As an avid reader I’ve plowed through thousands of books in my lifetime. Recently, I’ve realized that some of the most influential and important books that I’ve read - the ones that greatly influenced me - no longer resonate the way they did the first time I read them.
For instance, I read Satanic Verses when I was 17/18. At the time I had never even heard of Islam (thanks Alabama public schools!) and though I knew a controversy surrounded the book, I didn’t get it or the satire. So I decided to read Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet as a companion book in order to understand exactly what Rushdie was mocking (the two work incredibly well together … ). Those two books greatly affected me and led me to choose to study Arab/Islamic culture/politics/language/etc. Which in turn led to my career path.
But last year when I tried to reread Rushdie’s seminal work, it completely fell flat. I still found the language interesting but overall the book left me bored. (note that I’m a huge fan of Rushdie and have read Grimus and the Moor’s Last Sigh several times…)
A similar thing happened when I reread Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. I was a huge Hardy fan as a teenager. I even read his poetry - which is what they use to punish sinners in Limbo. I loved the story of Jude when I first read it as a teen, thinking how cruel the world can be. But when I reread it as an adult, I found myself thinking how Jude and Sue brought most of their troubles onto themselves and how their selfishness led to the unspeakable tragedy at the end (I’ll not give details so as not to spoil it for those who’ve not read it yet…). I still enjoyed the second read but the book definitely left me with a completely different impression from the ideas I’d formed as a teen.
I’ve realized that literature isn’t immutable but also changes as we change. This has been a disturbing realization. These books are like old friends, reliable and important pieces of my history. But now I see that my interpretation and understanding of a plot, character or motives changes as I grow and change.
As a consequence I’ve decided to reread all of the books that I love (or think I love). Here’s a starting list …
Handmaiden’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Grendel by John Gardner
A Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Water Music by TC Boyle
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
P.S. There have been a few books that I’ve read and reread and still love without reserve. Here’s a short list:
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Son of the Circus by John Irving
Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway
The Things They Carried by by Tim O’Brien
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
Grimus by Salman Rushdie
Cry to Heaven by Anne Rice