My reading pattern revolve around book reviews. I don’t spontaneously go into Barnes and Noble and randomly pick out a book. Rather, I analyze The New York Times Sunday Book Review and The Washington Post Book World to carefully pick out my reading list. I follow The New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year religiously.
Last winter, I sat down and read all 368 wrenching, depressing, gruesome pages of “This Republic of Suffering” just because the critics raved about it. (It’s actually a very well crafted book, especially since it came from Harvard’s president.)
But if there is something I absolutely hate, it’s reading a book review or an article about a childhood classic. Literary criticism and historical context might bring about insightful understanding but it also ruins the magic of the first reading. Here are some of my deepest regrets:
“Master and Commander” by Patrick O’Brian
When I was a 13-year-old kid reading “Master and Commander,” I thought like any other 13-year-old: It is an epic story! It’sgot cannons and ships and explosions! It’s if as Jane Austen were writing Pirates of the Caribbean. The two main characters, Capt. Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Mautrin, are absurdly different, and therefore a hilarious bro-mance ensues. I laughed at all the jokes I could get, kept turning the pages, and finally closed the book feeling entertained and satisfied.
It was years later when I discovered, to my surprise, that adults were fans of the Aubrey-Mautrin series, but for a vastly different reason—because it espoused conservative ideology. George F. Will, the conservative Washington Post columnist, wrote that he enjoyed Patrick O’Brian works because they presented a traditional world where everyone, from the lowliest sailor to the grandest admiral, knew their place. Will wrote, “Novels of manners are apt to be, as O’Brian’s are, suffused with the conservative sensibility, because manners are accretions of practices rather than creations of reason. “
Seriously? I refuse to believe that the beloved adventures of my childhood were just Tory propaganda. There is just something magical you proclaim “I’m on a boat!”
“Kidnapped” by Robert Louis Stevenson
“Kidnapped” is one weird epic that haunted my imagination as a kid. The half-built staircase of doom popped up in my nightmares. Sometimes, I imagined myself in a barnacle-speckled ship off the coast of Scotland with the rain pouring loudly on the deck above. Because I didn’t know what moorland looks like, I imagined David Balfour and Allan Stewart as two fugitives running through Alaska. Same latitude, right? Although Kidnapped was laced with historical references about the Jacobite Rising, again I hardly cared about the Whigs and the Tories. When NPR published a book review of a
book that explained the incident that inspired “Kidnapped,” it sucked all the fun of the novel. The hero of the real story is some wealthy English brat who got kidnapped and was sold as an indentured servant in Delaware. He escaped and sued to get his estate back. Seriously, this sounds like an episode of “The Simple Life.” Where is the mysterious fog or ex-con on the run or devilish uncle? Fail.
It is one of the earliest chapter books I read in English. It had cute little pictures. Mole appeared so gentle and friendly. Badger had his hermit wisdom. And Toad was just over the top. “The Wind in the Willows” faded in and out of the golden afternoons of my elementary school years. Then, this essay appeared in The New York Review of Books last year, suggesting that the book is actually about a bunch of Victorian men having mid-life crises. “This masterpiece nonetheless tends to be most deeply affecting to those
past forty,” wrote Michael Dirda. Now the desire for adventure on the river reserved for the middle-aged — yeah, way to steal my childhood.