Even if you have read “The Call of the Wild,” I suspect you can’t tell me much about it. You might recall that it’s by Jack London – so it’s a love letter to dogs – and that it reminds you of a musty grade-school library. But that’s probably as far as it goes.
That’s because you haven’t seen the book since fifth grade, if you recall it at all. Still, the other day, for a reason I still can’t pinpoint, I picked up a $4 copy at the bookstore and got into it soon after I got home.
The tendency here would be to wax childhood lit. Instead, once I actually started to read “The Call of the Wild” again, it reminded me why I hate pop nostalgia. For one thing, I am not an enthusiast of ha-ha grab-bag psychology, in which you try to navigate your social ills on the basis of which Nickelodeon sitcom you used to watch. More to the point, for this column’s sake, I heed the words of Tony Soprano: ” ‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.” It’s not a bad a philosophy to screen your entertainment by, and London’s raspy tome finally solidified why I hate the way people consume the leisure of their childhoods once they’re older.
I concede that I bring up “Wild” because it was that book for me, the one that was most revealing when I was young. Even people who self-consciously don’t read for pleasure have these books, usually “The Giver” or some such morality play designed to teach you about life. But when I picked up “The Call of the Wild” recently, I read and felt the first sentence anew: “Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.” It’s so good, so quietly elegiac that I didn’t even have time to wonder what I must have thought about it when I was 11 years old. As I read on through this story of Buck, the proud dog of a judge kidnapped from the Santa Clara Valley and shipped north for labor in the Alaskan gold rush, my experience was unique. This is layered, intense storytelling, and it occurs to me that a lot of the most popular texts intended for adolescents are no different.
In any case, I responded to it. This might be because I’d read it before, or, as I think, because it ostensibly adopts a framework so transparent that I have a tendency to write it off as formulaic. The plot of “The Call of the Wild” is indeed easy to follow and sustains most of the hallmarks of its canon, but there are complexities I wouldn’t have expected, and it’s so shrewdly observed I was often taken aback with its intelligence.
Granted, the book is widely remembered as a classic, and probably for good reason. Here’s the thing: Since I’ve been reading it, I’ve casually started to watch old episodes of “Doug” on YouTube (get them before Viacom does) and might have flipped on “10 Things I Hate About You” the other night, and I’ve gotta say, they’re not half bad.
I pull no punches here. From the, ahem, few minutes of “10 Things” I watched, I saw a well-structured movie that intones a lot about the culture of high schools, however crassly, and crafts characters more complex than genre convention requires. And “Doug,” though totally bizarre, strikes me now as an ingenious reinvention of the old-school shows that inspired it, like “The Wonder Years.”
I’m not saying this because I liked these things when I was younger, though Lord knows I did. Instead, they finally made clear to me why I rally against nostalgia. It may be prudent to remember any work for why it was important to its contemporary audience, but the way that most of us – college students in particular – rifle through old fictions is with a giggle and an eye-roll, which isn’t fair to the art that reared us. The old book, album or movie that never left your sight as a child might seem painful in its conceit when you go back to it now, but look past the associations and you’ll discover that much of it is still legitimate.
Don’t shower me with the fads. I’m talking about the stuff that really meant something to you, not just the junior high obsessions. My request is simple: The next time you pop on, say, “Clueless,” don’t laugh at the characters’ throwback platitudes – just watch the movie. You might be surprised at what you find.
E-mail Bloomer at email@example.com.