The Age for Loving (or Hating a Book)

In this weekend’s NYT Book review’s ‘By the Book’ I saw two questions (this week for YA author John Green) that I don’t recall seeing before and which started me mulling about the impact of timing (and one’s age, specifically) when in comes to appreciating certain books. The two questions were:

  • What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
  • What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

Great questions – right? Not because I believe that anyone should prescribe a particular book to a particular age group but because I’ve begun to realize just how much age has been a factor in terms of appreciating certain books in my life. This realization came as I was trying (unsuccessfully I might add!) to cull some overflowing book shelves, and I started leafing through books that I absolutely adored when I read them but now, as I began to flip through them, all I could think was ‘huh?’.

My book group a few years ago did an experiment where we chose a book that everyone had read years before and which we wanted to revisit only to have us all recoiling in horror, unable to believe that (a) We’d actually read the book before (so much had been lost to the mists of time…) and (b) That we’d actually loved it (the book BTW was The Magus by John Fowles). I remember our discussion circling round whether age was the main factor in our changing tastes in literature – and, although we all instinctively knew this to be true, it still surprised us just how much impact it had. Going through my shelves the other day, I was surprised how many books I’d loved in the 1980s and 1990s now seemed dated, not just in terms of technology, but also in terms of themes and emotional resonance. If I were to read these same books today I have little doubt that my reaction to them would be completely different…Actually, it made me sad to think of the books I no longer loved:(

So the questions in the NYT book review got me thinking – both about books that I think everyone should have read before turning 21 as well as those I don’t think people should tackle until they’re at least 40…The first question seemed easier as I immediately thought of To Kill A Mockingbird (as well as a myriad of children’s books, like the Narnia series). The second question was harder…much harder…although I recently read Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot and I’m pretty sure this would have made zero impact if I’d read this as a younger woman. Some books touch on themes that really only resonate at certain points in your life with both age and experience (and What Alice Forgot is definitely one of those books). Other than that though I was stumped… so I thought, why not turn to my TKZers for guidance and input…

So if you had to answer these two questions what would you say? What book do you think everybody should read before the age of 21? What book should nobody read until the age of 40?


22 thoughts on “The Age for Loving (or Hating a Book)

  1. It’s hard to argue with To Kill a Mockingbird for the first one.

    For after 40, Moby-Dick. If you were forced to read it in high school or college, you probably hated it. I was that way. I think it’s magnificent now.

  2. Before 21: The Diary of Anne Frank.
    After 40: Where the Red Fern Grows. What? That’s a children’s book! I know, but you don’t have enough life experience as a kid to appreciate the book when you’re young. It’s a brilliant, heart-wrenching, sweet story when you’re older.

  3. Yes, TKAM. But by 40, dive in: Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Gone with the Wind. (You won’t be sorry, having been completely lost at sea with fantastic character and setting.)

    • I just recently bought War and Peace and have been looking at it in my TBR pile with some trepidation but I guess it’s time to dive in (I figure this is also a good winter book to get absorbed in).

      • After reading a lot of Russian literature I am of the firm opinion that Tolstoy could really have used a good editor.

  4. I’ll take the contrarian view, surprise surprise, that there are no specific novels that would fit most people at either age. Shakespeare is certainly dense enough for plays, though. Also, the Bible.

    One thing that most people don’t recognize is that narrative style is constantly evolving so the style you were comfortable with years ago now reads like a car with one flat tire. So, it’s not just subject matter and maturity that changes our perspective.

  5. Tough questions, indeed, if you truly think deeply on them. I could not in good conscience pick out specific titles. However, I felt that any kind of fiction or fantasy that pulls a young mind in directions outside the box are best before 21, including history that is told as if it were a living thing. After 40, well, deep introspection is more seriously appreciated. With age comes a better filter, albeit a skeptical one, for discerning how biased or superficial something may be. Excellent writing of any kind knows no age limit for its readership. That depends entirely on the maturity and intellectual expansiveness of the individual.

  6. Book lists for high school have changed. I am the parent of a high schooler. Moby Dick is gone from the classroom as is the Scarlet Letter. Here are some highlights from Honors/AP Lit class: • Thirteen Reasons Why (Jay Asher)
    • The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)
    • The Warmth of Other Suns(Isabel Wilkerson)
    • The Chocolate War (Robert Cormier)
    • If I Stay (Gayle Forman)
    • The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)
    • The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)
    • The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)

    • Alan – as a parent of Freshmen it’s so interesting to see this list. Funnily enough my boys are doing what I consider to be fairly old fashioned stuff in their English class but apparently some groups are doing The Hunger Games (mine are doing Of Mice and Men and Antigone!)

    • As a former English teacher, I weep at this list of modern teenage soap operas and “then someone dies” stories. I doubt a one of them will be remembered in fifty years because they are read because they are contemporary which fades very fast.

  7. Dave Farland has a couple of articles about targeting an audience. He talks about how at different ages, a person is interested in different things. As a child, it’s wonder literature because kids are big on sense of wonder. In teens and twenties, it’s sex and romance. In the thirties and forties, women want relationship stories and men want thrillers. And so on and so forth. That’s what I see those questions apply to–reading a book outside its target audience age bracket is a pretty good way to dislike it.

  8. I know I’m late to the party, but I’d say The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for BOTH questions~
    • before 21 to get, well, the adventures,
    • after 40 to get the story.

  9. I’m even much later to the party. I recently tried to reread a book I absolutely loved as a young adult. The book is Green Darkness by Anya Seton. I have tried to get into it several times recently and it is just too slow-paced, so much so that it seems rather boring. I wondered why I had loved it so much back in the day. This explains so much!

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