Pardon me while I get sappy for a moment.
The wonderful thing about books–well, one of the wonderful things, among a countless multitude of others–is that the same story can mean different things to you at different points in your existence. Crime and Punishment, the literary love of my life, was a very different experience at age 17 (when I was six years younger than the protagonist) than it is now (when I’m five years his senior). Romeo and Juliet, a simple love story when I was in ninth grade, has become a parable on the intensity of adolescent emotions and what parents can do to help or hinder a child’s sexual development. The Babysitters’ Club…is basically still about some girls babysitting. And one of them has diabetes. (Not every book merits renewed scrutiny.)
Then there are the books that mean nothing to you as a youngster.
“What is this bullshit?” you demand, flinging your copy of Billy Budd, Sailor against the wall and complaining to your girl Nicole and your boy Tyler about the assignment over AOL instant messenger. (I’m old, okay?)
We all have books like this: stories that left us underwhelmed or flummoxed the first time we encountered them, only to metamorphose into something great when we got a bit older. Here are three of mine. What are yours?
Then: This may come as a surprise to those of you who know me as a rabid Tolkien fan, the sort of creepy basement dweller who taught herself Elvish and has daydreams about Doriath, but I didn’t understand The Hobbit when I read it the first time. I liked it–so much, in fact, that I nearly threw down with a boy in my English class who characterized it as “just some people walking around”–but the ending left me cold. Spoilers for an 80-year-old book: our hero, Bilbo Baggins, having been charged with finding the precious Arkenstone amid the dwarven treasure horde, locates said stone and relinquishes it to Bard the Bowman instead of to its “rightful owner,” King Thorin Oakenshield. He’s been with Thorin the whole book, the entire point of his quest is to reunite Thorin with his birthright, and then he gives the dang Arkenstone to somebody else. What the hell, Bilbs?
Now: For all Tolkien is inextricably linked with traditional high fantasy, he does some pretty non-traditional things in The Hobbit. As a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature, much of Tolkien’s writing was based on very ancient archetypes: the young noble and his faithful servant (Sam and Frodo), the disinherited liege lord and his subject (Thorin and Bilbo), etc. But whereas a commoner in the most traditional stories would be endlessly deferential to his betters, following their mandates even when they contradict his own moral principles, Bilbo ain’t havin’ none of that noise. Rather than aiding his lord in glorious battle against the enemy, he tries to avert war by using the Arkenstone to broker a peace deal. Yeah, Thorin’s great and all–but not so great that Bilbo is going to sit back and let him kill people. That makes Mr. Baggins a distinctly modern hero, and one I can now appreciate.
Then: Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that I wasn’t alone in my childhood antipathy toward The Catcher in the Rye. Some whiny kid called Holden Caulfield cuts class, bums around, hires a prostitute and then changes his mind, almost gets molested, visits his sister, and whines, whines, whines. Also something about a red hat. I too felt alienated by the world, but at least I hadn’t reacted the way Holden does: like a little bitch.
Now: Except that, short of actually running away from school, I reacted exactly the way Holden does. I was just too close to see it. Far from being a little bitch, Holden Caulfield is an excellent representation of the frightened, sensitive kid inside every adolescent. The teenage years are almost uniformly dreadful for everyone. And while it’s easy to fault teenagers for “whining” about the world, consider this: they have a point. The world is unfair. People are phony. School is stressful. Growing up is hard. Those truisms seem trite now, but think back to when you were first coming to grips with them. It was painful, right? You resented it, right? That’s a natural feature of human development, and we shouldn’t write off kids, Holden included, for struggling with it. The Catcher in the Rye‘s main fault–if you want to call it a fault–is being too accurate to the adolescent experience. It’s so on-point that it dredges up all sorts of buried feelings, and that makes it a difficult read.
Then: What the hell is this book even about? The narrator, Nick, goes to a bunch of parties thrown by a guy called Gatsby, who seems really cool but is actually a total sad-sack. Nick helps reunite Gatsby with his old girlfriend, there’s an altercation, then Gatsby runs over somebody and gets shot by his swimming pool. What’s the point? How am I supposed to care about the romance, when Daisy is such an off-putting character? And can Gatsby go five seconds without calling somebody “old sport?”
Now: It’s not that young people can’t understand character-driven stories–they can, and do. But character-driven books will always be a tougher sell than plot-driven ones, because the main arc is a little bit harder to tease out. If you look at Gatsby objectively, sure, nothing really happens. Jay Gatsby is kind of sad, Daisy’s kind of awful, and their love story doesn’t hold water. Of course, that’s the point. Gatsby has built his entire life around reclaiming Daisy because he’s in love with the idea of her, an idea that proves as flimsy and insubstantial as the pretensions of the Jazz Age themselves. Of course, kids aren’t super familiar with the concept of being in love with an idea versus a person, nor are they necessarily experts on 1920’s America, so the book reads like some lame, lackluster romance to them. It certainly read that way to me. Once I got older and got some (very painful) experience under my belt, the whole thing made more sense.