When Should Books Be Read?

I was talking with my friend the other day, on whether certain books need to be read at specific points in your life to be able to feel the complete force of the plot.

For example, he ascertained that ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ needs to be read in your teenage years, when feeling angry with the world isn’t something that’s mocked (I haven’t read this yet). ‘Norwegian Wood’ (which I have read) should be read ideally in university, or if you’re particularly precocious, in your later years of high school, when relationships are still new and confusing and overwhelming.

Similarly, I came to the conclusion that ‘The Secret History’ (which is so stunning by the way) should also be read when you’re in university to make you question whether the friends you’ve made in an enclosed environment will stay with you for the rest of your life or if it’s just a situational friendship.

Therefore, before I started reading ‘The Virgin Suicides’ I had my doubts whether I would be able to fully appreciate this book for what it’s worth, because I had assumed I had missed the period of my life to completely comprehend adolescent angst. But it made me feel like I was seventeen again (with the experience to be critically self-aware of it, thank God); the restlessness and the isolation and the loneliness, the naïveté and the cynicism, the constant wonderings of whether you’re going to do any with your life, and the aching need for freedom. I was actually in a pretty tetchy mood after reading this and I later worked out that it’s the same angry emotions I had in high school.

Therefore, I think for books to be understood, it depends less on when you read a book but whether you can still dredge up long forgotten emotions and viewpoints to relate with characters in a different point in their lives to you.

So maybe if I had read ‘Norwegian Wood’ for the first time a little later, like when I’m forty, my young adult years would be reminisced with fond nostalgia, instead of aimlessness. And maybe if I had read ‘The Secret History’ later too, I would have digested it with the knowledge that whatever I thought I knew at university is just the tip of the iceberg of what people actually learn in their lifetime and the ennui felt wouldn’t be so crushing.

And adding to this, I think books need to be read at multiple points because you’d get something different from it each time. I would still like to read ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ despite the emotional damage wreaked by ‘The Virgin Suicides’, and I’d like to re-read ‘Norwegian Wood’ again, preferably when I actually am forty to see if the tumultuous relationships entered in my university years become rose-tinted or if it just infuriates me all over again.

Of course people will always change and our experiences shape our perspective and naturally our interpretation of things that we read, so I wonder if I am just over-complicating the obvious.

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