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The Early Stories: 1953-1975
The Early Stories: 1953-1975
John Updike
Knopf, 2003
864 pp., $35.00

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by Mark Oppenheimer


Why Everyone Used to Read Updike …

And why his best stories are still worth reading.

I agreed to review John Updike's The Early Stories: 1953-1975, at over 800 pages the longest book I have read, to get some insight into why he was once so influential. Because in the ten or so years of my literary consciousness, the years in which I have been a writer and talked about books with other readers and writers, Updike's name only gets mentioned in the question, "Who reads Updike anymore?" Those frequent short stories that grab New Yorker space from younger, fresher voices, and those novels appearing at regular intervals, are not read by anyone I know. In college, a few of my friends passed around a copy of Memories of the Ford Administration—that would have been 1993 or so. Since then, Updike has written Brazil, Toward the End of Time, In the Beauty of the Lilies, Gertrude and Claudius, Seek My Face, and assorted others, yet of all my friends who enjoy contemporary fiction—a catholic group comprising devotés of Michael Chabon, Evan Connell, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, Kazuo Ishiguro, Diane Johnson, David Lodge, Tim O'Brien, Philip Roth, Jane Smiley, Robert Stone, David Foster Wallace, and other literary lions—not one has read a John Updike book published in the past ten years. I have one friend who has read the Rabbit tetralogy, completed in 1990, and I myself have read several of the old books, plus his terrific memoir Self-Consciousness. But except perhaps for Nicholson Baker, who so admires Updike that he devoted a fascinating book, U and I, to his Updike obsession, younger writers and book lovers do not read John Updike.

They once did, and I got a sense of why by reading this omnibus collection of stories, spanning the period from his Harvard graduation through his heyday in the Sixties—when The Centaur and Couples were titles to conjure with—all the way up to 1975—"an apt cut-off," he says in the introduction, for "it was the one and only full year of my life when I lived alone. My marriage of some twenty-plus years, to a barefoot, ...

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