40 for 40 (January 2020)

The goal of 40 for 40 is two fold: (1) I want to take some time (a year) to slow down, stop reading so much new stuff, and (2) create space to revisit books that I have loved or considered formative to this point in my life. 

Part of the quest is to fight my propensity to consume. I love reading new things and that’s not bad, but it does make it hard to deeply digest, or to go back and revisit. New is always better, right?

So, my hope this year is that I’d spend some time reflecting on the journey to 40, sit with some past favorites, get to know the “old Steve” a little better, and see if these books I’ve loved have aged with me, or if they are simply relics (ebenezers) from the past.

I began with Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. For the past 15 years, if you had asked me: “Steve, what is your favorite book,” there’s been a 90% chance (or better) that this would be my answer.

I first read this book in the fall of 2003 on the advice of one David Crowder. I met him at a concert that my friend was running lights at, and I asked him what I always ask people: what is the best book you’ve read this year? He said, “Everything Is Illuminated.” He had just released Illuminate (coincidence?).

I re-read the book two more times: once on a trip to India in the fall of 2004, and again (in hardback for the first time) in 2007. 

All three previous readings were in my 20s, pre-marriage, and well over 10 years ago!

My takeaway re-reading it now: it is a young man’s book.

It’s still amazing in many ways. Hard to believe the author was in his 20’s when he wrote it. The scene where he describes the Nazi’s coming to take over his grandparents village is still one of the most harrowing passages in any book I’ve read.

It’s a book about memory and making sense of the stories that have produced us.

And it’s great. But as I said before, it is a young man’s book.
Full of fury and urgency and sexual tension. 
Full of longing and a desire for everything to mean something.
But not as weighty as I remember it feeling 15 years ago.

Young people have, and can express deep wisdom. 
And getting older is no guarantee that we will grow in wisdom.
And yet…weight. Everything Is Illuminated just feels lighter now than it did then.

Which, interestingly, is sort of what the book is all about: memory, how we change and grow and evolve as people, how the perception of an event changes depending on our moment in time and our proximity to that event.

It’s a brilliant book, written by a brilliant young man, and I mean that in the best sense possible.

—————

Next up is The Book of Lost Things. There was no method to choosing this book next, but it makes for a fascinating contrast. 

The Book of Lost Things is also a clever and a wonderful bit of writing about memory and tragedy and processing the traumatic events we experience in life. (First read in the fall of 2007.)

John Connolly reimagines classic fairy tales as the main vehicle for his narrative. I remember this technique being more shocking the first time around. I don’t know if I’ve just read more gnarly things, or watched too many movies, but there was very little shock value during this reading.

The particular copy I have has a big section at the end that gives the reader the background on each fairy tale and I had never read that before, so this experience was much different simply by taking the time to read through all that information. 

I found the experience of reading this book much easier than I remembered it, but the ending was no less meaningful (and it is one of the best endings to any novel I’ve ever read). 

And it’s the ending that gives the book weight and that provides a sharp contrast to Everything Is Illuminated. This is an old man’s book. It has less urgency, but more weight to it.

And so, my initial response, two books in to this adventure, is a sense of (a) relief. I confess to being mildly concerned that I would be devastated by “old Steve’s” taste. But, (b) also a sense that it is good to be in a different place than I was back then. 

Can’t wait to share more next month…  


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