Sometimes, in reading as in life, timing is everything. When you read a book can have a huge effect on how you experience it. You can read a book at the exact right time, maybe the right age or the right point in your life or the right time of year or day, and it just feels right, it makes sense. Other books are read at the wrong time: too early, too late, when the subject matter feels too close to home or too remote.
For example, when I first read The Secret History by Donna Tartt, about privileged Classics students whose actions get out of hand, I was in my second year at Oxford, spending the Easter holidays trying to read a lot of Romantic poetry and long eighteenth century novels. I read it as a treat whilst I was reading Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (a 1500 page long epistolary novel) and it was exactly what I needed. Not only was the style a far cry from eighteenth century prose, but the world of Henry Winters et al was pretty recognisable. Their tea drinking and meal eating with their professor Julian wasn’t all that different from classes with my tutors. It was easily believable that a group of students could do terrible things inspired by their reading because that was the kind of rumour you heard around Oxford. The Secret History made sense.
I first read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein too early, expecting something more horror-based like the image of the monster in popular culture. Its brooding, gothic Romanticism and meditations on the spark of life went right over my head. Thankfully, I had to read it during my degree and, armed with context and different expectations, I rediscovered it as a fantastic novel. On the other hand, I read Under The Dome by Stephen King too late, after my phase of reading his books was over, and I had no interest in the long story about characters I didn’t care about. The same is probably true of The Hunger Games, which I spent all three books being annoyed that because it was a first person narrator I knew she wouldn’t die, ruining the stakes somewhat.
These are all novels, but I think that poetry is also very caught up with timing. The first poem I loved was Simon Armitage’s ‘Kid’, which I studied at GCSE and became obsessed with how it used Batman and poetic sound to suggest growing up. It helped that this was around the release of The Dark Knight too. Later it was Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’; again, I loved how it sounded, but also the way it was caught between comprehensibility and confusion (I was seventeen, which may explain that).
I still always thought I wasn’t ‘good’ at poetry until it turned out the answer was that I needed narrative poetry. I get along very well with Milton and Byron. I didn’t read Byron until I was halfway through my degree so instead of being put off by the length of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (took me until the summer to get to Don Juan, which I read partly in Rome because I’m very pretentious), I discovered his dramatic way of summing up a concept in a single line and constant flirting with whether he is his narrator, his hero, both, or neither. Earlier and I might not have enjoyed it.
There’s plenty of other examples. What I’m trying to show is that sometimes it isn’t as simple as reading a great book or a terrible book, but reading those books at a time that makes them work or not work as the case may be. Reading is personal, not only in your response, but in the factors that affect that response. I should add as a final note that sometimes it makes very little difference – I read Ulysses whilst revising for my AS exams aged seventeen and I have no strong feelings about it either way.