Thursday, March 08, 2007

Revisiting Old Friends

(This was to have been two separate posts, but I saw a link between them and decided to stick them in the blender.)

One of my Christmas presents was Rereadings, edited by Anne Fadiman. When I initially heard about the book, I hadn’t paid sufficient attention to the “edited” part -- I was thinking that Fadiman had written it. The subtitle apparently hadn’t clued me in, either: “Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love.” So aside from the introduction, the book features none of Fadiman’s delicious writing.

Proceeding from that disappointment, I also discovered that reading essays about books I’ve never read is not especially resonant. I’m sure that says a lot about my own intellectual shallowness. The more familiar I was with the re-read book, the more I liked the essay. So, the ones on Pride and Prejudice and Franny and Zooey fascinated; those on Lord Jim and The Charterhouse of Parma . . . well, let’s just say I skimmed.

I don’t often re-read books. The time I have for reading is so limited now that I don’t want to devote any of it to familiar titles. This wasn’t always the case; when I was a teenager I read Sybil and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden about 10 times each. Books about insanity, it seems, nicely augmented my adolescent propensity for angst.

With Sean’s burgeoning interest in longer books, I think I’ll now get a chance to indulge in re-readings I’d never otherwise attempt. Fresh from our success with Winnie-the-Pooh, Sean and I just finished reading Charlotte’s Web.

I know it’s a classic, I know that anything I have to say about it is just a pointless drop of water in the sea. But . . . I’m still reeling from its magic, from its simultaneous simplicity and profundity. The story remains as touching and sorrowful and joyful as I recalled, but I don’t think I’d ever paid much attention to the writing itself. It astounded me, how prose so crisp and concise could evoke such transcendent images.

I was a little worried about how Sean would react to the threat of the ax throughout the story. I needn’t have been; he seemed concerned about Wilbur’s fate but not overly alarmed. When we got to the passage about Charlotte dying, I kept glancing at Sean’s face to see what feelings, if any, were registering. Did I see tears in his eyes, or was I just projecting my own emotions onto him? I’m still not sure. I do know that I had to wait a few minutes to collect myself before I could read this:

She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

(One quibble that this re-reading prompted: It seems to me that Fern’s transformation from an 8-year-old girl who saved Wilbur’s life and spent her summer perched on a stool in the barnyard to a boy-crazy preadolescent in the span of a few months was not quite credible. I know that this shift served to embellish the book’s theme of lifecycle changes, but I just don’t think that Fern would have abandoned Wilbur for Henry Fussy at his proudest moment. Not my Fern, anyway.)

I wonder how Sean will remember this, his first reading of Charlotte’s Web. I wonder how many times he will re-read the book, and what he will think of it with each iteration. For now, I’m just thrilled that each day for the past week I got to hear him ask, “Can we read more about Wilbur and Charlotte now?”