Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Is There a Right Age to Read a Book?"

I came across a really interesting piece on the Tor blog today called "Is There a Right Age to Read a Book?" by Jo Walton. In it, Walton introduces thoughts from both sides of the argument. 

Claire, the blogger responsible for The Captive Reader, suggests that while we won't get everything out of a book read too young (i.e., we'll enjoy the characters and plot, but miss the deeper themes and allusions), it does us no harm as we can always go back and reread things later. However, she does emphasize just how much of an effect the age at which we read things can have. I love that she uses Jane Eyre as an example: 

"I read Jane Eyre, one of Kaye-Smith’s ‘approved’ books for youths, when I was fourteen in school and hated it. Was this the fault of a too early introduction? Or perhaps a too late one? Would I at twelve, when for one brief summer I understood... the allure of gothic novels, have been more receptive to the absurdities of the plot and the odiousness of Mr Rochester that irritated me so much a few years later?"

THIS. A pained 16 year old me was fond of exclaiming "I HATE Jane Eyre! 'Oh, Mr. Rochester!' 'Oh, Jane!'" in tones of despair, and claiming that it was all just "a Victorian episode of Passions." Would I have liked it more at a less tetchy and pseudo-jaded age? Very likely. In a similar vein, I read Wuthering Heights as a senior and while I loved the creepy dilapidated houses and windswept moors and bogs, I was frustrated at how cruel everyone was to each other, and worked at such cross-purposes- intentionally or otherwise. When a college professor announced that this would be our next book, I accidentally let out an audible groan. She asked why I didn't like the book and I admitted "well, I didn't like anyone in it..." and waited for a stern rebuke. She just smiled and said, "that's ok, you're not really supposed to!" In later classes, we spent a lot of time discussing the characters selfish motives and the spidery evilness that is Nellie Dean. It gave me  a whole new appreciation for the book (and my namesake). 

To use another personal example, I read the first part of Great Expectations in sixth or seventh grade- namely the parts where Pip is still a boy. How clearly can adult readers recognize the horrible panic and gnawing guilt of having done something wrong (stealing a file and food for the convict, who was terrifying in his own right), and remember the fear of getting caught? Sure, they can understand it on an intellectual level, but does it resonate as well? 

Walton does make a good point about the feasibility of this "read first, understand more later" idea: for some people, there will be no reread. Some people (including J.R.R. Tolkien) are self-professed one time only readers, who get as much as they're going to get the first time around. For them, Walton suggests, maybe it is best to wait. 

This brings up another interesting point. How can one know when to read something? If a kid is lucky, they grow up in a family of readers, and/or with the support of teachers and librarians. If not, well, there's a kind of serendipity that happens with books sometimes, and internet savy kids could always make use of things like Goodreads for book recommendations, as well as recommendations from friends and peers. 

Did you read any books too early/late? Are you a re-reader? What books did you read differently at different times in your life, and did you notice your perspective having changed? 


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