During my tour of The Night Counter, I was often asked either “What writers have influenced you the most?’ or “Who are you favorite writers?” I have no
answer for the first because to say Gabriel Garcia Marquez influenced me is to say that I’ve made some conscious choice to use his style or tone in my own work, which I haven’t, nor would I be comfortable implying that by being influenced by him my work stands should-to-shoulder with his. I’ve been saying One Hundred Years of Solitude is my favorite book since I read it for the first time 20 years ago, long before I’d ever contemplated writing a book myself. I’ve said that based on that ‘wow’ feeling I had reading it. But in recent years, it seems like nearly every other person I meet mentions it as his or her favorite. My favorite book had become a favorite book cliché. I felt every time I said that people were thinking “well, she’s just taking her cue from Oprah.” I’ve taken my cue from Oprah on several occasions, but when she chose it for her book club, I didn’t pull it out again. I don’t tend to re-read a lot because I love reading so much and there is so much more for me to get to. But as my tour began, I started feeling like literary cheese mentioning One Hundred Years of Solitude.
It was a book I’d randomly picked up at a bookstore, nothing I had studied in school. When I read it then, I had barely ever had a job, hadn’t finished all my education, hadn’t been to the many places that did indeed influence me, and hadn’t met the many people who would yes, influence my life, for better or worse, hadn’t seen babies grow into adults, watched marriages end under a multitude of circumstances and new ones begin, and hadn’t watched global events change the dynamics of the world I lived in. It was also before the Internet, e-mail, cell phones, and so many other things that have affected our attention spans and the speed at which we get information, including fiction. Twenty years is a lifetime ago, let alone one hundred. And then there are all the other great books I’d read since then, although none ever seemed to roll off my tongue as easily when the word “favorite” comes up.
So I decided to read it for a second time, the first fiction book for grown ups I had done that with in almost as long as I can remember. I found my old copy and discovered my first revised reaction: I could no longer read without strain the small print like I had before. Rather than consider getting reading glasses, I purchased a new copy with bigger type and began reading. The first couple of pages sucked me in as before, but now I had more demands on my time, and so couldn’t devour books for the long periods I used to, and reading a book over several days or weeks is not the same as in two or three days. Nor was my memory as clear as before: The first time I read it, I didn’t have to keep referring to the family tree to keep the Aureliano Buendias and Jose Arcadios straight, but unlike before I realized, having had to name a large cast of characters in The Night Counter, the repetition of names symbolized the families repetition of life’s mistakes. The book is also paced at the pre-Internet speed, indeed at the speed of a small village in the middle of nowhere South America, a little slow for me now.
There were parts of the book that made my stomach churn in ways that it had not before, particularly what now seems an almost cavalier depiction of incest. On the other hand, although I had lived through war as a kid, I did not appreciate the truth in the cavalier way he treats the death tolls of war and plague as I did in this reading. And I had not battled insomnia to appreciate the humor in the village that no longer sleeps. Magical realism was not a word I was familiar with back then, but the mastery with which he wove it in is even more of a marvel to me today as a writer. I could go on but suffice to say it’s still a brilliant book, but parts of it strike me differently.
Would I still say it is my favorite book? It was still an undisputedly unique, original transportation into a tragically magical place, a clearly allegoric third world town, with obvious comparisons to South American but also the Middle East realities. (Qaddafi anyone?). But with time I’ve learned that when it comes to things and children, it’s best not to have a favorite soda, a favorite shade of lipstick, or as I’ve discovered a favorite book. Today it’s one of my favorites, along with Anna Karenina, Cry the Beloved Country, Pippi Longstocking and a host of contemporary novels.
Just like homes, maybe with books too, you just can’t quite go back, at least not the same way.
I’ve noticed similar things when re-reading favourites. The pages with the well-worn dog-ears still captivate me, but not all of them, and there are many new passages in unmarked pages where I think “how did I miss this?”
I also agree that the experience of a book is very much affected by the conditions that the book was read in. Books I’ve read on long summer vacations seem not to have that complete intoxicating immersion that had me spellbound the first time I read them, now that I have to sneak quick chapters here and there in between assignments.
Maybe you can’t go back to the same book, but I find that when a book has captivated you once, it will find other ways of holding you in thrall, if you give it the opportunity.