Friday, February 19, 2010

Take the Retro Reading Challenge

Yesterday I read The Globe and Mail’s review of Peter Straub’s new novel, A Dark Matter, and it gave me an idea. In talking about the challenges of writing good horror stories, the reviewer says: “Harder still is writing an effective horror novel in which the main events occur in the past … Stephen King achieved this masterfully in his magnum opus It, although the sense of peril in the childrens’ [sic] storyline in that novel was bolstered somewhat by the simultaneous adult storyline featuring the same characters.”

I read King’s novel It when I was fifteen and would have agreed wholeheartedly with this assessment. Back in those days, I was a thin and gawky teenager, all teeth and shoulder blades, and was very poorly read, even for my age. Upon completing It, I was convinced that it was the greatest work of literature ever created in the known universe. I mean, I was enamoured with this novel. But I wonder: if I were to go back and reread it now, nearly 20 years later, what would my reactions be? I’ve probably read more than a 1,000 books since then; I’ve lived on three continents, published my own novel, watched loved ones die, eaten dog meat, seen friends marry and divorce. Surely all of my accumulated experiences would affect my impressions of this book.

So here’s the idea, which I’m calling the Retro Reading Challenge, and I hope you all will play along. The idea is to pick a book that you read and adored years and years ago, then reread it now and write a review of it to capture your impressions. Did you still love it? Did you see flaws (or strengths) that you missed the first time? Did you have an “Oh God, what the hell was I thinking?” moment?

For the record, I will NOT be rereading It for this challenge. I’m just not prepared to commit myself to 1,000 pages of King’s hurried, harried prose at this point in my life. I will be finding a different book in which to review. (Stay tuned to find out my selection, once I figure that out.) But I will be sticking to the following rules, and I hope you’ll do the same.

Rules for the Retro Reading Challenge:

1. You read the book at least 15 years ago – i.e. the spring of 1995 or earlier. (Much earlier if you were born, say, before 1980.)
2. At the time, you loved the book. Thought it was brilliant and greatest thing since Pop Shop soda.
3. You’ve read the book just once – i.e. rereading it for this challenge will be only your second encounter with the text.
4. The book should be one written and marketed for adults. No YA novels or children’s books for the purposes of this challenge.

Write a review and either post it on your own blog and send me the link or put it as a comment on this blog. Make sure to include the timeframe in which you first read it, what your impressions of the book had been at the time, and how your current reaction to it is different or the same.

Good luck!


1 comment:

  1. This is a great idea, Mark, and it got me thinking about "Sailing Alone Around the World" by Joshua Slocum. Firstly, I have to confess that I didn't reread it specifically for this challenge, but I did reread it (20+ years after my initial reading) recently. I first discovered this book when I was a boy growing up in Brier Island, Nova Scotia. Slocum sailed from there on his historic solo circumnavigation of the globe, so it was an incredible thrill as a young boy to read a grown-up book with a direct link to where I lived. His account of the journey enthralled me then—a straightforward, lively account of an amazing adventure. When I returned to it (as I worked on "Atlantic Canada's 100 Greatest Books") I was quite nervous to see how it would hold up. Imagine my delight to discover it was even better than I remembered. With simple, and often self-deprecating, candour, Slocum provides a textbook example of honest, straight-forward storytelling. It's easy to poo-poo this non-fiction travel/adventure books (and there is a lot of fluff in the genre) but "Sailing Alone Around the World" is simply one of the best books of its type—on par with masterpieces like "The Worst Journey in the World" and "South." Everyone who aspires to write anything remotely autobiographical should read it before starting. I'd be hard pressed to find many books I read at age 12 that still hold up well, but this one absolutely does. It was a delightful rediscovery. If you were comparing this book to food, it would be a mashed-potatoes-and-meatloaf meal: unpretentious, uncomplicated and very satisfying.