Does reading get better as you age?

Posted September 15, 2019 by Lory in discussions / 29 Comments

I used to be nostalgic for my childhood reading, when every new discovery was so fresh and exciting and the worlds on the page seemed vividly real. I still look back with fondness to that particular magic, but lately I’ve grown to also appreciate being a more mature reader. I understand more, I have more connections to make with both literature and life, and the excitement of learning still never grows old.

This question came to mind as I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings to my son. It was never really meant as a children’s book, though I think lots of us do come to it in the middle grade years. And though as a fantasy lover I dutifully read it a few times, I have to admit I was somewhat baffled. Now, I can see better what Tolkien was doing, his strengths and weaknesses, perceiving the echo of ancient sagas and also his innovations. I’m less thrown by his sometimes confusing or archaic writing style, and I certainly enjoy the story more thereby.

Reading as I grow older doesn’t lose any of its savor, but just seems to get richer and deeper — especially when taking on such complex, many-layered works. It’s satisfying to contemplate how reading has enriched my mental life, and to know that there is still much more room to grow.

If you are a reader of a certain age, how has your reading experience changed? Do you also think it’s gotten better?

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29 responses to “Does reading get better as you age?

  1. The internet has brought the opportunity to keep trying new books and more new books and more new books, and although I was fretful and peevish in my youth about not having enough to read, I do miss the days when I knew every single book on my shelf by heart and re-read voraciously. My reading experience now is more like constantly making new friends at cocktail parties, which can be fun but isn’t as soothing.

  2. Because we read out loud to our kids, which means we read much more slowly, it enhanced the reading experience in ways I didn’t expect. I haven’t experienced this lately except in terms of topics–I reread Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents and was surprised at how many of her predictions have come true–including a presidential candidate who says “make America great again.”

  3. What a great post. For me reading has definitely got ‘better’ in that I think more about what I read. and with that comes decades of reading that helps me to get more of the intertextuality that I would have missed 10, 20, 30 years ago. I don’t re-read a lot, but there are many books I read when young that I’d like to revisit.

    One thing hasn’t changed though. I have always and will always love reading.

    • It sounds as though our experiences are similar … I also appreciate being able to have more awareness of that intertextual conversation. And I also can’t imagine not loving to read!

  4. I do so agree with everything you say here, Lory. Just a few thoughts here in response, before I let them run away with me!

    First, apart from lack of life experiences I was when a child and teenager temperamentally unsuited to critical thinking about what I read, other than registering being either engaged or bored.

    Secondly, critical reviewing only really began when I started writing notices for mostly non-fiction titles in the Arthurian journal I edited on and off for 30-odd years. For these I needed to take increasingly copious notes as I read them, which resulted in fairly well-informed reviews.

    Finally, I’ve noticed that over the years my online reviews (mostly fiction now) have got longer, and my paragraphs correspondingly shorter, as I found that even wider reading allowed more of what you rightly call intertexual conversations. In particular, my reviews of books which represent rereads of titles I read many years ago are therefore more insightful (I hope) than any of the comments I wrote or would have written in past ages.

    • I think it’s that critical reviewing ability that interferes with the innocent joy of childhood reading. But it also has the potential to become the gateway to greater pleasure. As usual with the gifts of maturity — it takes work!

  5. This is such an interesting topic—I’ve never really thought about how my reading has changed throughout the years. I definitely read a lot more now that I’m older, just in sheer number of books (though I’ve always read A LOT), and I agree that life experience has made some of my reading much richer. But, I still cherish my memories of my early reading life, so I don’t know for sure if I’d say my reading has gotten “better.” Ironically, when I was a teenager, I LOVED to read classics, and I’m actually less interested in them now as a rule (though there are exceptions). I haven’t been able to figure out why that is. I guess I’m glad I read so many classics when I was younger so I’m well-versed in them!

    • Maybe better is not the right way to express it, as it’s not usually helpful to put a value judgment on different forms of experience. Perhaps we should just enjoy each phase as it comes.

  6. Nice post. Yes, I think I’m a more critical and discerning reader, and that hasn’t stopped me from engaging with the stories. What it’s meant is I savour the words, rather than race over the top of them.

  7. Lory, I can’t say I’d thought about this before, but now you’ve made me think I do love re-reading because I definitely get something else from each new read even of an old favourite. So maybe as we get older it is the same sort of thing.

  8. Lizzie Ross

    Definitely I’m a different reader now than I was in my childhood, but I still devour books in the same way — quickly, as if they were in danger of disappearing before I get to the end. But the experience itself, as Nicole pointed out, isn’t “better”; it’s different: I bring more to each text. But rereading certain books (The Borrowers, Anne of Green Gables) simply makes me a kid again, for a couple of days — staying up late to finish because I can’t bear to stop, then grabbing the next one in the series to keep going.
    I remember reading LOTR aloud to my daughter, when she was about the same age as your son. It was a glorious shared experience, and she saw/heard me choke up at various points, which I think is also important for young readers to know about.

    • Yes, it’s also good to still feel that excitement of childhood once more! It doesn’t completely fade, as long as we remain open in our hearts.

  9. I lean toward Nicole’s comment above. I am a better reader for sure now that I am older. But there is an ability to get lost in a book that is harder and harder as the years pass and I know more about how the world really works. If I read a children’s classic from a certain era now as an adult, I am more attuned to the racism or classism or sexism or whatever that may be present and I wouldn’t have noticed it as a child. But as Lizzie points out, some childhood reads are so great, they can put us back in that wonderful feeling of being a child and enveloped in a story.

    • I think it is harder to just get lost in the world of the story. This allows us to bring more to the book, but can also present obstacles. But at times a wonderful storyteller can just sweep us away.

  10. This is a great question! I don’t think I have changed much as a reader from childhood til now as a “reader of a certain age.” 🙂 As a kid, I loved acting out the characters and their world. I think reading drew me in the first place, because this is where I exercised my imagination of bringing all my senses of their world into mine–what they ate, how they dressed, what their homes and clothes looked like and so on. Fittingly, it seems, when I developed an interest in theater and all of that creative play proved helpful.

    Now, though, I don’t act things out in my living room, but I am still so interested in all the aspects of the lives of the characters I read and hope for that same experience of visual and sensual imagination and have the expectation that the writers will take me there.

    • You remind me of how I used to act out books as well, a practice that has certainly faded with time. But it also reminds me of how Robertson Davies insists that in reading plays we can and should “stage” them in our heads, and maybe with fiction one can do the same — it would have an enlivening effect on our imaginations, even if we don’t physically go through the motions as in childhood.

  11. I’m an infinitely better reader, more critical and more open-minded (simultaneously, somehow), than I was even a year ago, let alone as a child. I’ve finally shed my tendency to re-read old favourites over and over again, making me far more adventurous and it’s been wonderful. What I miss is the long stretches of time to read for fun as a kid – I would think nothing of spending a whole Saturday devouring book after book after book, and (naturally) grown-up life doesn’t allow for that. Maybe those times will come back around in my old age, completing the circle. But ah well, win some, lose some, it all comes out in the wash!

    • I think it is possible to be simultaneously critical and open-minded, and that is what can make the reading experience more satisfying. One needs to be always discovering new things and to cultivate that sense of adventure. But yes, the time to read is so often lacking! I don’t know how those people who do all these read-a-thons manage it.

  12. It has lost some of the magic, I suppose, in that reading (fantasy mostly) is very different – there’s wonder there still but it’s not quite the same – but the positives vastly out-way negatives. When younger the enjoyment was limited to when I was reading it – the experience ended on the last page. Now, blogging or not, it continues.

    • For me I wouldn’t say the enjoyment ended on the last page when I finished reading a book as a child. The world came to life and I could inhabit it even when not reading. However, it was more external — it was something outside of myself. Now, the enjoyment that lives on is more my own possession, it’s more internal — if that makes any sense.

  13. I think I am in that stage of being nostalgic for my childhood reading. I read a lot more than when I was younger, but I sometimes think I haven’t gotten any better at choosing books I can fall in love with – or perhaps those are just harder to find in general. I often feel I’m chasing that experience of reading something as incredible and enrapturing as the books I read when I was 12. I can relate to your comment on The Lord of the Rings, though. I couldn’t appreciate the book when I was in grade school. I read it through for the first time when I was 20 and have read it through many times since, which each reread being a fresh experience.

    • I know what you mean about chasing that “enraptured” experience. It’s rarer now, and I often feel I’m going through a ream of books and discarding them with varying degrees of disappointment. However, the quest still goes on.

      Somebody defined a classic as a book you can read many times with each time being a new experience. I think that’s a good way to put it.

  14. I actually feel that I’m a less discerning reader now than I was in my twenties. I blame it on being a mom with a full time job and less energy in the first place. So I read pretty much for escapism. I fully expect (maybe foolishly) that I will come back to more focused reading at a later stage in my life. I do certainly still read as voraciously as when I was younger–twice in the last week I finished a book in one sitting, which is my favorite way to read a book.

    The exception is reading aloud, whether to my kids or my classes. That slowing down (and in the case of my classes, often reading the same passages more than once in a day) really lets me appreciate all the author is doing. I didn’t care much for Rick Riordan before my daughter asked me to read Percy Jackson to her. I didn’t notice the poetry of Orbiting Jupiter until I read it to a class. I didn’t cry at the end of The Crossover until I read it aloud.

    Very interesting discussion!

    • Reading aloud can be a revelation! There are definitely things you notice that way that don’t come out with silent reading. It’s an underappreciated and underpracticed art, I believe.

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