bookishness · it's all about me

Re-reading the modern classics (or not)

Being fifty-something, I decided a long time ago that life is too short to read books twice.

I figure there are so many books in the world, why would you bother re-reading one (or more) that you’ve already consumed? No good reason. With libraries, thrift shops, second-hand book stores,/markets/stalls, ebay and a plethora of free or cheap ebooks on the market, choice is everywhere and price is not the issue it used to be.

Despite all that (and against my better judgement) I recently found myself re-reading two modern classics.

As I predicted, it didn’t turn out well.

The first occasion was our (roughly) annual weekend-away with a group of friends. This year it was seven of us fifty- and sixty-somethings on a houseboat on the mighty Murray River for three nights and four glorious days.

A few weeks before the trip we’d been talking about how a new generation of teenagers was enjoying the delights of JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. We’d all read it (decades ago) but decided to re-read it in preparation for an intellectual discussion about the experience as we motored up the river. Our own little one-off book club meeting, if you like.

I duly purchased a uber cheap copy on ebay and got started. I didn’t get far. To this fifty-something, the prose felt like disjointed, self-indulgent  ravings. I recognised the main character, I knew what was going on, but it just didn’t connect at all with me this time round. Totally disappointing. I mean, The Catcher in the Rye is a watershed literary piece. Right?

I kept going, not wanting to let my fellow houseboaters down.

When it came time for book-club-on-the-boat, I discovered the others had had the same reaction. Several had not persevered to the end of the book, though everyone remembered enjoying the read first time round.

We concluded that reading is contextual – it all depends where you’re at in your life as to what satisfies your reading appetite.

I guess that’s no surprise. We just hadn’t banked on outgrowing The Catcher in the Rye. Getting old is a bitch.

Unfortunately, the book club wasn’t the only disaster that weekend … we also blew up the generator and crashed the houseboat. But that’s another story for another time.

Back to the books. The Catcher in the Rye had intrigued me. I decided to test the theory on another modern classic. I ordered a cheap copy of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and got started.

I’m several chapters in and it’s finally dawned on me that I have never actually read this book. I know about the conch shell, the sunburn, Ralph and Piggy and how the boys organise themselves to cope with their lot in a world without grownups.

I know it’s an allegory. I’m almost certain I’ve made jokes about “passing the conch shell”.

I have definitely participated in fairly intellectual conversations about this book and listed it amongst my all-time favourites (more than once).

But (now) I’m certain, I have never actually read the book. Until now.

I’m thinking I have absorbed those symbols and themes from reading stuff written about Lord of the Flies. Somehow, I’ve transferred that into my brain as having read the book itself.

Now I can’t help wondering how many other classics (modern and otherwise) I have ticked off in my head, without actually reading them. Do I need to revisit Bronte, Austen and Shakespeare?. What if I haven’t actually turned the pages of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd?

Does it matter?

No.

It does not.

I’ve decided (again) that life is too short.

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