“Did you miss the moment? And, would it kill you to miss it for good? I think it would.”
This is, according to my memory, the beginning of a prose poem inside the liner notes of a CD by a band called Chamberlain that I discovered when I was fifteen or sixteen. The song lyrics were printed in the booklet too, in the obligatory tiny font, but this wasn’t a song, and yet it’s lodged in my head all the same.
The teen years are an incredible time to encounter new things, a time when you feel things intensely (“more feelingly feel,” as Rilke would have it), absorb them, adopt them as your own. You are, to some extent, a product of your time, but you also pick and choose from what’s on offer to construct your identity: do you listen to the Top 40 or do you scavenge punk rock records made before you were born? Do you read Jane Austen or Stephen King (or both)?
But the real question is, as an adult, do you latch onto books and music in the same way? Do you feel, at twenty-six or thirty-six or forty-six, the way you did at sixteen? If you didn’t hear The Smiths as a teenager, are you likely to love them as passionately as someone who did, or does it just sound morose and kind of whiny? (For the record, I discovered The Smiths at the perfect time, thanks to Stephen Chbosky’s including the song “Asleep” on a mix tape in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which led directly to my purchase of Louder Than Bombs.)
More to the point for book lovers: If you didn’t read A Wrinkle in Time or Anne of Green Gables or The Perks of Being a Wallflower or The Golden Compass or Alanna at “the right time,” did you miss the moment?
I’m not sure. When I began dating my now-husband, we kept having these conversations where I would mention a book that I just assumed “everyone else” had read, and he would say he hadn’t read it, and my jaw would drop, and I would lend him a copy or, if I didn’t have it on hand, buy one at a used book store and give it to him to read. He was very good about reading them (see: now-husband), but it was hit or miss. A Wrinkle in Time simply isn’t and never will be part of the fabric of his mind in the same way that it is woven into who I am. The Golden Compass, on the other hand, he liked so much he read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass without any prompting from me (and then he nicknamed our dog “the subtle knife” when she tried to nose between us on the couch).
Every reader misses some things that “everyone else” has read, and I am no exception. Recently, I read Alanna by Tamora Pierce, which had been recommended to me by a friend who couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it (sound familiar?). I read the other three books in the Song of the Lionness quartet as soon as possible. My adult mind cheered for feminism (a fantasy novel with birth control!), while my tween mind (though we didn’t have that word then) inhaled the characters, the story, the world-building and mythology, the romance.
I wish I’d read Alanna when I was twelve or thirteen, but I enjoyed it immensely as an adult too. It is rare for me now to lose myself in a book in the way I did routinely when I was younger, but it still happens – and it happens more often, I’ve noticed, in books with a fantasy, dystopian, science fiction, or magical element, books like The Night Circus or The Bone Clocks or Station Eleven. These books are worlds in which I’m immersed, rising out of them at the end only reluctantly and regretfully. But of course, I can always read them again.
In Gabrielle Zevin’s novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, the title character writes a note to his adopted daughter about “the necessity of encountering stories at precisely the right time in our lives.” He urges her to remember that “the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.” The perfect time to encounter a book may be when you’re thirteen, or it may be when you’re thirty; you may read it once when you’re thirteen and once when you’re thirty and discover different things the second time, or simply enjoy it all over again.
Though some books and some readers will never be a match – and that’s okay – it’s worth keeping an open mind and going back to books you may feel you’ve missed. Now might be the perfect moment.