Reading about Reading and Re-reading

I have some fairly thinky posts percolating in the back of my head that I may have waited on too long. In the meantime, here’s a trio of posts about whether it is ever too early or too late to read a book. I think I tripped into this rabbit hole via a post by Gwenda Bond.

Claire of The Captive Reader discusses reading Sheila Kaye-Smith’s All the Books of My Life and this quote:

When at the age of fifteen I started my period of conscientious reading, I received one piece of very good advice.  A friend of my mother’s advised me not to read Thackeray until I was grown up.  ‘You wouldn’t understand him now.  You’d miss a lot.’

This was perfectly true and I only wish her advice had been applied more widely, for I spoilt a number of books and authors for myself by reading them too early…If I were ever asked to guide a young person in a similar situation I should put Dickens and Jane Austen with Thackeray on the waiting list, also the whole of George Eliot except Adam Bede and the whole of the Brontës except Jane Eyre.

Claire goes on to say:

For me, what was most important about this fumbling and indiscriminate assault on great literature was that it exposed me to great literature, to books that if I had waited until I was older I might have realised I was supposed to find intimidating.  I may not have finished them all but I started to develop my taste.

Jo Walton continues the discussion at Is There a Right Age to Read a Book?

I know exactly what I learned from reading it way too young—I learned that children grow up and are still the same person. Jane the child in Lowood is very precisely characterised and the whole horrible school thing really spoke to me on a level I could understand, and Jane growing up and having melodramatic events made me realise that I would also grow up, and that the adults around me had once been children. I can remember lying on the green hearthrug in front of the fire in our house reading Jane Eyre and looking up from it at the black-stockinged legs of my great-aunt Emma and the fat calves of my cousin Anthea and thinking that (amazingly) they had once been children and I would one day be a grown-up, although I was quite sure that I’d never prefer to sit on the sofa than lie on the rug.

No grown up, or even teenager, reading Jane Eyre would have that insight. They know it already. It’s not Brontë’s insight, though I had that insight because she managed to make Jane growing up work for me as a child reader. Books give people the tools to build the world. This world, the real world.

In the comments she mentions an earlier post where she described why she re-reads books she didn’t like. The comments are worth reading because of the broad range of responses, from the person who sees reading as a zero-sum game to poster HelenS

Being able to find something to read has always had far more to do with my own state of mind than the availability of books. It’s just like the way one goes round and round a perfectly well-stocked grocery store unable to think of anything to get for dinner.

Which is EXACTLY how I feel sometimes.

One of the few books I’ve re-read that I disliked is Jane Eyre. I must have read it at the same time I was reading Wuthering Heights, so around 10th grade. I didn’t like either of them. I’m sure I read them as romances that didn’t work for me. (Mr. Rochester? Gross! Heathcliff? What a nasty brute!) Post college, I re-read Jane Eyre so I’d understand Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I’m not quite sure if that was mission accomplished. I might have been too young for it, although I felt an affinity with all of the “whys” behind Wide Sargasso Sea: the dismissal of the crazy woman in the attic, the Creole, the slave-trafficking past of Mr. Rochester and his money (do I have that part right?)

Lately I’ve read a bunch of books that I came too late to. Not altogether too late, but how much more would I have reveled in I Capture the Castle or Pamela Dean’s Hidden Country books if I had read them in my teens? Quite a bit more, I think.

It’s also made me think about the stories I’ve read that are indeliably burnt into my brain, like The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. Does that mean I was too young or just the right age for it?

What about you?


5 thoughts on “Reading about Reading and Re-reading

  1. State of mind has a lot to do with it for me. I usually end up disliking books I read in an airport, or while I’m traveling just because I can’t concentrate enough to get lost in them. Might be a different case if I read the book at home? I’m not sure.

    For re-reading hrm. I think that sometimes there is a right age or a right time. I re-read ‘The Last Unicorn’ a while ago. I loved it to pieces when I was a kid, but re-reading it as an adult, I was bothered by the undertones. Some things just fly over your head until you’ve grown up some. Sometimes re-reading can bring another experience. One book I read that I thought was incredibly dramatic the first time, I realized was hilarious in the second go round! I didn’t even notice then.

    • Nicole Lisa says:

      Oh, that’s interesting about books and airports. I wonder if I’ve liked certain books more because of where I’ve read them?

      I’ve stayed away from most of the books I adored as a child because in my memory they are so wonderful and I don’t want to taint them by the suck fairy. Either because I was a less sophisticated reader then or because so many things have changed even in my lifetime that I would bother me now.

  2. On Theresa’s point, I can remember quite vividly several books I read while in the hospital visiting my father when he was dying. I’ve since reread them all, but they didn’t give me quite the sense of escape they did, then. State of mind has a lot to do with it, I think.

    • Nicole Lisa says:

      Again, amazingly, people are so different. I can’t remember anything I read while my grandmother was in the hospital before she died and I don’t think I even was paying attention at the time. They did not give me a sense of escape. I had to go to people to cope, and that’s not my usual coping mechanism.

  3. […] to Nicole and Theresa (with some assistance from Camille, who posted this on Facebook), I’ve been […]

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