Tue
Jan 15 2013 10:00am

Is There a Right Age to Read a Book?

Is There a Right Age to Read a Book?

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.

Is There a Right Age to Read a Book?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 its 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.

Thank goodness.


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.

85 comments
Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
A very good question with a very nice post, Jo. I began reading voraciously at an early age and I think that, as you allude, I never really paid any attention to whether I was supposed to be reading a book or not. The only criteria I had was if the book seemed interesting at the time.
Not being able to re-read does sound like a terrible affliction--I can't imagine.
Dave West
2. Jhirrad
I second Steven's point. It is an excellent question and a nice post Jo. Thank you.

I agree that there are things that are better to read at different ages and times of life. Like you, I re-read voraciously, but I know some that simply cannot. Looking back, there's a part of me that wishes I hadn't tried to tackle Doestoesky at 14, as I know that my appreciation for him is much less than it probably should be. I simply saw Crime and Punishment as an interesting crime story. Similarly, I remember enjoying other authors, such as David Eddings, when I was young, but now I simply can't read his dialogue without cringing.

I think that a lot of it is where you are, as an individual, in your life when you read something. Age is not the only determinative factor in this, but it's certainly one of them.
helbel
3. helbel
I wish I'd found Tamora Pierce when I was 12 instead of 17. I loved the first Alanna with a passion, but could see that if I'd read it 5 years earlier I would have loved it even more.
K R
4. soupytwist
I sometimes wonder if I tried to read Dickens too early, and if that is why I have never managed to get into his work.

Mostly though, I have the opposite problem: I find books and wish I'd read them earlier! (I sometimes wonder what the me who read as a youngster would be like, particularly.) And the idea of not being able to re-read at all makes me so sad. A lot of my favourite reading experiences are re-reads.

Jo, do you have any 'ideal ages' for your own books? Or would that be too weird?
helbel
5. Nina Bell
I read alot of books 'too early' and don't think that missing things is the problem, because I still gained so much more than I missed. But I simply couldn't manage The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, or another called A Surfeit of Lampreys, when I was ten. I really believe it discouraged me permanently from reading very 'literary' books. I read widely, and very fast, but if a book is too obscure, I feel the same sense of disappointment and hitting a brick wall that I felt when I was ten, and couldn't get past page 17 of The Leopard.
Bridget Smith
6. BridgetSmith
The other problem is when you're forced to read things too young and they're thus ruined for you. I was assigned GREAT EXPECTATIONS the summer before 9th grade, and I hated it so fervently that I'll most likely never read it again. My father read it the same summer and loved it. I read A TALE OF TWO CITIES for an assignment the next summer and loved it. But at 13, GREAT EXPECTATIONS was ruined for me.

Maybe it's because I work in children's books, but I'm also interested in the issue of being too old to read a book. This comes up in discussion less often, but I think it's fascinating. There are a lot of books that shaped my friends' lives, but because I didn't encounter them until I was out of my teens, I thought they were nothing more than mediocre. And would I have loved Tamora Pierce as much as I do if I'd first read her in my 20s? Or Harry Potter if I hadn't been 10 when the first one came out?

Encountering the right book at the right time is almost an act of magical serendipity, it seems.
Beth Mitcham
7. bethmitcham
My older son and I reread things often; my younger son reads slowly and more selectively (he left his book in the car this morning, and probably won't really notice all day at school -- I find this bizarre). So I recommend books in a flurry to my oldest and don't worry too much about what sticks, but I stop and think before putting stuff in front of the second. If it's the wrong time for him, it is quite possible he'll never come back.

On the other hand, my now-fourteen year old is big enough to have fun discussions where new vistas of old favorites are opening up, and he's also pleased when books he dropped a few years ago now reveal their brilliance to him. As a child I figured that one of the main reasons to have kids was to reread through them, and it's just as much fun as thought it would be.
Kit Case
8. wiredog
I don't remember learning to read. I remember always being able to read, at least a little. But I do know how old I was when I fell in love with books. I was 9 when I was read "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." And within a month I had read the entire series. By 10 I had read The Hobbit. Lord of the Rings was a bit too daunting then, but a year later I'd read that, too. (Re-read it so many times that I wore out several sets of paperbacks.) At around the same time (1977 or so) I discovered Dune (an older boy knew I liked LoTR and recommended it), and read it, and missed about half of it, and still loved it.

For Christmas, when I was 12, my parents got me The Silmarillion. First edition hardcover. Read it straight through that morning. Still have the book, though the jacket has been lost in the depths of time.
helbel
9. seth e.
I've seen people talk this way about Catcher in the Rye, which I myself haven't re-read since high school. It's assigned in schools because it's short and stars a teenager, but in fact (those people say) that's a category error; it's not about adolescence from the inside, it's about adolescence from the outside.

Going the other way, from seeing people like Patti Smith talk about Rimbaud, I've always had the impression that if you read him as a teenager, you'll love him forever. I didn't read him until my mid-twenties, and it was already too late.
helbel
10. Indy606
What a great topic for an article... and I'll admit I'm not sure I've nodded my head in agreement so often. Like one of the previous posters, I'd long looked forward to reading and re-reading with my kids and have also found it to be just as much fun as I had hoped. In the end, what I think it all comes down to is less a question of whether one can understand all the subtle nuances of a book but rather if it's something that will grab the heart and imagination of the young reader. I guide my older daughter's reading less by what I think is age appropriate than by my instinct of the chances she'll find something in it to embrace and love - as my only worry is missing so badly that she'll never return to something wonderful that she missed only because it came to her too soon. Luckily, there are so many great works out there that finding a short term substitute is easy... and that "great" work (be it Dickens, Tolkien, or Austen) will be waiting.
Jenny Kristine
11. jennygadget
This is a lovely post!

Also, it has helped me clarify my own feelings regarding the non-age appropriateness of certain fans and writers "good scifi/fantasy for teens" lists. I am realizing that it's not even so much the fact that general lists like that need to be very different from suggestions for specific teens and children, but also that any suggestions to others as to what to read really needs to acknowledge that they are not you - and far too many people who are not used to suggesting books to people as their dayjob forget this!

There is a tendency in such lists to simply list what the list-maker read and loved as a teen, which means that not only are the books almost universally far from recent as well as only appropriate for more advanced readers, but they also tend to reflect a very specific mindset rather than offering a variety of choices in order to appeal to a broad range of individuals.

I can't decide which irrates me more, honestly.

Indy606,

I think that's a lovely way to help children/teens choose books. I also think that's more likely to result in books that are appropriate for her than worrying about what is appropriate for a generic child of that age would. What interests children tends to be what is age appropriate for that specific child, books that they are not ready for often bore them.
Bruce Arthurs
12. Bruce-Arthurs
I've tried to read Dickens at various ages, from assigned reading in high school to my twenties to middle-age, and have never gotten that "pleasure of reading" feeling from it. I seem to always start with great expectations, but end up having hard times.

Tried reading Burrough's Mars books abut age 18. Already too old. Thirteen seems to be the optimum age for those. (Who was it who said, "The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve"?)
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Soupytwist: I'd never thought about that in the abstract before, only with reference to specific people. I let my son read my first three books when he was about 14, which felt about right. I have a twelve year old friend who I've discouraged from reading Among Others. The thing is that people vary so much, and as Jhirrad said, it's not just your age, it's where you are in your life. And it's not just what people can understand, it's also what they're interested in. My imagined reader is definitely grown up.

I shall think about this some more.
helbel
14. Bristol Bookworm
I can see the arguement about reading books too young, I spent a long time avoiding Douglas Adams and Dickens because I'd tried them too young and given up. When I finally tried them as an adult I loved them.
helbel
15. Lalo
This is something I talk with my friends about a lot. We all came into reading at various different ages and had varied different ‘instructions’ on what we could read/couldn’t read. I was given pretty much blanket approval if it was on the shelves at home, but at the library it was dependant on the librarian’s discretion (there is an infamous battle, that resulted in the Head Librarian retiring two years early, in which she wouldn’t let me take out of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books when I was 10 years old). My friends had more restrictions, often only allowed to read classics or ‘appropriate’ novels.

In some ways I think my parents’ approach did me a disservice. Since I could read whatever I wanted I ignored the classics in favor of fantasy and romance. Given a choice between Charles Dickens or Barbara Cartland, I chose Barbara Cartland every time. While my friends discuss how brilliantly Jane Austen skewers the upper classes (even as she romanticizes them), I’m considering how the fact Gavin Guile is not what he says he is and whether or not he did a moral thing all those years ago (in Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer Series).

Now in my 20’s I’ve read some of the classics, but probably not as many as a I should and definitely not the ‘headier’ ones like Tolstoy or Dante. I read because I enjoy it and thanks to the internet, I can now discuss what I enjoy (instead of trying to puzzle out the answers on my own).
John Ginsberg-Stevens
16. eruditeogre
In the first and second grades I read the complete works of Dickens (well, a 15-volume set that made that claim anyway) because reading Dick & Jane and such was boring. Some of it went over my head but in other ways it opened my eyes to a world I knew nothing about that that age, and I found characters like Pip whose struggles resonated with me even at that young age.

In the third grade I tried to read Shakespeare and failed to get far. I loved the poetics and the struggles and even the words I coud not understand, but while I detected things worth uncovering in his writing I could not grok it.

Age is less constraint then condition; it doesn't prevent understanding, but it frames what we take in. I re-read most of Dickens in college and the, for lack of a better term, sense of wonder I got from it was mostly gone. There are still novels of his that speak to me but it's different. And I really wonder when my daughter will be ready to read them and what she finds in them.

Thanks for a very thoughtful post, Jo!
helbel
17. Lsana
I just want to add that in addition to being able to re-read in order for it not to matter what age you first got to it, you have to be able to re-read things you didn't like. A book I liked I can go back to dozens of times. One I didn't, however, I have a hard time giving a second chance.

My experience with Jane Eyre was exactly the opposite of yours: 12-year-old me hated the sections with the young Jane in school and was bored stiff with the idea of a story about how the Heroic Young Girl Overcame All Obstacles, so I quit there. I think if I had made it to the Gothic Romance part I'd have liked it, and for that matter would still probably like it, but every time I think about picking it up, I remember the boredom of that 12-year-old, so I choose something else.
Emmet O'Brien
18. EmmetAOBrien
Sixteen for The Wasp Factory, I would suggest.
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
Lsana I did a post on why I re-read books I didn't enjoy some time ago, which pretty much covers what you're asking. I won't try again with something I read and hated, usually. But if it was a long time ago and other people see something in it that I didn't see, I'll often be prepared to give it another go.
David Goldfarb
20. David_Goldfarb
I've said this one before: I tried to read Delany's Triton and Dhalgren when I was far too young, and it has unfairly colored my view of his fiction ever since. I wish I'd been smart enough to simply conclude, "This is too old for me"!

Ayn Rand is famously an author that you need to come to at a certain age. I've read Atlas Shrugged, so that I would know what people were talking about, but I was already far too old for it and I can't imagine voluntarily reading it again.

Come to think of it, when I read Atlas Shrugged was also when I finally did read Dhalgren at an appropriate age. I picked both of them up at a Friends of the Library sale for a quarter each. A friend of mine remarked, "That's two big books, one of them good."
helbel
21. Rush-That-Speaks
The problem I had with reading books at too early an age was the books it wasn't obvious I was too young for. If I really hated a book, I could still usually tell if there was something there, but there's an entire range of books I keep tripping over now which I read at an age such that I thought I understood them and thought they were mediocre. Patricia McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, for instance-- at nine I liked it fine, but considered it minor McKillip, nowhere near as good as, say, The Sorceress and the Cygnet.

So it never occurred to me to go back, until I did a completist reread as an adult, and realized that I had been young enough at the time to fail to register the romance, which is a beautiful, subtle, believable romance which makes the plot make sense. I literally had not thought there was one on first reading, because I was at an age where that kind of thing had to be spelled out for me in letters of fire, and even when it was it was entirely abstract to me.

I have been trying ever since to remember that it's the unknown unknowns that can get me-- the things I didn't know at the time I was too young for, the things I thought I understood entirely. I am lucky that I am a rereader, but it's amazing how hard it is to remember this anyway.

Some books I didn't know I didn't get on first reading:

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Patricia McKillip. Beloved, Toni Morrison. The Last Hot Time, John M. Ford.

I still don't know what one does about this, because I am not going to go reread everything I thought was mediocre, and critical approbation of a book has never meant that much about whether I will find something in it. The only rule I find in it is that one should carefully reconsider the books one likes less by authors one loves every so often (though this would not have helped me with the Morrison).
Rachel Howe
22. ellarien
I read most of Dickens for the first time between the ages of twelve and sixteen and loved it, but the one we did at school, Great Expectations, remains my least favourite.

I accidentally read Vanity Fair at eight and didn't understand any of it -- maybe at the word and sentence level but not beyond that. (There was one sentence that stuck in my head, and on rereading years later I realized I'd completely misunderstood it.) I read it again in my late forties and found it mostly dull and unpleasant. Somewhere in between those times -- probably in my late teens -- I read it at least once with enjoyment. I'm fairly sure I appreciated Austen more in my forties than in my teens, but it would have been a shame to wait that long -- and I'd have been thoroughly spoiled by zeitgeist and adaptations, anyway.
S Cooper
23. SPC
And then some books have weird in-between states. I just read the Hobbit for the second time and thoroughly enjoyed it. The first time I read it I was probably 13, having just finished LOTR and wanting more. The children's-book tone irritated me, as it felt condescending. It took me 15 years to try it again, and now I can enjoy the children's-book tone parts as cute and appreciate it for what it is. I probably would have liked it when I was 8, too, before I got so touchy.

My Bronte book issue was Wuthering Heights, which I adored at 14 and just cannot stomach now.
helbel
24. Val Piper
Like others, I wonder if it isn't age, experience and perspective, but why you are reading.

Given free reign to read whatever I chose (and a dictionary) after I figured out how to read about age 4, I remember reading...well, pretty much everything. The summer I was 8, I devoured The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (and, in a slightly traumatizing experience, a home medical reference with an electrifying chapter on abnormal psychology). I fondly remember a summer reading the encyclopedia from A-Z at age 13, in between inhaling all things Bronte and Austen. When I was 14, I read Shakespeare's comedies and dramas, and enjoyed the comedies much more (still the case, actually). That same year, I read all of Sherlock Holmes.

When I was younger, I read for two things: story and knowledge. I had a huge thirst to learn and know, and books were a much better way to do that than school. And I loved a good story, especially one written so well it came alive in my head and lived in my imagination long after I read the book.

While that's still the case, as I grew older I started to read to learn. I didn't just want to know, but to understand, to make sense of life, to compare my experiences and feelings to those of others. That changed how I felt about certain books or authors.

For example, as a pre-teen, I loved Robert Heinlein for the great stories and provocative ideas about society, which my 12-year-old self found both thought-provoking and terribly grown-up. Ten years later, as a 22-year-old woman making her way in a male-dominated industry in the '80s, the inherent sexism made me so angry I couldn't bear to re-read a single one. On the flip side, other books that I put down when I was young (hello, Middlemarch) became compelling on a second read.

I still read books for a great story, of course, or just to enjoy an example of truly masterful or lovely writing. (Isn't that how you tell people who truly love to read from those pitiful souls who don't?) But I seek out books that can be more.

Now, as a parent of two young sons, I think about why my kids are reading (or being read to, in the case of the youngest). I choose books not based on their age, but for what they want reading to do for them. Story wins almost every time. And I can't say I mind too much re-reading Sherlock Holmes, Charlotte's Web, or Treasure Island, because what I get out of the book now is remembering how it felt to read it for the first time--and the pleasure of raising two boys who love to read.
helbel
25. Elizabeth27
I'm quite the opposite. All throughout my teenage years, I loved the classics like Wuthering Heights, the Count of Monte Cristo, Dickens etc. I'm a big re-reader (if the memory of the book is good), but now in my 20s, I find I enjoy the books much less. Sure, I understand what is trying to be said more, and see all the connections, but having matured and become a fledgling writer myself, I find myself seeing faults in these classics, approaching them from a writerly perspective rather from the angsty, soul-searching teenage perspective.
At the same time, I hate LoTR as a teen, but love them as an adult. It can work both ways, but strangely, fantasy calls to me as an adult more than the classics.
Jenny Kristine
26. jennygadget
@ David_Goldfarb

"I wish I'd been smart enough to simply conclude, "This is too old for me"!"

I was able to say that about Huckleberry Finn when I tried reading it at age 9? or so? But I suspect that has a lot to do with the fact that I had already read Tom Sawyer and loved it, so I wasn't about to assume it was the author I didn't like. I think the similarities between the two books also made it more obvious to me why I was finding Huck Finn so ...elusive. It was the first and one of the rare times that I picked up a book, began reading, and came to the conclusion that I wasn't old enough to understand it.

Which brings me to:

"The first time I read it I was probably 13, having just finished LOTR
and wanting more. The children's-book tone irritated me, as it felt
condescending."

@SPC

I wonder if the order one reads things matters as much or more than age. (sorry if this has been brought up and I missed it.) I read The Hobbit and then LOTR practically back to back (also, at approximately age 9) but I also read them in that order. I wonder if I too would have been annoyed by the condescension in The Hobbit if I had found LOTR first, even if I had waited until age 13 to read them.

Likewise, I have only a passing familiarity with the '80s fantasys that Pratchett is mocking in The Color of Magic, and I wonder how much that influenced the fact that I found it entertaining enough but not OMG!AWESOME.
Jeff S
27. jeffsc
I think a lot of it is experience/awareness-based, which can vary so much from one person to another. I don't generally have a problem with reading things too early, except for a big, obvious case a number of years ago:

I've read lots of SF of various kinds since I was young, but I first read "The Left Hand of Darkness" sometime in college, after hearing about how great a book it was. At that time I wasn't ready for it: I thought it was strange and kind of slow/boring. Just a few years later, something had changed with me (possibly I was much more aware of gender politics), and I felt like reading it again. I didn't remember very much from the first time, so I don't think it was just because it was a re-read; but this time I loved it, and understood the deep, quiet romance and tragedy of the story. I wouldn't think college was too young to read nearly any book, but because of my lack of experience and understanding it certain areas, I just wasn't ready for it.

This makes it even harder to suggest appropriate ages for books, because age isn't always a good indicator of how ready someone is for a particular message or story.
Alan Brown
28. AlanBrown
I picked and chose what I wanted to read, and my young reading was guided by, 1) what I could find in the bookshelves in our cellar, and 2) what looked interesting.
So I started with the Stratemeyer Syndicate books which my father had saved from his youth (Tom Swift, Don Sturdy, Great Marvel, Bomba the Jungle Boy). And I developed a lifelong taste for lurid adventure, along with the ability to look past some pretty hideous prose styles.
The first grownup stories I read were from Astounding/Analog magazine, and when I had read all the stories that interested me from them (and there were many), I started into Galaxy Magazine, which might as well been written by folks from a different world than the writers of Analog (I had yet to understand the impact an editor's biases could have on a magazine). And I will never forget reading Heinlein's Time Enough For Love in Galaxy and wondering "What the heck was that all about?" That one may have been read too soon--perhaps now that I have been around a little longer (and have gotten things like puberty behind me), it might make more sense now.
Rikka Cordin
29. Rikka
I read Dune at exactly the right time for me. And I still happened to be too young for it (13). But reading Dune when I did opened me up to Asimov, Vinge, Heinlen, and (somehow) Michener.

I read most of Shakespeare's comedies when I was 9. Did I understand half of what went on in them? Hell no, but it opened me up to drama and reinterpretations of Shakespeare (I was so unimpressed with She's the Man and none of my friends understood why for years. XD).

I got lucky with some of my school books. I was too young for To Kill a Mockingbird, but I recognized that fact. And when I went back a year later and reread it, I adored it.

I was older than I should have been for Ender's Game, Lirael, Sabriel and Abhorsen, The Vorkosigan Saga, and all of Tamora Pierce's works.

You win some, you lose some. Hopefully you reach that metacognitive level by your teenage years where you realize that you need to mature a bit to read some books. I love that moment when I realize I want to return to a book --this happened a lot during college-- I previously felt apathetic toward, or even disliked.

As long as we keep reading, I think we'll be okay.
Rich Horton
30. ecbatan
As they say, you never read the same book twice ... I suppose my only concern would be bouncing off a great book so hard I never tried it again. But I'm not convinced that's ever happened (to me).

I do remember seeing a copy of Anthony Powell's A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME (or, more properly, a copy of one of the omnibus volumes of one of the internal trilogies) when I was a teenager, looking at it because the title reminded me of Moorcock's DANCERS AT THE END OF TIME (though more likely Moorcock's title is a reference to Powell's work!) -- and deciding it looked boring as heck.

I finally came to it when I was 40 or so, and I now think it my favorite English novel series of the 20th Century. But I don't think I was precisely wrong to pass on it as a teenager -- I doubt it would have worked for me then.

Perhaps a bigger worry is missing stuff that would only work for us when young. I never read Doc Smith as a teenager, was bored when I tried FIRST LENSMAN decades later, and so I don't think I'll ever fully understand what people saw in him.

--
Rich Horton
helbel
31. houseboatonstyx
" along with the ability to look past some pretty hideous prose styles."

That's a very valuable gift--perhaps the most valuable. Learning to look past things I didn't like --bad prose or old prose or twee prose, or various warts of content or taboo,to find whatever good bits there are in the curate's egg, some of which are excellent or, with the right attitude, thousand-year-eggs.

Now, I'd start a child on Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald, and everything else 'twee' as young as possible, before 'twee' becomes a taboo for them.
Rich Horton
32. ecbatan
I did want to mention, also, THE LEOPARD. I didn't even hear of it until I was around 40. Maybe that was good. I will say that, reading it then, very likely at the right age, I absolutely loved it -- it is one of the truly majestic novels of the past century.

--
Rich Horton
Amanda Martino
33. isismaat
I echo the sentiments of others on here who have said it's much easier for them to go back to a book they liked or that they didn't understand than to go back to one they disliked. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in 8th grade. I didn't like it much (at the time I thought it was overly preachy...yes, don't judge people by their skin color, I get it about sums it up). I mentioned this to my mom, who raised me to be the avid reader I am today, and she said if she'd read TKAM at that age, she didn't think she would have liked it much either. That's a book I really don't think I was old enough or "worldly" enough to appreciate the subtlety behind the obvious message that seemed to be preaching at me. I haven't actually gone back and re-read that one, but I do think about it and I probably will go back to it at some point. The Grapes of Wrath, on the other hand, I loathed, and would rather not be within ten feet of.

@20 - David - I've never actually heard it said about Ayn Rand that you need to come to her at a certain age, but something about that rings true to me. I borrowed The Fountainhead from a friend when I was in high school and loved it. I finally made it through Atlas Shrugged about a year ago (ten years out of high school and after three previously-failed attempts to read it) and just couldn't get into it. I wonder if I would have had a different perspective on Atlas Shrugged if I'd read it right after finishing The Fountainhead.
Ian Johnson
34. IanPJohnson
Is there a right age to read a book?

I don't know. I guess it depends on the book, and the person. I tried reading Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson, when I was in high school, and couldn't get through it. Tried it again a few years later, and really enjoyed it.

However, my next-door-neighbor is fourteen, and he read Diamond Age at the age of thirteen. He really enjoyed it, in fact– says that Neal Stephenson is his favorite author, along with Holly Black. So I guess there's no real science to it. It just happens when it happens.

(For the record, I read Anathem at about the same time I read Diamond Age, and found it much more easy and readable. AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHY. I'd guess it has to do with the fact that I mostly read epic fantasy then (and still do), and so the made-upped words sounded more natural, in some ways. But yes. If I were to recommend a teenage reader a Neal Stephenson book, it would be Snow Crash or Diamond Age, maybe Cryptonomicon. NOT ANATHEM FOR THE LOVE OF GOD NO.)

(Note that I still really love Anathem.)
helbel
35. Tehanu
After reading this thread I guess I should say it really does depend on the individual. I've always thought it was a good idea to expose kids to things that are over their heads -- I tried reading all kinds of things when I was a kid, and there were so many books that stuck in my mind precisely because I didn't really understand them. I kept kind of poking at those ideas, thinking about them, and then later when I went back and I did get them, they meant much more to me. I'm still glad I did. But if you are one of those people who read something once and see no point reading it again because you "know how it comes out," this is just not for you -- and too bad.
Kit Case
36. wiredog
So many books and authors I discovered when I was, roughly,12 to 14 by first encountering them in short story collections. I first read Omnilingual in an anthlogy in my middle school library in 1978 or so when I was 13. All of the Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov short story collections introduced me to the authors before I read their books.
Ian Gazzotti
37. Atrus
I believe that certain stories can be appreciated more when you are a certain age and/or in a specific mindset. Reading Darkover as a shy and possibly gay teenager made me like it a lot more than if I were reading it now; on the contrary, I don't think my younger self would have appreciated Neil Gaiman as much as I do now.

I also believe that being forced to read something when you don't want to can ruin your enjoyment not only of that book, but even of a whole genre - and of course, compulsory reading is usually associated with either parents or school when we are younger, which usually triggers the 'right age' argument.
I had to read Anna Karenina on summer vacation when I was 11 and not only I cannot remember a single thing about the book, but I still cannot bring myself to read anything by Tolstoj or many other Russian authors. The worst part is that rationally I know that I would probably like them, but emotionally they always seem to fall to the bottom of my to-read list.
helbel
38. Carl V. Anderson
I agree that both sides of the coin work, that there are probably those who need to wait for a certain time or the opinion they form of the book might be the only opinion they ever form. I grew up reading what I wanted to read. I remember reading Dracula when I was 11 and thinking the first part of the book, pre-London, was grippingly scary and that the rest was quite boring. I re-read it for what has turned out to be the first of many times when I was 20, reading it aloud to my wife, and I had to laugh at my younger self because I found the whole thing exciting and also got so much more out of it that I would not have been able to understand at age 11. And I have gotten new things out of it and had a richer experience with it with each subsequent re-reading as I've gotten older.
Brian R
39. Mayhem
I've been making a point over the last 15 years or so of collecting second hand copies of books I loved as a child. I think I have several hundred now.
Partly because I want to reread them, partly because the libraries seldom have copies any more as they are often out of print, but mostly because I want them to be available to my own kids some day.
Not necessarily pushed on them, but rather in the bookshelves so they can pick em out and read them if they want to. I know all were at least in some way good, and most of the retro-racism and sexism in them will be overlooked by younger readers in favour of the plot.

Most of all I want to inflict them with the same fever to read that I got at a young age, and this is the best way I can think of to do it.
Jenny Kristine
40. jennygadget
@Tehanu

"I've always thought it was a good idea to expose kids to things that are over their heads..."

I think that stretching kids minds is important, but - putting aside for the moment of people who never re-read - I also have to say that I get frustrated with "typical" sff fans sometimes, because we tend to have been advanced readers and forget that not everyone is. Which skews not only how we define "over their heads" vs. "completely incomprehensible" but also that sff fandom often fails to acknowledge that, for the average 10 year old, simply decoding the words on the page can still be hard work. Adding more complications on top of that can be not only frustrating, but - more to the point - no fun at all.

Most 12 year olds can and should be exposed to a lot of the same ideas that are in books meant for adults, but that doesn't mean that books meant for adults are always the right method for doing so. Sometimes kids that are reading at "average" levels (or lower) need books written for them not because the ideas need to be simplified, but because language meant for their reading level lets the ideas shine through more clearly (from their point of view).

As a side note, I would also like to say that this is part of why reading aloud to kids even after they can read to themselves is often so important - especially if the child isn't a re-reader. Kids for whom reading comes less naturally (than those of us who were devouring LOTR at age 9) can especially benefit from having books they are not ready to read themselves be read aloud to them and discussed with them. Just like when they were guided through Brown Bear Brown Bear, it's a useful way to model and teach reading/comprehension/critical thinking skills and also gives children still struggling with reading a chance to simply enjoy the story and language without having to work so hard to get at it.
helbel
41. Michael O.
When I read The Great Gatsby as a junior in high school, I thought it was very pretty and interesting. When I read it as a junior in college, I wept.

The difference wasn't age, exactly - it was that the first time I read it, I hadn't fallen in love yet.
Pamela Adams
42. Pam Adams
I also believe that being forced to read something when you don't want to can ruin your enjoyment not only of that book, but even of a whole genre -


Yes- this.
helbel
43. Sam Penrose
Not for the first time I find myself wishing you would review Wendy Lesser's "Nothing Remains the Same: rereading and remembering".

http://books.google.com/books/about/Nothing_remains_the_same.html?id=yi8WAQAAIAAJ

Thanks for another great post!
helbel
44. HelenS
I think part of what's going on is not just what you read when, but how it interacts with other things you read around that time. It's also a question of how much you read -- if you're a child who reads maybe twelve new books a year, it's obviously a lot better if they're about right for you. If you read a hundred and twenty books a year, maybe it doesn't matter so much if some of them you don't get much out of. And so on. (I was the kind of kid who read around four hundred books a year, but a lot of those were comfortable re-reads, indeed often re-read more than once in the year -- I have no idea how many new titles I read in a year.)

I've probably mentioned this before, but one thing that both I and at least one of my sisters did was read the beginnings of various bildungsroman books over and over -- especially Jane Eyre and David Copperfield -- long before we were ready to tackle the whole thing. That helped a lot with understanding other books that drew on nineteenth-century style and tropes.

I do think some books I'd have been better off reading when I could give them a more critical eye (notably late Heinlein), but I also feel I might have done better not to read them at all. I can't imagine why anyone is worried about a "right" age to read Ayn Rand -- surely that age is "never," except for historical context?
helbel
45. John R. Ellis
I remember I enjoyed Don Quixote a lot better as an adult than I did back in Junior High.

Perhaps in part because now I was reading Cervantes' words themselves, not this sanitized, superficial adaptation.
Alan Brown
46. AlanBrown
Stories with an element of romance worked much better for me after I reached an age where I realized that girls did not, after all, have cooties...
Chuk Goodin
47. Chuk
Every time you re-read, you are missing a new book you could have been reading for the first time. Maybe it would have been better than the one you re-read, but now you'll never know.

(Of course, if you assume some kind of life-extension technology will be coming along soon enough for you to take advantage of it, this may be less important. Also if you don't usually like new books, you might feel better betting on a sure thing.)

That said, I started reading fairly young and I'm pretty sure I hit a lot of stuff when I was too young for it. (Maybe LotR -- I think I was in my early teens and I still don't get why so many people put up with it.) I have made a re-read exception a few times when I thought that might be the case for a book -- I definitely appreciate Shakespeare more as an adult than I did as a child or even as a teen.

Also, I wish I could have read the Harry Potter books when I was about twelve. (I still liked them but I would have loved them then. Although waiting between books would have been a lot harder.)

(Someone mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird -- I only read that for the first time after I turned forty and I loved it, could not believe I left it for so long.)
helbel
48. XH
I will say that I was far too young when I first attempted to read Dracula. It scared me witless. I had to hide the book behind the others on my bookcase so it wouldn't be there haunting me while I desperately attempted to sleep.

Because of that I really do think that it's a good idea to wait to read certain books until you're capable of dealing with their contents. I was at an age with Dracula that I had been scaring myself silly with Goosebumps and murder mysteries so much that Mom (Librarian that she is) decided I should be reading Classics of more Substance instead. I tried, but it was just way too frightening for me, and I couldn't finish. So no, I very firmly disagree that there is no harm in reading a book at the wrong age. I still can't sleep in a room with an open door.
helbel
49. Ksnow
I personally never got Pride and Prejudice until I saw the BBC version with Colin Firth. I'd read it as a teenager and again in my late thirties and didn't understand why it was so well loved. Then I saw Colin Firth coming up out of that pond in his soaked white clothing saying "I will beat this," and now I love the book. :)

So that's one that deserves a label reading, "In case of insufficient imagination re the charms of Mr Darcy, watch the Colin Firth miniseries and re-read."
Jo Walton
50. bluejo
Chuk: If you are a slow reader and only read a book every week or so, then yes, choosing to reread deprives you of a new book. At the speed I read, I can come back to books I love as often as I like and the new books are still going to be there.
helbel
51. Jason B.
I definitely think there are books that need to be read at the right age, or at least the right stage in life (which is somewhat trickier to judge). I first read the Narnia books when I was in my 30s, and while I thought they were okay, I didn't develop the love of them that people who first read them in their teens seem to have.

Some book stand up to rereading, while others barely stand up to being read once. I first read all Jane Austen's books when I was in my late teens/early 20s, and I loved them. Then I reread them all again recently, when my daughter was in her late teens, and I loved them again, but they were like completely different books.

I'm not one of those people who re-reads (for example) the Lord of the Rings every year, just because I don't read fast enough to be able to justify that, but there are books I choose to reread semi-regularly (I read something by Heinlein, usually Friday, every couple of years) and some I'm forced to reread due to lack of memory (each time a new Song of Ice and Fire book comes out, I have to reread the series up to that point to refresh my memory of what's happened before).
helbel
52. Konekon1nj4
"Every time you re-read, you are missing a new book you could have been reading for the first time."
I must say I don't agree with this. You aren't missing anything, you are enjoying a book and that is the whole point of reading. As Jo said in the article, often times I find myself getting a lot out of a book the second or third or 7th time through that I didn't catch the first time.


This article is so appropo of my life right now! My son is turning 5 in a few days and he's now ready for big kid books. He sat through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and thoroughly enjoyed it and now we have moved on to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I've been waiting to read some of these books to him since I found out I was pregnant and I find myself thinking a lot about what is appropriate and what isn't. So far my answer is if it holds his attention, and is meant for kids then he's good to go.
Alan Gratz
53. agratz
Terrific post, Jo. Thanks.

I'm not generally a rereader. I can probably count on both hands the number of books I've reread in my life. I'm of the "been there, done that" ilk, even if being there and doing that was an absolute treasure. If it is indeed an affliction, I have accepted it. :-)

I would be someone who would benefit from a "recommended ages" list--but how to tell whether MY age 16 would be the same as someone ELSE'S age 16? Someone else in the comments mentioned Catcher in the Rye; I read this book for class my sophomore year in high school, and was unmoved. I liked it well enough, but it was not the earth-shattering work for me that it is for others. I think this is because I was rather late to mature, and definitely hadn't by age 16. I didn't yet feel any of the angst that Holden does, so I didn't empathize.

My senior year in high school, I read, and LOVED, Crime and Punishment. That was the perfect time for me to read that book. I learned this, just six years later, when I--someone who almost NEVER rereads--purposefully sat down again with Crime and Punishment to enjoy it all over again.

And didn't.

I was stunned. This wasn't the book I remembered at all! It was preachy, and plodding, and I could't finish it.

I had a very similar experience with another Salinger novel, Franny & Zooey. I read that one when I was in college, and immediately put it at the top of my all-time best books I'd ever read list. I was concerned with everything its characters were concerned with, and I agreed with everything they said! As the cliche goes, it spoke to me!

And yet, a mere three years later, I couldn't finish an attempted reread. I had nothing in common with those characters anymore, and just wasn't interested.

Hmm. Perhaps then non-rereaders aren't born, they're made? Were my awful experiences with rereading books I had once revered my undoing?

As I said, terrific post, Jo. Much food for thought here.
helbel
54. S.M. Stirling
Agree on rereading -- it's always been baffling to me that some people don't. I have at least twenty books that I reread in whole or part once a year. I started early on that, too. I learned to read by memorizing my favorite children's book word for word.

OTOH, there are books that would just be a total waste of time for a kid. PORTRAIT OF A LADY, for example. I'm glad I read that as a young adult, because it convinced me that James was a great writer and enlarged my conception of technique. If I'd read it at, say, 12, I'd just have dismissed him as a boring jerk.

(It also convinced me that I never wanted to read James again; it was breathtakingly -good- but simply didn't give me the pleasure I wanted from -reading fiction-.

It was interesting, but in the way a textbook or essay can be interesting.)
helbel
55. Kasiki
God bless my Grandma for her gifts. Every christmass and birthday each of her grandkinds gets a book(there are over 25 of them rigth now). As the third oldest the responsibility of suggesting books my cousins would enjoy has fallen to me.

It raises not only can the children understand it, but is it apropriate for them question. I At what line is a YA book apropriate. When did some fabulous books get shifted to YA. What are the parents views on many of the subjects that might crop up from the book?

I started looking at the Harry Potter series and while it can be called a Kid fantasy series, What the series is in the begining isn't what the last book or two are. You can look at it as a bridge between kids and YA, but still i hope that my sugestions to "Gunderma" are first enjoyed by her so she can thenknow what to give my cousins.
helbel
56. Dalton325
I was never limited, restricted or provided with "appropriate" books to read. I always liked to read when I was little and would re-read the same books all the time. I'd just flip through and look at the pictures till I could read on my own.

I didn't become what I'd call a reader till I was 11. My father took me to a Friends of the Libray sale. I thought it was amazing from the time I stepped inside that back room. It was a hidden area where you'd only find book lovers and you could get a plethora of books to enjoy on an 11 year olds budget. I believe back then that they would stack the books on top of one another and it was 25-50cent per inch. I'd get 20 or so books at a time.

My father helped me the first time and picked out a basket full of books that he'd enjoyed and wanted me to give a try. He never talked any of them up or in anyway said that I should read them and I think that helped me a lot. I'm a big sci-fi/fantasy reader, mostly fantasy. I think that first basket held the first books of Piers Anthony's Xanth and Apprentice Adept series, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, Anne McCaffery's Pern, David Eddings' Belgariad, Mallorian, and Polgara the Sorceress, and several others.

I started off with the Apprentice Adept series. Mainly because I've grown up around horses and they were and are big passion. Split infinity had a man sword fighting a unicorn on the cover. I know that you're not supposed to judge a book by it's cover, but it's a good a place as any if you're figuring things out on your own. That's the first series I ever read. For those who've read it, you know that there is a whole culture of people who go naked for a well stated reason. I know many parents would prevent a child from reading something like this because of that fact and I think it'd be a mistake. It launched my love of books and I'm very glad I read it.

From then on I picked books that struck my fancy or from authors that I enjoyed. I haven't regretted it yet. I'm an avid re-reader, though it takes me between 1-5 years to want re-read. It takes that long to forget enough and to build up the passion to read it again.

What I tend to find is that usually, I'll find several things I missed the first time through or didn't appreciate the same way. I find that as I get older I start empathizing more with the characters who try to stop the inexperience main character from making a mistake than I do with the character who thinks he knows it all and should be allowed to forge ahead.

I also try to take things as I find them and find about as much pleasure in re-reading Margurette Henry's 'Misty of Chincoteauge' novels as I do Robert Jordan's 'Wheel of Time'.

I haven't read a lot of the classics on my own the way a lot of you seem to have, besides what was required in school. For the most part I enjoyed what I read. I really liked Shakespear, the Illiad and the Oydessy, Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, etc... What they've done for me more than anything is teach me to branch out and try new things. At least once a year, I try to read something outside my prefered genre and I'm usually pretty happy with it.

I'm trying to start writing myself and in the pursit of this, I've learned to recognize some good and bad writing habits and while this has caused me to notice things that I previously didn't, I can easily overlook them and just enjoy the story.

Having said all this, I don't think there is necessarily a good age to introduce books and that if you allow people to just drift where the words take them, it'll turn out well in the end.

One reason I'm glad I did read a lot regardless of whether it was on my level or not was because of the ideas. I know that you often get a lot of the same ideas and ideals repeated over and over and I'm sure that when I was younger that I had to be beaten over the head with them to understand, but they helped shape my life to a degree. They made me think critically, look at things from different angles and identify traits that I would like to have in myself so I adopted them. Things like how lying usually hurts you in the end and the benifit to yourself and others from you being steadfast, loyal, and trustworthy. I think people should expose themselves to as much as possible and not be afraid to try something new or set it down till later if it's not working for them.
helbel
57. Dalton325
I was never limited, restricted or provided with "appropriate" books to read. I always liked to read when I was little and would re-read the same books all the time. I'd just flip through and look at the pictures till I could read on my own.

I didn't become what I'd call a reader till I was 11. My father took me to a Friends of the Libray sale. I thought it was amazing from the time I stepped inside that back room. It was a hidden area where you'd only find book lovers and you could get a plethora of books to enjoy on an 11 year olds budget. I believe back then that they would stack the books on top of one another and it was 25-50cent per inch. I'd get 20 or so books at a time.

My father helped me the first time and picked out a basket full of books that he'd enjoyed and wanted me to give a try. He never talked any of them up or in anyway said that I should read them and I think that helped me a lot. I'm a big sci-fi/fantasy reader, mostly fantasy. I think that first basket held the first books of Piers Anthony's Xanth and Apprentice Adept series, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, Anne McCaffery's Pern, David Eddings' Belgariad, Mallorian, and Polgara the Sorceress, and several others.

I started off with the Apprentice Adept series. Mainly because I've grown up around horses and they were and are big passion. Split infinity had a man sword fighting a unicorn on the cover. I know that you're not supposed to judge a book by it's cover, but it's a good a place as any if you're figuring things out on your own. That's the first series I ever read. For those who've read it, you know that there is a whole culture of people who go naked for a well stated reason. I know many parents would prevent a child from reading something like this because of that fact and I think it'd be a mistake. It launched my love of books and I'm very glad I read it.

From then on I picked books that struck my fancy or from authors that I enjoyed. I haven't regretted it yet. I'm an avid re-reader, though it takes me between 1-5 years to want re-read. It takes that long to forget enough and to build up the passion to read it again.

What I tend to find is that usually, I'll find several things I missed the first time through or didn't appreciate the same way. I find that as I get older I start empathizing more with the characters who try to stop the inexperience main character from making a mistake than I do with the character who thinks he knows it all and should be allowed to forge ahead.

I also try to take things as I find them and find about as much pleasure in re-reading Margurette Henry's 'Misty of Chincoteauge' novels as I do Robert Jordan's 'Wheel of Time'.

I haven't read a lot of the classics on my own the way a lot of you seem to have, besides what was required in school. For the most part I enjoyed what I read. I really liked Shakespear, the Illiad and the Oydessy, Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, etc... What they've done for me more than anything is teach me to branch out and try new things. At least once a year, I try to read something outside my prefered genre and I'm usually pretty happy with it.

I'm trying to start writing myself and in the pursit of this, I've learned to recognize some good and bad writing habits and while this has caused me to notice things that I previously didn't, I can easily overlook them and just enjoy the story.

Having said all this, I don't think there is necessarily a good age to introduce books and that if you allow people to just drift where the words take them, it'll turn out well in the end.

One reason I'm glad I did read a lot regardless of whether it was on my level or not was because of the ideas. I know that you often get a lot of the same ideas and ideals repeated over and over and I'm sure that when I was younger that I had to be beaten over the head with them to understand, but they helped shape my life to a degree. They made me think critically, look at things from different angles and identify traits that I would like to have in myself so I adopted them. Things like how lying usually hurts you in the end and the benifit to yourself and others from you being steadfast, loyal, and trustworthy. I think people should expose themselves to as much as possible and not be afraid to try something new or set it down till later if it's not working for them.
helbel
58. Mary Kay
Oh dear. I'm not at all sure I ever realized there were people who *couldn't* re-read books. As I launch into my nth re-read of Margaret Frazer's books, I feel so very sorry for them. And I find it very ironic that Tolkien was one of them.

The only thing I can remember reading too young was Ellison's "Repent Harlequin, said the Tick-Tock Man". (I was 12) This is partly due to when & where I grew up of course. They were much more protective of young females back in the Dark Ages. It never interfered with my appreciating Ellison later either as he became my favorite writer when I read DANGEROUS VISIONS at 16 and remained that for a good long time.

But there really can't be recommended ages, can there, when so much depends on maturity level rather than age? I used that same Ellison story with 14 & 15 year olds in the late 70's and most of them had no trouble at all. Though I did have to have a couple of them re-read the end!
helbel
59. significance
I very rarely re-read, and I don't see it as an affliction. If I get 90% of what I'm going to get out of a book on the first read, I can choose whether to read it again for another 5%, or whether to spend that time reading another good book, and getting 90% out of that. There are a very few books for which the left-over 5% is worth more than 90% of the value of another book.
Kristen Templet
60. SF_Fangirl
I think I read Ender's Game too late. I can't help thinking that I should have loved that book, but it really didn't do a thing for when I read it in my 20 (late 20s I think). I actually remember more about Speaker for the Dead with its strange aliens and soap-operish family relationships than I do Ender's Game.

OTOH I know I read Stranger in a Strange Land when I was too young moving from Heinlein's juveniles to that. I'm no longer clear on the details, but I do still think a lot of that philosophy was probably crap so I don't feel I missed much.
Kristen Templet
61. SF_Fangirl
This comment stream is oddly disheartening. I have always thought of myself as a fast reader. People have told me so and my parents over the holiday commented on how much I love to read.

... yet ... yet ... I only read 24 books last year (plus 15 audio books), and I thought I was doing great. Life does not allow much more than that (although I guess I could watch less TV and surf the internet less), but although I can devour a book in a weekend that means nothing else gets done and since I don;t have time to do much in the evenings I need my weekends to get things done.

Jo's comment "If you are a slow reader and only read a book every week or so" was like a slap in the face; although, I know it was not intended as such. If I get through 2-3 books a month I think I'm doing great now-a-days.
helbel
62. Savenra
As a somewhat sensitive and nightmare prone 9 year old with no censorship on the books I could read, I was definitely too young to read Dracula . That and Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising gave me nightmares for weeks and I had a crucifix under my pillow for protection against vampires for a while after that. As an adult , I enjoy the writing and the story with no fear just the memory of childhood terror for flavour. I reread Anne of Green Gables recently and laughed at the sly wit and subtle digs at society that I completely missed as a child.

Other books I read as a teenager I have definitely out grown. Piers Anthony and David Eddings were much loved when in my early teens. Later adult reading with a more jaundiced eye and exposure to a wider range of authors has lead me to feel the writing of both is a bit juvenile , repetitive and , in the case of Anthony, rather misogynistic. I still keep my Eddings hardbacks for nostalgia though as they remind me of time spent at my best friends house discussing theories of how the Mallorean would end.

Overall, there are books that belong to phases in my life which don't stand the test of time , others that are cherished and reread with new insights revealed by my experiences and those that require the understanding I lacked when I first read them.
helbel
64. stephan maich
nope. if you can't understand something - you will pay no attention to it and read on, you will understand that you don't understand something important and wonder/figure-it-out, or you will make up a meaning for it (only later to understand the "real" meaning, usually under embarassing circumstances)... any which way, absorbing information is learning - the only difference between is the degree. the inexperienced have the most to learn. learn, bastards, learn! when i have children, i will learn them very much a lot of everything i can.
helbel
65. RichieB
I am an avid re-reader, there are books that I go back to when I'm not in the mood to tackle something new & books that I read for comfort because I know I like them & will enjoy them again. That being said, there are definately books that I have grown out of. Trying to re-read the Mars series in my 40's was an exercise in futility, but I loved them in my early teens.

There is a moment of nostalgia when you walk into a 2nd hand bookstore & see old friends from your youth all lined up and waiting for you but like the friends you had at school you can come to realise that some of them aren't that great anymore but others are just as welcome as ever. We mature & grow & sometimes have to leave old familiar friends behind.

I have found that one of the joys of having kids is the pleasure of introducing them to books from my own childhood but an unlooked for benefit is finding that some books I thought were 'too young' were delightfully written and engaging, I have learnt not just to recommend but to also listen to my kids about what they are reading & approach with an open mind.
Amanda Klepper
66. dichotomy08
I have heard that The Scarlet Letter is an enjoyable book if you read it as an adult. I, having read it in high school, can't even imagine.

I also disliked Little Women, and my mother tells me that it's because I read it too late (I was 13).
helbel
67. I_Sell_Books
I too was a voracious reader from a very young age, and began my SF/F addiction with Stranger in a Strange Land. When I was 8. And from there, Friday, and various other hard core SF novels which I didn't understand, but which intrigued me. Having said that, I didn't fall in love until I read Andre Norton's Year of the Unicorn (still love it)(because the main character, a girl, makes her own choices rather than having them thrust upon her, as was the case in many of the books of that time period) and from there, Witch World. Then I discovered people like Pamela Sargent and Tanith Lee and Joan Vinge and Jessica Amanda Salmonson and H.Beam Piper and CJ Cherryh and Tolkien (though I hated The Hobbit) and Stanislaw Lem.

As I work in a bookstore, so many parents ask me if books are age appropriate for their children - and funnily enough, their biggest concern is with the SF/F books! It's hard for me not to roll my eyes because a) fantasy stories are the #1 plot devices for kids books, followed by b) Dystopias (yawn) and c) vampires (enough already!). I recommend a lot of the classics - Susan Cooper and Diane Duane, Katherine Patterson, a lot of Pratchett and Douglas Adams (good transitions, no?), as well as Classic Classics, Dickens et al.

The local high school keeps ordering BRadbury's Dandelion Wine, and I wish they would stop, as I'm not sure HS kids would get the beauty of it! (mea culpa, I was a teen when I read it...). I think a lot of people are ruined for books when in school and I don't know why. My other half reads a lot, but hated it in school (especially Shakespeare). He's a Brit, though, so maybe therein lies the difference?

Personally, I think that if you're reading something and enjoying it regardless of what age you are, it's worthwhile.
helbel
68. HelenS
There are a very few books for which the left-over 5% is worth more than 90% of the value of another book.

See, for me the first time through a book is more like 50%, or maybe less, and I don't retain that much very long. As C.S. Lewis said, a book I've read only once is "no good to me." Anyway, what other art or pleasure is considered one-use-only? We look at favorite pictures over and over, listen to favorite music over and over, eat favorite foods over and over... I don't see why the twentieth time reading a book is more of a waste of time than anything else.
helbel
69. LisaNoble
Re-readers unite! I'm actually finding this a very useful tactic right now, as I am doing a lot of learning around educational technology. Often, the first time I skim an article, I'm doing exactly that - mining it for what I can use right away. Then I can pop it into a category in a social bookmarking site, and go back to it later to reflect, comment, and maybe delete. :)
helbel
70. houseboatonstyx
@ 33 Isismaat -- I lucked out with Rand. Atlas was popular in my high school (c. 1960), and some of the sentimentalities she was debunking (self-sacrifice etc) hadn't yet been debunked (or not to us). Otherwise I was reading things like Cronin and Henry James and attempting Camus; and on a popular cultural level, for examples of Rand's Toohey see the radio personalities in To Love and Be Wise and in a Charlotte Armstrong thriller about a villanous one.

So maybe the golden age of Rand was not just about 14-18, but 1958 as well.

And Atlas was our, or my, first experience of a long complicated novel structured on a philosophical system. And no less readable than her models, eg Victor Hugo iirc. Iirc, that momentum carried me through The Fountainhead; I don't think it would have worked the other way around.
helbel
71. Friend to Fwiffo
"If you are a slow reader and only read a book every week or so"

I am generally a much slower reader than that--I rarely finish a book in under two months--but it depends on the book. I did get through the last Harry Potter in a few days because I was so scared of spoilers. (It made me feel physically ill to read so fast.) Funnily enough for someone who reads so slowly, I love to read enormous books, so I can be reading the same book for six months or more. (I generally am working on several at once--generally one big novel and several nonfiction things which I can flip around through.) I do love to reread, although I find I do it less now than I used to.

As far as the topic of the post goes, there are probably a few books I read at the "wrong" time. I don't know to what degree this is a matter of age, exactly. There was music I didn't like as a kid which I like now--not because I was too young, just because I was into different things. I tend not to think that way about books. Certainly, when I started reading "literary" fiction, it didn't feel like a change, but a discovery--ahhhh, I thought, so this is the kind of book I really like! So I often lament that I didn't read this or that book when I was younger. But maybe I would have hated it then, when I was still reading mostly fantasy paperbacks.

Fascinating topic. I could think about it forever. Thanks for this post.
helbel
72. nomoreparades
Books I have read when I was young are the few I come back to re-read. Otherwise I, like Toilken, don't re-read a book.

I think classic books are imperitive for any young reader, there is no age limit! I read and was read a number of classics and I am thankful for that introduction. How else would have known in my later years that similar books were worth a go at reading.

Some books, modern ones, probably shouldn't be read by youngersters - I wouldn't want any children I go on to have to be reading about serial killers. However, I would want their lives to be enriched by Austen or Alcott.
Rob Munnelly
73. RobMRobM
I read adult books very young and there were many I just didn't get - for example, reading Sun Also Rises without understanding that Jake is impotent or, basically, what impotence means, is missing 60% of what's going on. It becomes a travel book about decadent people (and me not understanding what decadence is as well.) I also read some John Cheever and had no connection to suburban ennui among the upper classes - just words on a page. Coming back to them as an adult in a longstanding marriage with job pressures makes them more real. Stranger in a Strange Land? Made sense only later. Scarlet Letter - boring as heck until you're old enough to understand the subtle artistry in Hawthorne's craftsmanship.

So one can stretch and other works, but there is a risk that one can't fully understand. Sometimes it may be better to stick with more or less age appropriate works.
Alan Brown
74. AlanBrown
There is no good age for Ayn Rand. Social Darwinism taken to its most repulsive extremes, and a glorification of greed and selfishness. Not to mention clunky, awkward prose, wooden characters and unrealistic situations.
helbel
75. houseboatonstyx
"Otherwise I, like Toilken, don't re-read a book."

Where did Tolkien say that?About ALL books? Lewis was all for re-reading, see EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM.
Theresa Wymer
76. Tekalynn
I fell in love with ER Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros when I was eleven, and the Zimiavian trilogy when I was fifteen. So the "right age" really does vary considerably.

On the other hand, I tried ("tried" being the operative word) to read what were then the current books of The Wheel of Time series. I apologize to the many, many fans of this series on this site, but I COULD NOT get into it. From the first word of the prologue, I thought "I've read this before," and forced my way through two books before throwing in the towel. However, it's certainly possible that if I'd done some sort of time loop and read it at twelve, I would have adored the series. I've been afraid to go back and try, but perhaps I should.
helbel
77. I_Sell_Books
@74- Alan Brown - WORD. Rand is one of the very few authors we refuse to have on the shelf...
helbel
78. kat b
I only have ONE book that I KNOW I shouldn't have started so young. "Stranger in a Strange Land". I tried at the age of 9 and just couldn't get going, mother said I was to young and try it again when I was older. How right she was. I think I'm lucky with the "tweleve year old mind" reading Harry Potter at 49 was no problem, loved it. LOL Mom was 69. And rereading is a passion. Wheel of Time will soon have it's FOURTH time through. Dick Frances, Robert Heinlien and Anne McCaffery all have 5plus read throughs.
helbel
79. Dr. Cox
Interesting post! And comments!

I first read Jane Eyre as a nineteen-and-a-half-year old college junior for a British Novel class. I didn't have to have it read 'til the next Monday night's class, but started it a while after class on Monday night just to have something to read and finished it a little over forty-eight hours later, captivated by characters and plot and everything, and would have finished it sooner had I not been saving class and chapel skips to go home early for Thanksgiving!

As has been commented, it is ironic that Tolkien wasn't a rereader.
I'm rereading his collected letters (for the umpteenth time) and have run into comments on rereading and on age of audience, and reading above your age group and how that could improve vocabulary.
I was thirteen or fourteen when I first read The Lord of the Rings and got paperback copies for Christmas when I was fifteen.

I remember reading Animal Farm when I was ten and enjoying it tho' I know that there was a lot I didn't notice! I didn't really appreciate poetry 'til college 'cause only then we were given the tools to really evaluate it; in highschool it was only "tell us what it means" without any other instruction. Funny that I ended up writing my thesis on Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book :).
helbel
80. Huimang
A family friend gave me Dragonflight when I was eight. Clearly she knew that my parents were pretty laissez-faire about what I read, since, while not explicit, it's a book with its share of sex and violence, not to mention politics and assorted disasters of all kinds. I loved it. I've loved a lot of books before and since, but reading Dragonflight for the first time (and then reading it again, and again, for a total of something like six times in a row before I could stand to put it down) is still an iconic experience for me of being electrified by a book. If I'd read it for the first time at eighteen or twenty-eight, I think I'd still have liked it, but wouldn't have had that sensation of discovering, and becoming totally absorbed in, a complete new world.
LT Tortora
81. Lucubratrix
I'm not sure that there's a certain age that's too young to read a particular book. I do think that with more life experiences comes a deeper understanding of many books--and maybe a lesser appreciation of others.

From the time I learned to read, my parents were quite clear that I was free to read any book on their vast bookshelves. No need to clear it with them first. So I did... and mostly I was bored. I first read The Hobbit at age 10, loved it, and so I pulled The Fellowship of the Ring off the shelf. Wait... who the hell is this Frodo guy? Where's Bilbo? What about the Dwarves? No dragons? Forget this! So I did... until the movies came out, and I decided to give them another shot, and actually appreciated them. There is no way that 10-year-old me would have understood why Frodo doesn't stay in the Shire happily ever after... but grown-up me does.

Similarly, I think there are a lot of things in kids' books that require a suspension of disbelief. Kids may be perfectly happy to push the "I Believe" button and enjoy the story, where as adults we're too quick to see the flaws.
S Tieh
82. infinitieh
I'm a (mostly) non-re-reader. As the saying goes, "so many books, so little time." I would re-read favorite passages but not entire books. The only exception is P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves books.

I, too, read Thackeray's Vanity Fair when I was about 9 or 10 and my response when I got to the end was "what? that's it?" Thus began my lifelong dislike of literary fiction.

When I was about 14 or 15, the school librarian, knowing that I enjoyed sci-fi, gave me Heinlein's Friday to read. It shocked me so much that I refused to read any Heinlein or hard sci-fi ever again.
Jenny Kristine
83. jennygadget
infinitieh,

When I was about the same age and looking for fantasy to read, all the booksellers and librarians kept suggesting Piers Anthony. It was at that point that I gradually gave up on reading fantasy (or, at least, fantasy written by men) - until the internet came along and I could better investigate titles before reading them.
helbel
84. (still) Steve Morrison
@75:
Tolkien said it in a letter to Mrs M. Wilson dated 11 April 1956, #189 in his published letters:
I find that many children become interested, even engrossed, in The Lord of the Rings, from about 10 onwards. I think it rather a pity, really. It was not written for them. But then I am a very ‘unvoracious’ reader, and since I can seldom bring myself to read a work twice I think of the many things that I read – too soon! Nothing, not even a (possible) deeper appreciation, for me replaces the bloom on a book, the freshness of the unread. Still what we read and when goes, like the people we meet, by ‘fate.’
helbel
85. elricprincess
I was a nerd enough that at ten years old I went on a reading rampage and read Dante's Divine Comedy (non abridged) , Paradise Lost (non abridged), the complete Dragonriders of Pern series, Mythology of various cultures, and everything by Isaac Asimov, Ursula K Le Guin, and even biographies of famous people I found interesting all in the span of a year and a half. Thank goodness for Interlibrary Loan.
helbel
86. Rich Blair
I didn't read Moby Dick till I was 30, and I was grateful, because as a teenager I just wouldent have had the life experience to appreciate the humor in it. H. G Wells's SF, on the other hand, I discovered in 4th grade, and boy, did I really get it.

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