Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The ideal reader

Read as many of the great books as you can before the age of 22.
James Michener

Last Friday in a post called "A skeptic's view of literature," I observed that for most of us, if we have read the great books or the classics at all, it was likely back when they were assigned reading for high school or college classes. We read them because we had to read them. After our formal education ends, if we read at all (and many college graduates never again open a book) it is much more likely to be something by Michener than Shakespeare or Tolstoy.

Yet two quotations, including the one from James Michener above, make me consider that there may be more to our reading of classics in our youth than just the reading required for English classes. A few days ago while reading an essay on despair by Joyce Carol Oates in the book Deadly Sins, I found this line, "Perhaps the ideal reader is an adolescent: restless, vulnerable, passionate, hungry to learn, skeptical and naive by
turns; with an unquestioned faith in the power of the imagination to change, if not life, one's comprehension of life."

Both Michener and Oates suggest those years before full adulthood may be the best time to read important literature, the best time to absorb it, to be influenced by it and inspired by it. More importantly, it may be the time in our lives when we are the most open to it, the most willing to read these books even when they are just recommended reading, not required reading.

Go into any large bookstore and you are likely to find a table of important books, both old and recent, that seems to be there primarily for adolescent readers. It is probably located in the young adult section of the store. These are not necessarily books that have been assigned in area schools. More likely they are just books adolescents, more than adults, will be drawn to.

I recall that it was in those years before graduation from college that I read so many books that were not necessarily great books but were nevertheless books I had heard about and wondered about, books I thought it might be valuable to read. These included such books as Lord of the Flies, 1984, Brave New World and most of the works of Steinbeck and Salinger. Perhaps it was then, more than any other time of my life, when I was, as Oates suggests, the ideal reader.

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