open book

Re-read everything

… that you read in school.


My mom (who’s reading this, hello!) always said that philosophy is lost on 20-somethings. I’ll specify by arguing that short fiction is lost on 20-somethings. Not all, and not always me, but looking back on all the fantastic essays, short stories, and novels I was assigned to read as an undergraduate, much of what I remember reading that really should have resonated with me simply didn’t. And those pieces that didn’t hit me hard weren’t because due to a valid critique on my part, but because I was a distracted, moronic, self-centered 21-year-old.

I’m sure you can think of a ton of assigned readings from your field of study or area of interest that went over your head at a young age. Now’s the time to revisit those readings.

I’ve gotten rid of a lot of texts from those days but kept many more, lugging essay and short fiction collections east and west, unpacking and arranging them on bookshelves, promising myself that I would revisit them but pushing that pledge from my mind and I found things to concern myself with.

But recently I cut the bullshit. A month ago I picked up a Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories from my junior-year advanced fiction writing class (right.) and turned to Joyce Carol Oates “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” something I’d read for the first time seven years ago (ugh) and not again since but remembered as haunting, absolutely. And it was just that, but fuller than what I remembered. I found another, this one from the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction: Pam Huston’s “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” read for the first time in an intermediate-level short fiction writing class. I remember wanting to like the story but not getting much out of it. I likely attempted to read it in a time span of 15 minutes on four hours of sleep before rushing to a job I had at the time that was preposterously stupid and too many hours for what I was paid. Reading it again, almost eight years later (double ugh), the story knocked me to the ground. The answers I was looking for only half-heartedly when I read it at age almost-22 were there for me when I rediscovered it at age still-29.

There’s a lot to be said about re-reading: it allows a reader to slow down, pick up on details likely missed in the rush to the conclusion. As we age and gain experiences, the themes, characters, conflicts, settings of the things we read and reacted to at a younger age are cast in a different light upon return. That’s all true.

But we mature as we age, thank goodness. Revisiting an assigned text blazed through is a generous act for the person we currently are: likely not a student and therefore without the opportunities for intellectual stimulation as available to students, but someone who can give a text well-regarded by others the consideration it deserves. I certainly know of people in my writing classes who had the focus and discipline to fully immerse themselves in the texts assigned for craft discussions, but they were few and far between.

My experience is that of a nerdy white girl at a public university who turned her English major into basically a creative writing degree and privileged as hell in that regard, but whatever your field, there are probably some seminal texts that are part of the canon for some reason. Maybe you read them, maybe you skimmed them, maybe you didn’t. But go back and read them. Pause and reflect. Think about them after you’ve set them aside. Read them again. Even if the younger version of you didn’t think much of something you were required to read, the present-day you just might.

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