How old were you when you read…

How old were you when you read…

Edmund Wilson (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*) is credited with having said, “No two persons ever read the same book.”

This was apparently attributed to Wilson in the 1970s, but there is another quotation from Wilson from 1938 (in the Triple Thinkers) which intrigues me more right now:

In a sense, one can never read the book that the author originally wrote, and one can never read the same book twice.”

It’s that second part.

Does it matter when in your life you read a book?

Did you read a book when  you were a child, and then re-read it as an adult and have an entirely different take on it?

How about when you were in college versus later in your life when you were more settled?

I’m not a big re-reader of books (although I am reading the L. Frank Baum books again right now), but I wonder about how my age (and/or life experience) has affected the way I see certain books.

When I list my fictional heroes, I realize they are all people I first encountered when I was a child (including being a teenager): Doc Savage; Kwai Chang Caine; Mr. Spock. When I think of authors like Gerald Durrell and John A. Keel, the same is true.

When I read a book now, I may be very impressed and marvel at the author, but I don’t think the books have the same capability to be ingrained in me for life.

Perhaps, more accurately, I should say that I may not have the same capability to take them into my being.

My guess is that tends to be true…that literary characters and authors you find when you are young are the ones that become part of you. You are in a super-learning part of your life…of course, the vast majority of words you learn you learn before you are settled.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t learn some new words later, or enjoy some new characters…but is it…more of an acquaintance of equals than you aspiring to be like someone you see as greater than yourself?

Since I’m using the term “settled” (not to suggest inert…just stable and reasonably satisfied), I wonder if people who are in more insecure situations later in life are more able to have that integrative reading experience?

Take a moment to think about the books that have transported you, transformed you, and enthralled you. The ones where you still randomly imagine yourself to be that character. Maybe you are on vacation or just walking down the street, and you see something…a wall, a bit of litter, a person half seen in the shadows, and for a moment, you see them through fictional eyes.

Who are the ones you quote in conversations with loved ones…because what they say is better than anything you could say at that point?

When did you first read them?

I’ll say, I’m not really comfortable with those age breaks…I know some societies make a big difference between twelve and thirteen, but I’m not sure that matters that much to what you read. High school (which I didn’t break out) could make a bigger difference (at least in the USA), because you might be exposed to considerably different books (both in the classroom and from your friends).

I have to say, I don’t think I’m feeling that different about the Oz books now than I did when I was a kid…although I’m definitely getting more detail and insight, the basic feel of Oz and the way I feel about the characters is similar.

I’m sure in the case of some books, I would be more put off by chronocultural prejudice

The Chronological Cultural Context Conundrum

but I think I would still see the character as the same. I think I would tend to judge the world more than the author.

I love reading, and I love my current discoveries…but I would say I do miss that tendency to memorize an entire book, and to project myself into the characters’ worlds…and to have them project into mine.

That may happen again in the future, but for now, I have to recognize that the relationship has changed.

What do you think? Are there books that you re-read over and over again  (I know of someone who reportedly just alternated Gone with the Wind…and Helter Skelter)? Is it because they are different each time, the same…or both? If certain ages are more impactful, would it be possible to engineer someone’s life (a la Lord Tyger ((at AmazonSmile))by Philip Jose Farmer, which I recommend and think would make a good movie) by introducing certain books into their life at certain ages? Are there books you wish you hadn’t read until you were older…or that you had read when you were younger? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


6 Responses to “How old were you when you read…”

  1. Lady Galaxy Says:

    I can’t really mark any of choices in your poll because I feel there have been books that affected my life in every decade of my life in different way. In fact, I think every book we read affects us in some way large or small.

    Does it matter when in your life you read a book? I think we take from a book what we understand about life at the time of reading. I first read “Gone With The Wind” when I was 12 or 13. I read it because I was named after one of the characters in the book. I was disappointed to discover that the character I was named for was basically a wimp. I could not identify with her at all, and I didn’t understand why my mom chose that name. When I asked, she just said that she liked the way it sounded. [Obviously, my name is not Scarlett!] I was convinced that Scarlett was successful in her attempts to win back Rhett. I didn’t even notice the racial stereotyping. Later, when I saw the movie for the first time, I was surprised that Scarlett’s other children were totally left out.

    I read the book again in my twenties. Again, I was irked with the character who shared my name and oblivious to the stereotyping, but this time I figured Rhett was gone for good.

    I read the book again last year, in Kindle format, and this time around I was totally dismayed and offended by the racial stereotyping and surprised that I hadn’t really noticed it before. I finally realized why my mom had so identified with the character who shares my name. I think I have finally gotten everything I need from the book, so there is no need to ever read it again.

    But did the book affect my life other than having been the source of my name?

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      Certainly an interesting story!

      This doesn’t sound like one of the books which most affected you, which was the poll question.

      Are there books which did?

      I agree with you that all books affect us in some way, but I was curious about the ones which most affected people. So far, I’m intrigued by the leading age category…we’ll see how it plays out.

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        I was answering this question: “What do you think? Are there books that you re-read over and over again (I know of someone who reportedly just alternated Gone with the Wind…and Helter Skelter)? Is it because they are different each time, the same…or both?”

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Lady!

        Got it. 🙂 Interesting that you had that experience with that specific book…and I happened to mention it.

  2. Edward Boyhan Says:

    I think there are some assumptions here that don’t match with my experience. I read a lot (some people smoke cigarettes, some drink, some snort cocaine — I read books 😀 ). Over the last 10-15 years I’ve been rereading a fair amount — from all the age periods of my life — from Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys right through to the present day. Sometimes my impressions are different upon rereading; sometimes not. Sometimes it is the backstory that gives enjoyment, and on rereading that not so much — plot or characters matter.

    Upon reflection I don’t find that there are any books that stand out as supremely important to me. All through my life from the earliest to now there have been books of “significance” — but nothing earth shattering — rather it’s more a lifetime of gestalts, a mosaic. Certainly no period of my reading life stands out one from another (making it impossible for me to take your poll — its assumptions don’t align with my experience.

    Most of my reading throughout my life has been fiction, and for pleasure. Certain authors stand out: Rex Stout, PG Wodehouse, Robert Heinlein (especially the juveniles). At my age one advantage of rereading is that I generally don’t remember much from earlier readings (occasionally scenes will stick and jump out as happened when recently rereading a James Bond story), but for the most part rereading is often much the same as reading it for the first time 🙂 . I’m different now than I was back then so sometimes I’ll take something different out of the rereading.

    Not to completely downplay non-fiction I do read some and have all my life, and a few titles stand out — mostly having to do with my lifetime’s work with computers, technology, and financial markets. I’ll mention just five spanning five decades:

    “My Early Life: A Roving Commission — Winston Churchill 1930” (read in 1961)
    “Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid — Douglas Hofstader 1978”
    “Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology — K. Eric Drexler 1986”
    “Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship — George Dyson 2002”
    “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game — Michael Lewis 2006”

    And FWIW I agree with most everything Lady Galaxy has to say — though hard to believe I’ve never read GWTW (:grin). OTOH many of the Tom Swift books I read (published from 1910 through the 1940’s) have character depictions that are hard to take against the backdrop of current social and cultural mores.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      Well, I might use the term “postulate” rather than “assume”, but I understand your point. It never quite seem to matter what I do with the questions, I can’t seem to find a set that matches every possible interpretation. 🙂 In your case, I think I would have selected the “I don’t know” answer, since you can’t determine an age where you were most affected…I think, though, I could have done one more answer that was something more like, “I haven’t been affected by books in that way.”

      I have books (and other media) become “part of me”…certainly, Doc Savage has affected my desire to improve myself in order to help others, and to help others without looking for a reward. I suppose I might have had those tendencies anyway, but I have made conscious decisions based on that.

      I’d have a tougher time breaking non-fiction into decades. I think I’ve mentioned before, I don’t have a good sense of the passage of time, which can make it hard for me to determine when I read something. I’ll throw in a few non-fiction titles which have impacted me, though…

      * The Book of the D*mned by Charles Fort
      * The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris
      * Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales
      * Motivating the “What’s In It For Me” Workforce: Manage Across the Generational Divide and Increase Profits by Cam Marston
      * Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

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