You can’t step into the same river twice… but what about books?

A few weeks ago, in response to my post about book covers, a fellow blogger linked me to this fantastic cover of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.  Every decade or so this book tends to find its way back into my mind and back into my hands, and linking me this image did just that, and a couple of weeks ago I reread the book.

I first read this book in college in a  class titled “Science and Literature, a joint effort of the English, Physics, and Biology departments, taught by multiple professors. I was a physics major with a Literature minor, and this class seemed to merge my interests seamlessly. We had finished a series of lectures on thermodynamics, and of course, my favorite, Maxwell’s Demon (that little imaginary guy that can stop a closed system from become entropic), then were assigned Pynchon’s novel.  I read it in day, then reread it again the next day, since I wasn’t sure about what I had just read at all. After I closed the book for a second time, I remember thinking that for such a small book, it sure packed one hell of a punch.

At the time it was a book that spoke to both my love of science and words. It was playful yet insightful, it included my guilty pleasure (lots of conspiracy theories… did the Tristero actually exist?), and it spoke to some universal truths about trying to stop our lives from becoming entropic, and about our constant struggle to separate real information from all the “noise” around us. In short, it was the right book at the right time.

So a couple of weeks ago I contentedly reread the words that had elicited such a powerful reaction from me so many years ago, yet, when I put the book down, I felt, I don’t know, different. It was not as powerful as I had remembered, and the story now seemed thinner, with far less substance. Then Ken borrowed and read the book, and upon returning it to me he asked what it was about the book that I liked so much. I found myself answering with one word, nostalgia. The book was a signpost in my life, it represented some aspect of who I was at 19. But I’m clearly not 19 anymore, I’ve experienced 20 years of life between then and now, and I began to realize, that the book had changed. Not the text, but what I brought to the text, and that, as Eco would undoubtedly agree, fundamentally changed my reading of the book.

Then last week I wrote about Byron. Here a similar but reverse thing had happened. When I first encountered Byron in high school, I thought he was trite, superficial, and clichéd. But it wasn’t Byron that was lacking, it was my lack of experience. I had nothing to reference. I had not loved nor lost love yet. How could I possible “feel” Byron without a life full of experience to bring to the reading? In the case of the poetry of Lord Byron, it was the wrong text at the wrong time, and it took a lot of living on my part to make it the right text for me. Once again, what I brought to the reading changed my experience of it.

Now just a few days ago, I read this article announcing that Jack Kerouac’s “lost” first novel, The Sea is My Brother, was about to be released. The next day, another blogger posted this, where he said that he probably won’t read it, that Kerouac exists in the past for him, and I thought, is he right?

There was a time when I lived and breathed the Beats.  from Kerouac and Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti, to Corso, McClure, and Burroughs… all of them. I immersed myself in them and their lifestyle to such an extent, that I even began to write a book about them (an excuse to lose myself in their more intimate, personal material… letters, diaries, drawings). I got nearly 200 pages into the book before I stopped. I suppose that at the time I was using their lives more as an example then a cautionary tale (that would come later), and I just never finished it. Be that as it may, the Beats occupy a very important place in my personal history with books, and I’m afraid of attempting to step into that river twice. I share Chaz’s hesitation to read this new (well, old) novel, in the fear that it will change what he and the rest of them signify to me, I almost rather leave them untouched, frozen in time, where they are.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote,

This book will perhaps be understood only by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it – or similar thoughts. It is therefore not a text book. Its purpose would be achieved if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it gave pleasure.

and he’s absolutely correct. Books are experienced in light of what we bring to them, and our experiences of our texts are constantly reformed… as we change, so do they. Sometime for the better, as with Byron, and sometimes I suppose it’s better to leave the books where we first experienced them, our memory of them unmarred by the passage of time. This, however, should never stop us from enjoying all that books have to offer.  As Eco writes,

The “reader” is excited by the new freedom of the work, by its infinite potential for proliferation, by its inner wealth and the unconscious projections that it inspires. The canvas itself invites him not to avoid causal connection and the temptations of univocality, and to commit himself to an exchange rich in unforeseeable discoveries.

14 thoughts on “You can’t step into the same river twice… but what about books?

  1. Love it! It’s a ‘dangerous’ thing to do – step in that same river twice. I remember several years ago I thought I’d revisit some of my favorite Antonioni from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, all of which I remember having loved. It turned out to be a mixed bag. Zabriskie Point was an embarrassment. Blow-Up did not nearly live up to how I remembered it. Only The Passenger still moved and unsettled me.

    I still read Ferlinghetti from time to time and although some of the politics are certainly outdated, there are other poems that are timeless, not anchored to a time and place. I still quote as much as possible this line: “I once started out to walk around the world, but ended up in Brooklyn. That bridge was too much for me.” Kills me everytime..

    Nice post, Kris

    • Thanks a lot! It’s funny…some works are absolutely timeless, like some pieces of music. Others are so inextricably tied to a specific time and place that it’s almost impossible to truly experience them in the here and now.

      Great quote, by the way. One of my favorites.

  2. This post is so applicable to any serious, lifelong reader. Over the years we accumulate a longer and longer list of memorable reads, some of which remain imperative to our current philosophies and follow us as mutable individuals over time and others which remain important merely for the nostalgic value, rooted in one time and place. I read “The Great Gatsby” in high school and it resonated deeply with me. I was fascinated by the enigma of Jay Gatsby, and the shallow, unthinking cruelty of Daisy. And though I return again and again to the book, and it still means a lot to me, it always falls short of that first experience and almost saddens me to read. Perhaps in that instance, I shouldn’t have stepped into the same river again.

    • Thanks for the insightful reply. I wonder what it is that allows some texts to become those “mutable individuals” while others remain so firmly fixed to a specific time in our lives…

  3. So sorry that the Crying of Lot 49 didn’t hold up for you. I’ve read it twice and the second time was in the last few months. It’s a strange novel that definitely has multiple layers. Perhaps, you are right when thinking about it as book that is right or wrong for a certain point in your life. But I certainly enjoyed it more in my second go-through.

    • Its interesting with COL49… its not that I didn’t like it, I did, very much, but it just seemed to lose a bit of its “power.” But that being said, last night I had a long conversation about it with the same person who didn’t much like it the first time around, and I found myself defending it, and feeling thrilled when he said he might give it another go. Its truly a strange relationship we have with these stories…

  4. It is always fascinating to me what the right book at the right time can do. I am always wary about rereading old favorites. I don’t dare reread anything from childhood. There are books I have read as an adult that I didn’t enjoy but thought, now if I had read this when I was 20 I would have loved it. Likewise there are books I read when I was younger that I didn’t like at all and I have ventured to reread and completely fallen in love with them or at the very least enjoy them. There are a few books though that I can reread more than once and like them more each time.

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  6. This is exactly the reason why I re-read books, or re-watch movies or repeat perform certain musical pieces…I never experience them the same way twice. I often prefer familiar, well-loved selections because I’m free to delve deeply because of my familiarity with the surface bits. Similarly, as a young musician I never cared for either Mozart or Beethoven…they were either too trite or too dark and dramatic. I remember saying to my teacher, “I haven’t experienced enough sorrow to play Beethoven adequately…I need to wait a few years.” Even Horowitz comments on this experience…that when he returned to a piece later in life, he not only heard and played a different piece, he could no longer relate to his early, young performance at all. How marvelous it is that life is never stagnant!

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  10. I am so impressed that you respond to so many comments, and thoughtfully too. Don’t think I could manage that, but maybe I’ll find out soon enough. Your Byron post was very good. This one may surpass it. I’m glad there’s no need to choose … it’s better to have both to savor.

    Now, what do you do when you outgrow (or discover the pitfalls) of a youthful enthusiasm? I was an avid Vonnegut reader as a teen, but haven’t been drawn to him since. Yet some early passions only grow deeper with time. And new discoveries are as welcome as ever.

    Over the past year, I’ve been hot on the trail of Geraldine Brooks – everything from her non-fiction “Nine Parts of Desire” to her latest historical novel, “Caleb’s Crossing.” What discoveries did you make after the Beats wore out their welcome, and what have you relished lately?

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