No one can really gauge when another individual can really “get” a book. One of the practices of the public library has been to promote intellectual freedom, which gives people the liberty to read what they want, whenever they want to. But sometimes, content is just over the reader’s head, and the deeper layers of meaning and complexity are lost on him unless he has lived and learned enough to understand.
Of late I’ve been thinking about these kinds of books. The kind of books that you just don’t understand the first time through, for whatever reason. Sometimes you haven’t lived through something and the concept of it is just to distant from you. You may not have learned about something in a class and the content just doesn’t ring home. There may be some kind of cultural context that is just completely lost on you because you’re not from that place or time.
When I was in my teens I found a copy of the Inferno at the local library. Being kind of gothy and into the creepy literature I knew what this book was. Much to my dismay it was entirely in Italian, but it was one of the editions that included the incredible artwork by Gustave Doré. So I looked at the pretty (horrifying) pictures, and muddled my way through what I could suss out of the Italian, which wasn’t very much. Later on in high school I picked up a translated edition and read through the incredible horrors that once I only saw. When in college I took a medieval history class and we read the Inferno again. This time with all the knowledge of fourteenth century politics in Italy, the complexities of the Papacy, and a rough outline of Dante’s political cohorts. This book meant so much more every time I read it. Let us not speak of the video game, which I played through in its entirety. Now that I’m in my mid 30’s, and occasionally wandering my own forest of doubt, I imagine that I’ll find even more to connect with, and this time much more personally.
Shakespeare is one of those things where linguistic and cultural context is vital. Everyone loves to talk about all the Shakespeare plays they’ve seen and especially the rare performances. But when they sit in that audience, are they really understanding what they’re hearing? Are the actors telegraphing the jokes to the audience? Are the sexual innuendos even obvious? Are the 400 year old political digs still relevant? Who knows. I studied Shakespeare for a solid year in my undergrad degree, and 15 years later I am still learning things that I didn’t know when I first went through those plays. When I was in high school I read Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet. Had I ever known betrayal? Had I even been in love? No. I didn’t understand these things. As an adult, I get them.
In other cases there is just a level of maturity in one’s self that is needed to get through a book. When I was younger I attempted to read the Lord of the Rings about a half dozen times and would stop and start repeatedly. It took being in my mid-twenties and having a level of focused determination to truly make it through the entire work. This while I was in graduate school. Similarly I picked up Dune just as many times and never made it through until about 2 years ago. There is just a level of density to the writing and complexity of action in those books that requires the reader to be both dedicated and focused in order to reach the conclusion.
Sometimes, there is a volume of baggage that one needs to be able to penetrate the heart of a book. Once when I was in college, somewhere around 19 years old, I had picked up a copy of the Sefer Yetzirah from the university library. I was reading it on the bus and a student from the Hebrew Union College turned to me and said, “you shouldn’t be reading that until you’re 40 you know.” I said whatever and shrugged it off. Try as I might, I couldn’t get through it. It was just so alien to me. Fast forward to my 30’s when I picked up Sefer Yetzirah again, this time after having read dozens upon dozens of esoteric works, from a number of different traditions and building up a language of religion, symbolism, critical interpretation and biblical scholarship. Yeah, now I can see why he told me that. Even now it’s not opening up before me like a rose in bloom, but the bud is there. Seeing that bud is a joy in itself, and gives me hope to see the rose.
And that’s what I feel some readers should really hear. Sometimes reading a book at a given time isn’t the right time for you. If it isn’t clicking, but the desire is there, put it back on the shelf. It will wait for you to come back when you are ready to read it.