Last month I got William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich out of the library.I am grateful for what I read as a child or young man but it always startles me how a book differs depending on the age you were when you read it. Of course, not really age. How experienced you were when you read it. Without a skeleton of knowledge and experience on which to add muscle, much early reading is simply content to build the cognitive body. It is only later, when the cognitive body is grown and fit that you can appreciate how much more there was to the book and how much you can gain from re-reading it.
I had actually read it many moons ago, when I was a teenager. But “read” is a bit of a euphemism. It was so very long — over 1,000 pages — that although I did “read” all those pages, I did so rather quickly, focusing only on the bits that interested me most at the time. I did get an overview, but I was so young that I had no context in which to place that overview.
What I got from the book was more or less “This happened and then this and this and this.” I had so little knowledge or life experience to relate it to that it seemed just a series of inexplicable although terrible events.
It’s seemed to me more recently that I’d be able to bring more to the table if I managed to read it now. But it’s still over a thousand pages long, and there a lot of demands on my time these days. So back it went—mostly unread—to the library when due.
I have a host of books like this, all of which I want to read, and so little time. I was merely middle-aged when I started the blog, but somehow here I am and I’m — well, let’s just call it “older.” Prioritizing my time seems more important now than ever for that reason. But getting and spending we lay waste our powers.
There is a bitter-sweetness as well though. For me, early books are much like songs. They bring back context. I read Walter Lord's A Night to Remember when I was about 12. I lived in Sweden and reading Walter Lord was not simply a matter of absorbing words. It was checking out a book that would introduce me to literary non-fiction from our small school library, slipping it in my school bag for the long commute home through cold slushy weather, curling up warm in a green velvet wing chair in the living room and losing myself on a winter weekend to a drama and tragedy in the North Atlantic. My boxer dog Brutus asleep at the foot of the chair, snorting and twitching. A silent snow-covered vista through the window.
A synesthesia of books.
Sometimes the sense of nostalgia is so strong and pleasurable that the book functions, not as a source of knowledge, but as a key to time travel and I am reluctant to reread the book for fear it will lose its capacity to send me back to different times and places and to a different me.