Friday, January 25, 2013

Read your age

Three links: reading books too early, an agreement, and thoughts on rereading those classics later in life. Three links on essentially the same big-picture topic - reading at certain ages, what's preferred, what's "right", what do you gain from reading certain books at certain ages, with Claire's original question making the strongest point, stronger than anything I can possibly say:
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?

Monday, January 14, 2013

The otherness of The Other City

Michal Ajvaz is... something else. I was blown away by The Golden Age last year; I expected something strange and unexpected from The Other City as well. That is exactly what I got. Unfortunately, where The Golden Age was a magical and wonderful reading experience, The Other City was often disjointed, confusing and somewhat lost.

The Other City begins strongly - the idea and the tone struck me as similar to The Golden Age and the strangeness of Ajvaz's Prague was quite intriguing at first. The first half of the book flew by as I, like the unnamed narrator, got sucked into the Other Prague. Except then the themes began to repeat themselves clumsily. And then the stories became completely unhinged and impossible to follow. And then they again became magical, just for a few seconds. And so despite limping awkwardly to the final chapters, The Other City ended as it began - with intrigue and magic and strength.

Ajvaz's writing is strange. I constantly see readers saying it's like Italo Calvino, or Borges, but truthfully I haven't read Borges yet (on my shelf, I swear) and I only read Calvino after Ajvaz, so I have some trouble making the comparison. What I can say is that Ajvaz's writing - particularly in this translation to English - is a little old-fashioned, a little fancy-stiff at times, but generally smoothly appealing. It's not the most accessible or easy-to-read, but there's something special about it, something backwards and twisted that I find particularly appealing.

And what of plot? The Other City is about mood and ideas, not so much actual coherent story. There are a few recurring characters and concepts and sub-plots, but... it's not a plot book. It's not really a character book either, which makes it pretty hard to classify. Which essentially makes it easier to classify as well - The Other City is a bit of a mess. This is a book that had such good ideas and got lost with them. That might have been the point but if it was, it played out poorly.

So I liked The Other City at times, but I also didn't really like it. I got bored by it, I was enchanted by it, I was confused by it. It is nowhere near as powerful a novel as The Golden Age, nor is it as successful at actually playing on its own themes and clever storytelling ideas. But it's interesting. And someone looking for something utterly bizarre and different could certainly do worse than to pick this one off the shelf.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

On getting excited about reading (again)

There must be something in the air. Over the past forty-eight hours I started reading two new books, both which have sparked my interest in a way that no recent read has, both of which have made me want to read more, and more, and more. After two months of many dead ends and rather lackluster reads (with the exception of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, which sadly lasted only one simple, near-perfect evening), being excited about reading again is... wonderful.

Dry spells come and go. Every voracious reader will easily be able to point to a period of time when they read less, whether because of increased "real-world" activity, or because no book seemed to fit the mood, or because of any one of a million other factors. This happens. I've made sure not to be bothered by it, made sure not to pressure myself into reading more, made sure to keep reading something magical and enjoyable and enlightening. Once I realized I was struggling with new books, I also decided to let myself relax a little and went back to some old favorites: I've been rereading a lot recently. But now, like a small lightbulb turning on, I can feel the excitement starting up again.

The first book is Three Strong Women, by Marie NDiaye. I read the first of the three novellas that make up this book yesterday... and it impressed me. The plot (specifically, the large, seemingly deliberate plot holes) may be a bit lacking, but on the whole, Three Strong Women is off to a good start. It's thought-provoking, curiously written (a bit of a sharp style, but far from jerky or awkward), and NDiaye plays to the strengths of novellas in her characterization and storytelling style. Here's to hoping the rest is as good.

The second book is There Are No Shortcuts by Rafe Esquith. I'm reading this one as part of a small goal to read education-focused books this year. I only just started it this morning, but regardless of whether or not I'll actually enjoy the read, or agree with Esquith's teaching methods, there is no doubt that the book is making me think. A lot. This is a subject I care deeply about, and I feel the book. I feel the fascination as I read.

I don't have much time for reading these days, let alone reviewing them and discussing them at length. I know this. If last year I read a record number of books, I expect to read significantly less this year. But that doesn't mean that I need to have a bad experience reading. Maybe it'll even be better for it. For now, I'm excited about reading again. May it last.