It is arguable that all very great works should be strictly protected from young persons; they should at any rate be spared the indignity of having their teeth and claws blunted for the satisfaction of examiners. It is the first shock that matters. Once that has been experienced, no amount of later familiarity will breed contempt; but to become familiar with a thing before one is able to experience it only too often means that one can never experience it at all…
…There is in fact an optimum age for encountering every work of art; did we but know, in each man’s case, what it was, we might plan our educational schemes accordingly. Since our way of life makes this impossible, we can only pray to be saved from murdering delight before it is born.
–Dorothy Sayers, “…And Telling you a Story,” in Further Papers on Dante.
I had great good fortune as a young reader, in two respects. I was allowed to read widely, and pretty much without guidance or censorship from my parents; and I mostly had teachers who got out of the way of the stories and novels we read in English class. Or maybe it was my habit of reading ahead, and reading first, before getting around to doing the assigned homework. Whatever the case, my clearest memories of reading as a child and young adult are serendipitous. I know exactly the sensation of the “first shock” that Ms Sayers experienced upon reading Dante.
Some of the books I first “experienced” (often hiding under the covers, then turning on my light after my parents went to bed): Little House on the Prairie, A Little Princess, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, The Hobbit, anything by Madeleine L’Engle, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Westing Game, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler. I simply devoured them, reading whenever I could steal the time away.
As I grew older, it was Rebecca, Crime and Punishment, all of Jane Austen. And in the past few years, I’ve been captured – completely without expectation – by Andre Dubus’ collection of stories, Dancing After Hours; Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety; Till We Have Faces; Middlemarch; and Home, by Marilynne Robinson. They aren’t necessarily my favorite or most life-changing books (some are!), but they all share the common quality of serendipity and delight. I must have hit each of them at the optimum age.
I’m curious to know, dear readers, which books you have had the good fortune of “experiencing”? Which books have you opened, without any particular expectations, and found yourself utterly immersed in? Unable to set down?
I love that last phrase: “we can only pray to be saved from murdering delight before it is born.” Isn’t that one of the great tasks of parenting? It feels terribly important that I somehow reproduce my own delightful childhood reading for my kids – so I spend tons of time planning what to introduce to them when. Whereas in fact the best books were simply happened upon, or providentially handed my way. Probably, then, much of my job is simply to put things in front of my kids, pray, and get out of the way.