Sorry Dorothy, but we'll just have to agree to disagree.
I’m with Thomas Wolfe on this one. There is no going home. Not is it temporally impossible barring time travel, and even then I’f not sure, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s better to not even try.
Now I’m not thinking of literal homes (though I think it applies), but of literary homes – books that for whatever reason, spoke so deeply to you that they became part and parcel of who you are, or at least were for a while. I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot recently. And it all began when an old friend told me that he was planning to re-read a book we once both cherished, Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane.
I mentioned the book in an earlier post about the novels that shaped me. Shortly after I wrote it, my friend messaged me to tell me of his plan. He also reminded me that I had introduced him to the series (what can I say, I was a fanboy) a fact I had completely forgotten, and which along with the numerous other lacunae in my memory and associated developmental quirks, I will continue to blame on my having been an 8-month-old opium addict. But that’s another story…
Donaldson’s books were foundational. While he has slipped off the radar in recent years – about which more later – for a while, he was cited as an influence on the work of numerous subsequent fantasy writers. It isn’t hard to understand why. Although both the book’s plot (magic ring, dark lord) and the Fantasy setting (The Land) bore more than a passing resemblance to Tolkien and Middle Earth – there were even Nazgul equivalents – its deeply-flawed hero was the anti-Baggins and his journey a hijra of such poisoned self-loathing that it makes Frodo’s trip to Mordor read like a frolic through the Wind in the Willows.
And yet, Lord Foul’s Bane was spell-binding. The world Donaldson conjured up was richly imagined, its characters rounded and engaging. Where Thomas Covenant (the ‘hero’) left you cold, they did not and their predicament was heightened not just because he was the only one who could save them and their world from ecocide at the hands of Foul, but because for the longest time, Covenant refused to accept that it was anything more than a delirium.
I speed-read the three volumes of the First Chronicle, which were already written by the time I found them, and then worked my way through the three books of the Second Chronicle as they were published. With the conclusion of White Gold Wielder, I thought that was it. Donaldson had written six books, each of which averaged 500-odd pages, and the story seemed to have come to an irreversible end.
So imagine my excitement when in 2004 – 20 years after the last book in the Second Chronicles came out – Donaldson announced a return to The Land in The Runes of the Earth. I wasn’t willing to wait a year for it to come out in paperback (does that even happen anymore?), so I broke with tradition, or perhaps parsimony, and bought a hardback and even timed a trip back to the UK to coincide with its launch, because I doubted Runes would ever make it out to Beirut’s bookstores.
And so hefty tome in hand (or more likely, in rucksack) I raced back to my hotel that felicitous October day and settled in for what I thought would be an afternoon of magic and room service. But alas, it was not to be. The Last Chronicles would eventually go on to be a tetralogy, but my infatuation fizzled to a halt less than a hundred turgid pages into its 608-page mass. As I stared disconsolately at the black and white cover that embodied the smouldering remains of my dreams, I was simultaneously crushed and incensed. Apparently, my reaction was not unique.
Was I disenchanted was because I’d outgrown the series, or because too much time had elapsed since the Second Chronicles and Donaldson was no longer the same writer? Who knows? All I can say is that not only did Runes not work for me but worse, it ruined my memories of the other books.
So when I replied to my friend, asking him if he’d read the entire series and he said that he had made it through, but that the struggle had been real, I wasn’t surprised. What intrigued me, and then got me on the can you go home go path, was that despite this, he was re-reading the series. So I began to wonder whether I should, too. Perhaps I’d been too harsh in my first reading because my expectations had been too high?
As you will have divined – the opening sentence is the clue, in case you missed it – I decided not to.
The Chronicles are problematic. I have no idea how well their portrayal of metal illness will hold up today, but they also open with Covenant committing rape. The self-loathing and guilt that flows from this act is powerful and not only drives the rest of the story, as Covenant attempts some kind of redemption by rescuing The Land from the anti-ecological clutches of Foul – or at least it does once he comes to accept The Land is not a figment of his imagination – but becomes such a solid presence that it almost feel like a supporting character.
In general, I don’t believe that problematic art is to be avoided. While the past can, and should be judged by the present, to hold it to current standards is unfair and self-defeating. There is much to be learned and appreciated in books, films and music that for whatever reason transgress today. That said, i do believe there are some books that should never have been published, although for having committed entirely different crimes. So while the problematic aspect probably explains why the Chronicles are no longer acclaimed, it would not have put me off re-reading them. My worry was rather more that like many other artefacts of that period – particularly a lot of films from the 1980s – they might not have aged well, further tarnishing my memories.
But my reluctance to re-engage with an old favourite runs deeper. I re-read books even less frequently than I buy hardbacks and that particularly applies to books I love. On the rare occasion it does happen, it’s generally because I suspect that I didn’t appreciate it on first read because I wasn’t in the right headspace at the time – much like my first stab at reading Leviathan Wakes, which resulted in books 2, 3 and 4 gathering dust on my bedside table until the first season of the series persuaded me I’d given it short shrift.
I feel that the enjoyment of a book is bound to period and place, to the person you were at the time, much like that aforementioned desire to go ‘home’.
But time, as my receding hairline attests, moves on. You change as a reader, as do your tastes, and so what wowed you a decade or two, or three ago won’t have the same impact the second time around, as the many lists of books people wish they could read again for the first time attest. So then, why risk a second reading ruining a golden experience?
I realise that sentiment flies in the face of Fantasy and Sci-fi fandom, which prides itself on the mastery of Lore. I have nothing but admiration for people who commit themselves to knowing all there is to know about a given world or worlds, it’s just that I’ve always been more interested in discovering brand new ones. which is probably why home has always been where I lay my hat. As it were.
With the wealth of published, self-published and translated books out there (and to which I hope to soon make my own modest contribution), there are almost as many of those new worlds to choose from these days as there are grains of sand on any given beach. And that just confirms to me not only is a not a good idea to re-read old favourites, but doing so might then get in the way of discovering new ones. That said, I am curious to know how my friend’s re-reading goes…
Thanks for reading and as always, if you have any comments, I’m happy to answer.
Otherwise, see you again next week!