Books and the Seasons of Life

“Every book its reader” counts as one of the Laws of Library Science  and there is, I suppose a corollary, about reading the right things at the right time. Sometime in my 20s, I encountered advice that you probably won’t get much out of Henry James before 40. So I of course promptly tried one of the “tough” ones, maybe The Golden Bowl, grinding out after a few pages. Years later I read The Aspern Papers (because it had been made into an opera) loved it, and still do, and Washington Square (also adapted for the stage, with an astonishing Cherry Jones in the Catherine Sloper role), and that one has stayed with me too as pitch perfect.

So there are definitely novels and writers you grow into, and there are others you grow out of. This was brought home to me by reading a sharp piece by August Kleinzahler in the LRB on a new e. e. cummings biography.

E.E. Cummings is the sort of poet one loves at the age of 17 and finds unbearably mawkish and vacuous as an adult. But in the mid-20th century he was the most popular poet in the United States after Robert Frost, and from early in his career, among the most admired by writers and critics. It wasn’t just the usual modernist suspects like Pound, Williams, Stevens and Marianne Moore who sang his praises, but other, very different kinds of poet too: Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas, Octavio Paz, Louis Zukofsky and Charles Olson. As did any number of critics: Edmund Wilson, Harry Levin, Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Guy Davenport. Were all of them hornswoggled, taken in by the surface polish and acrobatics of Cummings’s style and, those who knew him, by his great personal charm, unable to register the paucity of content, limited range and shallowness of his work? The short answer is yes.


e.e. was pretty dear to me at 17, and even into college. But he fell off my radar and I didn’t know about his streak of anti-Semitism. There are some song settings of his works that are appealing, but the little balloon man is too far and wee, and sensibility somehow now seems twee, not sincere.

Hard on the heels of reading that I found a parallel bit on Tolkien in a book of Terry Prachett essays. He was smitten with Middle Earth at 13, and read Lord of the Rings every spring thereafter for quite a while. “I started with a book, and that led me to a library, and that led me everywhere.”
But he goes on,

“Do I still think, as I did then, that Tolkien was the greatest writer in the world? In the strict sense, no. You can think that at thirteen. If you still think it at fifty-three, something has gone wrong with your life. But sometimes things all come together at the right time in the right place–book, author, style, subject, and reader. The moment was magic.

And I went on reading; and, since if you read enough books you overflow, I eventually became a writer.


Start here, go anywhere. (Image from the DPLA).
Start here, go anywhere. (Image from the DPLA).

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