott said...

Now, readers, do you see why we so dearly love our Bonnie? And just wait until you see how that wonderful, fertile mind works in Talking To the Dead. We don't care if she can't spell -- she's a terrific writer.

As to what others have said about "The Age at Which We Read," it's true that we are different people reading books that seem new when several years have elapsed.

The other day I was reading a little daily devotional booklet called "Power for Today." It's published monthly by 21st Century Christian Publishing (who, by the way, also published my book, To Love Each Other.) Each page of this little book has a title, a scripture passage, a short devotional thought, and then a song suggestion and the author's name.

I was reading one of the devotionals that seemed unusual to me. It was the story of Jonah and it didn't "go" where I thought the short passage would lead. In fact, the "controlling concept" in it stopped me cold to think about it.

So... I proceeded on, reconnected with the devotional, found it came to a satisfying ending and then discovered I had written it! (Back in the prehistory of my early writing career, I'd submitted batches of short devotionals to them, and some of them they've continued to recycle for years.)

I've had the same thing happen when I read my first book, The Mormon Mirage, first published in 1979 (and being re-released in April by Zondervan.) I have read passages from that original book, and thought, huh, I didn't know that.

So, just as God's mercies are new every morning -- so even my own writing can be to me.

Nichole Osborn said...

Bonnie,I too was a drama geek for a while. I was Juliet in our freshman English lit Class. And I second "I'm a WRITER not a SPELLER! :D" I have to ask my 13 year old son, sometimes, if I spelled a word right. That is sooo humbling!

Kathleen Popa said...

Not sure why, but somehow this reminds me of a Sunday morning when my youngest was 13. We'd just moved from the big city to our little town. We were on our way to church, when a flock of pheasants ran across the road, just ahead of us. Well, I wasn't used to seeing such things, so even though they were pheasants, I pointed and said, "Look! It's um... um... QUAIL!"

My son rolled his eyes the way 13-year-olds can do so well, and said, "Mo-om! They aren't quail. They're peasants!"

Noel Green said...

Though _Gatsby_ was an instant love for me, I still hope to re-read Tolkien and feel that 'aha' moment. For now, it sits on my shelf of 'reading defeats', so to speak.

But I do know of plenty of times when I've been quite surprised by a book. The one that comes to mind immediately is Joyce's _Ulysses_. Not in a million years would I have guessed I'd be taking a Joyce course in grad school. But there I was, and I was stuck for the long haul. As we chewed through this incredibly complex piece of work, I found myself completely amazed - thrilled with all its unexpected jewels. With a passionate professor acting as our 'guide', the class was hooked and many of us noted it as our favorite work to date.

Perhaps with a patient guide, I could tackle Tolkien with fresh eyes . . .

Latayne C Scott said...

Yes, Celeste, I know about "reading defeats" as you so articulately termed them. Some of them I'd like to come back to.

On the other hand, I stuck with pointless books like The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. It was assigned in a college class. I remember thinking that all the class discussions reminded me of the Emperor's New Clothes. Everybody was talking, but the book was naked to me.

My experience with that book was so unpleasant (I felt cheated, actually) that I'm not willing to give it a second reading.