Maturing

I have always been a reader. When I was growing up, I spent countless hours spreadeagled somewhere in my house, reading a book. Reading was a constant; everything else an inconvenience. I would stir the Sunday gravy, iron, hoover, even walk the dog, all with one hand, while the other clutched steadfastly to my book. As soon as one book was finished, I would reach for the next one, not wanting to spend a minute of any day without an alternate reality to submerge myself in. Reading was always a pleasure, but when I started secondary school, I stopped reading what I really wanted to read and instead turned to the sombre looking classics in the library that promised intelligence and keys to a world of adult experiences I could only begin to imagine.ย I read all the greats voraciously and at super speed, barely pausing for breath, let alone appreciation. I read Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment one after another, retaining nothing but a vague impression of tragedy and onion domes. I slogged my way through Virginia Woolf, not understanding a word but knowing I should read them all if I wanted to sound clever at my university interviews. I read all of Thomas Hardy, all of Austen, all of the Brontes, ticking them off on completion like items on a shopping list rather than treating them as works of art to be immersed in, distilled and mulled over. I forced myself to finish novels I couldn’t fully understand, closing their pages with the notion that they were boring, hard work and overrated, when really I just wasn’t ready to appreciate them. I was critically and analytically immature, with no real ability to look much beyond the surface and explore a novel’s qualities outside of plot, character, or whether the writing style was easy or hard to read. Even at university, my critical faculties were still in their infancy, and I still read what I thought I should rather than what I liked. As a result, while I have technically read most of the canonical works one ‘should’ read to be considered well read, I haven’t really read them at all, something I have been increasingly realising over the past few months.

Recently, I’ve been revisiting many authors I haven’t looked at since those speed-reading teenage years, and I’ve been delighted at how I have matured as a reader. When reading Between the Acts a few weeks ago, I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed the experience of reading Woolf’s prose, revelling in her flights of fancy, her poetry, and her beautiful, insightful depictions of humanity. Ten years ago I was sighing with frustration at To the Lighthouse, ready to throw it at a wall. All I could see was a novel that didn’t make any sense; now I see a work of art that transcends the limited boundaries of my expectations of what a novel should be and is all the better for it. Ten years ago I read Pride and Prejudice and thought it was good but largely overrated. This year I re-read it and found it a sparkling, witty, hilarious and yet quietly touching novel that is so much deeper and richer than I ever gave it credit for. Ten years ago I had never even heard of Elizabeth Bowen, and if I had she would definitely have been thrown at the wall after five minutes of attempting to struggle through her often rather abstruse prose. Now she is one of my favourite authors, and I love picking my way through perfectly formed sentences of such beauty that they take my breath away. These days I have the patience to read a paragraph six times over while the language fizzes and leaps and sets off fireworks in my mind. I notice more of what the author is trying to do: I notice subtleties and allusions and artfully constructed sentences; I can see brilliance and beauty; I can see the bigger picture but I also revel in the minor details that often make the good, great. I’m not ticking boxes any more. It’s wonderful and glorious and enriching to pick up books I had long ago written off and fall in love with them spectacularly; it’s a joy that’s all the greater because of the surprise of finding treasure in a place I already thought I’d searched and found empty.

At the moment I am slowly reading my way through Virginia Woolf’s first novel, Night and Day. I had started it in my unenlightened days and found it pedestrian and dull. What poor judgement that was! It’s not like her later books; it’s a very Edwardian novel, with its tea parties and suffragettes and men and women who cannot talk to one another, but it still has the unmistakeable hallmarks of Woolf that I have now learned to love. The characters’ thoughts swirl above their conversation, creating a thick dream-like atmosphere that hovers amidst the tea cups and chintz of Chelsea drawing rooms; London looms brilliantly large, laid out in all its glory at the readers’ feet and explored with a fond intimacy that reveals the topography of Woolf’s own London life; women are the focus – women and their relationships with men, women and their relationships with each other, women and their relationships with work and leisure. It is an intriguing novel, and a funny one, too. It has made me think about how easy it is to write a novelist off thanks to reading them at the wrong time, or in the wrong way. I am now reassessing my reading past and wondering who else have I missed, thanks to youthful immaturity and impatience? Perhaps it might even be time to pick up Henry James again…

55 comments

  1. Marvelous post. I have long believed that there are authors and books that one should read until one is “older” or more “mature” and that there is nothing wrong or snobbish about this. Reading, like most skills, is something you get better at the more you do it. After so many years, it’s natural that you move on to more challenging material and natural that this same material was unappreciated when you were younger.

    I think of it as moving from the bunny slopes to the more challenging ski runs you’ll find higher up the mountain.

    1. Thanks CB! I quite agree and that’s an excellent analogy – it’s not fun to do these things until you’re ready and limbered up for the challenge!

  2. I felt a bit this way recently as I finished Eudora Welty’s “The Optimist’s Daughter”, wondering why it had taken me so long to read it. I would not have enjoyed it as much, if at all, as a student. I needed to have a few, quite a few, years behind me, experience, grief and happiness, as well as the joy of gardening and friends to truly enjoy it. Your wonderful post reminds me of this in myself, Rachel. Enjoy the adventure, dear Rachel.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much, Penny, and waited for the right time! Thank you – I am finding it such a pleasurable experience to revisit all these classics – it’s like I’ve never even read them at all!

  3. I think there are certain writers that you have to wait to read somewhat later in life–not just because of intellectual maturity but also simply by virtue of having lived more, experienced more, you relate better to books with more complex styles and characters. By the same token, there are certain writers who you can absolutely gobble up in your teens and early twenties (it was D. H. Lawrence for me) that tend to lose a certain essence when you reread later in life. Try Hardy again–I think you’ll get more out of him this time around.

    1. Returning to Hardy later in life — I did an independent study on him in college — has provided me with some of my most rewarding reading experiences. It was precipitated by reading the Tomalin biography and I am particularly grateful to her for introducing me to his wonderful poetry.

      I am afraid Henry James will be a tougher sell for me — I like some of the shorter works but The Beast in the Jungle routinely defeats me as much as I am enjoying the Leon Edel biography.

      1. That’s wonderful to hear, AJ! Claire Tomalin does such great things for her biographical subjects, doesn’t she?

        His style is just so TURGID – but I am going to give him another bash and see how I get on regardless! You never know!

      2. I’d say, start with Far from the Madding Crowd, to me one of Hardy’s most accessable books. For Henry James, I’d recommend starting with The Golden Bowl or two novellas: The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers.

    2. Yes exactly – some novels in particular you shouldn’t read until you have experienced love and loss, otherwise you have no real idea what the novelist is trying to convey. I definitely do want to pick Hardy up again – he is one classic novelist whose novels I really can’t remember and I think he will definitely be worth the investment in time!

  4. I agree with you. There are many books that improve so much on a second reading. I read everything in site as a youth. My parents had a set of books called “Harvard Classics”. I plowed through those without much enjoyment. In fact, I don’t remember most of them. Oh, how I wish I had that set of books now. I am sure I would enjoy them thoroughly. I will continue to look for some of the classics.

    1. Well at least we tried young – and I’m sure we got some benefit from them even if we can’t remember anything about them now! Get rediscovering – it will be worth it!

  5. What I enjoyed, even more than your eloquent thoughts, was your engaging writing. I hope you will consider writing your own books if you haven’t already.
    Marcia Chellis
    “The Girls from Winnetka”
    “0rdinary Women, Extraordinary Lives”
    “The Joan Kennedy Story”

  6. How beautifully you put everything in words! It was a pleasure to read this post and to be reminded of my own reading experience. After having devored one classic after the other like you in school, I notice I became a much slower reader. Sometimes, I read a paragraph several times, just for my enjoyment. And how much new pleasure I find in this new way of reading!
    I enjoyed “To the Lighthouse” recently much, much more than 20 years ago…

    1. Oh Martina, you are too kind! Yes I am just the same – when I was younger I just wanted to speed through everything – now I love lingering over paragraphs, just soaking up the writing!
      That’s wonderful! Try Night and Day, it’s very good!

  7. If you pick up Henry James, read Portrait of a Lady – one of his best.

    I so agree with Deb who mentioned D H Lawrence as a writer one reads when young; I could not read him now, I also could not read Thomas Hardy again – too much misery and melodrama.

    Jane Austen’s Emma I struggled with so many years ago (a practical criticism of the strawberry picking scene still gives me nightmares) but now I have read and re-read all of her books – they are an absolute joy. I’m glad I read Wuthering Heights, but why didn’t I like Jane Eyre?

    It’s as much about the reader as the writer and you have expressed very well the different “ages” of reading.

    1. Ok, Sue, I will give that another go!
      I think when we get to certain points in life, we can safely say an author is no longer ‘for’ us – I used to devour Russian novelists, but I find I don’t have as much interest in them now.
      I’m so glad you have rediscovered your love for Austen – I find over analysis does tend to take the sparkle off her novels. But not liking Jane Eyre?! I can’t understand that!
      I quite agree and I’m glad you enjoyed the post – it’s interesting how many people have the same experience. It gives me great pleasure to think of all the authors I have waiting to rediscover and enjoy in new ways as I age!

  8. Ooh yes, read Henry James! Washington Square, The Spoils of Poynton, Portrait of a Lady, What Maisie Knew – go on go on you know you want to!

    I vividly remember the moment when I started reading differently: it was Mansfield Park (of course heh heh!) and my English teacher asked me what it was about, and I started reeling off the plot, and he said, ‘No, what is it ABOUT?’ and then I started to understand.

    You write so joyfully about the books you read and the pleasure you receive from them, it’s always a joy to read your posts!

    1. Ok, ok! I am going to give him another go!

      That’s a wonderful example – I think at school not enough space is given to allow pupils to start thinking about novels in deeper ways – it’s all character analysis and plot regurgitation.

      Thank you so much, that’s such a lovely thing to say!๐Ÿ™‚

  9. My thoughts exactly. Thank you for this post. A few days ago I was thinking to revisit the classics. I made myself read them in high school because I thought they would make me seem smart but I found them boring at the time because I did not understand and could not appreciate them. So I too quickly read through them just to get it over with. In college, I read a few of the classics again and began to like some of them. Class discussion helped to understand what is going on and ask the right questions. If I should return now, I believe I will find them to be more enjoyable.

    1. You’re welcome, Zezee! It sounds like you’ve already experienced the value of waiting a little while to enjoy the classics, and I hope you will do some more rereading over the summer!

  10. The way to kill a book is to make it a school setwork with a bad teacher. I read Return of the Native at school and as a result it took me years to read Hardy. I agree that often we read books too early and then do not want to reread them and this is a pity. I am helping a boy who has to read Great Gatsby for an exam. He hates it because his teacher is useless and just makes them listen to it on a cd.audiobook. I love Fitzgerald but I am having a had time getting him to love it and I understand that Fitzgerald’s issues are so far removed from his. I am now having such fun rereading classics in my mature years. Do give James a chance. Try Portrait of a Lady and Turn of the Screw.

    1. I quite agree and I hope I will never do that to any books when I am a teacher! It’s so hard to instil a love of a novel in children when they’re just not quite ready to appreciate it, isn’t it?
      Thank you, I will – I will give James another try before the year is out!

      1. When I did my PGCE (FE) one of the tutors described how he introduced King Lear as a family conflict. Which, when you think about it, is exactly what it is. There is of course far more to it than that – but it’s arguably the core theme, and one which young people will perhaps most easily relate to.

        So maybe there’s an important pedagogic principle hiding there, in such a mad Bop reference – namely, that how and why we relate to a text comes first, foremost, and primary. And in literary tradition, this gets bulldozed away with decades of curricula and establishment expectations.

        I gave an impromptu A Level English lesson to a young relative of mine recently, R. She said one of her teachers was a) sweet and b) always relating the texts to her own experience. In other words, she understood and took responsibility for conveying the work to her young charges: that she was the intermediary dramatic force for expressing what is, ultimately, lessons of life, living, and the intermediary powers of the craft of language and literary construction. That is, literature is the capacity to name things which is as profound as it is deceptively simple. We name things, they make sense. We name things, we relate them to other things. We name things, other people do too, and we thereby have dialogue. We name things and it makes us think, feel, and possibly act along different more useful trajectories.

        OK that’s enough, Bop…..you’re not a teacher….probably don’t want to be…..etc

        – Bop

      2. That was very inspiring and enlightening, Bop, thank you! I love relating literature to life – that is the whole point of literature, surely – and I will remember this when I think about how I will teach!๐Ÿ™‚

  11. I have recently made the same discovery as I, in my forties, have picked up classics last read in my teens. I enjoy the works much more now. However, the time you invested reading great literature in your teens was not wasted. It developed your vocabulary and your abilities to articulate and to understand complex sentence structure; and it provided at least a cursory overview of world history and of where authors and themes fit into world history–all to help make you the more mature reader you are today. Happy reading!

    1. This is very true – thank you Sarah for that excellent point – I hadn’t thought of that before. I may have not enjoyed the novels as they should have been, but they still got me to where I am today! Happy reading to you too!๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day is an underappreciated classic. Published at a time when everyone was rejecting the world before the Great War, it didn’t meet with much critical approval from contemporaries. The density and richness of the narrative show how very well Woolf had assimilated the nineteenth-century novel.

    And the connection to Henry James is more direct than you would think. James was Virginia Stephen’s godfather.

    Reading James is like eating cheesecake: a very little at a time more than suffices. My personal favorites among his short fiction are The Liar, The Jolly Corner (which in my opinion outdoes the better-known Turn of the Screw for metaphysical horror), and The Real Thing. For the novels, I like the byzantine-noir feel of his later works; the ones I’ve compulsively reread include Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, and The Tragic Muse.

    One shouldn’t be surprised at tastes changing with age; if we read and think, we become more sophisticated readers with time. Experience helps, too; when I read Anna Karenina at age 15, I reached page 700 or so with no idea of where the alleged sex was. When I re-read it at 35, the obscurity had cleared itself.

    1. I quite agree! The more I read, the more I am enjoying it. I’m surprised it’s such a forgotten novel these days. It was clearly written at the wrong time.

      I’ll take your advice on the Henry James – a little at a time sounds perfect!

      Exactly so – I don’t even remember the sex in AK which says a lot! I am so looking forward to revisiting it!

    2. Although I have a tough time with James, I agree about The Real Thing — I think it is an excellent story to introduce young people to James — I think it would provoke an excellent classroom discussion.

  13. Lovely post, and one that rang so many bells! I remember reading Anna Karenina at the age of fifteen and feeling that I was somehow merely skirting around the edge of its brilliance. At the time the novel remained frustratingly opaque and elusive simply because I hadn’t read or lived enough to see beyond the – admittedly beautiful – surface.

    Speaking of ‘frustratingly opaque and elusive’ I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Henry James. ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is quite a good introduction to his work, as is ‘The Aspern Papers’. Both are relatively short and both have strong plots so the Jamesian fascination with impression and the moment-by-moment recording of consciousness have something tangible upon which to hang. ‘What Maisie Knew’ is also lovely, and my personal favourite amongst his books, but it comes at the point in James’s career where he topples into his late phase which, even as a fan, I can see isn’t for everyone. H G Wells described reading ‘late’ Henry James with all its lengthy sentences, its painstaking analysis and its fascination with minute detail as being rather like watching a hippo trying to pick up a pea.

    I’m glad you liked Between the Acts – over the years it has become one of my favourite works by Woolf. There is a passage in the novel where she describes sunlight falling onto a vase of flowers and, purely as a piece of descriptive writing, it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.

    1. Thanks Greg – I enjoyed reading about your experiences and I love that quote from H G Wells! I am definitely going to revisit Henry James and I will take your advice on where to start.

      Oh yes, Between the Acts has so many beautiful passages, doesn’t it? It quite took my breath away. The same with Night and Day, actually – I am finding myself turning down page corners obsessively as I come across passage after passage of exquisite writing!

  14. Fantastic post. I too was an early reader and had an eager desire to immerse myself in books, but not always appreciating them for the works of art they are. I find rereading to be as illuminating as reading new novels, because each rereading experience opens up more and more facets of the book in question. There are so many books I would love to read and check off my list- but what about those I haven’t read in fifteen years? Would Wuthering Heights, for example, be better if I read it today? I like to think it would.

    1. You’re so right, Jillian, and I’m glad you’re enjoying rediscovering as much as me! I think all books read fifteen years ago would be read differently now…some for the worse and some for the better! I know some books I’ve revisited definitely haven’t had the same impact – perhaps because as a teenager my emotions resonated with them more. I don’t think WH is any good personally and I have re-read it several times but perhaps in a few years I will try again and see!

  15. So agree, I have just read Great Expecations, and think it is the best book I have ever read. If you’d asked me the first time I tried to read it I would have said it was the worst. Maturity has it’s rewards, greater wisdom is one of them.

  16. I started my exploration of Virginia Woolf with Night and Day and enjoyed it very much. To the Lighthouse is still my favourite of all of hers. The loss of Mrs Ramsay never fails to bring tears to my eyes – and I love the descriptions of the empty house and later its being brought back to life.

    I’m sure that, without realising it, you must have benefited in many ways from your early reading! And great books can be read over and over again – their authors’ gift to us.

    My midwife once ‘caught’ me in a lane pushing my newborn’s pram with one hand and reading with the other. ‘I’ve heard of it but never seen it done,’ she said.

    1. To the Lighthouse is such a moving book, isn’t it? I didn’t find it so the first time, but re-reading it later, I felt the intense sense of loss acutely. It’s a wonderful novel about grief, really, in many ways.

      That is so true! The greatest works of art are those that continue to resonate through an entire lifetime.

      Good for you, Chrissy! Finding time to read with babies is truly for the dedicated!

  17. I have ordered a new Maude & Maude for the AK read-through, having mislaid my old one.
    Not many of us have your capacity to speed read so I just wanted to check out what the pace is going to be like? The slower of us do not want to be left floundering in your churning wake.

    Since finding your blog, I have interrupted the usual TBR in order to consume ‘The Lighthearted Quest’ by Ann Bridge, which was delightful, and ‘Housekeeping’ by Marilynne Robinson, which was beautifully crafted but decidedly odd. All very disruptive; hope you’re proud of yourself.๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. Oh brilliant, Bruce! It will be a pleasure to have you reading along!

      Oh it will be a slow read, don’t you worry! All this free time on my hands is affecting my reading as I don’t have time structured in for it every day like I used to! I would imagine it will take me a good month to read it!

      Fantastic!๐Ÿ™‚ You can’t say that they weren’t worth the disruption now, can you?!๐Ÿ˜‰ I’m so pleased you read them!

  18. I recently read Virginia Woolf’s essay on how to read a book. It was very enlightening. I think you’d like it๐Ÿ™‚

  19. Booksnob said, ‘I used to devour Russian novelists, but I find I donโ€™t have as much interest in them now.’

    You are in distinguished company.

    ‘One had read all those Russian things in one’s teens. One had loved them then, but one saw now what nonsense they had been.’

    – Henry Green, Blindness
    Harvill edition (1996), page 43

    The quote is the reaction of Emily Haye when she realises she will have to read the Russian classics to her newly blind stepson.

    The humbling thing is that Henry Green wrote that novel between the ages of 18 and 20, by which time his literary judgement had already transcended mere precocity. I think the same could be said of his Eton contemporaries, Cyril Connolly and Anthony Powell. That generation grew up incredibly fast by today’s standards …

    1. Wonderful quote, Bruce – I keep meaning to read Henry Green. I will get to him soon enough!

      Oh yes – they seemed to all be so much more talented then!

  20. Like you I made my jump from my childhood reading, Biggles and Swallows and Amazons, to adult novels via Tolstoy, Doystoyevsky, Camus and Sartre. All of them read with next to no understanding. As an adult we bring to our reading a wealth of experience which throws light onto what is, after all, descriptions of human behaviour. I’ve even gone back to some of my childhood books, such as A Dog So Small, and been stunned by the new insights I’ve developed. Perhaps the cliche is true after all, youth is wasted on the young.

    1. I think youth is wasted on the young! I’m looking forward to my nephews growing a little older and revisiting my old childhood favourites with them – I wonder how I’ll feel reading them as an adult?

  21. What a beautiful, insightful post. I completely agree- so often we miss the intricacies of a particular book or author because we are simply not ready to appreciate then. It happened to me with Wuthering Heights- a seemingly unbearable book when I first attempted to read it, an incredibly poignant story now that I’m older and more open-minded to different characterizations or narratives.
    It can also happen the other way around- I found The Bell Jar a universally relatable story when I read it the first time: whereas the second I considered a beautiful and insightful depiction of depression I could (thankfully) no longer relate to. Something similar happened when I read The Catcher in the Rye. All in all, timing plays such a huge role in literature, and it should be taken into consideration a lot more than it is.

    1. Thank you so much! That’s interesting about Wuthering Heights – I have read it a few times since my teens and never enjoyed it. Perhaps I will have to come back to it in a few years and see how I feel then.

      Oh absolutely – The Catcher in the Rye rather bores me now! I think timing is actually very crucial. I am terrified to re-read some of my favourite books for that precise reason – I don’t want to find them wanting second time around and tarnish my memories of first reading them!

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