What novels only intelligible in mid-life?
September 8, 2015 3:24 AM   Subscribe

I've turned 40 this year. In high school I used to go around reading Nabokov because I thought that's what smart people would read. I loved the words but missed about 80% of the thematic elements because I was too young and hadn't lived enough. I just picked him up again and am boggled. What other books should I return to? What authors are only intelligible to readers in mid-life?
posted by hoanthropos to Society & Culture (35 answers total) 116 users marked this as a favorite
 
Two books that meant much more to me as an adult than to the child that was forced to read them: To Kill a Mockingbird, and Johnny Tremain.
posted by jbickers at 3:36 AM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I found James Joyce’s Ulysses a richer and more rewarding experience when I revisited it in my late thirties than I did on first reading it in my early twenties.
posted by misteraitch at 3:41 AM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Proust.
posted by shibori at 3:42 AM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I read Great Expectations as an adult and was perplexed that the novel is so often given to children, as it concerns how social class, unkindnesses, and (naturally) expectations in youth alter one's path to adulthood, with the benefit of hindsight. There is a regretful wisdom about the book better appreciated by older readers.
posted by thetortoise at 3:56 AM on September 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


Metafilter loves to hate on Salinger, but reading The Catcher in the Rye as an adult is sure a different experience than it was when I was a teen. Holden's not a peer anymore. He's a kid. It's weird. It's still a great book and I think Holden is still an insightful, endearing kid, but I find myself chuckling at him and worrying about him ways I didn't when I was 16. So I'm not sure if you "get" the book more as an adult, but if you loved it as a kid it's definitely worth a revisit. It's kind of like going back to your old school and everything is familiar and freighted with emotion but you couldn't even fit behind your desk anymore.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:58 AM on September 8, 2015 [14 favorites]


Anything by Graham Greene or Philip Larkin. The Odyssey. The Confessions of St Augustine. Ecclesiastes. The Old English elegies. The Consolation of Philosophy.
posted by No-sword at 4:33 AM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've heard that Don Quixote should be read three times: once when you're young, once at middle age, and once in old age.
posted by lharmon at 4:33 AM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


The World According to Garp is one that immediately springs to mind. I'm sure you would have understood it as a younger person, but that book stuck with me in ways I can't explain.
posted by getawaysticks at 4:42 AM on September 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


The Sound And The Fury. I had to read it in high school and didn't catch most of what was going on.
posted by bibliogrrl at 4:54 AM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I love when this happens! nthing Philip Larkin. Also, A Separate Peace, Light in August, Metamorphosis, and Invisible Man.
posted by gollie at 5:46 AM on September 8, 2015


I've heard that Don Quixote should be read three times: once when you're young, once at middle age, and once in old age

I agree with this so much. I think I actually got more out of Nabokov's Ada at an earlier age because the literary pyrotechnics excited me so much back then. Now, I still admire the book but it seems rather exhausted, or maybe I'm exhausted.

Books I couldn't appreciate at all until much later were novels with a more quiet, subtle artistry. Something like Michelle Huneven's Jamesland that seems to mimic the pace of life. In the old days I would have though there was nothing there.
posted by BibiRose at 5:51 AM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a very poignant reread for me recently; there's so much going on with the adults and the difficulties they're facing that my younger self couldn't yet appreciate.

Middlemarch should definitely also be on this list; I don't think I could have really understood it earlier on.
posted by veery at 6:11 AM on September 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


Anything that centres around ageing & changing family relationships / expectations. Could lead in many directions, but from my reading I'm thinking of Philip Roth & John Updike. I didn't really start on either until my 30s, but I doubt I would have got as much from them earlier. I'm still too young for some of them in mid-40s.
posted by rd45 at 6:20 AM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I've heard that Don Quixote should be read three times: once when you're young, once at middle age, and once in old age.

I came in to make the same comment, except I think goes: once when you're young to see how funny it is, once when you're middle age to see how sad it is, and once in your old age to see how true it is.
posted by slogger at 6:29 AM on September 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


The emotional resonance of Joyce's The Dead is likely lost on teenagers. I've read this story at many points in my life and it has always moved me but after I had children it had even deeper impact. Wait until Epiphany and give it a read.
posted by bdc34 at 6:48 AM on September 8, 2015


You can read Jane Austen at any age, but Persuasion has more of a bite when you're older, and I have more patience for the apparently passive heroine of Mansfield Park now as well.
posted by zadcat at 6:50 AM on September 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


Wuthering Heights. It was a slog when I was a teenager with a short attention span, but delightful in my 50s, although I'm not sure it was supposed to become so funny.
posted by Mogur at 6:52 AM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I found this to be true of the "The Forsyte Saga" by John Galsworthy.
posted by Ginesthoi at 7:16 AM on September 8, 2015


As a kid I loved "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" by Mark Twain because it showed how one person can use knowledge to shape the world around them. [SLPG] But now, in my early forties, I can only see the brutal, bloody, senseless finale, which I think is actually what Twain was trying to show.

(Which, now that I type this, reminds me a bit of that scene at the end of "breaking Bad" with the M-60 in the caddy's trunk. (Which I only saw on YouTube courtesy of Mythbusters, as I didn't actually watch the whole series.))
posted by wenestvedt at 7:16 AM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Anything by Anthony Burgess, but especially the Enderby series.
posted by Chitownfats at 7:35 AM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Middlemarch should definitely also be on this list; I don't think I could have really understood it earlier on.
I kind of feel sorry for Casaubon, now. Facing your own mortality sucks.
posted by flourpot at 7:46 AM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


John Le Carre. The desperation of his characters, the questioning of point of view and the failure of systems is better after you seen or experienced all of these.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to start. Smiley's People and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The Constant Gardener. (I'm sure there are others I haven't read which fit this.)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:01 AM on September 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


I read The Once and Future King every couple of years or so. When I was a kid I would only read the first section (The Sword in the Stone) and then gradually get bored and give up. As I get older, all my real emotional responses have shifted toward the later parts of the book, which include some real bang-up meditations on being middle-aged.
posted by babelfish at 8:50 AM on September 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


Seconding Once and Future King, although I'm re-reading it because I just learned that White was a closet case (after reading H is for Hawk) and as someone who came out relatively late, I'm curious to see if any of his internal struggles poke out.
Also re-reading Lord of the Flies. As an adult, I almost think I would murder Piggy too.
posted by ikahime at 9:18 AM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Not books, but the closest thing to it - Before Midnight, the third in Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy. It captures marriage at midlife perfectly. Actually, rewatching "Before Sunset" also brings back the feeling of what life was like in my early thirties.
posted by Nevin at 10:33 AM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


If you mention John Le Carré, surely A Perfect Spy.

The proper Smiley sequence is The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (ignoring Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality), then the Karla trilogy - TTSS, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley's People. But all except the last one work fine as stand-alone books, in my opinion.
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:21 AM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


One of the weirdest experiences in my life was rereading the Little House on the Prairie series as an adult. I noticed so many nuances about the adults (and even plot points) I had totally missed as a kid, and had a sad new respect for Ma.
posted by mynameisluka at 1:03 PM on September 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


"What an enormous, uncovenanted blessing to have kept Henry James for middle age and to turn, as the door shuts behind the departing guest, to a first reading of Portrait of a Lady." (Evelyn Waugh, 1946)
posted by verstegan at 1:53 PM on September 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


Oh man, Garp as already suggested. Also, this line from above:

I'm not sure if you "get" the book more as an adult, but if you loved it as a kid it's definitely worth a revisit.

...really resonates. Every book read in youth deserves revisiting, especially if you had a visceral love/hate reaction to it. I kinda thought Vonnegut was for the hip only when I was in high school, but now I think his books are very humane and usually adult perspectives on life. Same kind of deal with Hunter Thompson, who I guess I pretended to really like as a teen but now in my mid-30s comes off as a meritless asshole on almost every page. Same goes for Virtually Normal, Andrew Sullivan's 1995 book, which seems so dated and weird in its tone rather than its content (which I was simply to young to pick up on when I was 15).

I recently went through Postcards from the Edge for the first time since I was a kid and was really impressed by it. Same goes for Sagan's Contact, which I revisit every few years and seem to empathize with more deeply each time (and is maybe a good pairing with Anti-Intellectualism in American Life).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:03 PM on September 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


The novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. Nthing Middlemarch and Great Expectations (especially if you read the original with the downer ending). Many things you may have read in childhood have a different resonance in later age: Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island. The thing is, as your life develops you bring more to the reading.
posted by CCBC at 1:16 AM on September 9, 2015


What novels only intelligible in mid-life?

None. But look for authors who were about 40 or more when they wrote what you're reading. They're writing from a place closer to where you are now. Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Great Expectations. Jane Austen. George Eliot. Barsetshire with Trollope and Thirkell, and Tilling with E.F. Benson, and Wessex with Hardy. But also read poetry.
posted by pracowity at 5:02 AM on September 9, 2015


One of my favorite writers, Robertson Davies, gave a couple of lectures "on reading" and "on writing" that were eventually bound into one small book. He says (and he was 78 -- no spring chicken -- when he wrote these words in 1991) that you never read the same book twice. That's kind of self-evident, but he is very specific:

What I have just said about rereading is a point I should like
to stress. The great sin, as I have said, is to assume that something
that has been read once has been read forever, As a very simple
example I mention Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. People are expected
to read it during their university years. But you are mistaken if
you think you read Thackeray’s book then; you read a lesser book
of your own. It should be read again when you are thirty-six,
which is the age of Thackeray when he wrote it. It should be read
for a third time when you are fifty-six, sixty-six, seventy-six, in
order to see how Thackeray’s irony stands up to your own experience
of life. Perhaps you will not read every page in these later
years, but you really should take another look at a great book, in
order to find out how great it is, or how great it has remained, to
you. You see, Thackeray was an artist, and artists deserve this
kind of careful consideration. We must not gobble their work,
like chocolates, or olives, or anchovies, and think we know it forever.
Nobody ever reads the same book twice.

The whole lecture really is worth reading. He's a delight and it's not long and I think it's very wise and sweet and funny.
posted by janey47 at 11:44 AM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I had multiple false starts on Robert Pirsig when I was in my youth, but a recent reread of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance kept me enamored throughout the entire novel.
posted by bensherman at 4:25 PM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Ulysses definitely. First attempt in my 20s, I got some laugh-till-you-cry moments out of it but much of it didn't click. Second attempt in my 30s, got a little more into it. Third time's the charm, just finished it again but this time as part of a group of six readers. (In the interim I'd gotten a writing diploma plus had done some fiction writing myself.) What a f*cking blast! Now starting it for the fourth time, we're looking at a fast run with a team of three. Finished the first two chapters just now and its the best yet.
posted by storybored at 6:49 PM on September 13, 2015


One of the weirdest experiences in my life was rereading the Little House on the Prairie series as an adult. I noticed so many nuances about the adults (and even plot points) I had totally missed as a kid, and had a sad new respect for Ma.

Yep, because Pa's a complete fuck-up who needlessly and repeatedly endangers the lives of his family.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:34 AM on October 5, 2015


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