Some books are worth reading again for the first time

Now I'm bitter. I'd always hoped a magazine or upscale liquor firm would ask what I'm currently reading as part of a profile of me as hip and urbane. Right now my list is as impressive as it could ever be, and finally someone asked. But they asked George Jonas, as he boasted in this space on Monday. He's not even reading any novels. Not fair. I'm reading Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence. And Mallory's Morte d'Arthur. And Relativity by Albert Einstein. And A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al. And All Tigers, No Donkeys by Kurt Grant about Canadian peacekeeping in Croatia. Never mind George. LOOK AT MEEEEE!

OK, mind George. He's reading Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture and calls it "a must-read." Also, he thinks men avoid new fiction as they age, instead rereading things that captivated them in their youth. Certainly I revisit old friends, like a guy Maclean's quoted (Vincent Starrett) on Sherlock Holmes, "Here, though the world explode, these two survive/And it is always 1895." Dude. And would you eat a dish, really enjoy it, then never taste it again? But I think George made an error worth discussing.

So while you photograph my good side for that ad, let me explain that I'm also happy to read things I would have loved in my youth if I'd read them then. For instance The Four Feathers. Or G.A. Henty. Or John Buchan. You know, stuff where plucky heroes determined to do the right thing prevail against long odds. The reason I don't read much modern fiction is the dysfunctional misadventures of alienated people don't interest me. If I were going to read about the life of pi, it would be the Greek letter.

I also think we read more non-fiction as we get older because the fiction worked. Good novels help us grow to understand the wonder and requirements of life. At a certain point, if we are lucky and Chestertonian, what happens is not that fiction becomes as dull as life but that life becomes as interesting as fiction. I once knew a guy who grew up at a cottage in the wilderness, backpacked around the world, got a PhD in Texas, then he met this girl and... Unless you are a baby boomer, you eventually have to stop preparing for your life and go have it. It doesn't mean you don't revisit, or visit, fictional classics to have your horizons expanded or your determination renewed. It just means you're selective about your destination.

George thinks one problem with novels is that since men don't read new books, women's and adolescents' taste shapes most literature. A worrying thought since a British radio program, Women's Hour, just put The Handmaid's Tale among the top 10 novels that transformed women's lives, along with a Marilyn French novel that says "all men are rapists." The only book on the list by a man is Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles where Tess has a daughter Sorrow who dies and ... No wonder many women like Thelma and Louise; it's cheerful by comparison. But if a guy had written it, the car would have gone off the cliff with villains in it, then Arnold would have blown it up in mid-air and ...

Note that Tess of the d'Urbervilles is not recent. It's just really really bad and depressing. Since a big OECD study says male students in Canada are a bit ahead of females in math but way behind in reading, maybe we should worry about what we're asking them to read. Boys of all ages will enjoy Robert Louis Stevenson or Lemony Snicket over and over, or for the first time. We'll read fiction and non-fiction. But hold the Atwood.

Look at the novels already in my "to read" pile. Here's one called The Search for Good Government. No, sorry, that's non-fiction. But there's a John Wyndham I have read, a Louis L'Amour I haven't, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones which I think my dad once read to me (file under truth is stranger) and Conrad's Nostromo which I have not. Competing non-fiction includes the venerable Bede, an architecture classic, the memoirs of a Second World War Stuka pilot and now this book about an extinct fish that's still alive. Reading is a blast. As long as it's not transgressive, perverted and ironic.

By the way, you suave profilers, I'm enjoying A Pattern Language and Kurt Grant's book (adults only, please; it's a frank look at military life). But From Dawn to Decadence is long and unfocused, Morte d'Arthur is comically bad, Relativity has some interesting bits but Einstein was a popular writer like I'm a theoretical physicist. And wait a minute. This isn't upscale whisky in my glass. It's beer.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson