Obligatory opening anecdote: Years ago, when it was still fresh on the pop-cultural scene, Darwin and I cringed through the dubious pleasures of the movie Meet the Parents with a group of friends. A wit, passing through the living room on his way to the kitchen, glanced at the screen and remarked, "Oh, I love this movie, especially the part at the end where the dog comes home." One of the girls in the viewing audience was convinced that the movie had been spoiled for her, and kept a vain watch throughout the rest of the movie for the dog whose entrance would explain the events of the film.
Yesterday my box from Amazon arrived, and inside was a fresh three-inch-thick tome: Kristin Lavransdatter. I hefted the book to peer inside. Placed temptingly at the fore were the introduction and the translator's note. Now, I'm a sucker for an intro and prefatory notes, and I nearly always read them when provided, pondering over the clues which they provide into the workings of an unfamiliar plot. Not this time. I'm going to force myself to start reading the actual text. I don't know nothin' about Kristin Lavransdatter, and I want to preserve my (mostly) tabula rasa so that I'm chewing on the author's words. Anyone ever read a forward or a summary and developed the wrong impression of a book and charge through the whole thing looking for some event or theme that didn't turn out to be there? Or had a book turn out to be completely different from the impression you'd formed of it -- while reading the introductory essay? Many readers whose opinion I respect have nothing but praise for Kristin Lavransdatter, so I'm prepared for excellence, which is in itself a pre-conception, but I won't spoil anything by reading the introduction.
I read Silence by Shusako Endo under the impression that somewhere in the book I was going to be subjected to a gory episode of torture because of some passing reference I'd read years ago. And so my reading of the whole was colored because I was constantly on the lookout, and shying away from, this imaginary torture scene. This heightened sensitivity colored my reading of several scenes and made my first reading a bit cursory, as I was anticipating plot points that, in fact, never occured. When I finished the book, I had to go back and read some chapters again in order to really pay attention to what was taking place in the scene.
Glancing at my bookshelf, I see several books that I read virtually "sight unseen". In one category are John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga (a three-part series) and two, Antic Hay and Point Counter Point, by Aldous Huxley. (All were picked up at thrift stores or library sales, and I bought mainly for the antiquity of the volumes and the British names of the authors, though I did find the title Antic Hay to be intriguing). The Forsyte Saga was interesting, but Galsworthy's oddly Victorian idea of loose morality left a bad taste in my mouth. (I did find Soames Forsyte, that great stiff man of business, to be easily the most enduring character of the piece -- all the other supposedly more sympathetic characters I found intolerable.) Antic Hay and Point Counterpoint were a wash. I remember almost nothing about them except that they were dull and vaguely dislikable. (Oddly enough, reading the summaries of these Huxley novels on Amazon does nothing to refresh my memory of the plot or the characters.) Huxley's fame as an author must be based solely upon Brave New World (unread by me, except for the first chapter or two), because his other stuff is absolutely forgettable.
Though, on the other hand, Darwin's brother sent me as a Christmas gift a collection of short stories by Gerald Durrell (an author previously completely unknown to me) called Fillets of Plaice. These turned out to be (mostly) side-splittingly funny, and I enjoyed them all the more for having no idea what what coming. The same brother, whose role it must be to introduce me to previously unknown literary delights, gave me Rumer Godden's China Court, which I started with interest and finished with devouring speed.
Perhaps the most significant blind read for me was the book Darwin gave me early in our college acquaintance: Brideshead Revisited. I pondered the pronunciation of the title (Bride Shed? Brides Head?) and floundered through the first military chapters, only to find myself delighted by a book that I've since re-read numerous times with increasing pleasure and insight.
So: I'm about to embark on Kristin Lavransdatter. And I do plan to read the introductory essay, but in its proper place, when it will make the most sense: after I've read the book.