Friday, December 01, 2006


Another in the infinite number of unforeseen pleasures found in growing to what is called a “ripe” age (i. e., full fruition, as opposed to obdurate greenness) is the spicy delight of re-reading all the classics and other books that were monolithic turning points in the formative stages of your life, the pleasure of seeing those writings from the new perspective you enjoy, now that you're so much taller in time. By the same occasion you also get a look at your former self from your new promontory, seeing how you used to see these things, and learning how little you really knew, back when you knew it all.

It would seem that there are certain ages in life when it is best to read certain books, as for example I suppose that The Catcher in the Rye is best read at about the age I was when I read it - Holden's age or thereabouts - when you see Holden as a stalwart ally in the fight against the fogey oppressions of antiquity; for when you skim the book at a golden age - as I did not long ago - with all your life's thus-far accomplishments satisfactorily arranged on your mind's mantelpiece above a bright, warming fire, Caulfield the snot-nosed whiner should be taught what's what in no uncertain terms, and soon will be, if my own life is any example, though he looks like he won't amount to much, if experience is any guide. I wouldn't want him in my foxhole. And On the Road: no dawdling to my destinations now!

What imposed this particular museum-quality frame of mind was my current re-reading of Bleak House. I came across a dusty old paperback copy in one of my upstairs bookboxes, so right away started re-reading it to see how much Dickens had changed in the past 40 years. I'd first read the book during or right after college, when I was still wrapped in the tentacles of academe, English professors were as gods and Dickens was a member of that pantheon whose every page was scripture, every line immutably embodying the sacred spirit of the written arts.

Now I was re-reading Bleak House and I wasn't sure I'd actually read the paperweight before. When I'd read my way through the metaphorical foggy Chancery that everybody knows about, I found myself in unfamiliar territory. As I skimmed the treacly beginning chapters I found myself tapping my foot and muttering "Come on, Chuck, drop the saccharine and get with it!" (Me, talking to Charles Dickens that way! Whence the new cheek?!) "Yo, Chuck, let's cut the teary-eyed, goody-goody crap, it just doesn't travel; nobody buys that anymore. Chaplin made the same mistake, thinking HE was the one folks came to see. Where's the little tramp? Where's the Chuck I know?" Then I reached Mrs. Jellyby, which was when Dickens regained his true authorial stride, and I HAD read Bleak House before. The real Dickens hadn't changed: over time, I had simply decraniated the unworthy parts.

Upon reflection, I realized that I'm no longer as hungry (i.e. empty, tabula rasa-wise) as I was during my first-reading phase, when in my yearning-to-be I was open to all winds, and psychologically closer to breaking away from the Victorian era than from the Britney-Paris era.

Another pleasure is finding that you've been honed to such a fine critical edge by the relentless winds of experience...


Anna said...

A perceptive piece about a phenomenon that I am experiencing too now that my mantlepiece is filling up (great image). I notice a general tendency to skim-read - essential for Dickens who padded-out text for his magazine serial commitment - much more than I ever did. Time at my back.

Coincidentally, I had just had a rewarding conversation with a friend about Dickens' naming skills and later passed happy time checking them out here

Robert Brady said...

Thanks for that link, Anna; wonderful site; I have to go explore summore...

Mick Brady said...

Great piece about the acquired wisdom of age. Hadn't thought about it before, but you're right; just as there are twenty-something movies, there are twenty-something books.

I think On the Road is still romp-worthy, though, even though we now tend to stick to the speed limit on our way to very different kinds of adventures. Kerouac can still put the pedal to the metal.