Wednesday, June 18

Rereadings - Anne Fadiman

Anne Fadiman was reading a copy of CS Lewis's The Horse and His Boy (the fifth in the Chronicles of Narnia) to her eight year old son one evening. Though not as much a favourite as the more well known The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, she had loved the book as a girl but had not reread it as an adult. On rereading it she was surprised and disturbed to discover blatant misogyny and racism that she had been blithely unaware of (as was her son) when reading it as a child.
The change in perception made her think about the experience of rereading a well-loved favourite for the first time in decades. Editor of the literary quarterly The American Writer, Fadiman decided to turn this concept into a regular feature - every issue "a distinguished writer chose a book (or a story or a poem or even, in one case, an album cover) that had made an indelible impression on him or her before the age of twenty-five and reread it at thirty or fifty or seventy. The object of the writer’s affections might be famous or obscure; a venerated classic or a piece of beloved trash; a fairy tale read as a child, a novel read in the throes of first love, a reference work that guided the early stages of a career."
Unlike most reviews of the sort, these weren't critical or deconstructive - instead they tended to be about the relationships we have with some books. Fadiman has selected seventeen of her favourites from these columns, chosen for their diversity and breadth of literature covered. And they do cross a wide range of genres - I haven't read any of the authors and only three of the books (plus a poem and the featured album) - Helen Dore Boylston's Sue Barton books, Pride and Prejudice, "The Snow Queen," by Hans Christian Andersen, the Walt Whitman poem "Song of Myself," and the classic Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
For me this was very much a pick and pan book - I skimmed over the opening paragraphs of all the chapters but only continued with a handful, primarily on those I'd read myself. The standout essay was by Diana Kappel Smith, who revisited A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and Northcentral North America, by Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny; this book, picked up almost randomly one summer, shaped Smith's career and the essay is a homage to what impact the right book at the right time can make.
I saw Rereadings at Borders a few weeks ago and added it to my list because I love Fadiman's work. I read it last week while waiting an inordinately long time in Borders for a delayed friend, and am glad I read it but no less glad I didn't buy it. - Alex

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