On Instagram recently, I got into a discussion about just how much I’ve been hating Dostoevsky this time around. I’ve been reading The Brothers Karamazov literally all summer, and as I slowly whittle it away as an audiobook on my morning runs and during evening clean up, I’ve been stumped as to how I can hate it now when I loved it as a college senior.
Because it felt like a revelation when I read it as a 22-year-old, newly back from her first stint abroad, engaged to be married, living out and loving her last semester of college. And now, as a mother with two very small, very needy children, it feels like a slog. When I tried to knock out a few pages in the passenger seat of the car during vacation, frequently interrupted by small people in the backseat, I could hardly keep my place. As I tried to hold up the tiny-print tome one-handed, lying in bed, sick this summer, the sheer weight staggered me. As I wheezed my way up a hill, listening to Librivox, I choke out, “Hurry up!”
As my fellow book club member, the eloquent Abbey points out, “I understand that my dislike of it probably says more about me than about the book.” And…that’s kind of my point.
Some books you just have to be ready for — I remember starting and abandoning The Secret Garden several times before I could make anything out of the Yorkshire dialect that peppers its pages. That’s especially true for big books like Broski which represent significant commitment. The timing really has to be right, but when it is, the book can be pure magic. My friend Haley had recommended Kristin Lavransdatter to me a couple times, but I’d never really considered it, since she’s tricked me more than once into reading Evelyn Waugh, who I loathe (#unpopularopinions). So with some trepidation, I finally settled down to Kristin on my new Kindle Paperwhite when I found myself sitting around in dark rooms pretty often with my fitfully sleeping new babe. And it blew me away. I can’t imagine having easily slipped into the unfamiliar rhythms of medieval Norway before that point in my life, but I found myself seeking out more time to sneak away in the dark and read.
A Tale of Two Cities I read too young in early high school, but Great Expectations, taught with patience by my Victorianist professor, struck a chord my freshman year of college. Similarly, I read Wuthering Heights on a tiny iPod Touch screen on an Ugandan bus from Kasese to Kampala. I’d never possessed the slightest inclination to read it before — if, as Cassandra Mortmain argues, you either prefer Bronte with a bit of Austen or Austen with a bit of Bronte, I’m Austen all the way — but I plowed right through it with real delight on that stuffy, monotonous bus ride. It was just the right book at the right time.
There are also books I think you can miss the boat on. I suspect that happened for me with both The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road, although possibly I was never angsty enough for them. I suspect they have their own value and yet I don’t get it, personally. And while my love for Anne of Green Gables runs so deep from twenty years of re-reading that I can barely see it objectively, I can also understand when someone says they read it as an adult and just didn’t get Anne.
This year for the Well-Read Mom Book Club, I’ll be re-reading All the Light We Cannot See, Wuthering Heights, The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces and The Fellowship of the Ring, and reading for the first time a couple classics I’ve previously missed. We’ll see if revisiting these books is like revisiting old friends, or meeting as strangers. We’ll see if it’s too late for me and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I expect to be surprised.
You have to be gentle with yourself, I guess, when you’re dealing with classics, especially. Maybe it’s not that this is an overrated book, and maybe it’s not that you’re some uncultured dummy who can’t appreciate the Finer Things. Maybe, instead, you just need to set the book aside for now and find the book that’s waiting for just such a moment.