Returning to the Scene of the Crime

dhl

We readers play by certain rules. Some happily abandon books that don’t interest them after (fill in the blank) pages, others plow on to the end no matter what. Some only read the genres they love like comfort food on a cold winter’s night, others force themselves to sample a wider variety of styles. And some refuse to go back and reread a book they cherished as a child or teen, while others venture where angels fear to tread.

I thought of this recently while reading a review of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. As a teenager, I thought Lawrence was great stuff and read a bunch of his books. He lived on the edge, it seemed, where sexuality was always under the surface of his characters’ lives (and, in some cases, out in the open). To an adolescent of literary bent, what could be better than that?

Now, however, questions abound. Was my reading pleasure more about Lawrence’s talent or more about me, age 14? There is one way to find out: reread one of his books as an adult, umpteen decades later. As is true with many things, there is an argument for and against such a decision.

For: I might find something new in Lawrence’s book, something I could not possibly have noticed or enjoyed in my callow youth with half the brain I claim to operate now.

Against: I might destroy another icon of my youth. You know, read it and wonder what was wrong with this punk reader known as “me.” It’s almost a bullying scenario–the seasoned reader scoffing at the little guy, dismissing his “reader’s perspective” as unworthy, as laughable even. And just like that, a happy memory from the 70s would become a relic of history. No trace left. Just the hint of a smoldering foundation, maybe.

Although I don’t do it often, I have reread childhood literary icons with good results. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance. I first read it as an adventure tale hampered by some slow stretches. Many decades later I came back, catching all the racial nuances and controversies (though the last half of the book didn’t hold up as much as the first).

Then there’s The Catcher in the Rye. I thought for sure this old chestnut, with it abuse of the word of the word “phony,” would burn in the fires of cynicism, especially given the fraught character of Holden, a kid many modern teens dismiss as “a whiner.”

But the center held. I appreciated Salinger’s choice of New York City, of the Christmas season, for his commentary on what Twain might have called “the damned human race.” I even forgave him the precociousness of little sister Phoebe. Precocious characters and I are a bad mix, typically, but if ever a character needed a foil, it would be Holden Caulfield.

So, it’s a draw. A book-by-book decision. To reread or not? Maybe the bottom line is yes and no. Reread some and keep others as souvenirs of the lad I once was. Memory plays tricks, yes, and often sifts out the bad––but no harm, no foul, right?

Every childhood deserves a museum with a few precious artifacts behind glass or a red felt rope.

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