Window-Opening

It can be insightful to see what you notice as an adult when you re-read books from your childhood. The Railway Children was a favourite book of mine. It’s a sometimes humorous and sometimes touching story that I’d love to share with my own children some day. But when, as an adult, I read it to my youngest brother, I noticed something that I had never batted an eyelid at before. From memory, the situation is this: Bobbie, a girl of about twelve or so, is concerned about the doctor’s bill for her ill mother, and decides to speak to him about it. She goes to meet him when he is out on his rounds. He invites her to join him in his buggy, and they trot on together while Bobbie explains the predicament. The doctor comes up with a generous solution, and Bobbie returns home relieved.

And safe and sound. Yes, that was the bit that I never thought about when I was younger. Re-reading it as an adult, I suddenly realised what a different culture we live in. A young girl out driving with a man in the countryside. It’s enough to give a modern parent a heart attack, thinking that the doctor could have taken her anywhere, done anything to her. Had he had a criminal background check? Where was the chaperone? What about the child protection policy?

My point here is emphatically not to discuss the rights and wrongs of the ways in which parents seek to protect their children these days. That is a sensitive subject for which wisdom is most certainly needed. My point is simply to illustrate that we can, in a sense, forget that there has ever been any other cultural atmosphere (for good or for bad) than our own, or any other way of doing things than the way they are done now, and that stories remind us that it ain’t necessarily so.

There are many things in our culture that are different from the past in good ways. Vaccinations. Sanitation. A high level of literacy. And much more. There are also many things that are different in bad ways. And it is for those things, in particular, that we need stories—stories to remind us that the way things are is not necessarily the way they’ve always been, or the way they should be, or the way they will be. Stories that present the good, the true, and the beautiful to us in a glowing display.

In a culture where policies and procedures reign, we need to read stories in which people were free to exercise common sense. In a culture of entitlement, we need stories of duty and self-sacrifice. In a culture where too many men don’t act like men, while too many women do, we need stories that show the beauty and glory of real manhood and womanhood. In a culture that lives for this world, we need stories that remind us of another one.

The toxic elements of our culture (like the good ones, of course) so often feel normal. Stay long enough in a room with a bad smell and you’ll hardly notice in any more. But there is a sweet-smelling world outside, and reading good books helps to open the windows and let the fresh air in.

Once is Not Enough

I don’t understand people who say they don’t re-read books.

Now, I know that there are books, and there are books.

There are some books I’ve read that I’m sure I’m never going to read again—they weren’t worth it first time round, or only barely worth it. Why squander any more time?

Then there are books of information that I might read once, absorb the information I need, and discard the empty carton. It did its job, I did mine, and the relationship is now over, thank you very much.

Some books of information I can’t possibly absorb in one go. I was fascinated by Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People, but I have, unfortunately, forgotten most of it. Should I re-read it, I know I would find lots to learn and re-learn. It’s not a priority for me to re-read at present, but I’m not saying “never” either.

Then there are non-fiction books that deal richly, profoundly, with the spiritual life. I re-read them because my soul still needs food. Until they become so woven into me that I have absorbed their messages and am living them out, I will still need to re-read them. I have not yet learned all that Lewis has to teach me. I doubt I ever will. So I read him and read him again.

There are fiction books that were fun to read once. A bit like junk food, they may taste good but I can’t live on them. They lack substance.

And then there are the novels that I re-read because I want to be in that world again. I want to hear that music once more. I want to be with Ransom and breathe Perelandrian air again. I want to walk with Emma as she slowly, painfully, becomes wiser. I want to be refreshed again by old John Ames’ insights into life in Gilead.

I am not finished with books like these because I am not finished with beauty. I am not finished with learning. I am not finished with laughing. I am not finished with books like these because they carry more riches in them than my hands can grasp in one reading.

I am not finished with them because there are delights to re-reading that those who read books once can never know.

Listen to what Lewis says in his essay “On Stories” (emphasis mine):

The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain surprisingness….  It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time…. We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have again the “surprise” of discovering that what seemed Little-Red-Riding-Hood’s grandmother is really the wolf. It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness….

So here’s to re-reading books. Here’s to great wine.

 

Our Mutual Friend

Ah, Dickens.

I have to work myself up to reading him. Come on, I tell myself. You know you always enjoy it when you get into it. And I do. It just takes a bit of mental limbering up before I plunge into one of his tomes. Not because of the length in and of itself—if a story is good, the longer the better!—but because Dickens can be unnecessarily wordy, and also because some of his characters are grotesque, and I don’t enjoy reading about the grotesque.

However, as I said, when I do knuckle down to the task, I have a lot of fun, and that was certainly the case with Our Mutual Friend. Part of the fun is Dickens’ sense of humour—sometimes enough to make me snigger or giggle out loud. Mrs Wilfer, for example is described as “much given to tying up her head in a pocket-handkerchief, knotted under the chin. This head-gear, in conjunction with a pair of gloves worn within doors, she seemed to consider as at once a kind of armour against misfortune (invariably assuming it when in low spirits or difficulties), and as a species of full dress.”

Another part of the fun is the gripping plot line. There are secrets—a lot of secrets—in Our Mutual Friend. There’s faithful love and bitter hate and magnanimity and murder and suspense. And there are characters as vivid and varied as the colours of the rainbow.

If you want to see what good and evil characters look like, you will find them on striking exhibition in Our Mutual Friend. Both good and evil wear many faces. The badness of Mr Lammle looks very different from the badness of Rogue Riderhood. The goodness of Mrs Boffin looks very different from the goodness of Lizzie Hexam. But whatever faces good and evil may wear, Dickens makes us turn in disgust from the one and admire the other.

I particularly appreciated, however, that in Our Mutual Friend Dickens does not simply present characters whose natures are set in stone. Two of his most important characters—Eugene and Bella—begin the story very flawed indeed, in their different ways, yet they end it as characters whom we can admire. This is especially true for Bella, a mercenary, pettish girl who becomes a noble, devoted woman. “I want to be something so much worthier than the doll in the doll’s house”, she declares, and indeed she is. Yet (and I know Lewis would approve of this!) becoming good does not mean no longer being Bella. She is still delightfully herself—still not confusable with Mrs Boffin or Lizzy—but herself refined and beautified.

Of course, there’s much, much more that could be said about Our Mutual Friend than can be said in one blog post, and I won’t even try to say it. But… if you haven’t read it, you’re missing out!