06/11/2008 07:22 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Eternal Truths

I have taken to re-reading many of my old books, something I used to laugh at my grandmother for. Sometimes they are old favorites read a number of times, sometimes classics that I haven't picked up in 40 years. Times change, culture changes, society changes, technology changes (and the price of books changes, I'm currently on Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, which as a paperback classic cost just $1.80 in 1968!), but the books stay the same. I used to hope some books would change, and I have re-read From Here to Eternity a few times, hoping the story would end differently for once, but, just like the story of Robert Kennedy in 1968, it never does.

And, most important of all the changes, the reader is different each time. Just as you can never step in the same stream twice, so you can never read the same book twice. The act of reading takes the author's words and absorbs them in a way that reflects the reader's age, and experience. When I was a child I understood as a child and so on. Reading, as a teenager, about war, about having children, and growing old, and experiencing the death of others, was something I could (I thought) grasp hypothetically. Reading such books now, from my advanced old age, is quite different. And the world has had different experiences. Reading George Orwell, say, in the 1960s, is much different to reading him now, when his works are not cautionary tales, but have been used as manuals by right wing governments around the world.

Not just books, we see the actual world differently as we grow and mature. George Bernard Shaw said, "If you are not a red revolutionist at 20, you will be at 50 a most impossible fossil'. David Horton said ,"A man who is not left wing as a youth is hard in the heart. One who is not a conservationist when older isn't paying attention". Politicians often rely on people not maturing, not gaining in experience and understanding, when they run campaigns based on fear of change. We can learn to read their words with different eyes. We, and the world, know more about the reality of modern war than we did when reading James Jones or Homage to Catalonia.

And re-reading Magic Mountain 40 years on? Well, a number of things jumped out. When it was originally written in the 1920s TB was a death sentence. When I first read it in the age of antibiotics, this was hard to understand. Now incurable TB is back. When it was written the snow and ice of the Swiss Alps, and their glaciers, seemed just a fact of life, eternal as the changing seasons Mann describes so well. Now all is changing as the ice and snow melt. And the speech about how science should defer to religious faith seemed quaint in the time of the rational 1960s, now it seems prophetic.

And finally, as a 23 year old I took it for granted that this was a great book written by a great author -- you tend to trust what people (the Nobel Prize committee, say) tell you at 23. Now I think it needed some savage work by an editor -- not a very good book at all, really. But he can write, and his larger theme, of the general public closing their eyes, sleepwalking in an artificial, sick world towards the disaster of the First World War, rings true today, as we head for a different disaster.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Times past, and times future, remembered on The Watermelon Blog, where we sometimes dance to the music of time.