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.