Monday, September 27, 2010

Books that got a second chance

By David Heinzmann

I get tired of reading crime fiction sometimes. I hope that’s not too much sacrilege to utter on this blog, but it’s true.

The last two books I’ve read have been novels that I had set aside years ago after reading a few chapters and just not connecting. I’ve had that experience more than once with literary fiction over the last few years. And from time to time, it’s made me feel I’ve gotten too used to easy-to-read mystery novels and become a lazy reader.

These resurrections started with writer’s block. A few months ago I blamed part of my inability to make progress on my third novel on a muddle of too much of other writer’s crime fiction in my head. So I picked up Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, which was one of the few Greene books I’d not read. Several years ago I bought it in a used book store when I was in the middle of a Greene obsession. But it was so different from his complicated espionage and political works that I set it aside, only to have the sight of its cream and lavender binding ridicule my failure for several years.

The novel opens with a confirmed bachelor mourning the death of his mother, and discoursing on his hobby cultivating dahlias. Maybe I’m just too enamored of my Greene books opening with prostitutes and political violence in the Third World. Dahlias weren’t cutting it.

But I opened the book on a whim this summer and was soon past the dahlias and firmly on a train to Istanbul. No looking back. What a great book.

Emboldened by my success, and not wanting to return just yet to our shared genre, I became more ambitious and plucked down my copy of Light in August from a shelf. I concentrated on American writers of the 20th Century in college but I never really connected with Faulkner. I forget when I first tried to read Light in August. Probably after college when I was feeling like a schmuck for never having really read him. But I didn’t even get into the telling of a story that time around. Didn’t even know what was there. It collected dust for a couple decades. But this time it has just clicked.

Maybe it’s helping me re-connect with my agrarian roots this time around. I’ve spent a lot of time in the small towns of my youth, lately. I took my boys, who are about to turn 6 and 2 for a ride in a combine harvesting corn a few weeks ago and watched them sit riveted in the cab of the green monster as it devoured twelve rows at a time. A great munching calamity that reduced a whole field into a few truckloads in a matter of hours.

And last weekend I drove down to tiny Bradford (pop. 600) to talk to a group of book lovers at the local library. This part of the state is where my parents grew up, and where my mother’s family has farmed since before the Civil War. It’s a land of endless flat expanses that in the last few years has been transformed dramatically by fields of windmills sprouting up on top of fields of corn and beans.
It’s not Yaknapotawpha. But it’s sure as hell not my Chicago, either.

I think everybody ebbs and flows as a reader. Certain kinds of books we can’t grasp at one moment in our lives, we open up to down the road. There are lots of reasons: how much mental energy we have at a given time to dissect certain kinds of prose, what are friends are reading, how engaged we are in our work life. Sometimes we want to escape. Sometimes we want information. Sometimes we want poetry and art.

The jury is still out on whether I’ll actually finish Light in August. At the Tribune, we’re in the final weeks of a crazy campaign season and I’m covering a chunk of the governor’s race. I’ll be out on the road a bit in the coming weeks following candidates, who keep telling voters they know how to fix Illinois. I’ll likely be criss-crossing hundreds of miles of harvested land. I’ve made it through All the King’s Men the first time I tried. So maybe Faulkner’s just the thing.

Anyway, here’s to second chances for the books we missed the first time around. And for the books we write, as well. May they get second, third and fourth chances.

1 comment:

Libby Hellmann said...

I understand. I have to break away from crime fiction too and read other novels. In fact, I just finished Luis Urrea's THE HUMMINGBIRD'S DAUGHTER. WOnderful, whimsical, beautiful language. I loved it.