The Right Age

I was thinking about the books I’d read in my earlier years, the ones that had made the greatest impact on me, and it was intriguing to note how few of them had anything to do with my schooling. In fact, of the hundreds of different books I’ve read over my life, the largest concentration of authors I disliked were to be found in the set texts of English classes. I was obliged to read Dickens, who may be a good author, I have no idea and am unlikely now to ever find out, the experience of Bleak House proving very bleak indeed. And however philistine this may sound, I am not a great fan of Shakespeare. Sorry. Back when I was 15 I had a pretty good memory and to flex it in the run up to examinations I learnt the first act of The Merchant of Venice, through which we had ploughed in uninspired fashion. That’s about all I remember of Shakespeare – the rote learning of him. In later life I have been to see his other plays and the tragedies annoy me because everyone takes such an unconscionably long time to die. I vividly recall sitting in a London theatre watching an acclaimed production of Othello with one eye on my watch as it ticked dangerously towards the time of the last train, quelling my overwhelming urge to yell, ‘For heaven’s sake just get on with it and stab her!’ I’m sure many, many people will disagree with me, but I don’t think that Dickens and Shakespeare are necessarily the best choices to study in school at that age. Books (or plays or poems), like fruit, become ripe for picking, and my experience of some of the greatest authors in English in my mid-teens was akin to eating very sour fruit indeed.

It’s not that all classics are a little indigestible at that age; on the contrary I adored what I read of the Brontes at that time, and Jane Austen, and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. But if you’re asking me what I read that made the most indelible impression, what I read that contributed to my general education and left me hungry for as much reading as I could squeeze into my system. Well. Then I have to make a sordid confession. We’re going back to the mid- to late-eighties here and at that point in time the blockbuster was a huge publishing phenomenon. Along with my schoolmates, I devoured Jilly Cooper’s Riders and Judith Krantz’s Scruples. The only one I didn’t read though all my friends did was Shirley Conran’s Lace. Mind you I heard so much about the sex scene with the goldfish that I felt as if I had read it. Oh, those books were just so much fun; feminism had reached the stage where it was plausible to read of women running business empires solely on the impetus that came from power dressing, even if none of us had a clue how to pronounce the word Gucci. Those were the days when having it all seemed like the best idea in the world, shoulder pads were a metaphor for moral fibre, and you could recognise an evil character right off from the way he practiced his expressions in his Louis XIV floor length mirror. Ah, innocent times.

It wasn’t until I was 17 or 18 that I began to develop the same kind of fascination for books that were more challengingly literary. Albert Camus’s The Outsider was one of the first books to make an extraordinary impact on me, although I couldn’t have told you why that was so. In retrospect it was because it was the first philosophy-influenced novel I had read that I had the mental maturity to understand properly. The same was true with Bertold Brecht’s play, The Life of Galileo, which wove science and history and politics together into a rich, thrilling, intellectually-stimulating braid. This was the age when the books that contained an idea or a concept fired my imagination. It probably took a couple more years for me to be able to appreciate the brilliance of a beautiful sentence for itself. In my early twenties  there were two authors who ruled the literary empire for me: Julian Barnes and Jeanette Winterson. Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot and Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry were such remarkable reads for me; experimental in a witty, playful, entertaining way, exquisitely written, and asking such profound questions about the very act of reading a narrative. If I ever get given three wishes, I promise to use the first two on improving the world, but the third will be to have again the experience of reading these authors for the first time.

I cannot ever recall a time when reading was not my favourite thing to do, but – and maybe I was a late starter –  it certainly took me a while fully to appreciate sophisticated literature. I spend a lot of time (too much) compiling fantasy literature courses to teach in my head, and if it were in my power to do so, I’d take Shakespeare away from 15-year olds and replace him with something more provocative and entertaining for your average adolescent.  Bret Easton Ellis, the Bronte sisters, Margaret Atwood, Philip Pullman, and maybe a little Shirley Conran, just for that scene with the goldfish.

14 thoughts on “The Right Age

  1. I agree with you completely about Shakespeare. Unlike many I had wonderful classroom experiences but I must admit this had more to do with my own already developed hobby and the luck of having, except for one horrid 6th form teacher, remarkable teachers. I think that high school literature curricula is set not with the intention of instilling a long life reading habit but in stuffing students with as many cultural references as humanly possible before they go out into the world and forget that fiction exists.

    If I hadn’t discovered Shakespeare on my own I doubt my classroom experience would have been as pleasant. But along with Shakespeare I was gobbling up Judith Krantz and Jilly Cooper as well. 🙂 Don’t forget Barbara Taylor Bradford.

  2. Ah, you’ve made me smile over remember my own reading of Scruples and Lace. I devoured those and I remember the goldfish you speak of very clearly. In many ways, I too took a while to really appreciate serious literature. The books I read in high school, well, I just don’t have fond memories of. Billy Budd by Herman Melville, for example.

  3. Imani – oh my goodness, Barbara Taylor Bradford! There’s a name from the past (does she live still?). I am so glad that you got to enjoy both Shakespeare AND blockbusters! And it certainly seems that English in school is not about the reading. Tara – I’m so thrilled to have you in that goldfish club! And you know, Herman Melville is one of those names that makes me shrink back a little even now (although I often hear how important he is). I may not be sophisticated enough for him yet…

  4. I enjoyed most of the books I read in high school English class unless it was poetry. Poetry was so painful it took me years to get over it and actually learn how to read and enjoy it. I enjoyed Shakespeare in high school because I was in the “gifted” program when it had some money so a few times a year we got to go see plays which always included whatever Shakepeare play we read that year. But outside of school my reading was Jean Auel and Anne Rice and Richard Bach (I thought Jonathan Livingston Seagull the height of philosophical thought), as well as science fiction.

  5. Oh she’s alive and well living it up in Manhattan: Emperess of Romance. That’s a NYT review of a biography of her. I definitely gobbled up the blockbusters — my affection for romance novels has waned but not disappeared — and went through the requisite Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlum and Stephen King phases. I even tried Barbara Cartland but could not stand her asthmatic heroines who could never finish a sentence in one breath — ellipses littered every page.

  6. It took me forever to associate my love of reading with English classes — they seemed like completely separate things until I got to college. And I read some fairly serious stuff early on (understanding it was another matter …). It’s the curse and the opportunity of teaching literature — I assign texts that I hope students will enjoy, but because they ARE assigned, reading them is almost automatically just a little less fun.

  7. There are quite a few references in this post that are new to me. Especially, it is high time that I put Barnes and Winterson on the TBR list. I had mixed feelings about Austen’s novels, but loved The Woman in White when I read it at the age of 18.

    It is pretty common in the US to assign novels as required reading in summer vacations. If not done carefully, this looks like a sure-fire way of killing the child’s interest in reading. I mean, why must a child read a novel when it is fascinated by something equally educational. If such a “reading assignment “strategy has to be adopted – and there are good reasons for this, in a time when fewer kids are reading books – then it would have to be done differently: E.g., Give the kids options (done in many schools), or enact part of a novel (done in a few schools) to cultivate interest, and recommend books that might make sense at that age. I remember when my mother bought an abridged illustrated pocketbook and explained to us the central idea of Around the World in Eighty Days, talking rather animatedly about Phileas Fogg and Passepartout. I was seriously impressed by Phileas.

  8. Stefanie – ah now, yes, poetry. It took me a long time to get into poetry too, although looking back at what we were given, I am not hugely surprised. The Eve of St Agnes and Hiawatha are not designed to thrill. Oh and I do remember reading Jonathon Livingstone Seagull! Imani – I’m rather pleased to think she’s still living the high life somewhere! I never read Barbara Cartland, but one of my best friends at school was always reading Catherine Cookson and I read over her shoulder sometimes. I was astonished by how grim and violent the stories were! I get the impression that Cartland is altogether fluffier 🙂 Dorothy – I love the way you put that. Associating reading with English classes is the trick, isn’t it!! Polaris – I listened to an abridged version of Vernes’ Journey to the Centre of the Earth (is that what it’s called? I’m suddenly assailed by doubt) with my son and we both enjoyed it a lot. Full length Verne can be quite intimidating. I used to warm my son up to new authors by playing them to him on audio tape first, so I so think that a little thought about how to introduce children to new books can go a very long way. And I’d love to know what you think of Flaubert’s Parrot.

  9. I suppose this is so much an individual thing. I frist came to Shakespeare as an 11yr old via a TV production of ‘As You Like It’ which I think starred Vanessa Redgrave. I was completely entranced from the beginning and came away with the joyeous realisation that even though I might live in a back street Birmingham slum and have been born almost 400 years after him, Shakespeare had looked down the centuries and written just for me. I couldn’t get enough. On the other hand, ‘Emma’, which I had to study for ‘A’ level, took me the best part of a year to read and very nearly put me off Austen for life. How much, I wonder, is dependent on the way in which a work is introduced? How much, in other words, is dependent on the teacher?

  10. Ann – very interesting to hear of your introduction and your inclinations! I just think you were a literary prodigy! But I also think a really fine teacher can make a book for you. Eleven was clearly the right age for you and Shakespeare!

  11. Fascinating post, and especially relevant to me, now that – at 40 – I’ve finally read (and LOVED) Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles. I tried Dickens in my 20s and just gave up, for some reason I just couldn’t enter his world, though I adored Tolstoy at the same age, and found both Anna Karenina and War and Peace wonderful reads.
    For a while now, I’ve been planning to reread all the compulsory high school novels/plays I hated at the time: The Great Gatsby, Macbeth, Hamlet, The Grapes of Wrath. The only book I enjoyed was Chaim Potok’s The Chosen.
    Though reading was, and is, my life I avoided studying Literature school or university because I was convinced any book would be ruined for me this way.

    On Shakespeare, my 7 yo daughter is aware of him, because Titania and Oberon are often mentioned in her interminable fairy books, and I told her they are also in A Midsummer night’s dream. Start them young!

  12. Oh, forgot to add, as a teenager I adored BTB, Jackie Collins, Harold Robbins, any Silhouette Desire I could get my hands on. I remember huddling with my friends in the school library reading the dirty bits of Sharkey’s Machine, and Endless Love.

  13. Lazy Cow – you give me hope! I know I ought to go back and try Dickens again one day, and then my heart fails me. Now I read The Great Gatsby for the first time last year and absolutely adored that, so I would certainly think it’s worth a second try. I’m not surprised you avoided a literary course, although I cannot help but feel that there must surely be ways to teach these texts that brings them to life for students. I love what you say about reading the dirty bits in the library. Takes me right back!

  14. My parents kept a lot of classics in their bookshelves, and since we didn’t go to the library often enough to keep me supplied with books, I read a lot of those at a very young age (sometimes too young — Henry Miller before puberty?). Then at school, we were given books that were meant to be appealing to teens (S.E. Hinton, Salinger) but we were also given Shakespeare. The only other classic lit I remember being assigned in high school was Beowulf (which I hated). So I have a lot of memories of classics I didn’t understand (though of course I reread some later) as well as memories of fun books like Catcher in the Rye being ruined with worksheets and essays.

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