Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love

Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love

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by Anne Fadiman
     
 

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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 (FSG, 1998) will find this volume especially satisfying. Her chosen authors

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Overview

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 (FSG, 1998) 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. Each has selected a book or a story or a poem--or even, in one case, the lyrics on the back of the Sgt. Pepper album--that made a deep impression in his or her youth, and reread it to see how it has changed in the interim. (Of course, what has really changed is the reader.)

These essays are not conventional literary criticism; they are about relationships. The relationship between reader and book is a powerful one, and as these writers attest, it evolves over time. 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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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781429930864
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
09/05/2006
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
760,679
File size:
0 MB

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Rereadings
DAVID SAMUELSMarginal Notes on the Inner Lives of People with Cluttered Apartments in the East SeventiesFranny and Zooey, by J. D. Salinger 
 
 
 
No one becomes a reader except in answer to some baffling inner necessity, of the kind that leads people to turn cartwheels outside the 7-Eleven, jump headlong through a plate-glass window, join the circus, or buy a low-end foreign car when the nearest appropriate auto-repair shop is fifty miles away. With these dramatic examples fresh in your mind, you'll probably require only a small amount of additional convincing that my little theory--based on years of painful experience--is true. Reading requires a loner's temperament, a high tolerance for silence, and an unhealthy preference for the company of people who are imaginary or dead.It also requires patience, or what my high-school gym teacher, whose name I remember as Randy Fisk, or Fist--a bantamweight Irishman with a ginger mustache, who exhibited a suspicious delight in watching his fourteen-year-old charges vault a padded "horse"--used to call "goodold-fashioned stick-to-itiveness." His opinion was that readers were pale unnatural freaks with a built-in resistance to normal physical exercise. And because, like so many freaks, I have a desperate desire to appear normal, it pains me to admit that Mr. Fist, or Fisk, was right. Readers are freaks. There is really no way to deny it.The comparison between readers and writers on this score is instructive. While writers have historically made a point of displaying themselves as unusually sensitive, troubled souls (see Verlaine, Rimbaud, Thomas Wolfe, Plath, Burroughs, Ginsberg, et al.; note that most of the truly crazy ones are poets), it is also my theory that their dramatic sufferings are very often the product of too much ambition. Too much actual, organic suffering in one's biography can make it impossible to sustain the energy and egotism necessary for a successful literary career. A career of reading, on the other hand, allows for more prolonged and spectacular forms of disturbance. It is no accident, at least, that most readers I know were unhappy children. They spent months in the hospital; endured long periods of friendlessness or bereavement; watched loved ones die of cancer; had parents who were crazy or divorced; spent formative years in a foreign country; suffered from early exposure to "fantasy" or "adventure" novels for boys or "mystery" or "romance" novels for girls; or lived through some overwhelming experience of dislocating weirdness, such as growing up on an army base, or on a farm, or in a cult.My own reasons for bookishness are less dramatic. There were the stresses of a home where my unhappy parents foughtall the time, inculcating in me a very natural desire to escape from reality. But the greatest injury I suffered was the absence of a television set, which cut me off from the comforting stream of voices, pictures, characters, and stories in which my peers ritually immersed themselves every day after school. Assigned the role of Gilligan from Gilligan's Island, I remember standing on our asphalt playground in Brooklyn without the slightest idea of what to say or how to behave. After school, I went home and read books. It was less boring than staring up at the ceiling or listening to my parents fight.By the age of fifteen, I was a full-time reader. I hid books under my desk. I read in the library after school. Reading was an escape from the crushing pressures of adolescence, such as speaking out loud in class or making direct eye contact with my peers in the halls. Books were a promise that I might at least learn to impersonate someone normal. I loved The Great Gatsby. If Gatsby himself was blurry and suspicious, Nick Carraway was the kind of friend I would have liked to have. Hemingway was good, particularly the early stories (how to talk to hoboes and boxers). Flaubert was great, particularly Sentimental Education (Madame Bovary reminded me of my mother). While Edith Wharton had a wonderful eye for details, I could never understand how she chose her main characters. Reading her books was like watching a brilliant hostess in her drawing room making witty observations to dullards and bores. Why she invited these people over was beyond me. Henry James was worse. Virginia Woolf was a great writer. Still, it didn't escape my attention that Septimus Smith threw himself out a window; or thatLeonard Bast, my favorite character from Woolf's great predecessor E. M. Forster, was crushed to death by a shelf of books. Woolf and Forster were snobs. Of the "modern" American writers, John Updike was like Flaubert, except he used his terrific skill to convince the reader that he actually liked Rabbit Angstrom, whereas the Updike I imagined (namely, me) would have been delighted when Rabbit's life turned mediocre and unhappy. Philip Roth was too close to home.More than any of the other famous writers I read, J. D. Salinger actively courted my adolescent longings and fantasies, particularly when it came to the dreamlike specificity of his highly desirable Manhattan interiors. In Franny and Zooey, the author speaks through Buddy Glass, a writer who admired The Great Gatsby, "which was my 'Tom Sawyer' when I was twelve," and whose main business, as far as I could make out, was dispensing cracker-barrel wisdom like an old-timer at the track. Buddy was also happy to share the insider details I craved, namely, the wall hangings, reading habits, vocal inflections, and bathroom-medicine-cabinet contents of a family of precocious, sensitive, unhappy children who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. (My family lived in Brooklyn, then moved to New Jersey when I was nine. Manhattan was a dream. The mental Post-it I attached to Franny and Zooey reads something like "Notes on the Inner Lives of People with Cluttered Apartments in the East Seventies.") It was encouraging to know that my yearnings for a guide through the darkness of this world were answered by the tender proclivities (which now seem stranger and darkerbut no less affecting) of the famous author of The Catcher in the Rye, a novel that played on self-pitying adolescent instincts without offering any useful wisdom in return. Seymour Glass would have hated it. (It is no accident, I believe, that both John Hinckley, Jr., and Mark David Chapman were carrying copies of Salinger's little red book when they shot Ronald Reagan and John Lennon, respectively.)Between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four I read Franny and Zooey from cover to cover at least five times. I underlined passages and made cryptic notations in the margins, hoping to become a better person (witty, literate, living in Manhattan), an acceptable character free from the bipolar alternation of uncontrolled aggression and sad passivity that I saw in my parents' marriage and was only beginning to recognize in myself. 
 
By relating this mishmash of biographical details in a jaded, older-person voice, I hardly mean to suggest that reading was not a worthwhile habit. Nor do I intend to explain away, through an act of knowing posthumous revisitation, the failings of my fourteen-year-old self (who, by the way, deserves tons of sympathy and understanding, but whom I have little interest, should the opportunity somehow present itself, in ever meeting again: his unhappiness, his eagerness to please, and his frantic desire to escape from his family give him all the retrospective charm of a small ferret trapped in a corner). What bothers me about him has nothing to do with his aesthetic sense. It is his lack of any real capacity to entersympathetically into the minds of other people. I read books in order to learn how to be the right kind of character in the right kind of novel. The authors of these novels were people (by "people" I meant people who were confident and knowing, i.e., rich people, or characters like Nick Carraway, who were accepted by the rich) who had condescended to share their knowledge. They were not people like my parents or me, who were anxious from morning through most of the afternoon, and at night were very often scared to death. It never occurred to me that the need to catalog the stuff of everyday life might be a sign that the authors I loved were loners and misfits. Normal people, after all, don't stand around at garden parties or lie in bed with their loved ones trying to figure out what even the smallest ordinary gesture means.Franny and Zooey was different. It was my Stover at Yale. The wisdom that Salinger was interested in dispensing was more difficult than the simple stick-to-itiveness of Dink Stover (a step up from "striver") or my high-school gym teacher, Mr. Fisk, or Fist. I never felt much identity with such well-balanced characters anyway. I didn't know anyone who went to Yale. And if I wanted to be Dink Stover (a hero-athlete, admired by his peers), or even F. Scott Fitzgerald, I also knew that they were too far a reach. In Franny and Zooey, the Dink Stover character, waiting on the train platform in Princeton to receive Franny Glass, was called Lane Coutell. "Lane Coutell, in a Burberry raincoat that apparently had a wool liner buttoned into it, was one of the six or seven boys out on the open platform. Or, rather, he was and he wasn't one of them." Who doesn't feel like that? In the paperbackFranny I owned at fourteen, and have read ever since, I underlined "he was and he wasn't one of them" twice in blue ink. The tip about the Burberry coat with the wool liner seemed useful too. (Did the Princeton men of 1984--the year of the Talking Heads' best album--still meet "dates" on train platforms wearing Burberry raincoats? I believed the answer was yes.)Still, there was no getting around the fact that I was bad at sports and had trouble looking directly at other people in the halls. And J. D. Salinger knew it. He knew that his readers feared and resented the Lane Coutells of this world with all the force of the profound self-hatred that only adolescents can muster. And unlike Fitzgerald, or Hemingway, or the author of Stover at Yale, whose name doesn't seem particularly worth remembering, Salinger was on our side. "I've missed you," Franny tells Lane. The words are no sooner out of Franny's mouth, the author eagerly informs us, "than she realized that she didn't mean them at all."That was how I felt about Lane too, and it was at this moment that my underlining became enthusiastic. It wasn't Lane we were supposed to like. It was Franny. Lane is a self-important snob, a charm boy, a gym-class standout who uses words like "testicularity" and then pretends that he said something else. Franny isn't fooled. And as she cuts him up, "with equal parts of self-disapproval and malice," Salinger is careful to keep the reader on her side by assuring us that her disdain is self-conscious and specific, and would never be extended to us. You don't have to hate yourself, I felt like telling Franny. Lane is an asshole.Franny was blameless, brave, and falling apart. Also selfless and knowing. "I'm just sick of ego, ego, ego," she says. "My own and everybody else's." I underlined that line with a vengeance. "I'm afraid I will compete," one page later, was even better, rating both a five-pointed star and an exclamation point in blue. The underlined passages are obvious attempts to engage the sympathies of adolescent loners by telling a familiar story (Dink Stover at Yale) from the more original and appealing reverse angle (Franny, his date, who thinks he's a jerk). They worked. I was charmed. The specter of testicularity was ridiculed and banished. Despite her emotional condition, and the difference in our ages, I might even have considered asking Franny out on a date.The centerpiece of the next section of the book is Buddy's letter to his younger brother Zooey. I confess that my fourteen- and even my twenty-year-old selves were never very interested in this letter. The writing was looser, stammering, written by a stand-up comic with sweaty palms and a brand-new routine, looking out into the dark. I didn't want to know about Buddy Glass. I wanted to know more about Franny. I was disturbed by Salinger's desire to shift the ground of his story, to break through the conventional demands of rewriting Stover at Yale or early Fitzgerald from a sly, sardonic angle and infuse the voice with a more self-conscious humor that underlined the vulnerability of his narrator--a person of adult years and experience who was willing to admit, in public, that he "burst into tears at the first harsh or remonstrative word." I knew that line was a joke. (I wrote "joke" in blue ink in the margin.) Still, it was the kind of joke thatmade me nervous. Entering into a pact of sympathetic understanding with such a person, I knew, was unwise.On my second reading, at age seventeen or eighteen, I found Buddy's sense of humor more sympathetic. I liked "if my Muses failed to provide for me, I'd go grind lenses somewhere, like Booker T. Washington." I was proud of myself for getting why the comparison between Buddy Glass and the author of Up from Slavery was funny. ("Unexpected," I wrote, in pedantic red ink. "Not Benjamin Franklin.") I also appreciated the description of Les Glass, later on in the book, as "an inveterate and wistful admirer of the wall decor at Sardi's theatrical restaurant." I underlined the phrase "theatrical restaurant," because it was the addition of those two words to "Sardi's" that made the joke work.Funny or not, Buddy Glass--from the perspective of age fourteen, and age seventeen or eighteen, and even age twenty--was never as interesting as his dead brother Seymour, who left behind a deceptively simple three-line koan whose meaning tantalized and captivated me for ten years without ever quite becoming clear: "The little girl on the plane / Who turned her doll's head around / To look at me." Because Seymour Glass plays only a ghostly Jamesian role in Franny and Zooey, it seems wrong to go into my idealization of him here. Why did Seymour kill himself? Was the beauty of the little girl's gesture--is she trying to be polite, does she really think the doll is a person--not enough? Was it a protest against what the girl would become when she grew up? Or did the charming gesture contain the seeds of the adult corruption that would later destroy her soul? None ofthese questions can be answered within the text of Franny and Zooey. What's here is Buddy's practical advice to his brother: "Act, Zachary Martin Glass, when and where you want to, since you feel you must, but do it with all your might"Zachary Martin Glass, or Zooey, was my favorite character in the book. He is Seymour and Buddy's Zen teachings, he is the rebellion against those teachings, he is funny and handsome, he is an actor, and he even bears a passing resemblance to Lane Coutell. (Both are objects of adolescent male identification. The demographics are different, that's all.) If Buddy Glass made me uneasy, Zooey was a perfect stand-in. He is an airbrushed version of Buddy, a character any adolescent misfit would be happy to have as a friend, a proof of the benign and charitable intentions of his author. After twenty pages of Buddy Glass, I was happy to be finally alone with Zooey. Someone in this family was normal. At the same time, my feelings for Zooey contained a hard, uncomfortable kernel of self-hatred that never quite dissolved, no matter how many times I read the book.But this piece of dishonesty was more than made up for by my favorite scene in the book, the bathroom scene between Zooey and his mother, Bessie Glass. Bessie is a classic. (Les Glass tap-dances his way into the text only twice, in a memory of a long-ago birthday party and as a semi-ghostly presence who proffers a tangerine to his disconsolate daughter.) She is a "svelte twilight soubrette ... photographed ... in her old housecoat." The sentence that follows a few pageslater is worthy of Balzac, a real beauty. The subject is Bessie's housecoat:With its many occultish-looking folds, it also served as the repository for the paraphernalia of a very heavy cigarette smoker and an amateur handyman; two oversized pockets had been added at the hips, and they usually contained two or three packs of cigarettes, several match folders, a screwdriver, a claw-end hammer, a Boy Scout knife that had once belonged to one of her sons, and an enamel faucet handle or two, plus an assortment of screws, nails, hinges, and ball-bearing casters--all of which tended to make Mrs. Glass chink faintly as she moved about in her large apartment.Slovenly, patched together, proceeding according to a purely comic logic, if by any logic at all, and stopping just short of the darker comedy of Beckett, Bessie's old housecoat is the best description of domestic memory that I know. Perhaps the ability to find meaning in that memory is ultimately what saves us. Salinger never quite agrees. (Zooey is exasperated. Bessie is a dope.) Still, he is willing to give Bessie and her housecoat their due.The love scene between Bessie Glass and her son is the answer to the love scene between Franny and Lane in Princeton, and to the lousy television script that Zooey reads in the bath. They are honest with each other. "This is supposed to be a family of all adults," Bessie says. She is dumb as a post. But she knows that Franny is hurt and that she can't fix it. And just when the scene might get sentimental, Buddy steps in to let us know that the eyes that used to announcethe tragedy of her two dead sons now tear up with the announcement that some remote Hollywood starlet's marriage is on the rocks."Why the hell doesn't he kill himself and be done with it?" Zooey wonders of the absent Buddy. (That Buddy Glass is putting this sentence in Zooey's mouth didn't hit me until two readings later, in my junior year of college. I noted the additional complexity in blue.) I trusted Zooey because he was angry. "I'm a twenty-five-year-old freak and she's a twenty-year-old freak, and both those bastards are responsible."That was where I always stopped underlining. I never marked the last line of the scene, when Zooey makes fun of his mother's pitch-perfect exit ("In the old radio days, when you were all little and all, you all used to be so--smart and happy and--just lovely. Morning, noon, and night."), but softly, so that "his voice wouldn't really reach her down the hall." 
 
It did not occur to me until after I had graduated from college that Salinger was entirely serious about the last third of the book, or that Franny and Zooey was intended as something other than a novel. I had always wondered about the little books that Franny carried in her purse, The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. Her interest in the religious practice of a thirty-three-year-old Russian peasant with a withered arm who repeats the prayer "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me" until it enters the rhythm of his heart always seemed to me like a precious symptom towhich the author had devoted perhaps a little too much attention. What I realized, lying in bed in the basement, was that Franny and Zooey and The Way of a Pilgrim were similar, if not the same book. They were answers to the question of how to live.The question interested me because I was twenty-three years old and living in my parents' basement in West Orange, New Jersey, along with the family dog, an unwashed poodle. Before that, I had been living in Manhattan, in a five-room apartment on East Fourteenth Street between Second and Third Avenues that I shared with five people between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-two. I paid $320 a month for a room with three doors and no windows. It was hot in the winter. The summer was worse. People wandered in and out. The building next door was a residence for the deaf, and at night its tenants would bring their Dominican boyfriends to our stairwell, lean up against the wall, spread their legs, open their mouths, and roll their eyes toward heaven without making a sound. Everyone I knew wore leather jackets and took drugs. Two of my roommates were heroin addicts. I was afraid to put a needle into my arm. Over time, I became afraid of the way I was living.When I moved back home, I stopped taking drugs, which made me angrier than I had been before. I was also scared. In the book, Bessie Glass wanted to send Franny to an analyst, like Philly Byrnes."Philly Byrnes," Zooey answered. "Philly Byrnes is a poor little impotent sweaty guy past forty who's been sleeping for years with a rosary and a copy of Variety under hispillow." That wasn't me either. If there was someone out there with "any crazy, mysterious gratitude for his insight and intelligence," it wasn't any psychiatrist I knew. And it wasn't J. D. Salinger either. I was looking for answers, and the notes I made toward the end of the book at age twenty-four quiver with sardonic disappointment. "'Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase' lay on top of 'Fear and Trembling.'" That was Salinger's own line. But it seemed like a better description of the weakness of Franny and Zooey than anything I could invent on my own. I noticed that Franny is described as "a first-class beauty," and I found the description cheap. I marked Zooey's line to Franny: "How in hell are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man when you see one if you don't even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it's right in front of your nose?" In the margin I suggested that Starbucks could use this motto on a new line of greeting cards, to be sold at the cash register for a dollar apiece.And those were the last words I wrote in my copy of Franny and Zooey. The affair had gone cold. 
 
Reading the book again, for the first time as a writer, I was amazed by how many perfect moments there are, by how rich and funny and wise it is, by how much and how little I understood, and by the fact that the entire book is only two hundred pages long. I still love the bathroom scene the best. But I also love the end of the book, particularly the moment when Franny announces that she wants to talk to Seymour,the moment of pure emotion that the book has been building toward for almost the entire two hundred pages, and that Salinger, Buddy, and Zooey answer by looking out the window and seeing a little girl in a red tam, with her dachshund wandering on the sidewalk nearby. It's not Seymour exactly. It's the little girl from the airplane, or someone like her, a vision of sustaining innocence that will carry us through the harder part of the lesson, Seymour's Fat Lady, for whose sake Zooey Glass once polished his shoes every night before appearing on the radio. She had thick legs, very veiny, and her radio was always going full blast. She had cancer."There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady" Zooey says. The Fat Lady is Christ. Or forgiveness. There was a time when this sentence didn't make sense, or didn't convince me to underline the words or put a check mark or a star in the margin. I'm not saying that the line is unsentimental. There may be higher peaks of wisdom to climb. Still, in the interests of full disclosure, it seems only fair to relate that after I closed the book, I opened it again, got out my fancy new disposable fountain pen, and added a black check mark to the author's italics. I am still grateful for this book. That is what I mean to say.Foreword and editorial work copyright © 2005 by Anne Fadiman

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