Not many pleasures attach to growing old. And as former pleasures pass away one by one, fewer still emerge, new and unrehearsed. Reading, albeit more slowly and through spectacles, remains a source of knowledge and provides the increasingly rare frisson of sheer delight. Most unexpectedly in my perilously lengthening lifetime, however, arrived the spanking new and rejuvenating joy of rereading.
As with all pleasures there is a risk of disappointment – nothing like as sharp, however, as the heartbreak of youthful disappointments. I was sorry but not moved to tears, for example, to find that Tristram Shandy, a favourite of my teens, did not tickle the older me, seemed, in fact, a trifle tiresome. But to reread is not simply to rediscover a forgotten book; it is also to discover at last who it was who read that book the first time – the serious little swot, for example, gleefully shocked by what she later took as read: ‘When the misfortune of my NOSE fell so heavily upon my father’s head . . .’ Holy smoke! Great Literature was allowed to be comic!
By the same token, on a recent trip to America, I began to skim a novel my classmates and I used to dismiss as deadly, and to my surprise I found my more experienced self captivated by a masterpiece. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a gorgeous surprise for overstretched memory and superannuated organs of pleasure. Even better, here was an author who accorded with all my own prejudices. For as we grow old, we brook less and less disagreement, until finally we tolerate none at all: we do not dare, for gradually over the years we have become the sum of our opinions. Challenge one of them, even just the efficacy of cod-liver oil, and the whole construct trembles. In my opinion, and I don’t care what anyone says, my motherland America has ever been, and never more than now, twice as solemn, three times as reverential, and infinitely more tight-assed than any of her European pa
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