Monday, August 12, 2013

Hello Old Friends

I was working on my deck Friday. The weekend was nearly here and I was wrestling with a software fault with my head down. I heard a clunk and looked up to see my wife, Mary, had dumped a box of books off the edge of the deck into the grass. I didn't appreciate the disrespect with which they had been treated but I understood why.

The box had sat next to the furnace in my basement and collected a little dust in the several years it resided there. Before that, it sat for many years next to the furnace in my father's basement. I should say furnaces, because while the box resided in Dad's basement, he had a coal-fired furnace, a natural gas furnace, and a wood-fired furnace. Between the coal and wood smoke the box was well sooted.

Dumping the box's contents into the lawn was the first step in removing the cobwebs, dust, and soot from my books. There was such an accumulation of dirt because the box has sat in one basement or another since the the 1970s.

After my wife finished dusting off books and asking me which ones she could discard, she got another box that was likewise filthy. And another.

I kept an eye out for an old friend, but didn't see him. I knew my dusty copy of The Green Hills of Earth had recently been in one of those boxes. Turns out my wife had already cleaned it off and shelved it. But another book, just as old, from Junior High was in the first box. It was a paperback anthology of space travel stories edited by Groff Conklin, Great Stories of Space Travel.

After I finished work I picked it up and started reading. I know that I had read all the stories a few times since I'd bought it in the '60s for half a buck. But enough time had passed that I'd forgotten all but general impressions of the stories--many of which were written in the 1940s. This was probably the book, or one of them, that got me into Science Fiction in the first place.

If you are a reader, you probably have the same emotional reaction when you return to a book after a long time. The stories and characters reside in a special place in my heart. Revisiting a story is like a reunion with its characters who are now old friends.

If enough time has elapsed, it gets interesting, because there are changes.

I noticed something when I picked up my copy of C. S. Lewis' non-fiction book Mere Christianity. I was reading an argument Lewis was making about the existence of God and it was completely unfamiliar. I knew the line of reasoning, because the night before I'd said something similar, but different, in an email to an agnostic friend. The unfamiliarity of Lewis' words made me think my 18-year-old self had paid insufficient attention at the time.

Then I saw it. My handwriting on a note in the margin. The note was on point and proof that I had indeed been paying attention. Yet, the words were unfamiliar. And I'd said the same thing in my own words decades later.

The changes were in me. I felt a bit like Bruce Willis in Looper talking in the diner with his 30-years-younger self.

In this case, I'd digested what Lewis was saying, incorporated it into the structure of my thinking, and reworked it over the years into a form that fit me so well that Lewis' original expression was unfamiliar to me.

I saw this in a different way when I was going back through Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars novels. I'm cool with John Carter being a Virginian and veteran of the Civil War. I'm also cool with him becoming an uber-powerful warlord on Mars with children who are likewise members of elite Martian society. BUT when I started one of the later novels that hinges upon the villain insinuating himself into Carter's son's household as one of the slaves, I thought, "Slaves? The hero keeps slaves?" I got off the train. Back in the '70s I would have just shrugged and gone on. I've become less tolerant of some things and I've become more tolerant of other things.

These changes make me wonder which of the stories I've hated in High School or College that I might like were I to read them again today. I saw this with Hemingway, but I rather suspect I will hate Holden Caulfield even more today than back in 1972.

Most of my old friends are still friends, and I suspect just as many of my old irritants are just as irritating. The good thing is that nobody can make me do assigned reading like they did in High School.

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