September 2011

Geraldine McGowan

nonfiction

Second Reading: Notable and Neglected Books Revisited by Jonathan Yardley

Not so long ago, I watched a two-and-a-half-year-old girl discover ice cream. A look of shock appeared on her face at her very first taste and her eyes widened. She stared at her parents and sister and it was hard to tell if she was thinking, You mean you never gave this to me before -- what took you so long? Or perhaps she had a moment of fear that something so good must be bad. When done, she inhaled deeply and exhaled just as fully: total contentment. She held up her cup: "More." 

It's highly unlikely that this little girl will remember that ice cream, but I've been thinking about firsts: love firsts, food firsts, school firsts, movie firsts and if you're a writer and reader, book firsts. Jonathan Yardley's Second Reading: Notable and Neglected Books Revisited put me in melancholy frame of mind; I remembered the joy and excitement of first reading Pride and Prejudice. It wasn't just the story, it wasn't only Elizabeth Bennett's contemporary character -- what was striking to me most of all was that a woman writing from the 1800s could speak to me, could make me laugh, and could make me worry about the situations she wrote about. It is safe to say Pride and Prejudice took my breath away. Later on Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude sent me soaring. The first reading of a book that you turn out to love can be as visceral a pleasure as any of the more patently corporeal ones. 

So I will never again have the pleasure of reading Pride and Prejudice as if for the first time (read: I will never be young again). But as it turned out Yardley left my sentimental yearnings in the rearview mirror. 

Between 2003 and 2009 Yardley, The Washington Post's book critic, and self-described "ardent, constant reader since the day I was old enough to read," wrote ninety-seven essays (on ninety-eight books) that he'd read before (although only sixty are collected here). The books he's revisiting are all over the map, and I mean that as a compliment. A 1949 biography of W.C. Fields by Robert Lewis Taylor, Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus, Nora Ephron's book of essays, Crazy Salad, and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White are among those he reconsiders. 

None of the reviews is long, but Yardley's ability to give you a piece of biography on the author, then go directly to the book's guts suggest how well he reads. He correctly notes that Ephron's "pungency... of opinions and prose" as not the least of the qualities that makes her worth rereading. 

Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is the "twentieth century's Jane Eyre," making a case for gothic fiction as being something more than pure entertainment. It's Faulkner's The Reivers and not his big novels that Yardley revisits, saying that although it "is an implacably sunny book... his realistic, clear-eyed view of the world" allowed him to show the contempt and cruelty with which its black characters are treated. 

Hemingway and Fitzgerald are included here, but so are authors such as Noël Coward and Louis Armstrong (who wrote his autobiography). Yardley's tastes are wide and deep. 

He fights the good fight for neglected authors such as Ellen Glasgow, born in 1873, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel In This Our Lifebut here he suggests reading her posthumous memoir The Woman WithinIt's better than he remembers it being: "a classic of American autobiography and a penetrating examination of a born writer's inner life." He, of course, wants her to be rediscovered. 

Most of the books he rereads still have the stuff he remembers them having, though not all. Going back to The Catcher in the Rye he notes that he never understood what all the fuss was about in the first place. Holden seemed to him to be as phony as those he criticized. But Yardley is the definition of the "gentle reader" because he saw something in it that had eluded him as a young man. "Whatever its shortcomings, The Catcher in the Rye is from the heart -- not Holden Caulfield's heart, but Jerome David Salinger's heart. He said everything he had to say in it, which may be well why he said nothing else." 

This is a wonderful book to pick through, looking for authors you know and a lot you probably don't. Jonathan Yardley is like the best sort of librarian. 

Second Reading: Notable and Neglected Books Revisited by Jonathan Yardley
Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609450083
256 pages