Thursday, April 21, 2022

The Dangers of Revisiting Foundational Books

Some friends and I were talking the other day about books that we have loved since childhood/youth, and the trepidation that comes with re-reading them as adults. 

What is they're not as good as you remember? What if--even worse--they're not very good at all? Is it better to just let them glow in your memory rather than risk tainting that warm, happy place in your heart that they hold? 

What do you think? 

Some books I have revisited and how it went: 

A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeline L'Engle. When I read this as a child, it was a game-changer for me. It was one of the first times I really saw myself in a protagonist. 

Meg wasn't pretty, perfect, sweet, or nice. But she was smart and fiercely loyal to those she loved. 

I read it again as an adult a couple of years ago, when my classics book club picked it. We tend to read a "children's classic" each December. 

Overall, it held up well. The witches are still wonderful, Meg is still grumpy and difficult and complicated, the Nothing is still terrifying, as are all those organized children bouncing balls in unison.

It was more overtly Christian than I had remembered, and that was a little off-putting, but otherwise, still good. I read it out loud to my teenager, who also really enjoyed it, so getting to share something that mattered to me with someone who matters to me was a nice bonus.

"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson was one of those moments when something I read in school really got to me. 

That didn't happen all that often. A lot of what I was asked to read in school was very safe, and kind of boring. 

But this short story was unnerving, disturbing, visceral and…I loved it. 

In fact, I fell in love with Shirley Jackson's work with that story and it led me to two of her novels in my school's library: The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. 

Both of those remain among my favorite books to this day and I have read them both several times. Obviously, I must think these hold up well if I keep going back. Jackson's characters are complex and dark. She really highlights the horror in ordinary situations. 

Here lately, I've been reading some of her other work, stories that aren't horror-adjacent, and they're amazing in similar ways. Jackson always leaves me thinking. 

Another author I loved in my younger years was Ray Bradbury. And, in some ways I still do. Such creative imagery, such imagination. 

Again and again, he has amazed me and filled me with wonder and delight, especially in his short stories. 

But, recently I read Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes

And, well…the women. 

Both of these books portray women with 1950s paternalism at best, with a pat on the head and a "sit over dear and don't worry your pretty head." 

At worst, it's outright misogyny. 

Mildred Montag, the wife of the main character in Fahrenheit 451, is a caricature of the most insulting nature…and yes, I'm aware that he's exaggerating on purpose to highlight how bad a world without books really can become. 

But no male character is portrayed with the same antipathy. No male character descends into such utter inanity. And plenty of other books from the same era (and even older!) do a better job with female characters, so I'm not giving him a pass for being an old guy either. Bradbury could have done better and should have. 

Clarisse, our most sympathetic female character, isn't much better. She is just shy of a manic pixie dream girl, only in the story as a catalyst to our male lead. In fact, after she inspires his insurrection, she is promptly killed off--practically fridged

Plus, she's seventeen, so there's a squick factor for me with the suggestion of romance between them. Reeks of those literary novels about aging professors who find their joy in life by screwing an undergrad. Yuck!

Gotta say, all that sailed over my head when I was a teenager, but it's much harder to see past now. 

Have you revisited any books that you loved in your youth? How did it go? Do they hold up? I'd love to hear about your experience in the comments! 

1 comment:

  1. It sucks to find out something you once enjoyed now pisses you off. I've had the experience more with tv than books, thanks to streaming services bringing back shows from the 90s. Granted, I was only an occasional watcher back then, but seeing some of it now, I question what I was thinking spending any time on some. And, oh look, the boom mic. There it is again. And again. What was going on back in the day that microphones were so often seen dangling down?