Reading differently at different ages

Reading differently at different ages

I recently met a woman who told me she threw out all her books when she moved to Singapore from London.

While I admire her bravery for extreme decluttering (she reads everything on a Kindle now), I also know that it is something I can never do. My bookshelves are full of tomes, stacked three rows deep - a collection dating back to my teens.

Part of this inability to throw out a book, any book, stems from the belief that one's reading life is elastic: Just as you grow out of books by certain authors, there are also works that you grow into, after you acquire the life experiences necessary to appreciate their depths. Swiss-British writer Alain de Botton put it succinctly in a tweet last year: "Most of what makes a book 'good' is that we're reading it at the right moment for us."

As readers, we are all "eat me", "drink me" Alices in Wonderland, morphing in intellectual and emotional size to fit into the mental space demanded by different writers of us. "Bad" books, thus, deserve re-reading. And it is perfectly fine to admit that one, from time to time, falls out of love with volumes that have captivated us for a part of our lives.

American punk rocker-author Henry Rollins told in 2011 how his obsession with his one-time literary hero, Charles Bukowski wore off (although his admiration for Henry Miller did not): "I left Bukowski behind and would see people my age or older (reading him), and think, 'Like, really?' You've got to get better stuff. It's good for a while. It's like sniffing glue to get high: It's cool when you're 13, but then you should get on to better stuff, otherwise you're going to stagnate."

Two months ago, The New York Times posed the question, "Do we read differently at different ages?", to two novelists.

Writer Pankaj Mishra responded by reflecting on how his younger self had read but failed to fully grasp the truth in Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard's essays. Meanwhile, his colleague Daniel Mendelsohn mused on how he found J.D. Salinger's American classic The Catcher In The Rye irritating when he re-read it a few years ago - an indication of how our own maturity casts once well-loved characters in a new light.

It was an illuminating moment for me, bent over the newspaper at my dining table, reading that pair of Bookends columns on an October morning. I finally had a name for my condition: a vague sense of disloyalty towards cult authors I have worshipped as I kept buying their books but avoided reading them. I had simply outgrown them.

For a decade, after I first read Haruki Murakami's novel Norwegian Wood, about the coming-of-age of a Japanese undergraduate, I saw myself in Midori, the pixie it-girl whose joie de vivre saves our morose protagonist from himself. Never mind that Norwegian Wood sticks out like a sore thumb in the rest of Murakami's surreal oeuvre - I devoured everything else he had written. As the years went by, I made my pilgrimage to the bookstores whenever a new English translation of his works appeared. But a strange thing began to happen: starting from 2011's 1Q84, his books have been gathering dust on my shelves, still shrink-wrapped in plastic.

Recently, I took my copy of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage, gleefully ordered a few months ago, determined to read it on a cruise holiday. Alas, after a few pages, I tired of the (to my mind) long-windedness of the book's college narrator, whose mind picked over how his friends had suddenly stopped speaking to him. Perhaps, my lack of sympathy is due to a similar thing happening to me last year, but I couldn't help but think: Get over it. People change. Not everything has to do with you, oh whiny, over-sensitive Murakami character.

So, yes, don't pelt me, but I think I've gone off Murakami.

The good news is, I don't plan to purge my shelves of his books. Like a devoted ex-lover, keeping her man's old shirts in the closet, in hopes that the embers of passion will be rekindled, I am waiting for the phase in my life when I can appreciate the bizarre lyricism of Murakami's prose again. Perhaps, when I'm old and no longer harried by the pragmatic concerns of a young family, I can settle down to revisit what youth felt like in his sentences again.

On the flip side, I have found myself slipping comfortably into books I'd struggled to get through in my younger days - like hand-me-down clothes you once swam in, but now find sitting right on the shoulders. As a literature major in the late 1990s, I had assiduously avoided reading George Eliot's Middlemarch, prescribed on a 19th-century English Literature course list. At first blush, the heroine Dorothea Brooke had seemed to my then-20th-century sensibilities a foolish, unemancipated woman, marrying for brains when anybody could see that it was better to get a job, travel and have a life of your own.

Ten years later, re-encountering the book while taking a master's degree, I found it hardly a slog to get through. Now a wife, I appreciated the wisdom in Eliot's writing, her observations about how hard it is to make a marriage work, and to find the necessary capacity to put yourself in your spouse's shoes: "She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers; she had not yet learned those hidden conflicts in her husband which claim our pity. She had not yet listened patiently to his heartbeats, but only felt that her own was beating violently."

And sometimes, the simplest books, the ones you thought you outgrew years ago, might just be the ones that have the most lifelong lessons to teach you. I have found myself reaching for Alice In Wonderland year after year, finding that a new revelation had always been hidden in plain sight in its linguistic and philosophical puzzles.

"I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then," said Alice. But, ah, the joy inherent in reading the same book when you are someone else.

This article was first published on Dec 23, 2014.
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