The great Doris Lessing once observed that the books which bore us when we are twenty or thirty will open doors for us when we are forty or fifty.
For my part, I think she pretty much nailed that one.
When was the last time you went back, voluntarily, and reread something that had been assigned in a high school English class—or in a college survey course?
During what passed for my summer vacation (it was also a research trip related to an upcoming novel), I did just that. Salem and I were browsing in a small general store in North Hero, Vermont, and we were thrilled to discover that this particular place actually had a pretty impressive collection of books for sale. They even had ONE lesfic title sandwiched in among all the classics, the nonfiction tomes about fishing the Champlain Islands, prolix biographies of notables like Benedict Arnold, the inevitable Oprah Book Club selections, and the top twenty or so New York Times bestsellers. [In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that the lesfic title was a book by Karin Kallmaker—and it led to some lively speculation on our part about WHO ordered it, and where the elusive coterie of lesbyterian readers was likely to be found in this community of about 810 permanent residents.]
But as we browed through the titles (while we waited on our lunch order from the deli downstairs), I came across a yellowed copy of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Now, I knew that I already had at least three copies of the book at home, but it had easily been thirty years since I’d read it—or any books by Faulkner. Since I was in Vermont to do research, I hadn’t packed anything to read but Moby Dick (and the reason for that will become clear if and when any of you brave souls dare to pick up a copy of Backcast when Bywater releases it next year). I stood there, turning the book over in my hands, and decided to give in to a reckless impulse and buy it. Why not?
Why not, indeed.
I’ll always remember that afternoon when Salem and I settled into our big, white Adirondack chairs next to the water and cracked open our books (I think we may also have cracked open a case or two of wine, but that’s neither here nor there). I recall that it was a busy, blustery July day on Lake Champlain—at least a dozen boats roared past us during the five or six hours we sat there. The locals like to complain about this rampant congestion and cite it as evidence that their quiet, waterside culture is becoming a thing of the past. But empathetic observations and concern about urban sprawl were lost on me, because as soon as I started reading Faulkner, I realized that I had never really read Faulkner at all.
It took me two days to read the book.
TWO days for an Evelyn Wood laureate?
Because I read every sentence in the book at least three times.
And I learned something about great writing. It’s great for a reason. It moves you. Challenges you. Changes you. It shakes you up by reaching down inside you to all those places where you think you’re comfortable, and it systematically blows them all to smithereens. You lose your footing. You forget which end is up. By by the end, just when you think you can’t take any more disruption to all the things you thought you knew, it slams everything back together in a pattern that makes sense in a manner you never saw coming.
I recall how many times I slammed the book down onto my lap and gazed out across the water in grumpy despair.
“What’s the matter, now?” Salem would ask, with the trademark forebearance that is as much a part of her as her remarkable widow’s peak.
“I don’t know anything about writing,” I’d complain. Again.
“Yes you do, dear,” she’d say. Again. “Now drink your wine.”
So, at the end of it all, instead of throwing away everything I thought I’d learned about how to tell a good story, I decided to take a deep breath, put on my big girl britches, and work even harder to do it better.
Only time will tell if the exercise bears any fruit. But I will offer this challenge to my fellow readers and writers: go back to your bookshelves and find something you were forced to read when you were twenty—and see if the experience of rereading it now rattles your core like an unexpected, but welcome, Molotov cocktail of enlightenment.
I just bet it will.