Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Books and Time

I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book. -- Groucho Marx

When we started this blog, Lucia asked me to fill in the profile where you list favorite music, movies, and books. That sounded easy. Yesterday, she asked me if there was any art form I'm not interested in, and off the top of my head the only thing I could come up with was opera. As long as it doesn't involve over-the-top singing while dying, I'm definitely an arts geek. Favorites? Oh, God, I could talk about my favorites for hours.

I thought.

The hardest part of filling in the music section was whittling my list down to a reasonable number. I like music. A lot. And I listen to hundreds if not thousands of different artists. I had a little bit harder time thinking of movies, but when Lucia reminded me of a couple of movies I'd said I loved, dozens started tumbling into my brain. Books? I typed in "To Kill A Mockingbird" and then my mind went blank. I thought that was very strange, because I've always loved to read. Why couldn't I think of books that I especially liked? I've always defined myself as something of a bibliophile, if not quite a Groucho Marx-level devotee (if I'm watching House, I'm not going to abandon it for a book). Was that self-definition untrue?

Maybe my failure reflects the nature of different art forms. Songs are relatively short. Because I like so many different kinds of music, I don't tend to listen to the same few songs over and over the way many people do, but nevertheless, there are many songs I've listened to hundreds of times, and many artists I've heard thousands of times over decades. My list leans heavily on people who began (and, in most cases, ended) their careers long ago (in some cases, before I was born) because even though I like a lot of younger musicians (and will probably, little by little, add them to my list), they haven't had time to gel. Ray Charles is done, and I can look back at his body of work and see that even though he may have churned out some schlock (and a few gems) at the end of his life, he began by revolutionizing popular music, and went on to create works that can break your heart and then heal it again in three minutes. He can make every fiber of your being dance. Bob Dylan isn't done, but not only did he crack open the possibilities of what could be done with lyrics, not only has he written probably half of the hundred best songs written in the past century, he continues, at 70, to do brilliant, brave, challenging, soul-lifting work. I love Amy Winehouse, and wouldn't be surprised to see her grow into this generation's Billie Holiday. She has the same raw honesty to her voice, and the same fearlessness. But she could also be Carole King -- someone who makes one jewel, and is never able to duplicate the miracle.

My point is this: Because popular music is a short-form art, you can easily tell the difference between a cute song that worms its way into your brain for awhile, but doesn't hold up over time, and something that really means something. Movies are longer, but I've seen every movie on my list more than once and know that there's something about each one that is special. It didn't just provide a couple of hours of amusement, or even a brief intellectual challenge. It gave me something I needed to come back to -- even if that something is as slight as the weird ability to laugh at the same joke I've laughed at several times before. I think if a work of art is truly great, you keep finding something new, something worthwhile in it, every time you return.

Books are more complicated. Because it takes many hours to read a book, and there are so many books I want to read, I don't re-read books very often. When I think of books I've loved, I wonder if I would love them as much if I re-read them. I have a vivid memory of adoring Catch-22, Johnny Got His Gun, Flowers For Algernon, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Jude The Obscure, and many other books as a teenager, but I haven't come back to any of them. Was there something about those books that appealed to a high school girl, but couldn't reach a middle-aged woman? I just don't know. There was a period when I read everything Raymond Carver wrote. I think I had an Ann Tyler decade, when I read each new work she brought out, searching through her back catalog between books. That decade overlapped with my Nadine Gordimer, Margaret Atwood, and Toni Morrison obsessions. But would I love the books the second time around? Who knows. I recently finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I loved, but I think I got everything out of it I'd want to, and I doubt I'll ever especially want to read it again.

Books are paradoxical: You spend more time with them, so they embed themselves more deeply in your soul than other art forms, but at the same time, their effect can be more transitory. For all I know, Flowers For Algernon might just have been a teenage crush for me.

All my life, I've had a long list in my head of books I want to read -- these days it's in the "samples" file on my Kindle. But writing this post has made me want to return to some old ones. Are Vonnegut and Heller as good as I remember them being? Do I still adore some of the lesser-read Dickens novels? (I never want to go near Great Expectations again, but I have fond memories of Hard Times, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend.) (Although I think only a very strange person could say she has "fond" memories of Bleak House.) For that matter, wouldn't I probably appreciate Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and George Eliot more now than I did when I was twenty?

I think I'd like to find out.

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