Ice Cream and Vinegar

Seventeen authors, several of them Harvardians, reread a book or a poem (or the Sgt. Pepper lyrics) that impressed them in their youths and write about how it—of course, they—have changed. Rereadings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20) is edited by Anne Fadiman ’74, Francis writer in residence at Yale and former editor of the American Scholar. In her introduction, she tells of reading to Henry, her eight-year-old son, C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, which she had loved 40 years before:

Reading a favorite book to your child is one of the most pleasurable forms of rereading, provided the child’s enthusiasm is equal to yours and thus gratifyingly validates your literary taste, your parental competence, and your own former self. Henry loved The Horse and His Boy, the tale of two children and two talking horses who gallop across an obstacle-fraught desert in hopes of averting the downfall of an imperiled kingdom that lies to the north. It’s the most suspenseful of the Narnia books, and Henry, who was at that poignant age when parents are still welcome at bedtime but can glimpse their banishment on the horizon, begged me each night not to turn out the light just yet: how about another page, and then how about another paragraph, and then, come on, how about just one more sentence? There was only one problem with this idyllic picture. As I read the book to Henry, I was thinking to myself that C.S. Lewis, not to put too fine a point on it, was a racist and sexist pig.

….I remembered The Horse and His Boy only as a rollicking equestrian adventure, sort of like Misty of Chincoteague but with swordfights instead of Pony Penning Day. My jaw dropped when I realized that Aravis, its heroine, is acceptable to Lewis because she acts like a boy—she’s interested in “bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming”—and even dresses like one, whereas the book’s only girly girl, a devotee of “clothes and parties and gossip,” is an object of contempt. Even more appalling was Lewis’s treatment of the Calormenes, a brown-skinned people who wear turbans and carry scimitars. (Forty years ago, the crude near-homonym had slipped by me. This time around, I wondered briefly if Lewis was thinking only about climate—calor is Latin for heat—but decided that was unlikely. It’s as if he’d named a Chinese character Mr. Yellow: it had to be on purpose.)….

It was difficult to read this kind of thing to Henry without comment: the words, after all, were coming to him in my voice. I held my tongue for the first hundred pages or so, but finally I blurted out, “Have you noticed that The Horse and His Boy isn’t really fair to girls? And that all the bad guys have dark skin?”….

Henry shot me the sort of look he might have used had I dumped a pint of vinegar into a bowl of chocolate ice cream. And who could blame him? He didn’t want to analyze, criticize, evaluate, or explicate the book. He didn’t want to size it up or slow it down. He wanted exactly what I had wanted at eight: to find out if Shasta and Aravis would get to Archenland in time to warn King Lune that his castle was about to be attacked by evil Prince Rabadash and two hundred Calormene horsemen. “Mommy,” he said fiercely, “can you just read?”

And there lay the essential differences between reading and rereading, acts that Henry and I were performing simultaneously. The former had more velocity; the latter had more depth. The former shut out the world in order to focus on the story; the latter dragged in the world in order to assess the story. The former was more fun; the latter was more cynical. But what was remarkable about the latter was that it contained the former: even while, as with the upper half of a set of bifocals, I saw the book through the complicating lens of adulthood, I also saw it through the memory of the first time I’d read it, when it had seemed as swift and pure as the Winding Arrow, the river that divides Calormen from Archenland.

 

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