For a long time I thought that I would never re-read books. My refusal was part badge of honor and part common sense. After all, there are bazillions of books in the world, the vast majority of which I will never even know exist, let alone find the time to read, so why waste precious hours on novels I’ve already absorbed?
Then I got older, and books I had in my youth sworn allegiance to as lifetime favorites became little more than dull memories, or overarching sentiments (“yeah…I remember…liking it?”) It was with this in mind that I began slowly and occasionally picking up old favorites, particularly those I thought might seem different to me now that I’m old and wise and at least vaguely understand politics. I’ve read 1984 at least three times, Fahrenheit 451 two and, more recently had a second go at Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which I was inspired to read again after all the (completely justified) hype surrounding Freedom.
A Separate Peace, the 1959 novel by John Knowles, seemed like the perfect candidate for a re-read. It’s one of those books most people know they’ve read, but from which most readers are separated by at least a decade, having been assigned the book in high school or even earlier. I am one of those people: I have vague memories of A Separate Peace from my formative middle-school years, when a novel about two prep school best friends probably resonated with me the same way the Babysitters Club did (I didn’t really babysit, but understood what it was like to spend a lot of time thinking about boys.) But other than some general recollections, I couldn’t tell you before this week what exactly A Separate Peace was about.
Color me reminded. The novel revolves around Phineas and Gene (1940s names if ever there were), best friends at the Devon School, a suitably generic prep school in New England. The novel takes place during the early years of World War II, and much of its strength is in Knowles’ analysis of what it must have been like to be 17 in those years, with the probability of an imminent draft butting heads against an otherwise intellectually-focused prep school education. Torn between the innocence of youth and the hardship of war, Phineas, Gene and the rest of the students at the Devon School make their way through all the normal social perils of teenage years, until an incident one summer that forces them to forfeit their innocence (no, not that way. Gross, you guys.)
A Separate Peace is beautifully written, and suffers from none of the anachronistic language that made me dislike The Catcher in the Rye (which is similar in theme and time period.) Although the war is a major element of the story, and has everything to do with the characters’ respective psyches, there are many elements of A Separate Peace, and specifically of the relationship between Phineas and Gene, that transcend time or place. One forgets how tenuous and complicated adolescent friendships became once we were old enough to envy the successes of our peers.
So take some time this week and think back to those books that in your youth seemed like little more than 200 pages of homework, or the final obstacle between you and some hard-earned reruns of Friends. Some of those books may not stand the test of time—I seriously wish The Great Gatsby had never been written—but others may remind you why they’re so treasured in the first place.
This is a difficult book to really review, as would be any novel that’s managed to ingrain itself in our understanding of American literature. Objectively analyzing something like A Separate Peace, 1984 or Animal Farm is sort of like opining on Citizen Kane without acknowledging its place in our definition of what a good movie even is. As a lowly book blogger for an audience of four, I don’t know that I can rise to the occasion. All I can say is that re-reading A Separate Peace made me wish I had the time to reexamine every novel from my teenage years, including those I remember disliking (again, except The Great Gatsby).
There are many ways to see how you’ve changed as a person, to examine how your worldview has been continuously reshaped by a never-ending series of life experiences. Me, I like to Facebook-stalk guys I had crushes on in middle school and reassure myself that they turned out ugly. …But re-reading a book I once thoroughly enjoyed is definitely a close second.
TITLE: A Separate Peace
AUTHOR: John Knowles
PAGES: 204 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Spreading Fires, Peace Breaks Out
SORTA LIKE: The Catcher in the Rye meets Dead Poets Society
FIRST LINE: “I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before>”