Have you ever returned to a book that you enjoyed as a younger reader? The experience can be enjoyable, disappointing and surprising, all at once. Last month, in a book club at a local Jesuit parish, I reminded the group that our next selection would be Mr. Blue, by Myles Connolly. "Mr. Blue!" exclaimed one woman. "I read that when I was in high school and loved it!"
"What’s it about?" asked another.
"It’s about a teacher," she said. "Oh, it’s just wonderful."
I overheard this conversation and smiled. Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue, recently reissued as part of the Loyola Classics series, was first published in 1928 and tells the story of a latter-day Francis of Assisi. To the delight of some and the consternation of many, J. Blue makes his home in a wooden shack atop the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper. As John B. Breslin, S.J., notes in the book’s introduction, Mr. Blue was something of a cult favorite among high-school kids in the 1950’s.
But it’s not about a teacher at all, and I mentioned this to the woman who had so fondly remembered the book. It isn’t? she said wonderingly.
It’s odd what we remember and what we forget about even our favorite books. (It was noteworthy that though Mr. Blue was not a teacher, my friend may have remembered the book teaching her something.) Recently, in The New York Review of Books, one writer remarked that with very long books, those that one might read only once in a lifetime - in his case it was the Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy, by Sigrid Undset - these works become inextricably linked with one’s life at that time. With other books you might remember nothing but a feeling. All I can say about my favorite book in elementary school, Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, is that it concerned a boy genius who invented a machine to do his homework, and that I read it three times before returning it to the library. (These days I might feel equally enthusiastic about Danny Dunn and the Copyediting Machine.)
And then, just last week, a strange thing happened. I dreamt about a book I read when I was 12, called The Old Man and the Boy, written by Robert Ruark in 1957. That same day I found myself in a Barnes & Noble store and remembered that I had a Christmas gift card given to me by the book club. There was still $16 left on the card. On a lark, I asked if the store had any copies of The Old Man and the Boy. One yellowing copy remained on a shelf, and it cost...$16. Surely a sign!
Ruark’s bestselling book (more than 150,000 copies sold, according to the cover) is about the relationship between an adolescent boy and his patient grandfather, who passes along his wisdom during long walks as the two hunt and fish the North Carolina coast in the 1920’s. Early on, the boy seizes on the old man’s wisdom as terrific hunting advice. Later he understands what he has learned to be terrific life advice.
What I chiefly remembered from the book are its descriptions of the boy traipsing through the cool autumn woods with his trusty dogs, and noticing everything around him. And though I never hunted as a boy (and fished only once), the scenes painted by the author made a vivid impression. A lot of people figure November to be a middling sad kind of month, says the narrator, with the trees showing naked against the leaden skies late in the afternoon, and the grass all crisp and brown from frost, and the threat of winter turning your ears red in the morning, and the evening cold making your nose run. If there’s a better description of November, I’d like to see it.
But The Old Man and the Boy seems different now, and, like the boy, I am more interested in the old man’s philosophy of life: what it takes to be a gentleman, what makes a good fisherman, and what it means to be compassionate. When I was 12, I liked to imagine myself outside with my trusty bird dog scouting for quail and geese. Now that I’m older, I’m happy to return to Ruark’s book for what it might teach about life. Like my friend’s misremembered version of Mr. Blue, a good book is a teacher that teaches us different things depending on when we read it.
But Ruark’s old man would say that I had better get cracking on the learning part. A man don’t start to learn until he’s about forty, he says to the boy, and when he hits fifty he’s learned about all he’s going to learn. After that, he can just sort of lay back and enjoy what he’s learned, and maybe pass a little bit of it on.