Thursday, February 18, 2010

Books Once Loved

The idea that I can’t love a book forever feels despairing to me. Or formative.

There are a handful of books I claim to love. So it’s odd to go back to them. Does the love fade, or did my taste change, or is a book love good only for one brief moment in time? Mating, by Norman Rush, is feeling like that. When I first read the novel in 2001 or so, I remember feeling a lot more giddy with the book--the classic recognition that the book was written for me. That idea is fast approaching a cliché--but this is how I feel when I find a book I can’t wait to keep reading--only hoping it won’t end. Re-reading Mating now, though I can see what is compelling in the writing, I also find the first person narrator too self-conscious at times, the writing clever in the manner that I’ve been criticized for, and am now, post-MFA, overly conscious about.

As much as I enjoyed and was sucked into Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, at the end of the book, I wasn’t as in love. The prose is crafted but doesn't attain an untouchable category for me. The novel is certainly well plotted, and masterfully executed, but the prose is largely getting from point A to point B. There isn’t much that I take away from the characters or the prose that will stick with me.

And maybe that’s the point: the love has to take hold from the start. At the end of Chaon’s book, I thought, it is good, perhaps even brilliant. I could learn from this book. But do I want to re-read it again? Doubtful.

The beloved category books work a magic that is maybe from a combination of where I was in my life when I read it, and as much from what I brought to the work.

For awhile now I’ve been disabusing myself of the notion that I can go back to the books I once loved and feel the same frisson all over as if I hadn’t read dozens if not hundreds of book since, enough to have altered my tastes and views (as well as what time will effect) so that I could never go back and find the same experience again of a book.

But as I’ve been finding fewer new books I’m eager to read, I’ve become so desperate that I’ve even gone back to ones I read a year or two ago and really liked, if not quite loved, and re-reading them. The trouble with this practice is that I still know the story too well, and so I have to look for something else to draw me into the narrative. Often then, I get caught up in the surface (having glided across it, perhaps, initially). Because if the surface isn’t smooth, or is reflecting something I didn’t notice before, suddenly that’s all I see. I might forget the depth I easily found in the first read through.

This is not a definitive list, but among the handful of books I’ve gone back to and found richer and more rewarding the second or third read--and that I loved from the start--would be The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and The Sea by John Banville. (I eagerly await Banville’s The Infinites, which is being touted as a return to form, which I welcome.) I’d add to this Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March, Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre, and Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch. Most of Beckett’s novels I can re-read forever, too.

Still, maybe the idea that that book love is unchanging is one best jettisoned. Why would I ever need to keep trying to find the next one, otherwise? I may say, “This is a perfect book,” or, “I loved it,” but maybe that’s just infatuation.