Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love

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9780374530549: Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love
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Is a book the same book―or a reader the same reader―the second time around? The seventeen authors in this witty and poignant collection of essays all agree on the answer: Never.

The editor of Rereadings is Anne Fadiman, and readers of her bestselling book Ex Libris will find this volume especially satisfying. Her chosen authors include Sven Birkerts, Allegra Goodman, Vivian Gornick, Patricia Hampl, Phillip Lopate, and Luc Sante; the objects of their literary affections range from Pride and Prejudice to Sue Barton, Student Nurse.

These essays are not conventional literary criticism; they are about relationships. Rereadings reveals at least as much about the reader as about the book: each is a miniature memoir that focuses on that most interesting of topics, the protean nature of love. And as every bibliophile knows, no love is more life-changing than the love of a book.

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About the Author:

Anne Fadiman is the author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, an L.A. Times Book Prize, and a Salon Book Award. She is also the author of two essay collections, At Large and At Small and Ex Libris. Her essays and articles have appeared in Harper's, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, among other publications. She is the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Excerpted from Rereadings, edited by Anne Fadiman. Foreword and editorial work copyright © 2005 by Anne Fadiman. Published in September 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Foreword: On Rereading

When my son was eight, I read C. S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy aloud to him. I had originally read it when I was eight myself, and although I'd reread the better-known Narnia books--The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; the Magician's Nephew, The Silver Chair--in the interim, more than forty years had passed since I'd read The Horse and His Boy.
Reading a favorite book to your child is one of the most pleasurable forms of rereading, provided the child's enthusiasm is equal to yours and thus gratifyingly validates your literary taste, your parental competence, and your own former self. Henry loved The Horse and His Boy, the tale of two children and two talking horses who gallop across an obstacle-fraught desert in hopes of averting the downfall of an imperiled kingdom that lies to the north. It's the most suspenseful of the Narnia books, and Henry, who was at that poignant age when parents are still welcome at bedtime but can glimpse their banishment on the horizon, begged me each night not to turn out the light just yet: how about another page, and then how about another paragraph, and then, come on, how about just one more sentence? There was only one problem with this idyllic picture. As I read the book to Henry, I was thinking to myself that C. S. Lewis, not to put too fine a point on it, was a racist and sexist pig.

I'd read two biographies of Lewis and knew that his relations with women, colored by the death of his mother when he was nine, were pretty peculiar. I'd read "The Shoddy Lands," a creepy misogynist fantasy in which the (male) narrator encounters a giantess whose nude body makes him gag. However, I remembered The Horse and His Boy only as a rollicking equestrian adventure, sort of like Misty of Chincoteague but with swordfights instead of Pony Penning Day. My jaw dropped when I realized that Aravis, its heroine, is acceptable to Lewis because she acts like a boy--she's interested in "bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming"--and even dresses like one, whereas the book's only girly girl, a devotee of "clothes and parties and gossip," is an object of contempt. Even more appalling was Lewis's treatment of the Calormenes, a brown-skinned people who wear turbans and carry scimitars. (Forty years ago, the crude near-homonym had slipped by me. This time around, I wondered briefly if Lewis was thinking only about climate--calor is Latin for "heat"--but decided that was unlikely. It's as if he'd named a Chinese character Mr. Yellow: it had to be on purpose.) The book's hero, Shasta, is the ward of a venial Calormene fisherman, but, as a visitor observes, "this boy is manifestly no son of yours, for your cheek is as dark as mine but the boy is fair and white." That's how we know he belongs to a noble northern race instead of an uncouth southern one. Of the Calormene capital--the seat of a fat, obnoxious, vulgarly bejeweled potentate called the Tisroc--Lewis remarks that "what you would chiefly have noticed if you had been there was the smells, which came from unwashed people, unwashed dogs, scent, garlic, onions, and the piles of refuse which lay everywhere."

It was difficult to read this kind of thing to Henry without comment: the words, after all, were coming to him in my voice. I held my tongue for the first hundred pages or so, but finally I blurted out, "Have you noticed that The Horse and His Boy isn't really fair to girls? And that all the bad guys have dark skin?"
Henry considered this seriously for a moment. "That's not true," he said. "The Tisroc is a bad guy, and C. S. Lewis doesn't say he has dark skin."
"Well, he's a Calormene, and all the Calormenes are dark. Of course"--I could hear myself start to fumble--"fifty years ago, when this book was written, lots of people had ideas that weren't true, about whether boys were better than girls, or whites were better than blacks, or--"
Henry shot me the sort of look he might have used had I dumped a pint of vinegar into a bowl of chocolate ice cream. And who could blame him? He didn't want to analyze, criticize, evaluate, or explicate the book. He didn't want to size it up or slow it down. He wanted exactly what I had wanted at eight: to find out if Shasta and Aravis would get to Archenland in time to warn King Lune that his castle was about to be attacked by evil Prince Rabadash and two hundred Calormene horsemen. "Mommy," he said fiercely, "can you just read?"
And there lay the essential differences between reading and rereading, acts that Henry and I were performing simultaneously. The former had more velocity; the latter had more depth. the former shut out the world in order to focus on the story; the latter dragged in the world in order to assess the story. The former was more fun; the latter was more cynical. But what was remarkable about the latter was that it contained the former: even while, as with the upper half of a set of bifocals, I saw the book through the complicating lens of adulthood, I also saw it through the memory of the first time I'd read it, when it had seemed as swift and pure as the Winding Arrow, the river that divides Calormen from Archenland.
Eight years ago, when I became editor of the literary quarterly The American Scholar, one of the first tasks I faced was how to organize the books department. Of course we needed to review recently published books, but how could we also honor the fact that for all true readers, the bonds that count are not with books we haven't yet met but with those we already know intimately? As the poet Austin Dobson observed in 1908, new books "have neither part nor lot in our past of retrospect and suggestion. Of what we were, of what we like or liked, they know nothing; and we--if that be possible--know even less of them." The solution was so obvious I wondered why every magazine didn't do it: we'd open our books section with an essay not on reading something new but on rereading something old.
And thus these Rereadings were born. In each issue of the Scholar, a distinguished writer chose a book (or a story or a poem or even, in one case, an album cover) that had made an indelible impression on him or her before the age of twenty-five and reread it at thirty or fifty or seventy. The object of the writer's affections might be famous or obscure; a venerated classic or a piece of beloved trash; a fairy tale read as a child, a novel read in the throes of first love, a reference work that guided the early stages of a career.
In short order the Rereadings became the most popular part of the magazine. Perhaps that it because they weren't conventional literary criticism; they were about relationships. The relationship between reader and book, like all relationships that matter, changes over time. A book that seemed a fount of wisdom to a fifteen-year-old might seem a trough of hogwash to a fifty-year-old; on the other hand, passages that were once dull or incomprehensible might be transformed by life experience from dross into gold. The Rereadings, as it turned out, revealed at least as much about the readers as about the books. Each was a miniature memoir at whose heart lay that most galvanic of topics, the evolving nature of love. Even if decades had passed, many of the writers remembered the color of the original book cover, the chair they'd sat in, the season, the time of day. Of course they did! Don't you remember the room in which you lay with your first lover, the way the bed faced, the color of the sheets, whether the pillows were soft or lumpy?
This book contains my seventeen favorite Rereadings: favorite not just because they're so good but because they're so dissimilar. Though all the writers are American, they live in five different countries; the books they write about represent eight nationalities. Their perspectives, their literary styles, and their senses of humor are as variegated as a patchwork quilt assembled partly from Balenciaga gowns, partly from torn blue jeans. But all of these essays pursue the same fugitive quarry--the nature of the reading--and, taken together, they have helped me understand why the reader who plucks a book from her shelf only once is as deprived as the listener who, after attending a single performance of a Beethoven symphony, never hears it again.

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