A life in letters is history repeated

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:45 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

THE BEACH — I had every intention of tackling “Infinite Jest,” the 1,000-plus-page masterwork by novelist David Foster Wallace this summer. The novel is the ultimate postmodern challenge to the avid reader: it’s very long and very complex with very serious and precise language.  I’ve made it through about 10 pages. I just couldn’t face the brain workout – my first year of graduate school has given it enough exercise.

I thought a retread of “Little Women” would be more my speed this summer. I am nothing if not a 5-year-old when it comes to books: I read my favorites over and over again, without remorse or boredom. And I love them every time. I am still upset every time, after all these years, that Jo March does not marry Teddy.

Nelson Mandela very famously wrote, “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” Now, Mandela was surely talking about things much more profound than my incessant need to reread my entire library, but there is something about going back to words and stories that are always the same. The books are unchanged, but I am altered.

And so, instead of venturing into the literary unknown, I am staying in deceptively safe and known waters. But just because the water is safe doesn’t mean there isn’t risk of drowning: I found myself more than upset to discover I couldn’t even finish Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” Holden Caulfield is a brat, and one who needs to take his meds, man up and learn to think in concise sentences.

And then, during a retreading of my all-time favorite book, “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving, I was almost disinterested in its narrative drive (usually the appeal of all Irving’s books), which gave interminable focus to political ranting about the Reagan administration.

And most recently, I have been sucked into A.S. Byatt’s Booker Prize winning book “Possession: A Romance.” This is one experience where I was not as appalled by my reaction. A deep satire of academia wrapped in a literary mystery and topped with a nerdy love story, I have found “Possession” to be funnier than I did before I entered graduate school. I guess spending my days immersed in research has changed my outlook more than I thought. And I am much more appreciative of the long passages of fictional Romantic-era poetry, having been through courses on Byron, Wordsworth and Coleridge.

I suppose this is growing up. The way we experience stories through the years is bound to change and morph. And there are delights to be had in rereading books. The structure of sentences and the choice of words become more interesting when a reader can focus better on them. The foreshadowing becomes painfully and wonderfully apparent — it gives me chills to recognize small hints to the plot once I know what is going to happen.

And more than that, I am reminded of my former self. Although I experience the novels differently now that I am older, I can always remember why I so loved the book in the first place. It’s like time travel; I pick up “Anne of Green Gables” and I am again eight years old, tall and accident-prone. When lost in “The Joy Luck Club,” I am 15 and contemplating my family history. I read “The Lovely Bones,” and I am 17, making my own definitions of home.

And this is the real appeal of rereading my library until the covers fall off. It crystallizes my life experiences, makes growing up more comprehensible: my books are my biography.


Erin K. O'Neill is an assistant director of photography for the Missourian and a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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