Tuesday, January 20, 2015

“Authors and teenagers share the books that saved their life”

This list gets me reflecting.

The “authors” tend to cite the usual suspects — Judy Blume, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, etc. “Authors” are all older folk, of course, with respectable work they need taken seriously.

So it chuffs me greatly to read the entrants by actual living teens: The Fault In Our Stars, Twilight, Throne of Glass.

Now we’re talking!

Speaking as the father of two nearly-adult book-devouring daughters, I am here to inform you that the holy trifecta of Judy-J.D.-and-Harper represent the assigned bane of my daughters’ readerly existences. And brother, do I ever sympathize — the youngest of these books is over 45-years-old; the other two have passed the half-century mark. 

In other words, the protagonists of these books would all be older than the reader's parents. Yo, curriculum developers: it is time to move on.

I see there’s a chap who admires McCarthy’s The Road. It’s not a book I’ve any use for at present, but I could definitely see my teenage self digging it. Harrowing, fatalistic, over-the-top grim, yet determinedly affirmational despite it all — pretty much exactly what I dug about the Thomas Covenant books, back in the day.

Steven R. Donaldson’s fantasy double-trilogy (I see he’s gone to the well a third time — yikes) didn’t exactly “save my life,” but it did shepherd me into a lightly-informed existentialism I could wield into my 20s, where I finally encountered Paul Auster’s Moon Palace (which definitely had a “life-saving” resonance during that decade).

As a teen, the book that probably “saved my life” was The Long Walk by Richard Bachman.

Rather ironic, given how breezily I dismiss Stephen King in adulthood.

But let’s be clear: a) I didn’t know I was reading a Stephen King book; and b) if I had known, I would have read everything else on his shelf, because that is exactly what I wanted — what I needed — to read as a teen.

It’s impossible to say at this point, but I doubt anything else by King would have resonated quite so deeply as The Long Walk.

Walk’s protagonist was a year or two older than I was (17 maybe?), a sensitive, slightly-brooding sort, living in a dystopian world entirely indifferent to his existence — until he voluntarily enters a nationally-broadcast sporting event: a walking marathon, where the winner is the only survivor.

The contestants are all late-adolescent boys, who provoke, or occasionally help, each other as the walk proceeds. They talk without any self-censorship about everything that enters a boy’s head at that age, and at some point there are indicators that our protagonist has been beset with a wee bout of adolescent sexual confusion.

It doesn’t rate as the defining element of angst for our protagonist. Nor did it for me — depending on the day of the week. But seeing the subject raised and dealt-with as matter-of-factly (and profanely) as every other source of male adolescent angst in those pages suddenly reduced its status as Pre-eminent Threat To My Identity — which, at the time, felt like a real life-saver.

I haven’t reread the book, so I can’t say whether I’d recommend it to teens today. And reading is different for every kid of course. What do I know? Maybe most kids are still keen on Catcher In The Rye. If it bothers them enough, today’s teens will go on to retire Judy-J.D.-Harper in favour of voices a little more current. If not, then not.

How about you? Is there a book that saved your teenage life? And is there one you might recommend to save mine in my 50s?
Additional: now that I think of it, my father saved my teenage life when he gave me a Christian defence of Rock 'n' Roll music not a matter that even today's most pious teens seem especially troubled over. Vive le change!


Joel said...

A book that saved my life...I'm not sure I have anything that would fit that category. But then, my life was never dramatic enough to need any saving....The best I could do is perhaps books that opened up new areas of interest for me.

Regarding your other point about curriculum's, however....As someone who has to force march students through literature myself (albeit in an ESL setting), it has become very apparent to me that there's no such thing as a book everyone likes. Different books will appeal to different types of people, and the best I hope for now is that some of the students will really like the book. If some of the students really react positively to the book, I consider my job done.

I suppose it might be an open question as to whether students should ever be forced to read literature they don't like under any circumstances. (I have an high school teacher friend, a Canadian actually, who used to complain about how teaching T.S. Elliot to his high school class was just giving pearls to swine. And I thought, "Of course. You can't force someone through that stuff if they're not ready for it yet.")
Maybe students should just pick their own reading material, and report on it, rather than trying to have the whole class read the same book?
But, if you are going to try to have a set book for the class, I'm sympathetic to the idea that you would want that book to be a "classic". Reading a classic can give the students some sense of cultural literacy, which allows them to participate in a lot of conversations when they get older. So all that is to say I can understand why high school teachers are assigning Salinger instead of Twilight.

Darrell Reimer said...

"Saved my life" seems an overly-dramatic way to phrase things, especially since, during my bookstore days, we'd usually smirk at claims that "This book changed my life." Uh-huh. But for teens life is an overly-dramatic affair. At some point I threw out the various notebooks I'd used for confessional purposes -- oy, but the ennui and angst that percolated my adolescent brain!

You'd be a good guy to talk curriculum with, though. This business of Elliot, for example: I have to laugh, because I can't imagine him ever thinking, "This is gonna be on some kid's final exam!" as he penned The Wasteland. Not that authorial intention should ever preclude exposure. But what, exactly, do curriculum developers hope to achieve by foisting Elliot on kids who mangle a Katy Perry lyric when they sing to the radio? In an environment where the concept of cultural literacy is increasingly up for grabs, I have to wonder if a survey of Cliff's Notes -- people talking about cultural literacy, or summary vs. actual encounter -- isn't the most direct route toward the goal?

ironrailsironweights said...

I suppose an outdoor survival guide is the sort of book most likely to *literally* save one's life :)


Darrell Reimer said...

Yeah, an introduction to First Aid would be along the same lines.