First Impressions and Timing Issues

It matters a lot, sometimes, what age you are when you first read a particular book.  Most of the time, though, the bit that matters isn’t whether or not you’re old enough for it.  Those of us who are members of the siblinghood of compulsive readers spend a lot of our early years reading books that are, according to the gatekeepers, “too old” for us, and most of us benefit from the mental stretching exercises involved.

I do think, though, that it’s possible to come to some books too late.  Once you’ve acquired the taste for deconstruction, for examining the underpinnings of a work – teasing out its buried contradictions and unexamined assumptions, and speculating on the untold stories and the differing viewpoints of secondary and minor characters – it’s hard to look at a book with the open and receptive eye of a new reader.  Texts instead become things to be approached with suspicion, lest they pull the wool over our eyes or trip us up when we’re not looking, and a suspicious approach is no way to make friends.

The books that are destined to become our lifelong friends, I believe, are the ones we encounter when we’re old enough as readers to understand what’s going on in the text, but before we’ve had the chance to become cynical about it.  Consider, for example, The Count of Monte Cristo.  On second or third reading, even a young reader can see that Edmond Dantès is, frankly, kind of a dick†, that there’s something more than a little bit skeevy about his relationship with Haidee, and that his first love Mercédès gets handed a raw deal by fate, Edmond, and the writer, all three.‡  But if the reader’s had a chance to first take the story straight  – the escape from the Chateau d’If! the mysterious stranger! (and the other mysterious stranger, and the other mysterious stranger – really, the plot is absolutely infested with mysterious strangers!) the villains, so villainous, and so aptly punished by their own base natures and continuing villainy! – then subsequent, more critical, readings lose much of their power to tarnish the effect of the work.


He’d have to be, to spend so much time and money on getting even when he could have taken the treasure of Monte Cristo and spent the rest of his life having a good time anywhere he wanted. I’m just saying.

Really – what was she supposed to do when her betrothed got hauled off and thrown into prison as a Bonapartist conspirator on her wedding day?  Starve to death genteelly while pining for his return? Take up a career as a streetwalker?  Nobody told her that the fallback boyfriend she ended up settling for had actually masterminded the whole frame-up.

4 thoughts on “First Impressions and Timing Issues

  1. To be entirely accurate, Mercedes’ fallback boyfriend Ferdinand was not the mastermind of the plot.

    The mastermind role goes to the envious supercargo, Danglars, who wrote (with his left hand!) a letter denouncing Edmund Dantes as a Bonapartist as Danglars sat with Ferdinand and the drunken tailor Caderousse, before crumpling up the letter and tossing it in a corner, saying “Good thing no one is going to take that letter, smooth it out, put it in an envelope addressed to M. le Procureur du Roi. #1 Frame-up Street, Marseilles, France 13006, and mail it, because if they did you’d get a super-hot girlfriend,” before leaving.

    Edmond’s dickishness doesn’t just extend to those who have done him wrong; he’s a dick to those who stood by him. Take the kindly and supportive ship owner, Morrel. When it looks like Morrel is ruined and is preparing to take his own life to preserve his honor, Edmond doesn’t pop up to say, “Hey, no worries. I got this one,” a month ahead. No, he waits ’til the last last lastiest last moment to save the old man’s honor and life. If cross-town traffic had been unexpectedly heavy that afternoon so the news of the fortune-saving arrived fifteen seconds too late (or the old man’s watch had been five minutes fast) what would Edmond have done then? Said “Oops”?

    Or take Maximilian. What would it have cost Edmond to say, “Hey, your girlfriend’s fine. I got her stashed in a Motel Six across town laying low because the heat is on. Hang loose for a month while I expose her would-be murderer so she’ll be safe and you two crazy kids can get married for realsies. Now go see a movie or something.”

    As for Mercedes — she should have gotten a job in a cigar factory. There, the corporal of the guard, Don Jose, and a toreador named Escamillo would both fall in love with her. Ferdinand, Don Jose, and Escamillo would fight a three-way duel as an aria turned into a duet, a trio, then an quartet filled with many high-soprano trills. When the duel concludes with the deaths of all three of her suitors, after face-palming, Mercedes would move to New Orleans there to open a gumbo restaurant. Andy Jackson would fall in love with her gumbo and make her White House Gumbo Chef. When Edmond Dantes escaped from jail and arrived, covered with riches and filled with thoughts of revenge, seeking her, no one in Marseilles would know where she had gone.

    1. The whole Edmond/Mercédès thing reminds me of all those “broken token” ballads, where the soldier/sailor/whatever returns from the wars after many years and finds his old sweetheart, with whom he had long ago exchanged the halves of a broken coin to remember each other by. So of course he pretends he’s somebody else, bringing her word that her boyfriend is dead, and then when he learns that she has in fact waited for him all this time, he rewards her for her faithfulness by revealing his true identity and his half of the broken token, whereupon she falls into his arms.

      Well. I had some thoughts about that, as it happens, and wrote myself a different last verse to the song:

      I waited seven years for you,
      Let some damned good offers pass;
      So take your broken token, love,
      And shove it up your ass.

      1. Other dickish novels include The Dick and I, Two Years Before the Dick, How Green Was My Dick (not to worry, penicillin clears it right up), and, of course, Moby-Dick.

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