Rereadings by Anne Fadiman


I love Anne Fadiman's writing. Her love of books spills out from the page and she frequently puts into words the things I have just thought. I am slowly working my way through Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love and while it does not have as much of her writing as I would like it is still very enjoyable. I particularly liked her introduction where she talked about reading a beloved book of her childhood aloud to her son.

Reading a favorite book to your child is one of the most pleasurable forms of rereading, provided the child's enthusiasm is equal to yours and thus gratifyingly validates your literary taste, your parental competence, and your own former self. Henry loved The Horse and His Boy, the tale of two children and two talking horses who gallop across an obstacle-fraught desert in hopes of averting the downfall of an imperiled kingdom that lies to the north. It's the most suspensful of the Narnia books, and Henry, who was at that poignant age when parents are still welcome at bedtime but glimpse their banishment on the horizon, begged me each night not to turn out the light just yet:  how about another page, and then how about another paragraph, and then, come on, how about just one more sentence? There was only one problem with this idyllic picture. As I read the book to Henry, I was thinking to myself that C.S. Lewis, not to put too fine a point on it, was a racist and sexist pig. 

What does one do when your much-loved book does not fit in with your grown-up, current-day values? How do you present it to your child? Fadiman started discussing the book with her son and this is what happened.

Henry shot me the sort of look he might have used had I dumped a pint of vinegar into a bowl of chocolate ice cream. And who could blame him? He didn't want to analyze, criticize, evaluate, or explicate the book. He didn't want to size it up or slow it down. He wanted exactly what I had wanted at eight; to find out if Shasta and Aravis would get to Archenland in time to warn King Lune that his castle was about to be attacked by evil Prince Rabadash and two hundred Calormene horsemen. "Mommy," he said fiercly, "can you just read?" 

Henry, like many children, immersed himself in the action, the adventure, the sheer excitement of the story. But when we reread we see things we missed before. Does that always change our love of the book? I'll let Fadiman answer.

Still, C.S. Lewis treated girls and Calormenes as inferiors, and I could not get that out of my mind. For a while, the knowledge of his small-mindedness wrestled uneasily with the pleasure I took in his book. By the time I closed the last page, however, I found that the pleasure, without conscious instruction from me though doubtless with some abetment by Henry, had clearly gotten the upper hand. The book's flaws were serious but the connection was too strong to sever. 
And why shouldn't it be? The same thing happens with our parents. They start out as gods, and then we learn that they committed adultery, or drank too much, or cheated on their taxes, or maybe they just looked awkward on the dance floor or went on too long when they told a story. But do we stop loving them?

 I have only read a couple of the other essays in the book and they are very good but I do wish I had an entire book of Fadiman's writing. If you haven't read Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader then go find a copy right now. It is a joy and a pleasure. I wrote a post about it here.

No comments