In my late teens, the movie Reality Bites spoke to me. All of that teen angst, the heartfelt pronouncements and the aloof boyfriend seemed so profound and moving.
Fifteen years later, it all seemed faintly ridiculous. What had I ever seen in Ethan Hawke? Why on earth was Winona even bothering?
Similarly, as I started to watch The Doors recently, after having adored the movie in my early 20s, I wondered if I could endure two hours of Val Kilmer’s exaggerated pouting.
Disappointingly, many movies seem to have an expiry date, depending on the age and stage of the viewer. But what about books? Can some novels be perfect at one point in the reader’s life, then become ridiculous?
A decade after I first read it, I have an inkling that this would be the case in re-reading Shantaram. As a backpacker, I was enthralled by the story of an Australian traveller’s experience in India. I was captivated by the colour, the sense of danger and the narrator’s intrepid approach to learning about this fascinating country. Yet, I am loathe to pick up the book again, more than a decade later and in the midst of the domestic chaos of young children. I doubt that the sense of exploration and discovery would hold the same appeal as it did all those years ago, while I too was travelling and exploring exotic worlds.
Then there were the books that I read during my university days, in which the more complicated the prose and the more elusive the themes, the more the book was valued. Just as in my viewing of Reality Bites, I wanted to see and read angst and drama; I wanted to immerse myself in complex human interactions, perhaps those that reflected this new step into adulthood.
As a result, there was Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie, The Alchemist and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Happily, these books also looked good on my little college bookshelf, hinting at hidden depths and complex ideas.
In contrast, books read at the wrong time can be wasted on the reader, at least at the time. I tackled Anna Karenina in secondary school, and was weighed down by its size and density. Reading it decades later, it was a revelation. I was enthralled by the love and the passion, and later, the despair of Anna. I read the book with new eyes and was introduced to the characters with a new level of understanding.
More recently, in the fog of pregnancy, followed by the tumult of young children, my reading habits have been a little less ambitions and I have tended to choose books that were accessible and enjoyable, so that my tired mind could skate over sentences and glean a level of meaning from them.
As I look ahead, I can see my tastes are likely to change again; my grandmother, an avid reader of fiction took to reading just non-fiction in her latter years. While this seems, at this point, to be an unlikely path for me, I know better than to think that I won’t follow in her footsteps.
However, some books, of course, remain as moving and as relevant whatever the age of the reader. I first read The Catcher in the Rye in my early 20s, and recently returned to it. Despite centring on the experience of a teenager, the book had lost none of its appeal. Many others have maintained a sense of relevance through the years, whatever the situation or circumstance.
Perhaps these are the best books. As Canadian novelist and playwright Robertson Davies said, “A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”
Unfortunately, sometimes the beauty of a book, like a much-loved movie or building, can fade as the sunset falls on a particular life stage, leaving a different reader in its wake.
And so, beware of disappointment when you go back to reread a once-loved book. While its charm might remain intact, its heartthrobs unaged, it is you who might have changed too much to appreciate them as you once did.