Recently, I re-read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, following a re-read of the entire Harry Potter series. I guess you could say I’ve been in a nostalgic state, lately, and that mood has been manifesting itself in my reading choices. Much of what I’ve been choosing to read lately, aside from what I need to be reading for my work, has been books that I really connected with years ago or books with topics I’m very personally passionate about right now (writing, social justice, and religious studies).
Over the years, many books have influenced me in one way or another, whether it be in the way I read, in the way I treat people or the environment, or in the way I approach social, philosophical, religious, or educational ideas. One that I often think about, though, is a book that has had a profound impact on me as a person, not just as a reader: Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The “why?” to this question is a bit difficult to answer. The relationship between Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, who suffered from schizophrenia (or bipolar disorder, there is some debate) and who was ultimately institutionalized, was the inspiration for the story. The main characters, Dick and Nicole Diver, are imprints of Francis and Zelda.
In my own life, a long time ago, I was mired in a similarly turbulent relationship. It was an experience which changed me immensely, for good and bad. For a long time during and after that relationship, I suffered from feelings of blame, remorse, and self-doubt; but, fortuitously, just as I was beginning to move forward, I stumbled across Tender is the Night. The story was so close to my heart, so similar, and so inspirational (not in-and-of itself, but to one with a similar history), that it truly connected me to my pain and allowed me to begin the healing process. It was one of a few distinct moments in my life when I realized that literature really does have the power to influence people, permanently.
Thinking about this has led me to consider, again, what brought me so passionately close to literature. What turned me into not just a reader, but a reader of this certain type?
It is difficult for me to pinpoint a single defining moment when I suddenly made a change, or became changed, in my habits, my attitudes, or what have you. There is a distinct difference, I think, between being a “reader” and being “literary.” So, where did I “turn the page”?
When I was young, I certainly was not a reader. My family is probably still surprised that reading has become such an enormous part of my life. Had you asked any of them, even as I started college, what they thought of my eventually studying English and Literature in college and at the graduate level, and then teaching it professionally, they would probably have been rather baffled.
I was the “analytic” of the family, destined to be a lawyer or a doctor. I rarely read for pleasure as a child, aside from some Goosebumps and Hardy Boys books, now and again. In middle school, I was introduced to some books that began to needle at me, forcing me to look at reading as something fun and worthwhile. I distinctly remember reading The Giver and And Then There Were None in seventh grade, and I was shocked to have been so moved (by The Giver) and so entertained (by And Then There Were None).
Did I run out, right then and there, to start buying books and reading more? No. But I was a bit more amenable to the idea. Similar experiences happened in high school, with books like Kaffir Boy, Lord of the Flies, and Of Mice and Men. The reading-level went up, and so did my enjoyment of the experience. I started to learn how to evaluate plot and structure, how to appreciate a good message, and how to look for story elements like themes, motifs, setting, and characterization. I even (naively) began to believe I could recognize what made a “good” story.
And then Harry Potter came along. Suddenly, going into college, I was reading all the time. I devoured the first few Harry Potter books (at this point well below my reading level, but so fresh, so well-written and interesting, they couldn’t help but pique my need for even more good books). I took the “required” English courses for all students (I was, at the time, a Biology/pre-Med student) and then, on a whim, took an extra elective outside of the “Freshman Composition” realm – in American literature.
When I hit my junior year in college, I was introduced to writers like Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and the Brontes. That was it for me. The Harry Potter books kept coming out, and I was always first in line at the midnight releases; but now, while waiting for these books, I found myself visiting the Literature section of the book store as well, picking out books like Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea to supplement my J.K. Rowling. I was having so much fun that, by senior year of college, most of my small apartment bedroom had turned into book storage, and I had changed my major to English. I can’t help but smile at this, today especially, as I prepare to attend tonight’s midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I imagine I’ll also probably pick up some Virginia Woolf or Stephen King while I’m there at the bookstore counting down the hours with all the other fans, young and old. Some things never change.
So for me, “going literary” was somehow a slow and an instantaneous process. It feels like I went, overnight, from becoming someone who reads only what is required for class, to one of those obsessive junkies who, when reading one book, writes down every other author or book referenced in that book so that I can go out and read those, too. Indeed, this was a vicious cycle I was trapped in for a while, always trying to connect the dots between books and their influences, and those influences’ influences, and on and on.
I would have to say, the final turning-point was probably when I read The Mayor of Casterbridge for a senior-level English Literature class. I remember thinking, upon finishing: Well, Mr. Hardy, you’ve gone and done it. I am now hopelessly devoted to literature – and you’re to blame for this!
It’s nice to think about this journey, sometimes; it’s nice to reassess, from another vantage point in time, how I’ve become who I am. This is just one aspect of my self, of course, but it’s an important one. This last year, I stepped away from blogging and reviewing and much of the social media world in general, but I don’t think I could ever go away completely. I daydream about pulling the plug, but this space represents so much of who I am, influenced who I would become, and allowed me to go deeper and deeper into my own literary quest. Still, somewhere along that road, I detoured. I let the wrong things, the wrong goals and motives, take over. I lost who I was and what I had been trying to do all along.
If re-reading Catcher in the Rye has convinced me of anything, other than that I still adore that book and have been reminded, again, that each experience with a great book can reveal new things, it’s that it’s time for me to get back to taking my reading seriously, and to get back to the blog. But I want to do it “the right way” this time, by which I mean, the right way for me in this current phase of my life.
I imagine it’s going to be a very slow and painful process. But why should it be anything else?
Thank you for sharing this post. I too am more of a reader now than I was in my youth.
I love hearing how people changed their major or their career trajectory based on a class they took on a whim to fulfill an elective (or even a required class they were none too happy about).
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