Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike

Among the other things to do, such as grade papers and blog about "retention of knowledge" (prompted by Dean Dad) and physics education (prompted by the gatekeeping article by Chad, and others he links to, as well some engineering education videos that an unrelated comment by Alice Pawley led me to), is the need to comment on today's news.

John Updike died today.

And I was somewhere between shocked and dismayed when Katie Couric said something to the effect that most Americans will think of "Witches of Eastwick" when they hear his name. Not me. To me, there is only "Rabbit, Run". (And his many essays in the New Yorker, which will undoubtedly have quite a tribute in the near future.) Rabbit is, indeed, finally At Rest.

It isn't quite like that book changed my life or made me a writer, far from it, but it has spoken to me in many different ways over the past decades. I'll explain.

I first read "Rabbit, Run" in high school, long after it had been published. It was a great story, with a voyeuristic look at the 'cool' life of a rather irresponsible fellow going through a post-high-school early life crisis. It was, like other books assigned in the best class I remember from high school, radically different from anything assigned in any of my previous lit classes. What interested me then was the look at the underside of the Protestant middle class, as that BBC article puts it.

I picked up "Rabbit Redux" in paperback, about a year after it was originally published in hard cover. I was in college at the time. (I can be pretty sure about when I bought it because the bookmark is a punched card loading the APL library.) I didn't like it, and stopped part way through out of boredom.

This did not stop me from buying "Rabbit is Rich" (again in paperback) when it came out a decade later. For some reason, I decided I should attack the trilogy from the start, since it had been so long since I read "Rabbit, Run".

I was stunned. Viewed from adulthood, now older than Rabbit was at the time, "Rabbit, Run" was a completely different book. Completely different. Part of it was my age, and a longer view at the era Rabbit had lived in, but part of it was that I now actually knew Rabbit! I'll leave it at that. That was an eye opener. I then enjoyed "Rabbit Redux", which I now see I could not appreciate because I had nothing to connect with in the book back when I was in college. It was easy to connect to the Rabbit of 1960, not long out of high school, but not so easy for the one approaching middle age.

There was no looking back, then, but in some ways I dreaded reading "Rabbit at Rest". Someone I knew was facing what we would all face - and what my friend faced, may God rest his soul, some years later. I imagine that, today, all of those books will carry additional meaning that I could not appreciate back when I first (or second) read them.

Maybe I'll read them all this summer.

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