Wednesday, January 28, 2009

john updike

I don't consider myself much of a reader, not anymore at any rate. I read like a fiend when I was a kid, and on through high school, and then got kind of deluged in college and fell out of the habit a bit. I was an English and history major, and wound up writing my senior thesis in history in part because I couldn't find a good, inspiring topic for a literary project.

Later in my senior year, I discovered John Updike. It was a class on modern satire, taught by a biographer of Updike, and one of the books on the reading list was "Rabbit is Rich." I'd have to say that book re-shaped me more than any other book I've read. It was the antidote to the malaise of senior year, the knowledge that I'd be finishing college soon and leaving the secure, comfortable environment of my little liberal-arts school for who knows what. (Though I did end up going back to college, a few years later. But it wasn't the same ...)

Since I don't consider myself much of a literary critic, I'm not sure if I can explain succinctly what I found in Updike's works, especially the Rabbit series (4 books altogether), that appealed so strongly to me. The best I can come up with is that I had never considered a perspective like Rabbit's: tired of the routine in life yet exhilarated by small pleasures, equally cognizant of his own limitations and those of the people around him. He'd gotten wealthy and soft compared to his earlier days, accustomed to privilege, but still couldn't quite resign himself to advancing age and the minor disappointments in his life. And if this doesn't sound especially compelling, it's only because I can't do justice to Updike's writing style: lean, insightful, unapologetic. It was so enjoyable to watch him play with words, you could almost miss the way he effortlessly added nuance to his plot and characters.

Or something like that. I've been immersed in medicine too long to write another English paper. But I discovered something in Updike's world. Not something I was missing in mine, just a better way of interpreting it. Even though I've only read a fraction of the many books and short stories that Updike wrote. (When I moved back east from Seattlea few years ago, I also made a point of driving through Updike's hometown of Shillington, PA. It was pretty late and I didn't see much except the usual chain stores along the commercial highway, but it was still worth it.)

Updike's works meant so much to me in part because of our similarities, and maybe they wouldn't resonate as well for someone who didn't grow up white and male and middle-class in the Northeast, went off to a private college in New England, etc etc. The kind of qualities that probably prevented Updike from winning the Nobel Prize he deserved, as much or more so as any recent winner. But the breadth and quality of the work he produced over his career were astounding; and when he died yesterday, he was remembered by many as one of the great American writers. I will always be thankful that I discovered him when I did, at just the right point in my life. He was as much a guide as an author to me, and the very least I can do now is give him his due.


Somnath said...

Now you're taking shots at my super-automatic? Your coffee maker is probably already smelling like spoiled milk. My netbook has arrived. His name is Sammy.

Trevor said...

Other people have hi-tech espresso makers too, you know. Why are you so sensitive? Why do you keep mentioning your netbook? And what does any of this have to do with John Updike???