Wednesday, May 05, 2010


I've been re-reading a lot of old books, in part to save money and in part because i've begun to realize how poorly i can recall books that i remember liking the first time. It's a strange feeling to read a book that you read twenty years earlier and to find how little of the plot seems familiar. For example, i've been re-reading Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift. I remember most of the characters, even the names, but the plot is completely fresh. I'm about half way through and i honestly don't know how it's going to unfold (ironically, memory was a common theme in Bellow's later works).

What's even stranger is that i have a vivid memory of the circumstances surrounding my purchase of this book. While still in college my wife (then girlfriend) and i made a trip to Chicago while visiting my family in Indiana. We went to Stuart Brent's bookstore on Michigan Avenue and i picked up a pamphlet that listed 100 books that Brent considered essential. One was Humboldt's Gift. I had not even heard of Bellow at that point, but there was something about the title that appealed to me. I ended up buying it in mass-market paperback form at a chain bookstore in the mall in Fort Wayne, near where my parents lived.

I know that i liked the book and i ended up reading most of Bellow's novels at various points through my life. On re-reading it, it seems much more appropriate for someone my current age. The main character, Charlie Citrine, is a 50-something author in the middle of a nasty divorce and with a couple of young daughters. He is clinging to illusions of youth, what's left of his money and fame, and what dreams a middle-aged man can have. To my 20-ish self he must have seemed almost foreign; but now i see a character who, although he has had more success than most, has problems familiar to most middle-aged men.

That, i guess, is the benefit of re-reading. It's a bit like sampling a case of wine as it ages in that it's a different experience each time, but you're never sure until you're done with it which point was the best.

1 comment:

J said...

Of course, since I'm a Californian, the words "Humbolt's Gift" bring an entirely different image to mind. :-)