Preface: I don’t like re-reading books. Some people do. As I get older, I feel like I read better, which lends weight to something I read by Peter Brown, who, writing about Augustine of Hippo included a quote by Proust: “No one can truly understand a book, Proust has said, unless he has already been able to ‘allow the equivalents to ripen slowly in his own heart.’” The more I read, the more I notice which is a cause of delight and occasional discouragement. I’m aspiring. The aspiration is a gift and nourishing it is the responsibility. When I look back and worry that I didn’t properly absorb a book, I have to forgive myself, first because I find re-reading boring, and second because I have to trust that it was useful in getting me forward. There is no other way to appreciate literature than to keep reading.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I distinctly remember buying my own copy in elementary school. It fueled many romantic ideas. I didn’t take any notes although I did attempt to memorize a poem from the book for a school poetry event. One classmate recited “Tiger, tiger burning bright in the forests of the night…” and I recited what Jo had composed after her sister’s death, hiding a printed copy of it on my folded arm as if no one would guess it was there when I forgot lines.
Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice was by far my favourite book in highschool. I loved Jane Austen’s humour and when I finished reading the book I was so attached that I read a book of critical essays just to stay with the characters longer. I also watched the BBC eight-part series repeatedly. No other novel since has sparked such an obsession.
The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I remember liking these books, but since I read them when I was young, I didn’t take note of my favorite passages. Francine Prose appreciates Fitzgerald’s ability to “write both meticulously and carelessly, sometimes on the same page.” She describes a particular example: “At lazy moments, F. Scott Fitzgerald could resort to strings of clichés, but in the next paragraph he could give a familiar word the sort of new slant that totally reinvents the language. That reinvention occurs, beginning with his use of the word deferential, in the description of the rose-colored grand hotel that opens Tender Is the Night: ‘Deferential palms cool its flushed façade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach… Now, many bungalows cluster near it, but when this story begins only the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines between Gausses Hôtel des Étragers and Cannes, five miles away.’
“Each adjective (flushed, dazzling) strikes us as apt. And the simile ‘rotted like water lilies’ will come to seem increasingly applicable to much of what happens in a novel that is partly about the dissolution and decay of romance and beauty.”
Francine has more to say about both novels, but I’m too lazy to write it all out, so you might as well get her book.
Tangential: In April of 2017, Little Atoms producer Neil Denny interviewed Sarah Churchwell in and they discussed her book Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby. It was a fascinating listen.