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.


  1. It's funny, I'd just been thinking lately that it was time read Hopscotch again. Years ago it was my bible, I read it 4 or 5 times in as many years. Sometimes rereading a book like that is way of checking in with a younger self. Remember the scene with the planks between the two windows? I admired the hell out of that scene.

    Another one for me is Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers. I know it's not Moby Dick or anything, but there's something about its economy I still find irresistible.

    Naked Lunch & Wuthering Heights, two others...

    Anyway thanks for the post, it's got me wistful...

  2. Hola Edmond-
    Thanks for reading! I agree on Cortazar; so much of "Hopscotch" had a mesmerizing quality to me. Though I don't know when I'll return to it for fear of breaking the spell...another topic, another blog post, perhaps.
    I'll definitely have to check out Robert Stone's novel.