Can An Adult Read a Book Like a Child?

In ‘The Lost Childhood’ (from The Lost Childhood and Other Essays, Viking Press, New York, 1951), Graham Greene writes:

Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already: as in a love affair it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back.

But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune teller who sees a long  journey in the cards or death by water they influence the future. I suppose that is why books excite us so much. What do we ever get nowadays from reading to equal the excitement and the revelation in those first fourteen years….it is in those early years that I would look for the crisis, the moment when life took a new slant in its journey towards death.

As my posts here on Richard Wright’s Native Son and Toni Morrison’s writing in Sula would indicate, I’m inclined to disagree with Greene: I do think its possible for even adults to read books that they consider to have had a ‘deep influence on their lives.’

However, I think too, that I have a sense of what Greene is getting at. The ‘distance’–between one point of emotional and imaginative maturity and another–a childhood book helps you traverse is perhaps far greater than that any book read in adulthood could take you. The books we encounter in childhood find us having barely commenced many mental journeys; the first steps they help us take are often gigantic and accompanied by a kind of thrill we only rarely encounter in adult life. We are not yet jaded, not yet cynical. All of this is implied in the claims Greene makes above.

The reason a book read in adult life can have the ‘deep influence’ Greene speaks of is related to the childhood reading experience. We might grow up with our selves developed unevenly; we might find ourselves possessed  of great accomplishment and maturity in one domain and yet utterly lacking in sophistication and edification in another. Our formative years might have been biased by particular sorts of influences that drove out yet others; we are, so to speak, only well done on one side. Pockets of callow superficiality lurk within us.

At these moments then, thanks to fortuitous discovery, we are set up for an encounter that is like our childhood reading: we find ourselves experiencing an epiphany of sorts, the same giddiness that so thrilled us as children comes upon us again. And we speak of our newly found intellectual companion in the same breathless fashion as we did of our teenage crushes.

So, I think focusing on chronological age is a mistake. As long as–thanks to previous immaturity–we bear the potential for radical growth within us, we will continue to experience these ‘books of divination.’ Adults can read books like children.

Beauvoir, Morrison and Gordimer on Sex

Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that a conceptual inversion of the sexual act was possible: perhaps woman was not merely ‘penetrated’ or ‘entered into’ by man, perhaps she ‘enveloped’ or ‘engulfed’ him instead. Sex was not an ‘invasion’ of the woman, it was an active seeking out instead. The change in perspective engendered by considering what could be a woman’s understanding of the act was radical indeed, and experienced as such by many of those who read The Second Sex. I understood this shift at one intellectual level and did not at yet another.

Till I read Toni Morrison‘s Sula (Knopf, New York, 1973). In it, when Sula has sex with Ajax, she “stood wide-legged against the wall and pulled from his track-lean hips all the pleasure her thighs could hold.” (pp. 125)  Now, I understood a little better. Here again, was woman active, possessing sexual agency, not the passive receiver of sexual attention but the active dispenser of it. She did not have something ‘put inside her’, she ‘pulled’ it to herself, the limits of that exchange only demarcated by her own desire and ability. It’s been some twenty-two years since I first read that line, and I have never forgotten it, so suddenly did it come on me as I read Sula, and so distinctive was the reconfiguration of sexual politics that it forced upon me.

Here is another literary take on the conceptual revision that Beauvoir suggested. In The Late Bourgeois World (Penguin, New York, 1966), Nadine Gordimer‘s narrator Liz Van Den Sandt ruminates over an interesting dimension of her sexual relationship with Graham:

Yet when he’s inside me–last night–there’s the strangest thing. He’s much better than someone my own age, he comes to me with a solid and majestic erection that will last as long as we choose. Sometimes he will be in me for an hour and I can put my hand on my belly and feel the blunt head, like a standard upheld, through my flesh. But while he fills me, while you’d think the last gap in me was closed for ever, while we lie there silent I get the feeling that I am the one who has drawn him up into my flesh, I am the one who holds him there, that I am the one who has him helpless. If I flex the muscles inside me, it’s as if I were throttling someone. He doesn’t speak; the suffering of pleasure shuts his eyes, the lids are tender without his glasses. And even when he brings about the climax for us–afterwards I am still holding him as if strangled; warm, thick, dead, inside. [pp. 37-38]

I suspect there are men who would find this description disconcerting–the more ‘sensitive’ among them might even be offended–and indeed, it was probably meant to be so. But hopefully, equally many men and women will find in this little passage echoes of the same species of altered perspective that Beauvoir urged us to adopt, and that Morrison so expertly captured and described.

The Never-Ending Angst Over the Nobel Prize In Literature

Ian Crouch asks why more Americans don’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature. (The last one to do so was Toni Morrison in 1993, an award I remember especially clearly because a) I had only recently started reading her and b) I was struck by the fact of an African-American woman writer being so recognized.)

This sort of discussion seems vaguely familiar to me: worries about whether the Nobel committee–a bunch of Swedes!–is deliberately resisting an ever-threatening global American hegemony and/or rubbing American noses in it by selecting year after year, ‘obscure’ writers and poets that Americans will be unfamiliar with; vague condemnations that ironically flirt with narrow-mindedness themselves while indicting the American literary scene of provincialism and parochialism; suspicions that the Nobel Prize is awarded to those literary works that are, for some reason or the other, simply not produced by American writers; and so on. (These discussions are distinct from the usual dismayed and disbelieving, ‘Can you believe X was never awarded/Y hasn’t yet been/Z has been nominated for/ the prize?’)

This buzzing mass of speculation, confusion and half-baked theorizing is inevitable: first, we are talking about a Prize, and second its being awarded for Literature. (The money associated with the Nobel Prize does its bit but, really, it’s the hype that does most of the damage.) Judging writers by panels was always going to generate this sort of discussion. If prizes for physics can engender as much controversy as they have, then literature should be even more productive.

The good news for Crouch is that if an American doesn’t win this year, he can just republish the same piece next year.

Note: The most entertaining part of the Crouch piece comes in the comments, where a cranky gentleman writes:

It startles me to find that some people believe America to be a literary powerhouse.  My impression is that 95% of the material to be found in bookstores, or in lists of prize winners, was all written by the same person who had spent too many years at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Truth is, the literary industry today aims its products primarily at semi-educated urban feminist careerists who adhere to the current liberal dogmas while employing a demotic prose that reads as if it were dictated by a 35-year-old woman with a Northeastern degree while she lies soaking in warm bathwater.

Do this – go to your nearest bookstore, pick up some highly praised post-modern novel, open said book, and read just the first page.  Do this ten times with ten different novels, and then swear to me on your life that they were not authored by some adept, or some inept I should have said, piece of software. Because that’s where the money is, at the most congested segment of the Bell Curve.

I once asked an editor if William Faulkner could be published today, assuming he weren’t already famous.  “Certainly not,” she said.  “No one would publish him today, and if someone did, no one would read him.”