Neurology, Experience, Age, and Re/reading
1. Last semester, I assigned the essay “Once More to the Lake” by E.B. White to my students. Most of them were not into it. I suggested that the author’s inner conflicts about change and aging might be more real to them when they are older; they were even less into that. I don’t blame them for being offended; it’s no good to be told we are too young to understand something. I’m not much older than them, so in my mind I was implicating myself in that, but even so.
2. When I was twenty, a much older friend told me that, at my age, I had to listen to Horses by Patti Smith. I did, a lot, and rarely do anymore. Around the same time, I read something in the New Yorker about how the author loved Sylvia Plath in her (or his? can’t remember) late teens/early twenties. I felt somehow offended. I never read much Plath, but I was reading a lot of Sexton at the time. I don’t read much Sexton anymore.
3. When I was 13, I tried reading Austen. I didn’t get very far. When I was 16, I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I liked it, but I don’t remember thinking it was very funny. That year, I also read Lolita up to the point of the motel sex scene, then quit. I don’t remember thinking the writing was particularly special. These days, I count Emma, Huckleberry Finn, and Lolita as top-favorite most-important-t0-me novels. The ones that delight me the most.
4. Last year, I went to a Leonard Cohen concert. I’ve always really liked his songs, especially the early ones. Birds on wires, Janis Joplin giving head and all that. The concert was by all definitions amazing. Technically perfect and highly charged. He kept falling to his knees or something. But I wasn’t moved as much as I would have liked. I kept thinking, he is old. He has accomplished so much, and here is the fruit of all that. A packed house. What more could he want. I believe that my failure to be moved had to do with not being able to comprehend what he still wanted, feared, needed, regretted after so many years and so much success without seeming to compromise. Sure, he must fear death and regret something, but I didn’t hear that in his singing.
This kind of thing is still happening to me. Does it happen to you? Are you offended yet, as I was and still probably would be if someone told me I’m just not ready for Cormac McCarthy yet, or that in time I will grow out of Frank O’Hara?
Research shows that our brain is still developing into our late twenties. What effect if any does that have on our taste in books? On how much delight we feel, or how much we “get it,” or when we are moved or not? Something in me resists it.
On the other hand, it’s comforting to think that there is something additive about aging. That we keep understanding more things. That an increased knowledge of and commerce with language and the world will further unblock us from art.
It isn’t too hard to see how learning and living more would have made me more receptive of Lolita at 25 than I was at 16. But what about 45 versus 35? Is there some endpoint where what books we are into hasn’t anything to do with our age but with what phase we’re in as far as our interests, the context of other things we’re reading and/or writing, how depressed or not depressed we are, if we like our job, what happens to matter to us right then, what fears are currently most salient, etc.? In other words, with factors that are independent of age, that go in cycles perhaps?
I’m interested in that, too, and how that works. Because I at least have some illusions of being this mind that is developed and that is independent of what’s going on in my life, my relationships, even my feelings, and that it is that independent mind that encounters art. Much evidence is to the contrary, but much isn’t. I very much doubt, even if I’m not in the “mood” to read them at a particular point, that I will ever be closed off entirely to the writers that are now most important to me: Dickens, Austen, Carson, Nabokov, Stevens. But on the other side of that, I fully expect to have more use for Cormac McCarthy and Kafka in future encounters.
I want to hear your anecdotia and theories about this, too. What have you reread that you once didn’t get much from, but now do? What is on your reread list in this vein? What did you used to read a lot of, that you don’t anymore? Why, do you think? Do you attribute your degree of openness to a particular work to age/brain development/more life experience, or to a life/reading/emotional phase, or both or neither?
I’m going to close this with a Patti Smith song from long after Horses, one that I (still) really like and that relates thematically to phases of reading, as you can tell from the title: “In My Blakean Year.” This is the studio version with pictures of her for video; the live versions are either bad sound or she talks annoyingly about William Blake for too long. Here: