Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Old ideas: stuff you discovered after you’d stopped being young

In The Observer, David Mitchell (see past clarifications) points out the essential redundancy of Michelin stars and restaurant ratings in general, which – since I’ve just completed my annual trawl of Bangkok’s toppermost eateries – feels like rather a low blow. And then he extends the argument to films and implicitly to all forms of criticism, which makes me feel as if I ought to pack this whole blog in and take up pottery. My pots would be very bad, but nobody would be able to say so, or if they did, their criticism would count for nothing.

But then he says something that strikes rather less viciously at the heart of my own intellectual existence, although it’s a bit rude about someone else’s:
People say that we tend to read the books that impress or move us most before the age of 25. Not because we read less in later life but because we get too sophisticated to be so easily awestruck. Once you've read Great Expectations, anything you subsequently read would have to be even better than Great Expectations to impress you to the same extent as Great Expectations did – it would have to compensate for your greater expectations as a result of having read Great Expectations. That’s asking a lot of Nick Hornby.
Which must annoy Nick Hornby, not least because amidst all the Top 10 lists that peppered High Fidelity, there wasn’t one of The Top 10 Records/Films/Books That I First Heard/Saw/Read After My 25th Birthday. And it’s certainly true in my case: the stuff that remains pretty much constant when people ask me “What’s your favourite...” (and yes, I’m such a social imbecile that that’s pretty much the only way people can draw me into conversations when they meet me) is mostly what I encountered in my teens, and a lot of it was already old by that time: Aretha Franklin and the Velvet Underground; Casablanca and A Bout de Souffle; Evelyn Waugh and TS Eliot. The things I discovered later often have a rather more floppy grasp on my affections, and drift in and out. Many of them, inevitably, have been created more recently (69 Love Songs, by The Magnetic Fields; Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen; The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro) but it’s worth noting that all of those are well over a decade old. Add to that selection the things that I’ve experienced only recently, even though they’d been under my nose all this time (Messiaen’s Turangalîla; Kurosawa’s Ikiru; The Great Gatsby) and it’s pretty clear that my critical tastebuds are ageing even more rapidly than the rest of me.

That’s as maybe, as we old farts say. What, if anything, entered your own aesthetic hit parade after your first quarter century was up? Or, if by some bizarre quirk of nature, someone under the age of 25 is actually reading this, where did I put my keys?


Vicus Scurra said...

As one of your younger readers, I would concur that as one is more impressionable when young then new discoveries are more vivid, and the realisation that literature, for example, can be THAT enjoyable is usually made before one gets too old. However, I do not retain great affection for many of the works I read in my youth - I will not be reading DH Lawrence or Hermann Hesse again, although I do intend to read Catch 22 a further 50 times or so. Somewhat ironically, having to read Great Expectations at school did encourage me to write; I composed a somewhat scathing essay about how tedious the whole process was, which got quite a high grade. I am happy that I can still be stirred by something that I read for the first (or even second time). I found Wodehouse only superficially funny in my teens, now I relish his use of language. I have no idea whether this comment is worthwhile, but you inspired me to write it, so if others call it drivel, I will shift the blame to you.

GreatSheElephant said...

This is the point of opera. To answer your question, most of Wagner. And as I approach 50 I'm only just getting to appreciate Parsifal as opposed to some of the entry level stuff.

I also didn't start getting modern art till I was in my 30s - Rothko for example.

I also appear to be a bit too old for your captcha feature - I'll be amazed if I can get this comment to appear.

GreatSheElephant said...

Also, nature, architecture. I wasn't interested in scenery or buildings in my early 20s - all I wanted to know was where topshop was.

I think this may apply to books and popular music but I'm not sure it holds elsewhere.

Timorous Beastie said...

Most the music on my favourites list would be from my first quarter century, but almost everything else would be from later because I didn't really come alive, culturally speaking, until I was 24 because until then I was working class and lived in a shithole in Central Scotland.

Art said...

I've wondered if I'll ever read a book that affects me as much as Crime and Punishment did when I was 17. I've actually never re-read it, mainly because my memory of it is so vivid I would hate for it to be supplanted. Also because being in Raskolnikov's head is uncomfortable.

Geoff said...

I can't be sophisticated because I'm always finding new (usually old) things to get excited about.

Recent examples: Todd Rundgren and Patrick Hamilton.

Tim F said...

I don't just accept the blame, Vicus, I take a bath in it.

Quite right, GSE. People who like Wagner in their teens are deeply suspect. Even Wagner himself should have been listening to JLS.

Has your taste in shitholes changed, TB?

I'd rather be in Raskolnikov's head, Art, than in the head of the old dear he hit with an axe.

Together, Geoff? Cool.

expat@large said...

What Art said.

And reading Pynchon at 17 can also jade one a tad early...

However, as you all your readers approach my venerable quota of years, they will find that everyday becomes an adventure in novelty: meeting new people who claim to be your relatives, reading new books that are on your shelf for some reason, opening another pack of Depends...

Steerforth said...

I with you on Festen, Turangalila and The Unconsoled. I had a mispent youth, so most of my favourite books - Lolita, A Handful of Dust etc - were read after the age of 25. But as far as music goes, my list hasn't changed much since 18.

Indeed, in the unlikely event that I ever appear on Desert Island Discs, I think seven out of eight records would be from my teens - Sibelius's 6th Symphony, Brahms' Requiem etc.

Sometimes it feels as if that was the real me, and a process of erosion has rounded the edges.