The age at which we read a book is of vital importance to the way we experience it but that does not mean that each book comes with a correct age at which to read it. You are not only going to appreciate Vanity Fair if you wait to read it until you are forty-five but you will perhaps appreciate it differently than you did at fifteen and twenty-five and thirty-five. You will understand more and miss fewer allusions but that does not mean you will enjoy it more.I read this post at about the same time I read the NPR piece about rereading the classics and it resonated pretty strongly with my recent realization that many of the classics I was so quick to read just a few years ago maybe didn't go all the way through. That I had missed some things while reading.
This is a common feeling we readers get - we feel like we're missing something when a book that's universally acclaimed or a classic or just gives off that "I'm-high-quality-deal-with-it" vibe turns out to be woefully disappointing. This is what happened when I read The Book of Words a few weeks ago, and when I read Fahrenheit 451 seven years ago, or Death in Venice or countless other books I've read over the years. The (bad) instinct is to assume that something is wrong with me [the reader], that I'm the one who isn't grasping something. That's something is missing. This is usually wrong among adult readers.
But among children... okay, I'll admit it. I may have loved War and Peace when I read it just before my fifteenth birthday, but I probably didn't understand all of it. And I have no doubt in my mind that while I read Middlemarch attentively - just a couple months ago - I will gain a great deal more from it when I read it in a few years, with less of that young passion and flighty impatience that comes with being a young reader. Rereading some my childhood favorites over the past year - Harry Potter, The Golden Compass, A Wrinkle in Time, The Giver and many more - made me realize how much I missed even just a few years ago. Now I've started rereading Pride and Prejudice and it's just a completely different book from what I remember. I'm sure if I go back to all those old classics, I'll see this change again and again.
I started reading a lot of classics around age thirteen. I wanted to read the "right" books, wanted to read the proper books. By age sixteen, I had mostly burned out - these were long, dense books that I read at face value. I didn't realize that then, though I don't feel like it's necessarily ruined things for me. I'm not, as Jo Walton discusses in her Tor post, a person who does not reread. My opinion of a book can change over time and with every reading experience. For me at least, this is a wonderful thing.
Here's the thing, though: even if I will miss the point of all these classics, I'm not going to wait another five or ten years before I read them. An understanding of reading and literature stems not from literature classes or how long you've lived, rather from the hands-on experience of reading and your own unique life experience (which obviously cannot be predicted). I may not have picked up on the underlying messages in The Stranger because I read it myself at age thirteen (and not in a classroom environment), but I managed to grasp the strength of the writing and something about the story nonetheless managed to thoroughly disturb me. I'm certain if I read it today I would see things that were previously hidden, but how could I know to recognize them if I hadn't gone through the experience of figuring things out for myself? If I hadn't spent my formative younger years reading the classics and gaining an appreciation for fine literature, reading Thackeray at forty would mean even less to me than it actually did at seventeen.
This isn't true for everyone, I know. This is just how I see it now, still through my relatively young, experience-deficient glasses. Thoughts?