I remember reading an interview with Philip Roth some years back in which he bemoaned the passing of the fanatical reader — the true...
“Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love”
edited by Anne Fadiman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 244 pp., $20
I remember reading an interview with Philip Roth some years back in which he bemoaned the passing of the fanatical reader — the true bookworm who curls up every night for a good four-hour stretch of unadulterated, uninterrupted literary consumption. Clearly, Roth had never met or had forgotten about Anne Fadiman. The former editor of The American Scholar, Fadiman is the baby-boomer bookworm par excellence — our Charles Lamb, our Hazlitt, our Borges.
“Ex Libris,” a collection of essays about her life as a reader, was a tour de force of wit, confession, erudition and gentle crankiness. It was also extremely reassuring for the rest of us book fiends. How comforting that someone else suffered agonies at the prospect of merging her books with her spouse’s or harbored an “odd shelf” of volumes devoted to an eccentric obsession (Fadiman’s is Arctic exploration; Philip Larkin’s was spanking).
In her new book, “Rereadings,” Fadiman has invited 17 lucky fellow bibliophiles to share the covers. Their assignment was blissfully simple and, for a bookworm, simply blissful: Each was to choose a literary work (book, story, poem, even album cover) that made an “indelible impression” before the age of 25, read it again now, and write about it. The results, which originally appeared in The American Scholar, turned out to be less essays than memoirs in miniature “at whose heart,” writes Fadiman, “lay that most galvanic of topics, the evolving nature of love.” The best pieces are so good I wanted to buttonhole someone to read aloud favorite lines. Vijay Seshadri, an Indian-born poet and reviewer, describes teaching Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to Sarah Lawrence College freshmen a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
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How wary and incredulous these kids seemed when he read them the lines, “I am the mashed fireman with breast-bone broken … tumbling walls buried me in their debris,/Heat and smoke I inspired … I heard the yelling shouts of my comrades.”
Improvising wildly in the face of his students’ numb resistance, Seshadri declared that the poem reveals Whitman “not as the pantheist, the mystic, the sage, but as the Christian soldier setting out to harrow the underworld.”
Luc Sante revisits his sulky adolescent obsession with Rimbaud (“I wanted to be seen reading it,” he writes of Enid Starkie’s big dense Rimbaud biography. “I wore the book as much as I read it”) — and finally lays to rest the fantasy that he is Rimbaud’s incarnation.
“Quite beyond lacking his genius, I could never have been anything like him. As a teenager I was constructed entirely of doubt, most of it self-doubt, and I am not much different today.”
Seattle Times book critic Michael Upchurch recounts how a youthful infatuation with Christina Stead’s Depression-era banking epic “House of All Nations” led to his own stint at a New York financial printing company during the glittering, cocaine-dusted Reagan ’80s. Returning to Stead’s masterpiece two decades later, Upchurch is enthralled all over again, even though he has long since given up any hope of following in her footsteps. The novel, he concludes, still “catches me up passionately in a subject matter that, on the surface, I have no interest in as a reader and no talent for as a writer.”
A few of the gatherings are slight, forgettable or just plain odd. Arthur Krystal failed to persuade me that H.C. Witwer’s 1920s boxing novel “The Leather Pushers” was worth exhuming. Evelyn Toynton’s adult disappointment in finding that all the “elements” of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” are “equally lovely, and therefore equally inconsequential,” somehow misses both the magic and the repellent piety of this novel. Barbara Sjoholm’s rereading of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” in the Jukkasjärvi Ice Hotel in Arctic Scandinavia seemed a bit too contrived.
But these are quibbles. On balance, Fadiman has done such a fine job of selecting and arranging these pieces that they become a kind of a composite literary coming-of-age memoir — from the geeky, horny adolescent madly thumbing “Franny and Zooey” or “Lord Jim” in some shag-carpeted suburban bedroom to the sadder but wiser critic, novelist, poet who gazes wistfully at the ghost of a younger self rising from the pages of a once-loved book.
“As I read I indicted myself,” confesses Sven Birkerts, recollecting an unrequited teenage love that coincided with his first immersion in the feverish romance of Knut Hamsun’s “Pan.” “I had, in stages, without ever planning it, traded off that raw nerved-up avidness. We do not survive the dream of love, not at that pitch.”
Moments like this — and there are many of them — make “Rereadings” an absolute delight for those of us who live to read (and reread).
Seattle resident David Laskin’s most recent book is “The Children’s Blizzard.”