Next Tuesday, September 18, the first of the themed Great American Read episodes will air. Titled “Who am I?” it focuses on books about self-identity and characters’ journeys. These themes are the classic catalysts of coming-of-age stories, which are admittedly one of my favorite genres. One of the ideas broached in the episode is that of reading a book at the right time.
I firmly believe that part of one’s reaction to any book is whether you are reading it at the right time. That’s not to say that you would magically like or dislike a book if you read it at another time in your life, but I do think a big part of understanding any given book or truly responding to it is how much it resonates with you at that given moment. And that is always going to be dictated to some extent by one’s personal experiences.
I always tell people that nobody should read The Great Gatsby (which will appear in a later bracket) in high school. Unless you’re an incredibly soulful and/or miserable teenager, you’re probably not going to relate to much in this tale at this time in your life. I firmly believe you need to suffer through a little more disappointment and heartache to get what Fitzgerald is talking about.
On the flip side, I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t read The Catcher in the Rye unless you are a teenager. Please don’t throw rocks at me! I know it’s a favorite for many people, but it’s never done much for me. Admittedly, I have still read it three times. Each time, I was trying to figure out exactly why it resonates with so many people.
The first time I read it, I almost didn’t finish it because I found Holden Caulfield that annoying. Then I tried it again and found it more engaging but still didn’t really like it. I wondered if I had maybe unfairly judged young Mr. Caulfield but still didn’t get why it was such a big deal to people. Then I read it a third and final time and realized that as an adult, I was never going to find Holden as interesting as if I had read his story when I was the right age.
I can understand, from a detached analytical perspective, why his story resonates with people and means so much to them, but I think I just didn’t encounter the book at the right window for it to ever have that effect on me. And, truthfully, maybe I wouldn’t have found it interesting even then simply because Holden’s story that involved flunking out of an elite prep school was so far outside of my realm of personal experience.
Nevertheless, this is why I am such a big proponent of rereading books. I’m always curious to see how my tastes and preferences have shifted, and revisiting a book after a period of time is always a fascinating experience. Even if I still have the same general feelings about a book, I always notice something new each time.
What books did you read at the right time? What books did you read at the wrong time? What books changed your mind after a reread? Tell us in the comments!