Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Reluctance to Reread Favorite Books

I finished reading The Temple of Gold and thoroughly enjoyed it. Yeah, it had its shortcomings and disappointments, but for a first novel by a 26-year author it was a great read. It was one of those books that leave a lot of ideas rolling around in one's mind and had me eager to discuss it with someone. But since I don't know of anyone who read the book, I enjoy the "virtual book club" of reading reviews on Amazon or Good Reads.

Among the comments on Good Reads was one left by Linda Robinson back in February 2010. She awarded The Temple of Gold the full five stars and posted the below comment:

I read this book in 1970, and it had an enormous impact on me. I'm not going to read it again because I don't want it out of time. J. D. Salinger just died, and I won't reread Franny and Zooey either. I'd rather remember them both as the most amazing books I've read in my life and leave the books and their brilliantly timely authors there.

Robinson's reluctance to revisit old favorite books left me vexed. On the other hand, I sympathized with her reluctance. Like most longtime readers, she has undoubtedly been burned by going back to a youthful treasure and finding fool's gold. Such an unhappy experience happened to me a year or so ago when I reread Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse. I first read it around the age of twenty and recalled it as a profound work that deftly contrasted the life of religious faith with the life of secular indulgence. It inspired me and encouraged me along the pilgrim's path. My original copy long gone, I serendipitously chanced upon the same mid-70's Bantam paperback edition at Half Price Books one day and was overcome with nostalgia. It was like meeting an old friend. Of course I snapped it up and looked forward to rereading it, naive fellow that I was. Reading it proved to be a chore, disenchantment growing with every page. "What was so great about this book?" I asked as I plodded along, waiting for the profundidty I was so confident was in there somewhere. I never found it.

Do I regret rereading it? No. Once the initial "bummer" passed, I spun the experience as an indicator of how far I've come--in life and in literary appreciation. It also gave me a sense of urgency to reread my sentimental favorites, to weigh them in the scales and see if they're found wanting.

And that is what brings me to Salinger. Goldman's Temple of Gold is compared right on the front cover blurb to Salinger. And virtually every reviewer feels an obligation to acknowledge the similarities. I was just last Thursday in my Western Lit Survey course bemoaning how few students read or are even aware of J.D. Salinger, a man with whom every English major circa 1990 was well versed. When Salinger died in January 2010 I looked to commisserate with my Creative Writing students, but only one had heard of him and none had read him. What happened? When did young people stop reading Salinger? Or maybe I should ask. when did Salinger stop speaking to young people? Could it be that what spoke to the disaffected youth of earlier generations is irrelevant to the students of today, who as a rule don't read a great deal and when they do tend to read Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight?

All of which is to say that I'm committing to rereading the Salinger canon over the Christmas break. Unlike the Good Reads reviewer, I don't want to cling to romanticized memories when it comes to books. I don't want to be championing false gods to my students. While talking about Salinger to my students, I was startled to realize that the one and only time I read Catcher in the Rye was in the mid-1980s. I did reread Salinger's short story "A Good Day for Bananafish" last year and found it held up over time, so my hopes are high for a happy reunion with Holden Caulfield and the distinguished Glass family.

No comments:

Post a Comment