There are books that I can never read as they were intended – now ain’t that a crying shame?
Some of them no one can read any more, not the way they were written. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is the obvious example. My parents married in ’62, and I can try, as an academic exercise, to unpick what was new in it and what was familiar, but I’m never going to understand its original impact on a visceral level, and I’m not convinced that anyone of my parents’ age could peel back their consciousness and read it with fresh eyes either.
More common are books that are lost to me, but not irredeemably lost. A Town Like Alice, for example, is a book I knew far too much about before I read it. It’s difficult to discuss without spoiling it for the one person reading this (I’m guessing, of course – maybe none of you know anything about it at all) who doesn’t already know what it’s largely about. However, safe in the knowledge that the dust jacket generally gives away the essence of the second half of the book, I will say that there is a scene that nearly made me cry (and that’s no easy feat) even knowing what I did. It must be extraordinarily powerful if you can only come to it cold, but it still packs a punch. It’s the chapters immediately following that scene that I can never read as they deserve to be – and Nevil Shute could write tragedy like no one else I’ve read, so that’s a real loss.
Leaving my views on the Town Like Alice cover-blurb aside, I didn’t set out to write a rant about spoilers. What I had in mind was more of an elegy for books and films that have been victims of their own success, that have become so solidly embedded in our culture that they have been robbed of half their power. Who can be surprised by the final appearance of the original ‘mad woman in the attic’? (Okay, I know, she wasn’t in the attic . . . that’s not the point.) Does anyone with the remotest interest in Sherlock Holmes not know before they get there what really happened at the Reichenbach Falls? All that careful slow reveal gone to waste.
Sometimes the world at large exceeds my expectations: I was pleasantly surprised by how long it was before anyone gave away the ending of the Sixth Sense, and by how difficult it turned out to be to find out how Angels with Dirty Faces ends (the video having chosen perhaps the most crucially defining moment of any film, ever, to stop recording) – but it is altogether too much to expect that these things can remain secrets forever.
So I don’t blame anyone in the slightest. It must be the highest tribute that the secret cannot be kept, and the writing remains, of course . . . but the story suffers, and I can’t help being a little sad at that.
I’ve long said the same about the music of The Beatles. They were world-changers, the first to do so many things with popular music, but anyone listening today, inured to music that wouldn’t exist but for them, cannot possibly hear the freshness and the wow factor when it first burst into our hidebound heads.
I have never read, nor know anything about, A Town Like Alice, by the way 🙂
Yes, that too – I’d forgotten, but I was on the bus a few months ago and there were a group of kids discussing Tolkein, and how they didn’t rate him much because he’s so derivative and clichéd . . .
Though I should probably also warn you that when we finally find that mutually convenient pub you’re going to be terribly disappointed by my musical knowledge.