It matters a lot, sometimes, what age you are when you first read a particular book. Most of the time, though, the bit that matters isn’t whether or not you’re old enough for it. Those of us who are members of the siblinghood of compulsive readers spend a lot of our early years reading books that are, according to the gatekeepers, “too old” for us, and most of us benefit from the mental stretching exercises involved.
I do think, though, that it’s possible to come to some books too late. Once you’ve acquired the taste for deconstruction, for examining the underpinnings of a work – teasing out its buried contradictions and unexamined assumptions, and speculating on the untold stories and the differing viewpoints of secondary and minor characters – it’s hard to look at a book with the open and receptive eye of a new reader. Texts instead become things to be approached with suspicion, lest they pull the wool over our eyes or trip us up when we’re not looking, and a suspicious approach is no way to make friends.
The books that are destined to become our lifelong friends, I believe, are the ones we encounter when we’re old enough as readers to understand what’s going on in the text, but before we’ve had the chance to become cynical about it. Consider, for example, The Count of Monte Cristo. On second or third reading, even a young reader can see that Edmond Dantès is, frankly, kind of a dick†, that there’s something more than a little bit skeevy about his relationship with Haidee, and that his first love Mercédès gets handed a raw deal by fate, Edmond, and the writer, all three.‡ But if the reader’s had a chance to first take the story straight – the escape from the Chateau d’If! the mysterious stranger! (and the other mysterious stranger, and the other mysterious stranger – really, the plot is absolutely infested with mysterious strangers!) the villains, so villainous, and so aptly punished by their own base natures and continuing villainy! – then subsequent, more critical, readings lose much of their power to tarnish the effect of the work.
†He’d have to be, to spend so much time and money on getting even when he could have taken the treasure of Monte Cristo and spent the rest of his life having a good time anywhere he wanted. I’m just saying.
‡Really – what was she supposed to do when her betrothed got hauled off and thrown into prison as a Bonapartist conspirator on her wedding day? Starve to death genteelly while pining for his return? Take up a career as a streetwalker? Nobody told her that the fallback boyfriend she ended up settling for had actually masterminded the whole frame-up.