The Case for Rereading the High-School Classics
If the act of rereading a book is partly about remembering the you who paged through it the first time, and comparing that version of yourself to the one who's reading the book again, the classics that we read in high school offer endless possibilities for rediscovery.
If the act of rereading a book is partly about remembering the you who paged through it the first time, and comparing that version of yourself to the one dipping into that book again, the classics that we read in high school offer endless possibilities for rediscovery, for looking at ourselves then and now. That's part of what makes Kevin Smokler's new book, Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School, so much fun. His homages to 50 titles, including Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, The Bluest Eye, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and even The Scarlet Letter (he writes, "I don't like it either," but argues for rereading it nonetheless), offers a truly enjoyable trip down one's personal memory lane of books. It's also a love letter to the act of reading, to continual learning, and to making an effort to slow down and savor the good books in life.
Not all of the works Smokler writes about fall into the category of Y.A., or, for that matter, are even books (and his book, of course, is intended for grownups). There are William Shakespeare plays and Emily Dickinson poems and even the fantastic David Foster Wallace essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” Many of the books he reconsiders, for instance, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye, while not explicitly intended for teens by their authors, have been huge hits among that readership. The Phantom Tollbooth is widely considered a book for younger readers, and A Separate Peace and The Bell Jar—the latter of which a friend told him, “is for teenage girls what On the Road is for teenage boys”—are surely read most by people under 20. But more than whether the books are Y.A. or not, the idea of reading what you read then to know yourself better now is part of why I started the Y.A. for Grownups column in the first place. I wanted to reevaluate books I'd read as a kid with grownup eyes ... and I did that, but I also developed an appetite for new Y.A., and a desire to look at what it means to read those books in "reverse," as an adult. So, I was eager to talk to Smokler about his experience of rereading so many high school classics, and to find out what he gained in the process.
Learning that Neko Case kept The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in her guitar case because it reminded her of what she wanted to accomplish was part of what inspired Smokler to write his book. "I thought about that, that maybe there was something in these books I hadn't considered, maybe there was something beyond what I understood as a teen," he told me. "I thought, hell, if I want to take myself seriously, maybe I want to know where I came from, in a way that allows me to not only remember but also to move past my younger self." Part of the challenge and goal, too, was to see how these books might apply to adult lives. "Is The Great Gatsby useful when you've just moved for a new job and you don't know anyone?" for instance.
What he didn't know when he started to write, though, was that the book would put forth an argument for slowing down in these modern times. "The book doesn't tweet at you, it says, you have all the time you need," he explains. "That's a radical thing to say. I'm a complete glutton for arts and culture of all kinds, but the older I get the more I really want to have great meals that I savor, not constantly be popping M&Ms. I want to have the experiences in art and culture that last. These books are here for you, they will always be there for you. There's a tremendous amount of serenity in that."
Less serene at times was the experience of returning to a few of the books. "A couple of times going back was uncomfortable, like being in the skin of my 15-year-old self," he said. "I didn't get Pride and Prejudice at all as a 15-year-old boy. I remember saying to myself as a sophomore as I wrestled with that book that it would be 15 pages long if Elizabeth and Darcy would just be like, 'Do you want to go to the spring dance?'" Rereading it gave him a chance to find the humor in Austen. "I did some research and realized the guys from Monty Python had read Jane Austen, Charlie Chaplin had read it. She's the godmother of British comedy! This was a way for me to come to her work and not be objecting to the non-demonstrativeness of it."
His rereading of Catcher in the Rye struck him because he hadn't remembered Holden Caulfield had a dead younger brother. A look at Margaret Atwood's Surfacing reminded him of his high school, 40 miles from the Canadian border, where in the late '80s, "Margaret Atwood was everywhere," but he'd never picked up her work. Never having read it as teen, the deep sadness of The Great Gatsby struck him powerfully—"What a sense of life's finiteness and mortality; we can never get some things back. I just bawled."—and Carson McCullers impressed him yet again with what she had accomplished in her early twenties with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. As for Harper Lee's masterpiece, "When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, I thought it was a great courtroom drama, but the book is 80 or 90 pages old before Tom Robinson shows up. Atticus is basically a dad for the first 90 pages." Atticus was also the original title of the book, which Smokler considers a present of sorts for Lee's father, who gave her her first typewriter when she was a child. Hence, the title of Smokler's chapter on that book: "Why To Kill a Mockingbird Makes a Great Father's Day Gift."
He learned how much fun Pynchon was having with The Crying of Lot 49. And he realized that Emily Dickinson hasn't been "this frail little flower toiling away in her upstairs bedroom ... the truth was, Emily Dickinson was an ass-kicker. She was writing a poem a day, for 8 or 9 or 10 years at at time. Despite her reclusive tendencies, she lived fully and had commitment to her passions. I have such a respect for her."
On a more abstract level, the experiment got at the interaction of the art and the person consuming the art. We can't help but bring ourselves to the books we read, in ways large and small, and part of what we bring of ourselves to a book is an understanding of time and the culture in which we live, as well as what we've personally experienced. "The book is like a building and it changes over time. We enter it at different points in time. Maybe 80 percent is that we're different, but classics take on different meanings throughout time. The perception of the art changes," says Smokler. "The first experience with a book is the point on the map where you can see how far you've come, and maybe in a different way, it's who are you now," he explains. "How does it speak to you now? It's also that we have a very conflicted relationship with the past and nostalgia and things being gone thanks to the Internet, where 'we can't get that' or 'that's gone' are unfamiliar sentiments." We can't get back the people we were when we first read those books in high school, of course (and I don't know if any of us would want to), but casting back into the past by way of a book can be a pretty captivating way to remember.
If you're like me, reading this way-better-than-a-CliffsNotes of books will get you revved up to dig back into some old favorites and perhaps inspire you to pick up a few you never got around to (how is it possible I haven't read, for instance, Reservation Blues? I must remedy that now). Even if you don't get motivated to head to the bookstore, reading Smokler's book is a reward in itself, offering the opportunity to hang out with some old friends you may not have thought about in quite a while. Oh yes, I remember Cannery Row, you might think—I read it when I visited Monterey some years back, which at this point feels nearly like another lifetime ago. You can remember the first time you picked up Huck Finn, and what you thought about it then, and what you think about it now; who you were then, and how you've changed. The continuum of you is connected with the thread of reading. And there are so many books to read.
As Smokler, who for a year didn't read anything but the classics he writes of in this book, told me, "If anybody felt like this book was not an invitation to read more, I wouldn't feel I'd accomplished what I'd set out to do." But it won't be the chore it may have been in high school; after all, you can choose to do it for yourself this time. He added, "It's important to remember that it can be read out of order, in chunks as big or little as you want. I hope it says you have all the time you want to go back to the things you feel are important in the abstract or that you feel you missed. As we know from Gatsby, we can't have everything. Time will have its folly with all of us, but the lesson I took from the year I spent with these books is that we have more time than we think."