Books I Read Too Soon

Book Riot recently posted an article titled Books We Read Too SoonThis reminded me of something I’ve often contended, that some of the books we read in high school were books for which we just did not have enough life experience. Four books came to mind as I reflected on what I would include in such a list.

Great GatsbyThe first was one mentioned by the Book Riot folks. The Great Gatsby just didn’t connect with its portrayal of rich decadence. As a working class kid, I just didn’t get what the problem was with these folks who had so much money. After the decadence of the Nineties, it might have made sense.

Tale of Two CitiesThe second was A Tale of Two Cities. At the time, reading it was “the worst of times”. It seemed to go on forever, through all the turmoil of the French Revolution, the rivalry of Darnay and Carton, and various labyrinthine maneuverings. By the end, I don’t think I really cared who got guillotined.

Anna KareninaThe third book was Anna Karenina. I knew it was about her illicit love affairs but I was probably as occupied as anything with keeping all the names straight. And it was even longer than A Tale of Two Cities! It did awaken me to the double standard between men and women at a time women of my generation were talking of women’s liberation.

Scarlet LetterThe last book was The Scarlet Letter. Again, there is a plot that explores the double standard of sexual dalliances. Hester Prynne bears her punishment in noble silence while Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale bears quite a different burden. I probably wondered at times in high school about all these books with messed up affections. Then I grew up and saw it in real life, and sadly saw numerous clergy scandals, and realized that Hawthorne knew what he was talking about.

Obviously I gained something from each of these books, yet I suspect far less than my English teachers were hoping for. What occurred to me as I considered this short list was that I’ve not re-read a single one of these books! I’ve read most of Dickens other works as well as much of Tolstoy. All of these I read after college, and most recently Tolstoy’s Resurrection. No one seems to write about sin and redemption like Tolstoy, and Dickens portrayals of the foibles and pretensions of human beings are a delight to explore.

I find myself wondering if I should go back and give my “books read too soon” a second chance. I suspect that it is those high school memories that cause me to hold back, and maybe all those comments of my peers who went through the same thing. The works like these that I discovered on my own did not let me down. Perhaps these won’t either.

Can you think of books you’ve read too soon? Have you gone back to them, and if so, what was your experience of re-reading?

[Note: These were the covers of the editions I read!]

14 thoughts on “Books I Read Too Soon

  1. ‘Books That I Read Too Soon’ seems right on to me on a first hand basis. This concept has been brought full circle to me now since I just recently wrote my first book titled ‘Finding Purpose and Joy, It’s a Journey’. While the principles of the book are relevant to all ages of adults, it seems that the readers that connect the best with the book have lived enough life to have experienced valleys in their lives.

    I would be honored if one day you may have time and would be interested in reading and reviewing my book.

  2. ‘Books I Read Too Soon’ hits the mark based on my personal experiences. It now has come full circle since I recently wrote my first book titled ‘Finding Purpose and Joy, It’s a Journey’. It seems that the readers that connect best with the book have lived enough life to have experienced some trials and valleys in their lives. When they begin asking the question, “Why am I here?”, they are typically ready.

    If some day you would have time and interest, I would be honored if you would consider reading and reviewing my book.

    Here’s hoping that your life is full of purpose and joy!

    Roger Laidig

  3. I’ve often thought about this, too, Bob. Much of the high school canon is beyond teenager’s ability to really comprehend. And, like you, I also have never gone back to any of the classics I read in high school.

  4. I reread The Great Gatsby last month, and while I was not capable of appreciating in high school just how well written it was, I don’t think it contains anything beyond a high schooler’s ability to grasp. Its high moral point is the statement that Tom and Daisy were careless people.

    Also, Fitzgerald frequently calls attention to how well he writes. Just what a high school student can appreciate at face value, without pausing to think that the writer is making a bit of an ass of himself.

    As for Anna Karenina, that was not inflicted on me in high school; I read it on my own when I was in my twenties, and was suitably blown away. Reread it later, after I had ingested a lot more Tolstoy, including Resurrection, and was struck by how inadequate a man Vronsky was. I think it was Mark Twain who made a similar comment about him. The last thing I read by Tolstoy was Family Happiness, which is about a man who stops loving his teenage wife because she likes to go to parties. Yes, really. I find that everything Tolstoy wrote is infected with his hatred of women, which caused and was caused by his relations with them. Life does intrude on writing.

    Lord of the Flies was required reading in one of the high schools I went to. It was perfect for high school students, and I remember it too well to ever need to read it again.

    Heart of Darkness was also on the list, and although it was perhaps beyond my grasp, I understood it enough to know that I would read it again later–which I have, again and again. It gets greater all the time.

    I also read Twelfth Night, which was perfect for my age group. The teacher was kind enough to explain all the dirty bits, such as the pun on “a man well hanged.” This thrilled us all. I have read Twelfth Night more times than I have read Heart of Darkness, each time with perhaps equal, perhaps increased, delight; and now I have seen it performed, too. It started me on a Shakespeare craze that lasted for decades and has led me to read every play he wrote.

    So my high school reading worked out well for me. If I didn’t have a complete understanding of the books at the time, I was at least introduced to works that I could see were great and that I knew were worth rereading later.

    • Thanks for your comments and for following the blog. I appreciate your list and reflections on those books. Glad you’ve read Gatsby again, that is one that is up there for me to re-read. I think you are right that there were those moments where we did grasp that there were reasons these books were considered “great” literature that for some of us at least, gave us enough of a taste to want more later on.

  5. All too true Bob. I found this the case not only in the classroom (a great list above), but also my personal reading (and I’d add film viewing, worth another comment/post). Books which immediately come to mind (a mix of classroom and personal reading) include:

    Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground,
    Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy,
    Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ (paired by Penguin Classics),
    Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha,
    Thomas More’s Utopia,
    George Orwell’s 1984
    J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye,
    B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two.

    By God’s grace, these pieces and many others were re-framed by Christ’s call through friends connected with InterVarsity while a first year at Grove City College. I found the work of James W. Sire of particular value at that time (e.g., The Universe Next Door, http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=3850) and continue to do such. Thank-you Jim!

    But many books, e.g.,

    Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl,
    Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird,
    Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time,
    C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia,
    Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry,
    Shakespeare’s Hamlet,
    Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,
    Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels,
    J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

    AND selections from books (e.g., the Bible) no doubt planted seeds, expanded my field of vision and enabled me to “grow up”/mature in ways that I would not have if I had lacked the exposure. I particular benefited when books which I read “too soon” received some proper framing, e.g., historical context, literary structure, science, etc. Note: One of the reasons children/teens don’t “grow up”/mature more quickly is that they are shielded from real life found in deeper relationships, encounters with our wider culture/economy, historical awareness, literary understanding, scientific research, sociological insights, etc.

    Some books and selections from books are “great”/classic, inviting a return to for deeper understanding across one’s life and life situations. I have found this “even” with children books such as “The Runaway Bunny” which I engaged differently not only as a parent reading to a child, but even more after watching Vivian Bearing’s advisor read it to her in “Wit” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eucAdWW-4HM&index=4&list=PL-sDq0QcHpIFgJxtMKoK1Du64W7IUHWAS). Note: I thought that The Runaway Bunny was cliche/corny as a child. But I had much to learn AND I still have much to learn not only from John Donne, but also Margaret Wise Brown.

    With regard to the educational system, some books are not worth the attention they are given. Hence the value of communities giving attention to reading and reviewing books (from other cultures/traditions, new and old, “great”/classic and others deserving attention). Time is short. Framing why we focus upon what and how, particularly during the developmental/transformative years, is vital. Thank-you for your contributions to this dialogue Bob! You inspire me to consider, write, and comment upon books more than I do out my own interests AND that’s saying a lot 😉

    Keep pressing on in the upward hope of Christ Jesus our risen Lord and Savior.

    To God be the glory!

  6. Tom, great comments and two great lists. I do think books like Jim Sire’s How to Read Slowly and The Universe Next Door helped me to become a better reader. I also suspect that reading habits in the home play an important role–the fact that I, as you, did find books that planted seeds that matured later may come from the fact that we grew up in families where reading was a common and shared practice. You also speak to the importance of being part of a wider reading community which is more accessible than ever due to technology, but you have to know where to look for it. emergingscholars.org is one good place to start!

  7. Pingback: Books I Wish I Had Read Sooner « Bob on Books

  8. A year or so ago I reread “Grendel” by John Gardner. Since college, when a professor handed it to me to read, I’ve known I didn’t get it, let alone enjoy it. I rarely have time to reread, what with all the new books I need to keep up with, yet I became inspired to make the time for “Grendel” when I happened to be able to purchase its original galley. I loved the book, and I totally see how I missed everything about it when I was in my 20’s. So now I know the value and joy of rereading, and I hope to be able to do more of it. The other night, I picked up “Lord of the Flies” and read/reread the beginning pages. Maybe I’ll be able to make time for it this summer.

  9. Pingback: Bob on Books in 2016 | Bob on Books

  10. Just found this post from your New Year 2016 link. Jane Eyre was such a book for me. I had to read it in high school, and did not appreciate it. I re-read it in my early 30’s, and was deeply moved by the story and Jane’s independent spirit for her time. I’ve since re-read it a couple more times, and own a special hardcover edition.

  11. Pingback: On Reading Really Long Books | Bob on Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s