We are asked to believe, usually by critics, that the most important factor in our response to a book should be its objective quality – a good book is a good book – but we know that’s not true. Mood and taste are important, self-evidently, but mood and taste are formed by educational background, profession, health, amount of leisure time, marital status, state of marriage, gender, age, age of children, relationships with children, and parents, and siblings, and, possibly, an unfortunate experience with Thomas Pynchon’s ‘V’ as an overambitious and pretentious teenager. All of these and thousands of others are governing factors, and many of them are wildly inconstant.
I am glad that I read Sylvia Plath when I was a student; I had plenty of appetite for misery then. There is already enough anxiety attached to parenthood, without having to worry about coming unglued. The first John Irving novel I ever read was ‘The World According to Garth’, and for some time, even after reading most of the others, I was pretty sure that it was his masterpiece. I re-read it a couple of years ago, and I was shocked to discover that Garth, who inhabits a big chunk of the book, is an insufferable drip. Why hadn’t I noticed? Am I a more observant critic now, or was I simply kinder and more indulgent when I was younger? If we are lucky, we read the right books at the right times, and both the books and the times should be left alone. Have you read 'Moby-Dick yet'? No? Well, don’t go back to ‘The Catcher In The Rye’, then. It was great once, and maybe you’re asking too much of it if you want it to be great all over again. This is not to diminish the books that we read at earlier stages in our lives, not to make the claim that, as we get older, our critical faculties get sharper – the sad truth is that we lose as much as we gain. There are some books that have become old friends and I can return to over and over again like 'Pride and Prejudice', and some, like 'The Bell Jar' I wouldn't mind if I never saw again.