Claire of The Captive Reader, one of my favourite book blogs, has a post about reading books before you are ready for them. She quotes Sheila Kaye-Smith on not reading books when you are too young for them and goes on to explain how she read much Great Literature as a teenager without it doing her a lick of harm. It never did me any harm either, and I’ve talked before about starting to read something and realising it’s too old for me and leaving it for later...and how I’m still doing this with E.R. Eddison at the age of forty-eight. It’s a good habit, because it blames myself and not the book when I can’t get into something. It’s quite distinct from thinking “this is awful,” which I think often enough, it’s “this is beyond me right now.”
But is there a right age to read a book?
Claire goes on very interestingly:
I know there are books I did not understand fully when I read them but does an imperfect understanding ruin anything? Did reading Northanger Abbey or Sense and Sensibility when I was in my early teens dull me for life to the brilliance of Austen? Obviously not. But did I understand Austen’s brilliance at the time? Certainly not. I was reading for plot. I fell in love with the stories. Later I came to appreciate Austen’s skill and the artistry that went into the creation of each book and that appreciation continues to grow with every rereading.
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 (thanks to du Maurier) 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?
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.
This has been entirely true for me. I read Jane Eyre when I was very young, sometime before I went to school. I loved it to pieces for precisely the wince-worthy Gothicness of it and also for Jane’s voice.
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.
(The other thing I got from Jane Eyre was horrifying my cousin Beryl on her wedding morning by talking about the wedding scene in that book, but we will draw a veil over that.)
But although I agree absolutely with what Clare says about reading for plot now and understanding the brilliance later, despite the fact that this has very much been my own experience, I also understand Sheila Kaye-Smith:
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.
Some people cannot re-read, and therefore what they get out of a book on first reading is all they ever get out of it. She was probably one of them. Tolkien was, he talks about it in one of his letters. Once he had read something that was it, there was no going back to it. So he too advised waiting to read things until you were older—he talked about losing the pleasure he would have had. For people like this, who have to get it all in the first read because there can be no subsequent reads, Kaye-Smith is right. They should wait.
I find this difficult, because I love re-reading so much—I actually prefer re-reading something to reading it for the first time. The first time there’s a certain amount of anxiety about whether it’s going to stay good, and also about what’s going to happen. On a re-read I know I can relax and trust the book. I recently re-read a friend’s unpublished manuscript (I don’t usually do this, but it’s particularly brilliant and I kept thinking about it) and I found myself noticing just how much more I was enjoying it this time through because I knew where it was going.
So I see the “read once and never again” thing as an affliction, and it’s certainly a thing that goes with a particular kind of brain.
There’s also the thing where one can come to a book too late. I’ve sometimes advised reading books with your twelve-year-old head—and it isn’t always easy to do that, even if you can see you’d have loved it when you were twelve. This is much harder than waiting until you’re old enough, because it means you missed it. I missed E.E. Doc Smith this way. When my son was twelve I gave him a lot of old books wrapped in gold paper—the “golden age” books that you have to read when you’re twelve. His appreciation of Hal Clement is consequently better than mine will ever be.
This is similar to the way one can grow out of books generally—books you’ve read. Sometimes it’s possible to find the twelve-year-old head to read it with, and sometimes it isn’t. This is why there are children’s books and YA that can be read by adults and others that can’t—and of course, the same goes for things that were ostensibly written for adults.
I think it would be a good idea for people who cannot re-read to have suggested ages on books—not just classics, and certainly not just children’s books. But it would be so hard to decide. How old should you be when you read A Fire Upon the Deep? Teenagers can get a lot out of it, but I get more out of it on every reading. How about Nova—that’s me in 2009 and here’s me in 2010 and I know I definitely didn’t get it when I was fifteen. Maybe we could have panels at conventions in which we discuss the perfect age to read different books? Or maybe authors could be asked about their own books. Or maybe the age at which the author wrote it should be taken into account? And we could have “read this before you’re twenty” labels as well. Then once we had a consensus (ha!) the people with this problem could have reading lists they’d start on their birthdays.
For the rest of us who can re-read, this is a non-problem. We can read ahead of ourselves all we like and keep coming back and getting more out of things every time.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.