I’ve mentioned over at Compulsive Overreader, but not here, that one of my reading goals this year is to read or re-read several “classic” novels that I either never finished, or didn’t appreciate as fully as I should have, when I was younger. I started with The Great Gatsby, inspired not by the fact that there’s a movie coming out but by the fact that John Green covered it in his all-too-short “Crash Course: Literature” series, which led my son Chris to read it and rave over how great it was. I had to read Gatsby for a college lit class and remember being pretty unimpressed by it, but with my 15 year old enjoying it I thought it was worth a second try. To my surprise, I liked it a lot better this time around.
Next, I tackled Les Miserables, having loved the stage musical many times and recently watched and loved the movie. I did read the book many years ago, but found it boring and confusing. This time, to my surprise, I loved it and couldn’t put it down. Yes, there are lots of windy, wordy digressions into topics that have little to do with the story but that Victor Hugo found fascinating, and I did a bit of skimming in those places, but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Heartened, I went on to the book I’m now rereading — Pride and Prejudice. This one is a bit different in that I did like P&P when I first read it (and again when I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, of course) but it had been a long time since I’d read the original book, and while I’ve been watching the fabulous Lizzie Bennet Diaries series on YouTube (a modern updating of P&P as a 21st century vlog, about which I’ll be blogging more later) it’s occurred to me that I’ve forgotten a lot of the plot, so it was worth a re-read. And once again, I’m finding myself very absorbed — and enjoying sharing the reading experience with Emma, who also wanted to try reading P&P because she’s been watching Lizzie Bennet along with me.
I’m impressed how much more I’m enjoying all of these classics than I did on first reading and it makes me wonder: have I somehow become a more mature reader in middle age? Am I better suited to reading these books now than I was in my teens and twenties? I posed this question on the book discussion thread over on Ship of Fools and someone replied with a story of a friend who teaches a Shakespeare class at the local seniors’ centre and says she wasn’t really mature enough to understand a lot of what Shakespeare was saying when she wrote her dissertation in her 20s.
It made me think that maybe, at least for some readers, classic literature does improve with age — not the book’s age, but our own. Which makes it pretty ironic that the only exposure a lot of readers get to literary classics is forced reading in school — at the very time of life, and in the very setting, where they’re least likely to appreciate them.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean I’m going to stop teaching the works of literature that are on the curriculum, nor that I’m not thrilled when my kids start tentatively searching out literary classics on their own, as they’ve been doing (I certainly didn’t encourage Chris to read The Great Gatsby, or Emma to read Pride and Prejudice, although I certainly try to fan the flames of that interest when they do start reading those books). But I do think it would be great if everyone had another try, in later life, at a book they tried to read or were forced to read as a young person, just to see if maturity has ripened their appreciation at all.
As for me, I’ll let you know how it goes when I get to Hemingway ….