The never-changing, ever-changing nature of books

Not long ago, I found myself rereading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonimicon, and I was struck by how much the way I read the book had changed since the first time I read it several years ago. The first time I read it, I was in Japan after graduating from college, and what struck me most strongly was how similar the ways the modern day characters had conversations or narrated descriptive passages were to the way my own friends spoke. (The book switches between modern day and WWII era characters.) Given that I was across the world from all of them, it was comfortingly like being home.

This time, I read the book after having worked for the autism society bookstore for a year and a half. I still talk to my friends, but they live all over the country, and I haven’t been around all of them on a regular basis since before I went to Japan. Now, the focus of my perspective has been shifted by my experiences since then, which most notably recently includes reading stacks and stacks of books about people with autism. So what struck me this time? Just how accurate Stephenson’s descriptions of many of his WWII-era brilliant mathematicians are of individuals with high-functioning autism/Asperger’s Syndrome, even though he never calls it that. (Which is, I suppose, accurate in itself, because such diagnoses didn’t exist then.)

I’d noticed this phenomenon before, actually with another Stephenson book, Snow Crash. (Yes, I do read other authors, I swear.) When I read it the first time, I read it along with several other cyberpunk-ish books, in preparation for playing an RPG in a similar setting. I was highly focused on absorbing the atmosphere, the setting, the types of characters, and what I came away with was an overall cinematic impression. When I read it a second time, years later while in a linguistics-related grad school, I realized that there was a huge amount of the plot that focused specifically on linguistics and language theory, and how in the world could I have completely forgotten that or glossed over it? It was almost like reading two different books.

The rereading phenomenon is certainly not something I am unique in noticing. Anne Fadiman edited a book called Rereadings, for which seventeen different writers, from many genres, reread a favorite book from their childhood and wrote about how the experience differed this time through. (I think I would have appreciated that book more if more of the authors had read books I had even heard of, or possibly would have found interesting as a child/adolescent. So many of them seemed to have attachments to literature. What? None of them read Nancy Drew? Perhaps this is why I will never write for a famous magazine or newspaper or whatever. My literary tastes aren’t artistic enough.)

In thinking about some of the things I actually read as a child, I’ve found that the difference in experience is not always as pronounced as the examples I gave above. For a while, I read the third book in the Anne of Green Gables series, Anne of the Island, once a year, every year. I suppose my perspective on the love story has changed as I’ve gotten old enough to actually experience anything remotely similar, but the parts of the story I loved the most, the mental pictures I had of her living in the little house with her friends, remained the same.

On the other hand, sometimes reading childhood books from an adult perspective can be hilariously different, such as taking on Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins as an adult. This is especially good if you can get hold of the original versions, the ones that haven’t been updated for political correctness, because what those books can reveal about the prevailing mainstream attitudes of the times is quite interesting. Kind of like time capsules of the accepted prejudices of the 1930s-1950s. I actually have an original 1930s version of the first Nancy Drew, and a copy of the most recently updated version of it, and they are noticeably different, in both their social message, as well as the “updated,” or perhaps more accurately, downscaled, vocabulary.

The differences brought to light by rereading those latter books, though, is more due to increased awareness of societal changes, rather than a personal shift in focus. I still think it’s really interesting how much a few years of my life could shift my own perspective enough to make the reading of the same books almost entirely different. Has anyone else had this happen to them? With which book, and what was the perspective shift?

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7 Responses to The never-changing, ever-changing nature of books

  1. Matthew says:

    I’ve had some experience with this, especially as I try hard to go through a lot of books at my lousy job. There was one series I rather liked a lot as a little kid called the Three Investigators. A few pre-teens solved crimes working out of a secret base (a winnebago in a dump which only they knew how to access. At the time (for me anyway) that seemed like a perfectly acceptable secret base. Now as a Dad if I thought my child was crawling through tunnels in mountains of garbage to reach a submerged winnebago to carry on illicit private investigations I’d be a little more freaked out.

    What I found interesting though, is that I clearly remembered that their sponsor was Alfred Hitchcock, who had taken an interest in them, and like hearing about their cases. Yet, when I went and found newer copies, Alfred Hitchcock was simply gone, replaced with a fictional mystery author. Turns out legal complications (the Hitchcock estate wanted more money) necessitated the retroactive removal of Alfred Hitchcock from the entire series. I don’t know, that really bothered me. One, because I was an Alfred Hitchcock fan, two because it was my first taste of retroactively changing a series that had already been written. This was before Star Wars version 2.0 came out (the one with all of George Lucas’s ‘true’ visions) but I had a similar feeling about the three investigators, even though the dialogue was pretty much identical except for a Find and Replace. What was published is what was published, if you make a new version it should have a new name (like the moniker for Star Wars version 2.0 which was simply not the original movies, but I’m getting sidetracked). If something simply isn’t sellable in today’s market, take it out of print, don’t change it and sell it as the original.

    I’m also a big fan of 30s and 40s detective series, some notable examples include Nero Wolfe, Peter Wimsey, and Albert Campion. In all of these there are certain racial overtones at times, which I suppose is simply what was common at the time. One of the very early Peter Wimseys even had some ‘good’ characters saying a few anti-semetic things (though all of the jewish characters were ‘good guys’ in that particular book).

    Of the three series the Nero Wolfes let me get the best little snapshots of culture. First, because the author just didn’t stop writing. The man was a machine. He wrote straight without pause from the 1930s until he dropped dead from old in the 1970s publishing at least one or two books a year. Second, because the author was a man with what some might disparage as a liberal agenda (and I love him all the more for it). He was an outspoken opponent of Nazis, Mccarthyism, the FBI overstepping its legal powers (which seems suddenly more relevent today), racism (black people in his books tended to be three dimensional human beings – still pretty radical for mainstream popular fiction).

    The above are simply examples of cultural shifts though. I’ve got one personal book that has changed for me the most as I’ve grown – The Last Unicorn. I loved it as a fairy tale as a little kid, I loved it as a satire as a teenager, and I love it as a story about stories as an adult.

  2. TheGnat says:

    I think “The Lord of the Rings” books are that sort of rereading experience for me. When I first read them as a little kid, it was just an amazing epic. When I reread it when I heard they were making movies of it, I’d read a lot more other things, including a great deal of Christian literature throughout the ages. So I suddenly realized all of Tolkein’s Christian tones. (Admittedly, he isn’t even a fifth as heavy as C.S. Lewis!) After going through college and my linguisitics kick, when I reread it last year, that’s when I appreciated the sheer amount of effort, detail, and talent that went into his creation of languages. The languages he created are actually viable as living languages, unlike say, Klingon (which oddly enough, has become one, but it got bent quite a bit to make it viable). Oh, and all the fantasy I’ve read made me appreciate his lack of gratuitous umlattes.

  3. Dana says:

    Gnat,

    Interestingly, when I took a class on Tolkien and Lewis, the teacher had a great deal of biographical information on the two authors, and pointed out that they had a running debate about how much existing mythology, particularly Christian mythology, should be allowed into newly created works of fantasy. Lewis went to the extreme end in wanting to basically create an entirely allegorical world, because he thought the Christian mythos was one of the best stories ever told. Tolkien went the other way, believing that his world deserved its own myth system, as did the English public for whom he was writing. I have to admit, I’m much more in Tolkien’s camp than Lewis’s. Once I figured out Narnia was an allegorical tale, I didn’t read any further than the first book, because it felt like Lewis was trying to pull something over on me.

    (PS – It’s “umlaut”. Now I’m trying to imagine what an “umlatte” would taste like. What is the flavor of a punctuation latte? Hmmmm…)

  4. […] The never-changing, ever-changing nature of books, on how one’s perception of particular books can shift over time. […]

  5. TheGnat says:

    Yes, I’m aware of the debate. In spite of himself, I think Tolkein really did get some ideas from Christian mythos, albeit very loosely. It is certainly not an allegory! But there are some elements that I think can be looked at and the argument made that they are influenced by his religious background.

    I’m not in either of their camps though. What Tolkein did was incredible, and honestly, a work of pure genius as well as a great deal of research and talent in linguistics and mythology. It’s wonderful to encourage writers to create their own worlds and myths, but the truth of the matter is that most people simply do not have the ability to do it. Most writers by default will fall into Lewis’s camp by virtue of it being an extraordinarily difficult task to create a world as completely seperate from their literary canon as LotR was.

    I have yet to encounter an author since Tolkein that has matched his acheivement. Certainly, there are some talented world-builders out there, but all of them are building on the groundwork Tolkein and Lewis provided, or on what their predecessors built. And too often, the world-builders are terrible writers. By which I mean that they create a world, sometimes even a story that is complete and amazing, and then their characters are terrible.

    (Thanks. See, if “umlaut” weren’t a German loan-word, “umlatte” is probably how it would be spelled in French, which is my first language but I’m not literate in it. I think an umlatte would need to have a heavy flavor with just a little bit of kick and no aftertaste. Actually, it would probably taste alot like the Ginger Snap latte I had this week…….)

  6. Dana says:

    Gnat,

    I don’t deny that Tolkien did end up drawing from the sources he was familiar with. There’s a lot of evidence pointing to the Hobbits representing the English farmboys he knew while he was in WWI. And I bet a lot of his friends in his writing circle would have said that his insistence on everything being perfect and true to the world was a giant pain, because Lewis was certainly very prolific, and they occasionally had to lock Tolkien in a room until he just wrote something.

    I know what you mean about authors with good worlds and bad characters. *cough*RobertJordan*caugh* The most amazing world builder I’ve come across recently is Steven Erikson. He has an amazingly complex and rich world, spanning millenia, with heirarchies of gods and an original system of magic, plus well-written characters. The only problem some people seem to have with him is that they can’t tell where he’s going, and there are so many details that may at some point become important, it’s hard to keep them all straight, so they get frustrated or bored. It helps to be a fast reader. (I try to keep an open mind about people I know who don’t like his stuff, because I know some people who are quite incredulous that I hated Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.)

    (As for the umlatte, I think your idea of what it would taste like is better than mine, which was that it might be flavored with a dash of printer’s ink. That probably wouldn’t be very good, or very healthy. It probably doesn’t help that I have a very irritated history with umlauted vowels.)

  7. TheGnat says:

    Tolkein also spent 6 weeks researching a recipe for rabbit stew. There’s only one damn scene with rabbit stew in his books. He did take consistency a little far off into its logical extreme.

    I’m glad you mentioned R.J. I wasn’t going to say it, for fear of being strangled. The fans he has are…devoted. I’ll have to give Erikson a try. I don’t mind books I can’t tell the plot or philosophy of, since I’m well-versed in Japanese literature, most of which simply doesn’t go anywhere.

    (Umlauted vowels can be evil. I most often encounter them used gratituosly by fantasy novelists, some of whom are even professionals! Then there’s their use in MMOs to be able to use a name someone else has, thus rendering an impossible to type or pronounce name. I’m not sure if gratuitous use of umlauts is worse or better than pointless use of apostophes though *cough*AnneMcCaffrey*cough*)

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