In this collection of essays, Anne Fadiman (author of the delicious Ex Libris and the excellent The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down) and 17 other authors revisit books that affected them in earlier years.
In the foreword, Fadiman tells of reading The Horse and His Boy (from C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia) aloud to her young son and how differently she experienced the book from when she read it as a child. She goes on to make a compelling case for rereading in general. "If a book read when young is a lover, that same book, reread later on, is a friend...This may sound like a demotion, but after all, it is old friends, not old lovers, to whom you are most likely to turn when you need comfort."
The rest of the essays are part memoir and part literary criticism. Of the 18 books (I say books, even though one is a poem and one is an album cover), I've read only two. That mattered more for the essays that leaned more heavily towards criticism, but for the most part, the only prerequisite is an interest in books.
A particularly powerful essay is Diana Kappel Smith's review of a field guide to wildflowers, in which I read (with some envy) how the right book can wonderfully determine an entire life trajectory. My other favorites were Arthur Krystal's essay on an early 20th century boxing book and Katherine Ashenburg's essay on a series of books about a nurse, written for young readers in the 1940s and 50s.
Ultimately, it was impossible to read this book without reflecting on the books that affected me as a youth and wondering how they would affect me now. (How would the passionate activism in Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang or in Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy strike me today?) It may be time to visit some old friends.
This volume has so little in common with collected interpretations, scholarly or chatty, of single literary works or authors. Nor do the (mostly) books written about suffer the sameness and burden of being "most influential" for the writers. Editor Anne Fadiman brilliantly introduces the act of self-revelation accomplished by passing books through prisms of innocence and then of experience and writing about the display. Whether or not you recognize the writers and the works they are responding to when re-engaged, you will find the essays express the potential of authors, books, and ideas to stain and define the slides of self-image within readers. Bad metaphor, that: happily, the essays all want for clinical dryness and laboratory precision; and scholarship has little role here but to entertain.
Everyting about this book, including the printing and hand feel (and not least the crazy-cheap Amazon price) led me to splurge on copies for friends. "Rereadings" is a book to give when you would feel self-conscious about a volume of poetry; when a jumble of psychobable or confessional would be embarass giver or recipient or both; and the burden of plowing through 500+ pages of popular history, biography, or memoir would be, well, doubly burdensome.
This book would be a find if just 5 of the essays furnished a total of an hour of instruction and delight. Be prepared to be surprised and engaged by a dozen more than that. And don't wait for the paperback. You'll want to share this one.