You can't go home again, but it took me three heartbreaks to figure that out.
Recently I've been savouring a nostalgia brick to the face, in the form of the book Dark Whispers by Bruce Coville, third book in his series The Unicorn Chronicles. The first two books were published during my childhood, and I read them with great delight, at the time of their publication. The latter two books didn't release until I was well into my adulthood, and they have been out of print for nearly as long, so discovering the third book in a used bookstore - hell, discovering a third book even existed - came as something of a shock: I had never expected him to finish the series, and had long since gotten over my despair at this expectation (soothed, no doubt, by the comparably marvelous offerings of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, which I had discovered around the same time). Reading Dark Whispers now, just to grant my inner child some morsel of closure, I find it holds up to the passage of time unexpectedly well. The author clearly intends this series to be palatable to parents who read aloud to their children, because its prose is downright decadent, lexically lavish, for the target age range. This is the first time I have gone back as an adult to read material targeted at preteens, and not found myself bitterly disappointed by the writing quality. Perhaps this is also a matter of tone and atmosphere: the series is about two worlds, Earth and the unicorn-inhabited otherworld of Luster, where all magical beings fled from Earth to avoid being hunted to extinction. The protagonist and her grandmother, known as the Wanderer, exemplify the sentiment called hiraeth in Welsh, a longing for places and times that cannot be reached, having either changed past recognition, or never existed in the first place. The writing sympathises and resonates with the very sentiment it brings about in its own original audience, the children who outgrew the series just in time for its last two books to be published.
I was an only child of a single mother who, in her infinite wisdom, saw fit to keep me as socially and technologically isolated as humanly possible. It was consequently unsurprising that I found solace in books, more than any other source, and I had the good fortune of being a proficient early reader, with access to a robust school library. I had the exquisite fortune of schoolteachers who supported my reading habits and left me in peace to do my own autodidact thing, rather than telling me to put my books away and focus solely on the subject of the class at any given moment. My grades were consistently stellar, and I could be a fidgety, academically overzealous little shit, when not allowed to read through class to my heart's content, so in all likelihood, letting me mind my own business was the path of least resistance, when dealing with an otherwise rowdy group of children. Elementary school swiftly became my favourite place on the planet, a fortress of wonders that I could explore eight hours a day, five days a week. I could visit faraway worlds and make indelible friendships with robots, gods, and heroes, from the relative comfort of a little desk with uneven legs. Most importantly, I could do all this with complete certainty and clarity of purpose: call it impaired theory of mind, perhaps, or innocent optimism, but I was utterly confident that of everyone and everything in my life, books would never - could never - disappoint or fail me in any manner.
Then tragedy struck. A teacher gifted me a book that was completely outside my interests, and unenjoyable, to boot. This had never occurred. More to the point, this possibility had never occurred to me. The very existence of any book that could not delight me was baffling, shocking, and deeply distressing. If one such book exists, then perhaps many of them exist. I learned my school library was not characteristic of all book collections: it was curated, likely by someone whose tastes resemble my own. I could no longer trust the infallibility of books as a source of enjoyment. I had to be discerning. I had to doubt, because some books were not very good friends at all. It was horrible.
A few years after this whammy of a discovery, my household relocated to a larger town, with a larger school and a fantastic public library - something my tiny hometown did not possess. Now a teenager, I found myself forgetting the particulars of some of my early favourite books, so I sought them out at the library, inflicting upon myself a second dreadful epiphany. Phoenix Farm, the short story by Jane Yolen, not only failed to stand the test of time, but it felt insultingly facile. I knew, of course, that picture books for brand new readers held little interest for me, as they existed chiefly to teach the skill of reading. I knew, likewise, that there existed books for adults which addressed life experiences that wouldn't make much sense to me yet. I simply had not added these two premises up to the conclusion which struck me so harshly while reading Yolen's story: Books I have enjoyed could be outgrown. Worse yet, I could remember them with ardent fondness and pathos, and return to them years later, only to find them devoid of that pathos, their efforts at prodding my emotions so simplistic as to feel offensive. I could love a book and later hate it. I could destroy my love of a book, through the error of rereading it a little bit too late. I could only truly enjoy a book once, only read it for the first time with its full force and meaning once. Once I forgot what made it so special to me, I could never get it back again. I was devastated, which no doubt sounds very dramatic (and appropriate to the thirteen-year-old I was at the time), but I considered books my personal friends: it felt like betrayal of deeply meaningful relationships, to permanently lose the emotional accessibility of children's books.
Throughout all this, somehow I remained confident that I would have all the time in the world to do all the reading I might ever want to do. The need to be selective and avoid poor quality reading material had already shortened my reading queue, and now I knew rereading would be wasteful at best. In high school I picked up John Green's Looking for Alaska, a heavy YA novel that addressed and subverted the Manic Pixie Dream Girl literary trope. I was the right age for it, the right audience, and it left me receptive and interested about Green's later work, Paper Towns, published three years later. When Paper Towns rang hollow for me, I experienced a creeping dread which drove me to binge-read the next dozen books in my YA reading queue, as quickly as I could. More than half of them had the same dullness, despite the eager curiosity for their content which put them on my queue in the first place. The third heartbreak hit me slowly, like the gradual transformation of a tension headache into a migraine. I did not have enough time to read everything I wanted to read. Yes, empirically I knew that mortality alone would govern the total number of books I would eventually have an opportunity to read, but until this moment, I had not realised I could age out of entire lists of books yet to be read, intending to read them, but not having enough time to get to them all before they felt as childish and derivative as Paper Towns. I could begin reading a series as soon as I aged into its target demographic, yet never reach the end of the series, before I lost the capacity to enjoy it. Worse yet, this could be completely the author's fault, if an author took too long between book releases, and it would poison my fond sentiments toward the author.
I moved on to university and was relieved for some time of all these concerns. My class schedule was burdensome, my projects demanding, my free hours nonexistent for any purpose other than hygiene, food, and sleep. I was too tired to want to read, though my lingering sense of loyalty to books - "friends" despite the lapse - made me want to want to read. Over seasonal breaks from school, I hunted for new books to befriend, and what I found were increasingly diminishing returns of enjoyment for my effort: in my long hiatus from reading every minute I could find to read, I had lost my sense of what sort of books I might enjoy. I had broken the previously-unbroken thread of continuity I'd enjoyed since childhood, each book recommending several other books and gradually advancing my tastes in new directions. It took me another six years of searching, before I was able to reconstruct a stable sense of what I enjoy reading: where high fantasy, mythology, and retold fairy tales once stood as my literary axis mundi, now hard science fiction had expanded to fill my whole view, like a Jovian moon breaking over the horizon.
I can't go home to Middle-Earth, to Terabithia and Narnia, to Homer's perilous image of the Mediterranean... but I can hop a ship to the Culture or Ringworld, spend some time with Jean le Flambeur and Shuos Jedao, and I always know damn well where my towel is.
I can also - on spectacularly rare occasion, when an author like Bruce Coville knows the shape of this hiraeth of mine as well as I do, and writes accordingly - find my way back to Luster and places like it, just for a little while.
You can't go home again, but you can build a new home, and the oldest and truest friends can invite you into their homes, to visit.
Iron Noder 2019, 6/30