10/12/2015

I Used to Hate That Book


We all have those books, the ones we never wanted to read, the ones we forced ourselves to finish, the ones we immediately tried to purge from our memories. We read most of those books in high school.

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This guest post is from Tom Treweek, award-winning journalist and author of The Dutchman's Mine.  You can check out more of Tom's work on his website, and you can follow him on Facebook.
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I actually loved books in high school--the ones I brought for myself. I read a lot of Michael Crichton back then. A lot. I was an adolescent boy who found a book about dinosaurs running wild in the modern world. Was I supposed to resist?

The only classes I got bad grades in were reading. It wasn't because I wasn't good at it, it's because I never read what they wanted me to read. Yeah, down with the man.


And one of those books that sunk my grades (that sunk a lot of students' grades) was The Great Gatsby. Yeah, that one. The book that, at the time, seemed to exist only so teachers could educate their pupils on the many forms of symbolism. I mean, seriously, can't I just enjoy a book without having to pull out some special decoder ring to figure out which color is supposed to represent the resurfacing lust for an old flame? God.

I finished that book on fast forward, skimming as quickly as possible, trusting that I'd pick up the important points from the class discussion.

I didn't, hence the bad grade.

Move ahead twenty years (after we pause so I can weep silently at the time that's flown by), and I could be found back in school, this time during my stint as a substitute teacher. One one particular day, I found myself overseeing a "resource" class, which is code for one of two things: either the school's cognitively challenged students, or its behaviorally challenged students. This class was the latter, and the teacher, who was out sick (or "sick") had been reading them The Great Gatsby.

Every other class in the school had the students read it for themselves, but this class couldn't be trusted with this task. The only way they were going to get some of F. Scott into their brains was via the silky smooth tones of a quality amateur reader.

Whatever. I didn't pick the assignments. I just tried to get through the day, just like the kids who were barely pretending to pay attention in front of me.

So I opened the book and read a sentence. God, it was just as boring as I remembered. I read another. Then a paragraph.

Then Lucille poured a drink. And it all came together for me in one glorious moment.

Everyone was drunk practically without pause for the entire book!

I couldn't help myself. I suddenly slurred my speech as I read the words between quotation marks, drawing laughs from students. It was probably a bad idea, or it would have been if I had thought about it for even a second. Maybe those kids found a new love of books. Maybe I pushed them toward alcoholism. Being an optimist, I prefer to think I did both.

But the revelation wasn't for them. It was for me. And it wasn't just Gatsby that opened up for me. I suddenly saw how all books transform at the mood of their readers, how the different stages of life alter our perspectives, how the accumulation of experiences only add depth to fictional imagery.

The way we read anything is overwhelmingly colored by the experiences we take into that reading. Traumatic histories that cloud our future, a bad breakup, a restful weekend, a new relationship, these all shape the way we understand our favorite literature. That's why so often, when we return to a book years later, we'll find that we interpret it differently. That's how I finally found The Great Gatsby entertaining, having first read it before my first drink, and then reading it again after becoming almost as professional a drinker as a wordsmith.


But it could be a bit more subtle than that. Maybe sometimes you read Lord of the Rings and focus on Sam's heroism, and sometimes you focus on his sacrifice. Sometimes you look at that sacrifice with pride and other times with regret. There is no limit of the ways your current circumstances can affect the way you read.


With this revelation, I was a new man, a new reader, a new writer. And probably corrupter of children.

I tell you this story not only to make you laugh at my past follies but also to encourage you to revisit those books you loved in your youth--and those books you didn't. They change. They grow. They evolve. Just like you do. And the test of true friendship is the ability to grow together. Yes, books are your friends. Sigh, I am such a nerd.

What books have changed for you? Which ones do you want to revisit? Share them in the comments below.