In age we learn; in youth we underrate

I was recently introduced to Charles Dickens by j4. Some twelve years ago I gave up on A Tale of Two Cities in disgust, finding it waffling and turgid; yet since the start of 2009 I’ve been engrossed in j4’s copy of Bleak House.

It was the perfect companion to my morning and evening two-bus journeys during the snow and heavy frosts, especially as it has a strong climatic theme to it, using countryside and the elements to situate and characterize the geographically dispersed elements of the story. It has intrigue, suspense, social commentary, gentle Austen-like satire and a hilarious detective called Mr Bucket, and I find it hard to believe I would have hated it when I was younger.

Certain books and authors intersect with each reader’s personal orbit rarely, and often at a sharp tangent: if you have a sudden urge today to read that novel you’ve abandoned three times already, then read it; you might want to throw it away tomorrow, and best you do so with a light heart. But if your mental state isn’t close enough to a novel to feel that attraction, then you might well be far enough away to experience an active repulsion, from that book and others like it. Best to put it back on the shelf (or give it to charity, if it’s easy enough to come by again); read something ; wait for the simple process of age and your experience, not just of reading, to change you, to put you somewhere else where you might feel the pull more keenly.

This is the power of “improving books”, or the literary novel, or the classics, or whatever you want to call them: properly used, they can advance and enhance your taste, like learning to appreciate single malts rather than sticking to Bailey’s Irish Cream. Bailey’s has its place—alongside port, Woo-woos and freezing-cold lagers—but sometimes the most complex of flavours can be the most satisfying. You shouldn’t read the classics all the time, of course, or you’ll end up with a sour, Laphroaig disposition; and you shouldn’t read them (or say you’ve read them) purely for purposes of oneupmanship, or you’re just wasting good-quality books. I mean alcohol. No, books. (This is where an education gets you, especially if you conflate it with being drunk. I spent eight years doing that.)

So sorry, Charles, that I didn’t just put you back on my shelf, but whined about you to anyone who would listen. I besmirched your good name as a writer all those years ago and you didn’t deserve it. But if you’d met me at the time then I don’t think you’d have thought much of me as a reader either.

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4 Responses to In age we learn; in youth we underrate

  1. Helen Chapman says:

    I think Dickens covers a huge range in terms of quality. I hated him for years based on Hard Times, but then read Bleak House and was converted. Even at his best though, his characters can be unconvincing to say the least – would give and e.g. from Bleak House but don’t want to spoiler it for you if you’ve not finished. Similar e.g. in Little Dorrit which I’m currently reading having already watched the recent Andrew Davies adaptation. A Tale of two Cities is definitely nowhere near the standard of Bleak House, which remains the best I’ve read so far.

  2. Brennig says:

    I don’t get Dickens and I’m considerably older than you. Physically at least. Whereas I can sit and read the works of Will for hours on end. And other great classic writers. Such as Blyton. 🙂

    • sbalb says:

      I don’t get Dickens and I’m considerably older than you.

      That’s exactly it: it’s not the total distance your personal planet has travelled through its literary orbits that counts; it’s spotting the conjunctions and jumping across when you’re close enough.

      And anyway you’re only as old as the, er, horse you train.

  3. K says:

    I like your drinks metaphor. For me, doing the Oxford English degree course was like being repeatedly woken up in the middle of the night and forced to down shots of single malt whiskies. I felt that everything I was consuming might have been nice in a completely different context, but I wasn’t interested in finding out for sure.

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