I don’t want to read Catcher in the Rye again – or Salinger’s short stories – though I was impressed by them when I was around twenty. Nor am I tempted to reread Wuthering Heights (though Jane Eyre is another matter). I won’t be returning to The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, all cult novels when I was a teenager (taking the Peake trilogy down from the shelf I see that they were given to me for my 21st birthday – and I haven’t opened it for, ooh, I’d rather not say how many years). Are there novels that it is best to read when you’re young as I did with all these? And conversely are there novels that one should keep for middle-age or old age?
The Great Gatsby strikes me as a young person’s novel, yet I could happily reread that. And it’s the same with To Kill a Mocking Bird. In fact I didn’t read that until I was middle-aged and loved it, but I think the optimum age for reading it is probably mid teens. On the other hand Proust is surely a writer for later life. You need to have been through the mill a bit yourself really to appreciate Swann in Love.
There are some writers who have something new to offer as you return to them through life. Tolstoy is one. As a young woman I thrilled to Anna Karenina’s tragic love story, but it wasn’t until I reread it as a mother that I understood Anna’s anguish at being parted from her son. Jane Austen I can always go back to, though it’s more often Mansfield Park or Persuasion now, rather than Pride and Prejudice. Dickens was often pushed onto the young reader when I was young, but I think that was a mistake. You should be an adult to read him. Trollope with his generous sympathies and his understanding of human relationships is evergreen. And Middlemarch is the perfect novel for any age. We have chosen that for our book group’s annual big read and I am looking forward to.
Are there books that you loved when you were young, but couldn’t bear to reread? Is there anything that you are saving for old age?
I’ve just read Susan Hill’s HOWARD’S END IS ON THE LANDING about the year she spent reading from her own collection of books. I enjoyed it and agreed with her about a lot. Like her I think that THE RECTOR’S DAUGHTER is a masterpiece. Like her I have a high regard for Trollope and Dickens and admire the diaries of James Lees-Milne for the writer’s absolute frankness about his own short-comings. She made me want to go back and read some old favourites and gave me some new books to add to my reading list. But perhaps the most fascinating section was on books she HADN’T read. One of them was ULYSSES.
In my last blog I wrote that doing a degree in English can deter one from writing oneself. But it is also a wonderful foundation for a reading life. Would I otherwise have read all of PARADISE LOST or all Shakespeares’s plays or BEOWOLF in Anglo-Saxon. Highly unlikely especially in the case of BEOWOLF. It was a struggle at the time, but I am glad these things are part of my mental furniture. Of course not everything took, and something that didn’t was ULYSSES. Fifty pages in was the furthest I ever got, and I don’t intend to go back, so I am with Susan Hill there. But I didn’t know whether to feel amazement or envy when I learned that though she has read a truly vast amount and is far more familiar with for example the novels of Hardy and Virginia Woolf among than I am, she has never read THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY or THE GREAT GATSBY. To my mind THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY isn’t just Henry James’s best novel, it is one of the best novels ever written. On the whole I am sorry. True, she can now have the pleasure of reading it for the first time, but she has fewer years left for rereading it. THE GREAT GATSBY, too, I am glad that I read as an undergraduate, though for a different reason. Certainly it can certainly stand rereading, but I think it is best encountered first as a young person.
Some books when read in youth become companions for life. For me another of those is ANNA KARENINA. My reading group has chosen it as an optional extra and, as I suggested it, I certainly have to reread it. But in any case it has for a while been calling me to take it down from the shelf and I am looking forward to plunging back into it. Rereading: what a great pleasure that is.