Thoughts: A Book Hangover after The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This isn’t a proper review.  I don’t know if I’m smart enough to write a real review of The Secret History, and I’m certainly not feeling eloquent or organized enough to attempt one right now.  Instead, here’s an excerpt from my latest blog post about how hard it is to return to the real world after getting sucked into a really good book.

All week, a significant chunk of my attention was always absent from the task at hand, because I was reading an extremely compelling book.  Any time I wasn’t reading I was wishing that I could, and it was quite a busy week for me so there was less spent with the actual novel and more time spent cursing at my steering wheel about the impossibility (or, rather, the illegality) of reading during one’s commute.

The Secret History was written bloody ages ago, published when I was but two years old, but I only got around to reading it just now.  For years, my bookish friends have been insisting that I should pick it up ASAP, because it’s about everything I love.  Mysterious young people with secrets!  Pagan activities in the woods!  The perils of academia; tragically wasted youth; manipulative teachers; well dressed young lads; hilarity in country homes!  Heck, it even takes place in rural Vermont, where I’ve been spending so much time lately.  And it starts with a murder!  I trust my friends’ judgement, and they know what kind of stories I love, so I’m not surprised that this book seized hold of my brain and wouldn’t release it back into the mundane world until I finished the last page two days later.  (I would have happily read it in one day, with rare snack-breaks and without speaking to anyone, but as Bernard Black so aptly points out: “Books must be sold, and money made.”)

So why did I wait to read The Secret History until now; twenty years after its publication?  I tried to read it in my third year of University, even packed it in my barely-containable suitcase of books to bring to Scotland with me for that express purpose, but I found that I couldn’t bear to read about other college students floundering in situations over their heads when my own academic career was fraught with peril.  I mean, I never had to wash human blood off myself and then translate ancient Greek passages for the morning, but I did struggle with my medieval Scottish poetry class now and then…

Now that I’m free from perilous Academia, though, I can sometimes feel downright nostalgic for those happy days of learning and seclusion from the real world.  The Secret History sucked me instantly into its world of pine forests, secretive country homes, literary allusions, and a vivid (if a bit culturally un-diverse) cast of characters.  The ensemble made my most outlandish friends seem tame and one-dimensional in comparison.  It was so strange to read about a time when students had to borrow each others’ typewriters and call each other on payphones, and reading it made me feel rather young.  I like feeling young now and then.  And the plot, while steeped in elbow patches and slow burning cigarettes rather than fast-paced action, was so tense I couldn’t help but snap at any family members or friends who dared to interrupt me while I was clinging, white-knuckled, to the heavy book.

When I finished reading it, I had such trouble extracting myself from the fictional world I had been inhabiting.  This happens frequently when I get immersed in a great book, but I can’t remember the last time I had such trouble re-adjusting to the real world.  I probably sold five or six copies of The Secret History that week, because I felt a dreadful need to throw other readers’ minds and souls into Donna Tartt’s story.  Sort of like that movie The Ring?  But I hope they’ll enjoy reading it on their plane rides and holidays.  It’s an interesting story to be trapped in – so picturesque, smart, and twisted – and a hard one to escape.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts: A Book Hangover after The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  1. This is amazing. I finished The Secret History last night and literally Googled “book hangover Secret History” and your blog came up. I feel like you took (ALL OF THE) words out of my mouth. I had the exact same response to this book as you did and spent my lunch walking to the bookstore to pick up Tartt’s The Little Friend. I loved the way you described the book. You’ve found a new reader and fellow Secret History lover in me!

    1. There’s no other way to describe that reeling after such an engaging book, eh? I’m glad we can share our hangover – I’d say misery loves company but it’s not so miserable having literature on the brain as it is having stale alcohol in the bloodstream. Thanks for commenting! Nice to meet you.

  2. I just found this blog and I know this is an old post, but I had to comment. The Secret History is still one of my all time favorite books, so I know exactly how you felt. As I’m a bit older than you, I actually own a first printing hardcover, the one with the cool clear plastic dust jacket. I also have a tattered paperback that has become my reading copy, since I’ve read it many many times:-)

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