The Second Time Around

This week I led a discussion of Sara Gruen’s Depression era circus novel, Water for Elephants, for the second time.  Approximately two years had elapsed since my first encounter with this involving story, which became a book club favorite after its publication in 2006.  As I prepared for this week’s session, I was surprised by what I remembered about the book, and also by what I’d forgotten.

One aspect of the story that stuck with me was the theme of growing older and feeling limited by health issues — somewhat similar to the way circus animals may feel when they are controlled by trainers and handlers.  A participant in the discussion remarked that she too had read the book several years ago, but she said, she scarcely remembered the poignant scenes in the nursing home.  Instead at that time she had focused on the drama and excitement of the protagonist’s days and nights with the circus, as he falls in love with the beautiful star of the show and clashes with her villainous husband.  However, with the passage of time, and having lived through the experience of placing her own mother in an extended care facility, she now found the episodes centering on old Jacob’s heartwrenching efforts to escape from his confinement and see the circus one last time took on greater meaning.

It is somewhat sobering to realize that a book can impact us in different ways at different times, depending on where we are in life when we read it.  What must be considered is how old we are, and the situations we’ve experienced.  Perhaps that simple truth is the strongest endorsement for revisiting  books we’ve previously enjoyed — knowing up front we will be rewarded with something new and satisfying for turning the pages a second time.

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About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

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