The Bell Jar & Other Books of Angst

I was too old when I read Catcher in the Rye.
At 21, I no longer had any sense of the alienation and ennui so central to the narrative and instead I was left annoyed with the tone and mystified by the popularity of the novel. With a little more time to reflect on the experience I can imagine I might have liked it at 9 or 10 before fantasy novels really took over my reading patterns but at 13 or 14 I would have been exasperated by the pretentious whining of the protagonist without having any ability to see the redeeming skill of the author’s stylistic skill.

Similarly I was older when I decided to read The Bell Jar and I chose to read it because I thought I ought to. I was, at 16, the stereotypically perfect audience for the book -young, female, well-educated, proto-feminist and depressed; I, like Esther, wanted the experiences & privileges available in the world but knew I was unlikely to get them – but even having read Plath’s poetry I was not moved to consider reading this classic work because other peoples’ suffering did not appeal. When I eventually settled down with it my focus was on the tone and poetry of the text not the insight to the author’s mind or the sense of connection to the protagonist.
The tale is the same with some other classic ‘formative’ books – I read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit  when I was well into my 20s (although I did manage The Liar whilst still in my teens..just) and it was too late to recapture that sense of isolation in growing up gay. Similarly Girl, Interrupted might have been an influential film for my teen years (Winona & Angelina certainly made it clear to me straight was not going to be an option) but the book when I read it, again in my early twenties, was no more than brief nostalgia for that sense of lack of direction and connection.

I wonder not so much why classic books of angst, fear & disillusionment didn’t connect with me in the more recent stages of my life but why I didn’t reach for them during my more impassionedly gothic and misunderstood phases.
Was it because doing my A-levels, having a social life & being depressed took up too much time for reading?
Was it that I avoided classic lit. for fear of cliche?
Did I subconsciously expect to move on, knowing that teens are supposed to be angsty I was keen to move past that, so did the texts seem too self-consciously coming-of-age for my already ‘irked with self’ psyche?
Was I too wrapped up in my personal tragedy to care to read others – was solace in company anathema to my idea of tortured soul?
Did I just not see them on the shelves of my library or in my friends’ hands?
Was I too engrossed in Pratchett?

I suspect that all of these things played their part.

Its hard to go back, to recognise the selfish and the naive and the childish in oneself, even through fiction but its worth spotting those things even if only to prepare for the next stages…
Maybe you can’t read some books too late.

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