Reading Sheila Kaye-Smith’s All the Books of My Life this week, a wonderful memoir of her life in books, this passage caught my eye:
When at the age of fifteen I started my period of conscientious reading, I received one piece of very good advice. 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.
I think most dedicated readers, those of us who always have a book on the go and four (or forty) waiting in the wings, have at some point in our lives a list of great authors whose works we want to read. My list began when I was around twelve and just starting to discover the classics. I was ready to move on from Agatha Christie’s mysteries and Daphne du Maurier’s suspenseful romances to ‘important’ books, the ones I felt that I, as a clearly brilliant person destined for future greatness, should read. My ambition at that age was exceeded only by my ego.
I put all the great books I knew about and many I didn’t on to that list. It looked like every “Greatest Novels of All Time” list you have ever seen and I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world. And then, being a person who likes to follow through on her plans, I started reading, little knowing how irresponsible my ambition was in the eyes of Kaye-Smith and others like her. Innocently, I thought that if I was interested in a book I should read it. I had no older friends or family members intent on guiding my reading during those years, no one to warn me not to attempt books beyond my reach, but did I spoil any books for myself by reading them when I was in my teens? I suspect not.
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.
My booklist was abandoned many years ago. The sense of obligation I had when I began it, the feeling that I needed to read and enjoy certain books in order to be a better educated person, disappeared as I grew older and wiser. But the list served its purpose well.
For me, what was most important about this fumbling and indiscriminate assault on great literature was that it exposed me to great literature, to books that if I had waited until I was older I might have realised I was supposed to find intimidating. I may not have finished them all but I started to develop my taste. I learned that I loved Austen and Thackeray but hated Fitzgerald and Hemingway; that I was fascinated by modernist’s techniques without ever managing to enjoy one of their novels; and that Romantics (especially poets) could send me screaming into the night. I learned that language can be played with, that humour comes in many forms, and that there is nothing more attractive than an author with a distinctive voice. I did not necessarily absorb these lessons consciously but they have informed my writing and my reading ever since. Apologies to Sheila Kaye-Smith but, in the face of such an education, I cannot feel that anything was spoiled.