A Idea Bubbling Away

What remains of fiction read in our most formative years? An atmosphere, certain sentences, some nuances of character, memories anchored in the place and time a book was read. A quarter of a century after reading a story I still retain not-quite images, not-quite sensations, but definite specific memories. A woman sitting on a thistle in order to fix a memory; a teenager-who would become a junkie-coming to Swiss Cottage to meet his sister; a man hidden underground while spies search overground for his traces, each memory almost as real as if they had happened beyond the pages of a book.

I read differently in those days, before the internet, when I relied on browsing and serendipity to lead me from one book to the next. When I read something that made the world feel charged, made me see, hear, sense the world around me in new ways, I read and reread, often reading a book three or four times in a row, and again after a few month’s break.

Those books, which wouldn’t fill much more than a typical shelf make me curious. Some of them are almost certainly poorly written, many riddled with cliché, some maybe ideologically unsound, but what would it be like to return to them now, to re-explore those early encounters?

Would it be awful, inadvisable to put together a short reading list? It would be primarily a list of male writers, curated not to allow an imbalance of science fiction. There would perhaps be some William Gibson, a Patricia Highsmith, maybe Kingsley Amis, Trevanian, Winston Graham, Iain M. Banks, Kem Nunn, maybe a Neal Stephenson, almost certainly a Richard Allen or two, perhaps Anne Tyler, Paul Theroux, J. P. Donleavy, Douglas Coupland or Nicholson Baker and Margaret Atwood. (There is also a very long list of those I know I couldn’t stomach again.) This is probably a rotten idea. I hope it goes away.

21 thoughts on “A Idea Bubbling Away

  1. For a specific project I’ve been back, relatively recently, to both Coupland and Kerouac, and regretted it immensely. Much better (IMHO) to leave unsullied the luminous effect such books had on your younger self, and not risk it with a return.

    I was deliberately reading to try to get back into the point of view of a younger me (in order to write him). The main conclusion I came to is that he was vastly impressed with the content of fiction, whereas my interest these days is, at one level or another, almost purely formal. (Thinking about the Ben Lerner ‘less efficient television’ quote from one of your recent posts. I like and agree with the quote, and wish I didn’t: I hated 10:04 enough at first read not to finish it, but now may have to give it a second look…)

    • Oh, Kerouac is defiantly on that list I’d not be able to return to today. That would be a route to loathing my younger self. I agree completely with on you on content vs. form. I hated Lerner’s Atocha Station, to be point of throwing the book across the room, but I am enjoying the experience of reading 10:04 to the point I’ll try Atocha again. I’ve never love his work, but he is intelligent and I am drawn to his force and voice.

  2. There are books on my shelf I’ll never get rid of and never open again. I know better. (Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, for example.) My adolescent passion for these books is now locked in their material–their shape, their smell, their garish covers. The physical sensations of that early reading experience–and only those–have survived growing up.

    Thanks for this post.

      • We have a constant household debate (all right, argument) over whether to keep books or send them to charity shops. I’m an inveterate keeper. Even the ones I hated, even the ones I haven’t read, even the ones that aren’t mine and that I’ll likely never read: I can remember where or why I bought them, or who wrote what about them, or something about the author, or why I hated them, or where they were shelved in our last home but one.

        They form the most precise and multi-dimensional array of my accidental memory-palace, and that has become the point for me, in this age of everything constantly available on digital, in keeping a home library at all. I miss our books terribly when travelling, and feel (even) dumber when apart from them.

        • I’m an extreme culler, quite the opposite, but I take it too far and end up missing and re-acquiring quite often, which can be costly as I like first editions, genuine firsts that are as close as possible to the writers.

  3. I recently downsized my personal library and when I say personal I mean a historical account of every book I owned since I was 7 (I’m 30 now). It was both funny and embarassing pairing down those books. I remembered the connection I had with each of those books by sinply looking at the cover: the one I read with a torch during a storm, the first book that made me cry, the one that made me laugh senseless in a bus… But there were also books from my college years, books that the academy professed as a must read and that made me feel nothing. For a very long time, I kept those books academy told me to have, and it took me nearly a decade to let them go and finally have a truly personal library. Those books are now waiting for new readers both at the primary school and the college I went to. Full circle, right? I still have a way to go in this process, it is not finished, as I kept Kerouac and Fante just for the sake of not letting my teenage self move out just yet. I just turned 30, so I blame it on a 30 year old crisis. Great post, Anthony!

    • I’ve culled my personal library three times when moving house, and over the last year as I’ve given away everything I felt had no place in my life. In some cases I gave away books I’ve since missed and had to re-acquire. I guess I’ve got rid of something like 1000 books in total. Thanks, pleased that you liked the post.

  4. Ah Anthony, you’ve hit a vein here. The books of the past: number one The Moon of Gomrath at age ten. Re-read it recently after the Backlisted podcast on Alan Garner… really great. Then Swallows and Amazons, I still remember fondly but haven’t re-read for decades. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the first adult book I bought) is fantastic; Macbeth when I was twelve. Lord of the Rings in one week when getting serious dental work done at the age of fifteen or so. The next big (emotional) hit: Naked Lunch at sixteen. Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal for French A-level. Naked Lunch still on the shelves but a new edition. Then at college:The Wild Boys and On the Road. A new edition of The Wild Boys still on the shelf. I re-read On the Road in my forties and found it ridiculously adolescent. Howl stands up. Never was one for science fiction but I did read Dune… Brion Gysin’s The Process at about twenty (re-read that recently and enjoyed it although it’s pretty ridiculous, too.) Borges has been a constant since the age of eighteen. I still have my Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra Penguin edition from 1978. That was fun to think about. Many thanks.

    • Some of those phases have been familiar to me, the Kerouac and Tom Wolfe phase, the LoTR phase, the long Baudelaire period; Borges as a teenage discovery whose enchantment has never quite left. I did have an extended sci-fi and cyberpunk phase too. Please you enjoyed the post and memory journey.

  5. HI! This could be a more complex idea than it seems, in terms of positing a fixed Anthony (in space), a constant Anthony (in time), and a variable Anthony (the sum of its attributes, in perpetual flux), each of whom exists only in thought, and each of whom evaluates works by authors who are likewise fixed, constant, and variable, existing only in thought.
    That said, IF you’re lucky (and I think you are), in 25 years you’ll likely consider the contemporary novelists whom you now esteem as some combination of mediocre, inadequate, naive, unsound, and unable to be stomached again.
    I’ll check back. 😉

    • Hi! That sounds just like Ben Lerner’s ingeniously contrived 10:04., the novel I’m reading at the moment. Thing is that it doesn’t taken 25 years; looking back over the 9 years of this blog is enough to see how my tastes have changed. Good to hear from you.

  6. Hmm. I don’t think it’s a rotten idea at all! I’ve revisited some of my formative reading and found it even more wonderful than I recall. Some has let me down. But it’s certainly fascinating to think about how much you’ve changed as a person and a reader, and perhaps be reminded of who and what you were back then.

  7. Returning to books beloved in one’s past can be risky. My worst return experience was The Great Gatsby which I found overwritten and irritating on revisit; the best George Orwell’s Burmese Days which I loved as a young “woman”. Rereading as a middle aged man I realized that I had been the wrong age and gender to fully appreciate, for myself, the value of that book.

    I just finished a massive downsizing process, moving from a house to a two-bed flat and I found that sorting and moving my “active” library was no problem (save for the yet unpacked boxes). However, in the past few days I have literally thrown away hundreds of books and magazines—several carloads were taken to the recycling drop-off. In the final moments I kept a few sentimental items, mostly academic texts; my son could not part with a huge number of his childhood favourites. However there are still boxes and bags full of books which we loved but did not want to keep that we could not bear to toss (or worse tear off the hard covers) and those will have to wait for the Spring charity book sale season.

  8. Some authors from my formative years – Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, William Trevor – could probably handle, if not benefit from being reread. Then there’s someone like Martin Amis, who I loved at 19, who I think would just drive me mad now.

    • Oh, yes, Martin Amis. I read them all up to Yellow Dog, with ever-decreasing interest. I’d probably prefer his father’s work now, reactionary old tosh I’m sure I’d find that too. Although, between you and me, part of me worries that I might still enjoy the early Martin Amis. No. Surely not.

      • I don’t know. I so enjoyed London Fields and Money at the time – as a wee girl from Northern Ireland I’d never read anything like it before. I think re-reading Times Arrow could be interesting. Dead Babies not so much.

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