Earlier this week, writer Matthue Roth published My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs , a collection of Kafka stories re-told for children. This is a brilliant idea, since anyone exposed to Kafka at a young age is likely to grow up stranger and better — even if it’s only a form of Kafka. Here at the Flavorwire office, the book sparked a few conversations about age-appropriate reading, and more than one story about a great book read too early. Some of us still have the scars. After the jump, check out the literary regrets of a selection of staffers who read the classics much too early, and then let us know which non-age-appropriate read still haunts you in the comments.
I read Of Mice and Men sometime very early in elementary school. I picked it up off a bookshelf in our house one summer: It was a thin paperback, and had “mice” in the title. Of course it’s child appropriate! I just remember crying so hard when Lennie killed the puppy (oops, spoiler alert?), and then thinking, “Well, that’s certainly as bad and sad as this book can get.” No, no it’s not. — Leah Taylor, Flavorpill Group Managing Editor
When I was ten I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles because I overheard my librarian calling it “racy. Very sexy stuff.” Keep in mind, the librarian in question was actually a nun (Sister Margaret, for the win) and probably older than Methuselah. Let me tell you, I read and I read and I re-read those early “romance” chapters and found nothing. Zilch. Zip. I promptly cast it aside in irritation — I felt cheated. It wasn’t until I had to re-read it in high school that I found the “sexy stuff” in question, which was (a) two ambiguous lines that end with an ellipses and a flash-forward and (b) a rape. Definitely didn’t see that coming when I was ten. — Lillian Ruiz, Social Media Director
Inspired by Asterix, I tried to read The Iliad when I was about seven and found Homer’s prose pretty heavy going. (I also attempted Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars with similar results.) On a less highbrow note, I discovered Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus on my parents’ bookshelf when I was in my early teens and found it very, um, illuminating. — Tom Hawking, Music Editor
I found The Joy of Sex 2 in the basement when I was around ten. While the book or the fact that my parents owned it (and had already discarded it, evidently) didn’t bother me (I’m European after all), I thought that it was strange that you would need instructions, names for positions, and very clinical drawings to “enjoy” something. I also wondered where Part 1 was. I asked my mom about it years later and she said that it had been a wedding gift. — Christina Doehmer, Director of Ad Operations
Invisible Man is a brilliant, penetrating, thoughtful piece of social-commentary-as-fiction. And as a freshman in high school, I didn’t know what the hell to make of it. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure the problem was that I kept waiting for the scene where he drank the potion that made him invisible, or wrapped himself in gauze so that he could be seen. I’M VERY LITERAL WHEN IT COMES TO TITLES. — Jason Bailey, Film Editor
I read Naked Lunch sometime during my freshman year of high school, when I was 13. It’s not like I was an innocent, young flower or had no idea what I was getting into — I picked it up as the logical next step in a short-lived obsession with Beat writers that kicked off with Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and there’s no denying that I sincerely wanted to read a notorious book about heroin. (It would still be a year or two before I’d be disappointed by On the Road.) But I was doubly out of my league with Burroughs’ novel, overwhelmed by both its experimental structure and its constant references to and meditations on being a junkie and addiction in general, which were so bleak and perverse they made Trainspotting look like Disney. Not only was I not equipped to process its insights, but I literally did not know what was happening in the book.
Postscript: I returned to Naked Lunch about a decade later, and I’m happy to report that it’s one of the few entries in the Beat canon that actually rewards rereading as an adult. — Judy Berman, Flavorwire Editor-in-Chief
I read Crime and Punishment when I was 11. It was mis-shelved in the YA section (or whatever passed for the YA section then). I grew up in a conservative Christian household and was enthralled with the moral questions it posed, and I think it was the first book I ever read that really provoked me in a good way. (Much to my mom’s chagrin, this sort of reading is what made me ultimately reject a lot of what I was raised to believe.) But I didn’t understand all of the nuances. I tried to read The Brothers Karamazov right after and it was too much. — Elizabeth Spiers, Editorial Director
I read The Lovely Bones when I was ten or 11. I don’t remember being at all fazed by it when I was reading it, but looking back on it, ten is a bit young to be reading about rape and murder. I do remember my mom picking up the book after I had finished, reading the first couple chapters, and very delicately trying to figure out if I really understood what those first chapters were about. — Danielle Brock, Event Director
When I was rummaging through our basement, I found my mother’s very old paperback copy of Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask . Needless to say, the weird combination of both liberal and conservative attitudes about sex (it was published in 1969, so they were still figuring it all out, I guess) was quite alarming. Especially the chapter about homosexuality, which described gay bars as places full of “feminine whispers, the high-pitched laughter, the soft sighs” (because all of the women in those places are actually men!) and included casual turns of phrase like “determined assault by the homosexual penis” and “the most common masturbatory object for this purpose is a melon.” Fucking terrifying. — Tyler Coates, Deputy Editor
I think I read Great Expectations when I was about ten. Older kids kept dropping the word “misandry” when I asked them why Miss Havisham was so angry all the time, and I had no idea what they meant. — Reid Singer, Art Editor
I remember reading The Sun Also Rises as a very young man and being a bit confused by the early reference to him meeting a “poule” and was confused by the term, thinking it was a cute reference to a girl (no Google at the time to look such things up). Only to find out later that it meant prostitute. Kind of changed my view on the story, Jake/Ernest, and what was really going on…. Fishing, bullfighting, and even drinking were easier to get my head around at that age.
I read Naked Lunch in college, and it was still damaging to the psyche. I’ve only met one other person who actually finished the whole book. Interestingly though, I recommend finishing it as, through all the mayhem and destruction, it elegantly loops back and finds a cohesive whole. Albeit disturbing. — Mark Mangan, CPO & Co-Founder
I read Youth In Revolt when I was eight or nine because I wanted my sister to think I was cool, but I was definitely a few years away from getting any of the jokes, so obviously this had the total opposite effect. Nothing is less cool than asking your crazy sister to explain jokes about puberty because you’re too young to understand why that might be weird. Nothing. Even when it later became my favorite book, in her eyes it was too late for me.” — Dan Knishkowy, Social Media Apprentice
I read Gilead when I was 17, and nobody warned me against it because nobody knew what it was. It was a time when I had thought Iowa bordered Montana, before I knew the Iowa’s Writers Workshop existed. Back then, I was nowhere near ready to accept that God had created man not out of morality, but out of an aesthetic pleasure, and unconditional forgiveness was a response to beauty, not moral uprightness. It positioned God as an artist instead of a grand judge, and this was just too racy for me to accept. I was also too young to read a five-page passage about hanging laundry. — Geoff Mak, Designer
My grandfather bought me this pile of modern classic type paperbacks when I was nine. I think he wanted me to have them for when I was in high school or something, but I became so obsessed with the cover for Moby-Dick on the shelf that I felt like I had to read it. I’m pretty sure I got past “Call me Ishmael” when I realized I was in over my head, but I was so into the cover that I felt like I had to read it. For some reason I carried the book around with me for the next few months like how some kids can’t let go of a blanket or a teddy bear. I think I was trying to prove to all the adults that told me it wasn’t a book for kids that I could read it — even though I wasn’t actually reading it.
A few years later we were assigned it in school and I told everybody that I’d read it already, but I wouldn’t mind reading it again… — Jason Diamond, Managing Editor, Flavorpill NYC
When I received my “adult” library card, I immediately went to the Henry Miller section. Previously, my mom told me she read several of his books too young. The library also housed a few of his titles in a “special” section, which enticed me further. The sex in Tropic of Cancer was humorous and frightening. I love to be scared. To preserve the memory of that time, I’ve avoided rereading some of his work, but I wish I could remember more than his absurd use of the C-word. — Alison Nastasi, Weekend Editor
There’s this book Born Blue that might have actually been targeted at me as a young adult novel… can’t remember. I was probably about 12, and it was pretty scarring. It was all about poverty and rape and pregnancy and drugs and overdosing and lots of bleeding all over the place. Definitely a page turner. Really depressing, though, start to finish. — Ariana Mygatt, Assistant to the CEO / Social Impact Apprentice
My experience is definitely not as scarring as many of these — it’s much more something I wish I’d been introduced to later. My eighth-grade English teacher, who always tried to give us challenging work, assigned us Siddhartha before we graduated. Considering all the self-exploration of your early teens, the book about the young Buddha’s road to Nirvana should’ve been completely perfect. Nevertheless, as a 14-year-old, I was bored and turned off, dismissing it as pretentious and irrelevant to my life. I didn’t hate it — I just didn’t care. I’ve frequently heard it really is wonderful, but I haven’t tried to read it since, and I think maybe I’d appreciate it more now that I’m not a teenager. — Sarah Fonder, Editorial Apprentice
I read Stephen Kings’ Pet Sematary while in the fourth grade. It still haunts me to this day. I’ll occasionally have a nightmare with vivid images of my long-since-dead pet cat, Harry, coming back to life. — Ben Fowler, Junior Accountant/Human Resources
Dispatches by Michael Herr, when I was 11 or so. Yeah, that was a mistake. I was really into war history at the time, but this book (about the Vietnam War) is way too visceral for kids who are into army stuff. And all the ’60s slang really confused me.
But I’ve since reread it several times, and as an adult, it’s one of my favorite nonfiction books. Herr was a New Journalism reporter and also screenwriter for the films Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. His writing is incredibly powerful and insightful. — William Clark, Developer
I had a somewhat confusing experience with The Joy of Sex when I was about 11 — particularly with regards to a passage that extolled the virtues of braiding your partner’s pubic hair. More to the point, I tried reading A Clockwork Orange around that age (oranges! cuckoo clocks?) and was probably less traumatized than I should have been. Nadsat: it’s child lock for books. — Emily Temple, Literary Editor