We’ve all been there — scanning the 100 best books ever list and thinking, really? I read that book when I was 15 and it was a struggle to get through the first 20 pages. Those long nights you spent reading (or not reading) your assigned text trying to figure out what the hell the symbology of giant eyes overlooking the highway meant, whether or not there was a religious analogy running amuck, and wondering why in the world a woman who had a child with a man of the cloth would name that child Pearl. What? Why.
Though it may not have occurred to us at the time (when we were teenagers and thought we knew everything ever) some books are better left for full enjoyment at a later, more mature time in life. Believe it or not, with life experience does come wisdom. And with wisdom comes patience: the patience to read 700 pages about a young woman’s marriage choices in Victorian England and be thrilled by it. But the absolute best thing that comes from maturity is understanding: when you see yourself in these stories and characters and you have the maturity to acknowledge that and be moved by it. See, getting older’s not so bad.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
I am a huge Jane Austen fan, but realized a few days ago I had only read Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility. There is so much more Austen out there, including Persuasion, her last novel. This book tells the story of Anne Elliot, who was persuaded by her judgmental and superficial family to turn down the proposal of the man she loved, Captain Wentworth. Fast forward eight years later, and Captain Wentworth has re-entered Anne’s life. How will he treat her? Will they reconnect?
This novel is certainly the older, wiser Austen with little care for ruffling feathers — her portrait of Anne’s snooty family is nothing short of scandalous. She spares no expense at telling it like it is. After I finished this remarkable book I couldn’t believe I had waited until the age of 30 to pick it up — but then I realized 30 might be the perfect age to understand its many charms.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
As an eight-year-old I took it upon myself to try and read Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece, Jane Eyre. I have no idea why I thought I’d be able to read it: I think I had heard it was about a ghost in a castle attic and that seemed appealing. Even in college I never had the opportunity to read it for class, and I floated through life, vaguely aware of what Jane Eyre was about, never having read it. Finally, on a long flight, I read the entire book, at the age of 28, was shocked to find the book about much more than the mysterious Mr. Rochester and that ghost in the attic. It’s really a novel about Jane, of course, and about staying true to oneself at all costs.
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
Full disclosure: I have still not read Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. When I was in college, I attended a lecture by the great professor and critic Mary Ann Caws, about Bloomsbury and Proust. I admitted to her that I had attempted several times to read Proust but failed each time. “How old are you?” she asked me. (I was 20.) “You’re not old enough to read Proust,” she said simply. “You have to be at least 30 to understand Proust. You haven’t lived long enough to understand what he is trying to achieve.”
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Practically any American kid who went to public school has read (or was supposed to read) Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in their high school English class. If you were lucky, maybe you got a great teacher who explained to you why the novel is so awesome, and what the deal is with “The Custom House” opening. But there are so many students who didn’t luck out in that department. Hawthorne’s style is dense — maybe too dense for an 11th grader — not to mention the intense themes about sexuality, religion, guilt, and gender. If you feel like you didn’t quite “get” this classic novel the first time around, it’s definitely worth revisiting as an adult, when you can recognize the beauty in Hawthorne’s prose.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
I hesitated to put Mrs. Dalloway on this list. I first read Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece when I was 17. For me, this was a great age to read Woolf. I always tell people who have never read her to begin with Mrs. Dalloway, which, in a sense, is one of her most accessible novels. But the themes within, about self-actualization, post-traumatic stress, and the importance of privacy can be quite the undertaking. If you have the opportunity to take a class in college that features Mrs. Dalloway as one of the required texts, I highly recommend that you take it. On the surface level this is a great novel — but there is so much lurking beneath, you want to make sure you have the emotional maturity and guidance to unlock its secrets.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
As a huge Virginia Woolf fan, I have always wanted to read Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Woolf famously wrote that Middlemarch is “one of the few English books written for grown-up people.” But the novel is so dense and so long — more than 700 pages. The trials and tribulations of the town and the people of Middlemarch are so fantastically interwoven that the book feels modern even though it was written in 1871. The most fascinating character is that of Dorothea, who assumes she knows what she's getting into when she marries a much older man. It would be difficult for someone who had never seriously considered marriage to understand what Dorothea goes through in this book, and how she extricates herself from a desperate situation. But if you have the stamina for this gigantic novel, the lessons you will learn from it are worth the hefty read.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Reading The Great Gatsby as a high school student versus reading The Great Gatsby as an adult are two completely different experiences. As a teenager, I was drawn to the glitz and glamour, the romance of Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship, and the weird symbolism of T.J. Eckleberg’s eyes and the 900 papers I had to write about them. As an adult my reaction upon re-reading Fitzgerald’s masterwork was just to simply weep. This book is gorgeous, it is also desperately sad. The fact that it was not a success when it was published baffles me and contributes overall to Fitzgerald’s tragic story.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
William Faulkner's magnum opus is told from the point of view of many different people in the Compson family, including not one, but two people named Quentin, one male, one female, just to make things really confusing. A fellow student in my Faulkner seminar in college took to color-coding all the different characters and their voices which different color highlighters in order to keep the narrative straight. This kind of epic Southern literature may have been too epic for you in college, especially if you were up late at an epic party the night before your English lecture. Give Faulkner another chance. The Sound and the Fury is worth the work.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
I found Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved to be similarly confusing (like The Sound and the Fury) from a narrative standpoint when I read it as a college freshman. The book tells of the horrors of slavery and how problematic memory becomes in light of traumatic events. Morrison's writing, however, is gorgeous, and requires the emotional maturity to stand and give attention to the part of American history so horrifying that many would rather turn away.
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