Lucky Jim Changed This Man’s Life
How often can you say a book changed your life?
This outstanding article by Joseph Schuster at The Millions illustrates how Lucky Jim changed his life. Lucky Jim? The story of a sad, beaten-up, self-deprecating assistant professor at a no-name college in England? Yep. Lucky Jim.
That just goes to show—when it comes to literary tastes, we all appreciate different flavors.
Schuster talks about his annual tradition of reading Lucky Jim in the fall—and what (or if) he expects to learn something from each reading. Many of you who do the same with a favorite novel will probably relate:
On a certain level, it’s perhaps an odd thing to read a book perhaps two dozen times and to plan to read it yet again. After all, the primary force that pulls us through a work of fiction is the desire to find out what happens next and after we’ve read to the last page the first time, we know the sequence of events that make up the narrative.
As a writer, I’ve often re-read work that I’ve admired so that I can figure how the author accomplishes whatever he or she does: How does Gustave Flaubertbuild the structure of Madame Bovary so that Emma’s suicide seems inevitable rather than melodramatic?
How does Vladimir Nabokov convince me to feel connected to Humbert Humbert despite his desire for twelve-year-old Lolita? How does Stewart O’Nan make Emily, Alone or Last Night at the Lobster compelling novels despite the fact that little of seeming dramatic consequence occurs in them? How does Margot Livesey make The Flight of Gemma Hardy a fresh story despite its clear echoes of and debt to Jane Eyre?
Certainly, at least some of my trips through Lucky Jim have taught me something about how to build a novel: one of the reasons it succeeds is that Amis uses the comic moments more than merely for a laugh but as integral parts of what is really an extremely tight structure that allows us to accept that the unhappy and largely incompetent protagonist we begin with who is able, in only roughly 250 pages, to become the sort of man who deserves the happy ending he comes to, who deserves the good job and good woman he has by the final line that brought me to tears for its profound rightness that first time.
But two dozen times through? Is there profit in that?
I always find it interesting how unique we can be as readers. I would’ve never have thought Lucky Jim to be a life-changing novel, but that’s why we read (and re-read) the books.
So my question to you is this: Why do you re-read novels?
Are you just in love with the story? The writing? Do you hope to learn something new, like Schuster mentions above?