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The Important Experience of Rereading Books January 27, 2018

Posted by andrewfieldlibrarian in Uncategorized.
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Crime and Punishment (Pevear / Volokhonsky Translation)

While it’s probably a truism that books don’t change, we do, I’ve been experiencing that in a weird and interesting way as I read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  I read the book when I was an undergraduate, and to this day my memory of reading the book is bound up with the place where I read it, a coffeehouse in Ann Arbor, where I sat in the back at a large table and became immersed in the book.  I remember the coffee smell of the place and the hard wooden table, I remember the cover of the book, and I remember being fascinated by the character of Raskolnikov, but that’s about it.  Our memories are so idiosyncratic and sometimes unreliable, though it seems so strange that I would forget pretty much the entire book, whole plot elements and groups of characters.

But recently, in preparation for a book club I’m hoping to start this summer on the classics, I bought a copy of Crime and Punishment (since I work at a library I rarely buy books now, though I wanted to mark up my copy), and I’m starting to wonder, in a weird way, how I read the book, meaning did I just hurry through it?  Did I savor the characterizations, the manic and frenzied energy, the strange oscillation between horror and laughter?  Why don’t I remember more of it?  What did I read?  I’m also taken aback by this fact because there is so much to think about and remember about the book, and I wonder how or why I wasn’t as sensitive to this.  I wonder that if I were to have been more sensitive to Raskolnikov’s guilt, more empathetic to Marmeladov’s suffering, but also more horrified by Raskolnivkov’s murders and plight, I would have remembered more.

I had an interesting experience as an undergraduate in a creative writing class that I think could shed some light on this conundrum.  I had a great teacher, who was very incisive and penetrating in his comments on our stories, and I remember I wrote a story that had to do with the fraternity where I was living then, and the debauched life that came then with living in the fraternity (the drinking, the uncleanliness, etc.).  I wrote a story that looked upon this material as comic, and I remember the class seemed to like it and let me know during the workshop that they thought it was funny.  But when I met with my creative writing teacher, he said something that made me pause and rethink the whole piece, and in doing so, pretty much rethink my life.  And what he said was something along the lines of, “What about the more tragic elements of this lifestyle in the story?  Aspects that are not funny but are more sad, even depressing?  Have you thought about that?”  And I hadn’t!  And I came away with a shock from the meeting – I felt suddenly more self-aware, and a bit nauseated by the callow lifestyle I had been leading.  It was an about-face, a turn-around, and it left me with a different, better, more humane and human perspective.

When I read Crime and Punishment for the first time I was still living the debauched fraternity life, and it never occurred to me that my life could affect how I perceived the book.  But I wonder if I read it somewhat superficially (and again, I wonder – how can you read Dostoevsky superficially?  He almost compels your attention, it’s that good), and that I didn’t take in certain elements because that wasn’t where my mind and heart were.

Flash forward more than a decade, and the book is a revelation.  It’s terrifying and sad and tragic and funny, all sometimes on one page, and I’m so happy to be reading it.  But the truism does hold true – the book hasn’t changed.  It’s the same translation, the same words, the same plot, the same characters.  But I’ve changed.  I’ve grown older, and hopefully less superficial, and I’m taking more of the novel in and appreciating it.  Sometimes rereading a book can have that effect on you – it calls attention to where you were at during your first reading, and reflects back to you how far you’ve come.  It’s a kind of mirror, where you can look at your old readings and, in a healthy and productive way, question your beliefs and values – it facilitates the process of self-examination.  And since, as Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” rereading books is a necessity.

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Dostoevsky

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Classy Classics! June 4, 2014

Posted by stacey in Book Discussion, Book List, Genre Book Discussion.
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As I may have mentioned last time at the end of Debut Novels, it’s hard to define Classics, so I wasn’t surprised when there was such a wide range of titles at our discussion. I enjoyed hearing why people picked their books and their current impressions on these stories that have been around for decades. Are you ready to hear what everyone had to say about the titles they selected? Then, here we go:

Chris: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion is a compilation of her classic essays on Californians, New Yorkers, politics, and just the everyday. Her title essay takes us to Haight Ashbury in San Francisco in the 60s, 1967 to be exact. Missing children were gathering and calling themselves “hippies.” It was a time of drugs, Day-Glo paint, free love and when guys called their girlfriends their “old ladies.” Everyone was blissed out. Janis Joplin, the Krishnas and the police were all hanging out in Golden Gate Park—It was the Summer of Love. Didion captures the chaos perfectly.

Emma: Winesburg, Ohio was written by Sherwood Anderson in 1919. It is a collection of 23 short chapters based on individuals who lived in or near Winesburg. These individuals were acquaintances of newspaper reporter George Willard, and he relates their stories. No one seems to have a happy easy life in this little town. Sherwood Anderson was considered a major influence on the younger generation of writers in his time. He used his influence to help get the first books of both Faulkner and Hemingway published.

Steve: The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton, is a marvelous story about the complexities of teen identity and what’s important in life. It finds two gangs, the Greasers and Socials, constantly fighting, and it is with in this environment that the story of Ponyboy Curtis and his brothers and friends unfolds. When a situation with the Socials gets out of hand, Ponyboy and his friend Johnny go into hiding and find things will never be the same.

Megan: The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is a YA class that was once described as “Watergate at the high school level.” Trinity High School has an ambitious new headmaster who conspires with the leader of a no-so-secret student organization called the Vigils in order to sell a record number of chocolates for the school. The Vigils are known for assigning cruel pranks and practical jokes to selected student. No one is exempt and the consequences for refusing an assignment are devastating. When the Vigils require a freshman to refuse to participate in the chocolate sale, the aftermath of the prank are shocking and brutally violent. This dark novel addresses themes of authority, pack mentality, and conformity. Forty years after it was published this book continues to be relevant today, despite being one of the most challenged.

Carol: The Sun Also Rises is the classic novel written by American author Ernest Hemingway. The characters are based on real people from Hemingway’s circle, and the action is Hemingway’s trip to Spain in 1925. On the surface, this is a story about protagonist Jake Barnes—a man whose war wound has made him impotent. He’s deeply in love and heartbroken by the promiscuous divorcée Lady Brett Ashley who leaves a collection of discarded suitors in her wake. Thematically, this novel is said to have captured the angst of the age and the disillusionment and frustrations felt by an entire generation after World War I.

Dori: In Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, the main character is Money, specifically the Rosewater fortune, a fortune earned by shady means. The current scion of the Rosewater Foundation, Eliot, was raised in luxury, but after his service in World War II, he’s a changed man; he now wants to give his money away and help those in need. Moving back to the family home in Indiana, he starts a crisis help line, joins the volunteer fire department and doles out money and advice to the folks there. Meanwhile, the firm overseeing the Foundation has hired a lawyer who wants to have Eliot declared insane and a distant relative made head of the Foundation. A satirical look at the greed and hypocrisy of American capitalism, this classic by Vonnegut is laugh-out-loud funny, insightful and full of the author’s trademark prose and humanity.

Lauren:  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. We meet Francie Nolan at age 11 in 1912 in Brooklyn, New York and she guides us through her world using her own observations on the neighborhood, the Nolan family, Francie’s education, and the family’s almost constant struggle with poverty. This book is delightfully intimate, as we’re privy to Francie’s thoughts and feelings about everything that happens to her, about her alcoholic father whom she cannot help but fiercely love and the difficulty she faces in knowing her brother is her mother’s favorite child. We are with Francie as she grows into a young woman and begins to earn a living while doggedly pursuing her education and weathering her first experiences with love and heartbreak. Set 100 years ago and written over 70 years ago, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn persists in captivating the reader today, not unlike its namesake tree.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Maureen: Published in 1951, Fahrenheit 451 is the story of Guy Montag, a “fireman” in a new type of dystopian future where books as we know them are illegal and those found harboring them have their homes burned to the ground. Montag, who starts off complacent about the situation, soon finds his entire world turned upside down after meeting Clarisse McClellan, a 17 year-old self-proclaimed “oddball” who still likes to have real conversations with people, observe the natural world around her, and have her own original thoughts about things. After Clarisse disappears, Montag begins to more closely examine the world he lives in where entertainment is dictated by the powers that be, everyone robotically moves through their existence and those that choose to be free-thinkers are eliminated. When he decides to begin saving books despite the fact he is employed to destroy them, Montag’s world is pushed to the brink. Definitely thought-provoking!

Stacey: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh is a children’s book published in the early 1960s and has been in print ever since! Harriet M. Welsh is twelve and full of energy. When she comes home from school, she gets a slice of cake and milk before she sets out on her spy route where is writes down her daily observations on the same people. She also takes notes on her impressions of her friends, and sometimes these notes might be too honest. When Harriet’s notebook is read by her classmates, she’s in trouble for sure. This is the kind of book I find to be a comfort read -meaning it’s simply about how this young girl sees her world and it’s got illustrations and there’s a gentle little life lesson to boot.

And next time? We’ll be listen intently -to audio books! Feel free to pick any book you want but challenge yourself by listening -not reading- to the story! You can choose whatever format you’d like -books on cd, a Playaway, or download the book onto any compatible device. Why not listen while you talk a walk or working in or outside the house? Heck, that’s what I like to call a win/win!

— Stacey