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?