When I was younger, I hated to read. Let me clarify – I hated being forced to read. The start of the school year meant those horrible reading lists and writing endless book reports on symbolism and structure, writing and revising, always revising again and again. The worst was getting back a paper covered with ugly red marks (like it had chicken pox!), telling me that I had missed the point, or misinterpreted some crucial passage, or was just wrong.
How can you read “wrong?” So I rebelled – reading VC Andrews and Sidney Sheldon and my beloved Jackie Collins and “reading” CliffsNotes for Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Gatsby and the rest of the mimeographed sheets of Must Read. I developed a taste for trashy books – the glitzier the covers the better. Not for me the Oxford annotated edition of Wuthering Heights – I much rather preferred exotic princes from unheard of Royal houses and mysterious women who wore heels and bikinis with a dry martini in one hand and a Virginia Slim in the other.
Years after leaving school I figured I’d give some of the classics another go. And guess what? Madame Bovary eating rat poison to escape the tedium of her dreary existence is so more relatable when you’re trapped in a commute/carpool/job/housework rut. And Gatsby’s frenetic throwing of his exquisite hand tailored shirts to impress Daisy strikes a note with someone who has tried and failed to make an impression on their one true love.
To my surprise these dull, dry stories that I had avoided for so long had become flesh and blood people, with the same struggles and joys and heartaches in their century as I face in mine.
Innocence and experience
A wise man once told me that everyone should read The Odyssey three times, once in the flush of youth, once in the prime of life, and once in your golden years. His point was that our life experiences colour how we view the world. For example, I first read Gone with the Wind at age 12 because I was obnoxiously precocious and it was the biggest book I could find. At that age what did I know of loss? Of love? Despair and adversity, hope and triumph? What lessons did I take away from that thousand plus page epic novel? Not many, just that I wanted a cool hoop skirt and a big house. At such a tender age I couldn’t relate to being a former debutante now widowed, my country decimated by war, conflicted by my love for two men, I just wanted cool clothes and a bigger bedroom.
Rereading it in later years, I came to appreciate Scarlett O’Hara’s tenacity, and relate to her devotion to her family and their well-being. And if my 12 year old self didn’t swoon over Rhett Butler my (quite a bit) older self certainly did.
So the next time you are tempted by a shiny cover or a juicy bestseller, consider one of those dusty classics – you may be surprised. If your younger heart didn’t break for Jay Gatsby I bet it will now. And in a match between Rhett Butler and Christian Grey, you can guess who my money’s on.