Some surprising lessons from three old friends.
A few months ago, I posted about a book-induced existential crisis I was experiencing. After having read a few of my favorite book blogger, Sally Allen’s, recent posts, as well as having turned to a page of a delightful free downloadable fill-in journal by artist Adam J. Kurtz that asked me (well, whoever is filling in the journal) the title of ten favorite books, I was at a loss.
I know my favorite book — that would be A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. For me, that book was literally love at first sight. I spotted a gorgeous hardcover copy with illustrations by Ethel Franklin Betts in a bookstore when I was eight years old. I had never heard of the book, but its physical presence alone completely captivated me. I already knew not to judge a book by its cover, but this was beyond me — this was Paris looking at Helen of Troy.
Fortunately, no cities burned, and instead, I found what’s remained my favorite book for three decades.
When asking myself what a favorite book is during that crisis a few months ago, I came to the conclusion that, for me, it’s not just a book I find marvelous and well-written; it’s also one I want to go back to. Put A Little Princess into my hands anytime, anyplace, and tell me it’s what I’m reading next, and I’m cool with it, even if that wasn’t the particular genre I was hankering for at the time.
Like its protagonist, Sara Crewe, I love and devour books. And yet, while I’ve read many that I’m fond of, or that have bowled me over, or made me cry, or made me think, or taught me something, none of them are as perfect to me as A Little Princess. Or, rather, as perfect for me. I know there are other books out there that are masterpieces. But nothing hits the spot for me quite like A Little Princess.
Still, when I was in high school, I remember making lists of my favorite books, a sort of way to define myself, I guess. Those lists have stayed with me, but I started to wonder if the books ever did qualify as favorites -after all, I’ve revisited so few of them in the years since then.
There are some that I don’t question, like a more recent entry: Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, or a longtime bedside book like The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Others, like Jane Eyre, are just so much of an influence on how I see life that I can’t disentangle them from the “Alysa-in-books”. But there were a few that gave me pause. Namely:
- The Secret Garden
- The Dark is Rising
- Tropic of Cancer
- Interview with the Vampire
Would they still strike me the same way they did back when I first read them?
I got distracted by several other books along the way, but as of tonight, I can say that I’ve re-read (or in one case, given up on) three of these “favorites”, and the results have been surprising.
(The fourth book, Interview with the Vampire, is sleeping in the dark depths of our storage unit, where I hope I’ll be able to venture soon.)
Do these three books still count as favorites? Here’s the verdict:
- The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden is the most famous book written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of my all-time favorite book, A Little Princess. It’s a well-known and beloved classic, and on rereading it, I still get that.
I was surprised by some of the gorgeous passages about nature and connecting with living things, as well as the harshness that Burnett sometimes showed in details like the neglect of Mary Lennox’s parents, as well as the way everyone in her great house in India was dead all around her, and she had no idea.
The book is something everyone should read or listen to at least once, I think. But I have to say that unlike Sara Crewe, Mary and her cousin Colin utterly irritated me. They’re not supposed to be nice children — that’s kind of the point. But as they became a bit nicer, I began to find them insufferable. I can handle reading about bratty kids. It’s often even kind of delightful. But they just ended up pretentious and oblivious and I did not come out of the book liking them. I also thought the ending was a bit too quick, nothing like the complex, slow-burning coincidence of A Little Princess’s denouement.
Overall, The Secret Garden is full of beauty and thought-provoking passages. I’m glad to have revisited it. But it doesn’t qualify as a favorite for me.
- The Dark is Rising
The titular volume of Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising Sequence, this is the second book in the series, but you don’t have to read the first one to understand it. There have been a few times in my life when I’ve brought this book somewhere with me, intending to re-read it and never getting around to it. Maybe that should have told me enough.
The book is stunning — beautiful writing, an absolutely magical, sometimes even chilling ambiance. You can feel the cold of the winter the book is set in, and hear the sounds Cooper describes: breaking ice, rushing rivers, horns of magical hunters, the caws of crows. It utterly transports you and is a book I’m very glad is in the world. I can understand why teenage me, who craved any sort of magic, adored it.
That being said, the book also struck me by being cold in another way. Its characters all feel like remote figures, even Will Stanton, the young protagonist that readers are supposed to(?) identify with. Most books have at least a few characters with memorable features or scenes or sayings — in this book, I can’t remember any but the most stand-out villains. Will takes so easily to this new world he was unknowingly born into, and maybe that’s the point; everyone here seems to have ancient knowledge already within them. But as a reader, I felt isolated and alone, floating down a raging river on a block of ice and watching everything from a distance.
Still, after reading the book, I could see picking up the others in the series again. But when it comes to what draws me to reading, this one doesn’t make the favorites. It’s a very beautiful thing, but I find no comfort in it. I find wonder, I find awe, but I don’t find a place I want to constantly go back to.
- Tropic of Cancer
This book was the one I was most certain would remain on my favorites list. After all, it’s got two things I love: fiery, passionate writing and an account of bohemian life in 1920’s/’30’s Paris. It’s also been a major influence on my life, a long-echoing rally cry.
But Tropic of Cancer ended up being the most surprising of these three revisited classics.
Nearly from the start, something was off. As much as I adored certain beautiful passages and interesting turns of phrase, something bothered me. Maybe it was the immature vulgarity. Not that I don’t like vulgarity, but it often seemed there just to provoke. That was part of it, in fact: as I continued on, it just seemed like so much of this book was Miller or maybe the narrator “acting up” or having a pissing contest with, like, the entire rest of the world.
Everyone is a target: fellow artists who are more successful than he is; wealthy people; minorities of all sorts; husbands whose wives he lusts after; people he doesn’t like the look of. There are similar books where the authors/narrators do have some rivals, of course, but many of these books also have a sense of camaraderie. In A Moveable Feast, for instance, you don’t get the sense of Hemingway hating his fellow bohemians in Paris who find success. Orwell is often disgusted by governments and people who do him wrong in Down and Out in Paris and London, but he also comes across people he appreciates and befriends. Kerouac has his loves and hates, but On the Road comes out sparkling, radiant.
That’s how I remember Tropic of Cancer. Instead, I found a man who seems to have something to prove on every page. He’s the best at fucking women. He’s the best writer. He deserves to stay in a pristine apartment. He should steal this successful playwright’s wife.
This, and his constant insistence on being sexual, ended up making my skin crawl. Don’t get me wrong — at times, I got it. I get what Miller means about getting erections from statues. I get desire and frustration. But it just seemed like he was being a show-off, and not even in a gorgeous, artful, sexy way.
…And yes, I get that that was sort of the point: to show the ugliness and vulgarity of the world. But after about 50 pages, that didn’t seem totally convincing. It seemed like an excuse.
I first read Tropic of Cancer when I was sixteen. It’s a book that has helped me immeasurably, a voice that reached through the decades and told me that even if I was poor, I could do it, I could get to Paris. I could live there and it would be worth it. I will forever be grateful to Miller and the other voices that echoed this to me down from the past, as well.
But I don’t know why his remained the strongest one.
In the decades since I first read Miller, I’ve grown up. I’ve met Henry Miller — or the narrator (the book is supposed to be a mix of fact and fiction) many times — and I’ve never liked him. These men might sometimes be brilliant and talented, but they always have something to prove. Anger radiates from them. There’s something dark and it clasps at you and gropes you and tries to drag you down with them. These are men who leer at you, or who sleep with you but call you ugly. These are men who make double entendres thinking you don’t understand. These are men who rail against anyone who has any success, who put out obscene work and expect that that’s all it takes to be remarkable. I’m a foul-mouthed, filth-reading woman who can get turned on by a statue, too, if the mood takes me. But the thing is, I don’t think that’s enough.
I think a writer should reach out and do more than just grope someone. Maybe tickle them sometimes, maybe pat their shoulder with a comforting hand, maybe just hold their hand. In the end, the obscene story that’s stayed with me from my literary heroes of that time is the one about Hemingway showing Fitzgerald the penises on the statues in the Louvre to prove that his own isn’t too small, despite what Zelda has been telling him. It’s a story that’s weird, highly personal, hilarious, and humane.
I never thought I’d prefer Hemingway to more purple prose, but here we are. I don’t want love or lust or fascination or flirtation or exaltation based on anger and disgust. I want all of that based on curiosity, kindness, connection, pure, white-burning passion.
Tropic of Cancer will always be a part of me. It’s part of why I knew I could live in Paris. It’s part of a dream that was so strong, I followed it. But the book itself is lost to me. At times, I found it laughable. I’m glad it exists, and I respect its place in history and in my history. But it’s not a favorite of mine anymore.
Revisiting these books has been an interesting experience — and every one of them has surprised me in some way. But as I’ve found that none come close to how I feel about A Little Princess, I’ve also realized that this whole crisis is stupid. Why was I interpreting that page in the Adam J. Kurtz journal so literally? Why couldn’t I have, for instance, simply jotted down my 10 favorite books I’ve read in the past year?
The biggest takeaway from re-reading these classics has been one of change. Maybe I can apply that to more than just my taste in books. There are rules I’ve followed in my life that have made my life less than ideal, instead of making it my favorite story. So why not challenge them? Why not bend them, or simply refuse them? It’s time to turn the page.