Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, March 12, 2009

asses and apostles

Twice in the past few years I’ve had an interesting experience as a reader. The first encounter was with Marilynne Robinson’s celebrated Gilead. I read the book soon after it came out, and liked it very much — but was not especially moved by it or taken with it. But then, in the weeks that followed, certain scenes from the book kept coming back to my mind. I had the increasingly strong feeling that there was more to the book than I had been able to discern. So eventually I sat down and read it again — and this time it bloomed in my mind. I got it. The full beauty and power of the book came home to me.

Similarly: several years ago I read Michael Chabon’s short novel The Final Solution and found it . . . well, just interesting. (Chabon is incapable of being less than interesting.) But recently, for some reason unknown to me, I began to feel that I hadn’t read it well, hadn’t gotten the most from it. So the other day I sat down and read it again — and this time I thought, Wow. What a fabulous little tour de force. What a surprisingly moving book, beneath the delightful gamesmanship of the conceit. (What that conceit is I’ll leave it to you to find out, if you haven't read the book. And if you do decide to read it, try your very best to avoid learning anything about it, even from the cover or the jacket.)

Anyway, I now have gained a great deal of pleasure from two books that would have meant little or nothing to me if I hadn’t re-read them. And I re-read them because I heeded a nagging feeling that as a reader I had not done them justice. Surely we fail books at least as often as they fail us. And as G. C. Lichtenberg said, “A book is a mirror: If an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to look out.”

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