October 14, 2018 5:51 PM
This weekend, I finished reading a book I started in 1983. It wasn’t even a long book, either. Just a mere 204 pages; but it took me thirty-five years to read it.
Yesterday afternoon, after eating Chinese food from a new restaurant, I inadvertently ate something with either Oyster sauce or Fish sauce. I’m allergic to both, as in it makes my chest tight and makes it hard to breathe as if I’m having asthma, but it’s not asthma. It’s the allergy. So far, knock on wood, when this happens I’ve been able to counter-act the reaction with Benedryl. Sometimes it takes one pill, sometimes it takes two. Yesterday afternoon was a two-Benedryl reaction.
One Benedryl makes me sleepy but I can still navigate the day. Two pills puts me out for hours. Which it did yesterday afternoon, for close to three hours. This is not conducive to a good night’s sleep.
Last night, around 11:30 pm, I was nowhere near tired to sleep, but I was tired of tv and video games and I didn’t feel like reading the book I’ve been reading, Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness. It’s a light, fluffy, fantasy story that’s fine to pass the time for awhile. I just wasn’t in the mood to read it, though.
I was in the mood to read an actual book-book, something with actual paper pages as opposed to my kindle which I use most the time. As I perused my bookcase, I happened upon a book, the book, that I started in 1983. A Separate Peace by John Knowles.
I remember very clearly starting the book in Guided Independent Reading class with Mr. Simons. I loved that class so much that I took it twice (we weren’t allowed to take it three times, or else I would have). All that was required in the class was to pick classic novels from a list, read them in class and have a conversation with Mr. Simon about them when the books were done. That was it. No papers, no essays, no tests. Just a dedicated 50 minutes of reading books of my choice for an entire semester. Did I mention how much I loved that class?
I have to admit, I was a pretty lousy student in high school (okay, and as an undergraduate in college, too). I got by with mediocre grades, putting in as little effort as I could give and still get a C or better. I don’t remember all that much about a lot of the classes I took, but I still remember many of the books I read for Mr. Simon. Lord of Flies, The Good Earth, Green Mansions (I had to keep from crying on the school bus as I finished that one) A Farewell to Arms, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and my all time favorite book, then and now, A Catcher in the Rye.
Fresh off my reading a Catcher in the Rye, Mr. Simons suggested that I might enjoy another coming-of-age story called A Separate Peace. I enthusiastically agreed and I couldn’t wait to start the book. After several class periods, I couldn’t wait to put the book down. It was slow, it was wordy and I hated it. Absolutely hated it.
We weren’t supposed to exchange books we didn’t like in the class, but every so often, Mr. Simon would agree if we really hated a book. I only swapped out two books in the two times I took the class. A Separate Peace was the first. Catch-22 was the second.
Throughout the years, I’ve returned to the classics I loved, and read a few new ones. One boss I worked for had a beautiful collection of leather-bound Classics with pages edged in gold. The paper was of the highest quality and the books came with their own ribbon bookmarks. The smell when I cracked open one of those books is indescribable. It is the best new-book scent that I’ve ever smelled. She loaned me a few of these books and they were an absolute joy to read. I reacquainted myself with Lieutenant Henry and Catherine from A Farewell to Arms while reading one of those marvelous books. (I didn’t borrow many of them from her because I was always afraid I’d spill on them.)
At one point in the past thirty-five years, I came across a paperback copy of A Separate Peace at a bookstore and bought it and never read it. I, honestly, have no idea how long ago or how many moves it has followed me through. I never read it, but I never got rid of it either.
Last night, as I perused the bookshelf, I happened upon it again. I decided it was high time I gave the novel another look. Worst case, if it was still boring, it would put me to sleep.
I started it last night around midnight and I read half the book before I finally forced myself to go to sleep. I got very little done today until I finished it. I loved it. I understand now why Mr. Simon thought I would enjoy it. Fantastic plot, great symbols, unbelievable writing and definitely in the same neighborhood as A Catcher in the Rye.
I can see, however, what I was put off of as a 17 year-old reading it. In spite of being short, it’s not a quick read. It doesn’t deserve to be either. The sentence structure is complex, almost poetic in it’s own way. I actually read a fair amount of the book out loud to myself, just to get the full experience of the words and images. I wasn’t patient enough, or motivated enough, to work to get through a book back then in 1983. It wasn’t work to get through it this time, but it did make me feel woefully inadequate with my own writing.
I’m glad I held on the book for however many years I’ve had it, and I’m so glad I finally read it. It’s going to be one of my new favorites. I just wish I could tell Mr. Simons how much I enjoyed his recommendation and have a conversation with him on the writing and the meanings behind the book.