My niece is an avid reader, to her credit. While I don’t have much voice in her life, I still consider her, her age, her place in her life. And then I transport back to my own time at that age, and I wanted so much to read something, anything, that would give me answers about how to understand this world.
There are books out there that can tell stories that young people need to hear, and tell them in a way that they will want to keep reading. Some of them are obvious, some less obvious. There are some books that just scream for a young reader. The age group I am thinking of is about 13 up to about 23.
When I worked at a library in my high school years, I used to look at words and names like Solzhenitsyn, Cheever, Homer, Thoreau and Dostoevsky and I knew that somewhere in those writers was something I needed, but the task seemed so enormous. There was the distractions of school, work and social life as well, the job was too big, I needed a guide.
I was intrigued by Great Books programs and longed to embark there, but the ones speaking into my ears at that time of my life painted a picture of reading as a hobby, not as something of great value. Pity I believed that.
I have been collecting things that I have been reading that I would like to give to my own daughters, books that have spoken to me, helped me to understand a thing or two, or just made me think, or helped me feel less isolated in a hard time, or that I just liked because they were very good stories.
Here are the books I have come up with so far, by no means is this list complete, or in order. I hope that if you read this, you will leave in the comments a book you read in your younger years that spoke volumes to you.
Harper Lee, herself.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This one is painfully obvious. I am not sure if I can put into words why it is so necessary, I think its the characters, but also what happens. Doesn’t every young person need to know Atticus Finch is out there?
East of Eden by John Steinbeck. This is an epic story that completely pulled me in, I couldn’t wait to read it daily. I loved the people in this book. The story of life it tells is a good one for a young person.
Fences by August Wilson. I just read this this summer. It was a short fast easy read, and completely for the younger set. Family, generation gaps, what real love looks like, culture, virtue and reality, it’s all here.
Pretty much anything by JD Salinger. This author’s characters and stories are ones that I still consider today to be who I grew up with.
The Stranger by Albert Camus. I am not sure I entirely understood this book when I read it in my teen years, but I remember inhaling it and being somewhat awestruck by the main character. I guess it resonated with the contrariness that I was in those years. And it maybe initiated an interest in philosophical ideas.
Babbit by Sinclair Lewis. I found in Babbit an utterly despicable and at the same time ordinary character. I found in him all that fatigued me about the suburban growing up. His character resonated with me as I demolished him while I was reading and traveling.
Autobiography of Rigoberta Menchu. I read this at 17 at the Evergreen State College. At the time my world was so small that a real person of her experience was an education for me. It was a sort of book that opened up the world for me and asked “Who will you be?”
The Thousand and One Nights. This initially appealed to me because it was so mysterious. And when I read it, I could hardly believe what I was reading. The stories were armchair traveling, and it was grand. Now I refer to it as a cultural reference to the Middle East, and am so glad I read it.
The Adventures of Augie March & Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow. I read this in London when I was about 26 but I would recommend it to a younger crew, 18 to early 20’s. It is a picaresque novel and has coming of age elements. I loved the main character for his adventures, and for who he was. I wanted to see what he would do next. It had another story to tell, one that wanted to hear.
Searching for God Knows What and Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. Trying to figure out what to believe when I was young was something that made me wonder if I was the only one who cared about this. His books tell a story about that spiritual searching in the vein of being a Christ follower, sort of. It helps that he is funny and he is my contemporary, but much of what he writes is just universal for American young people.
Ernest Hemingway The Movable Feast, The Old Man and the Sea and just about anything else. I absorbed Hemingway daily while in my first months in a small town in Russia. I became a familiar face at the English library (an AMAZING find) there in Cheboksary and begged for more Hemingway. I devoured him. His style of writing, his characters, his Paris, his voice, were an education. In my small dorm room, one wall with its wallpaper river scene with trees, and a floor that sounded sticky when you walked on it, cockroaches in my kitchen as I weathered a long winter of cultural adjustment in a place where the snow never stopped and it never got above -15 C I could communicate with only 3 to 5 people, I met Hemingway. And I will always be glad he helped me through that winter.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I am not sure what to say except that it is important to read this book because it tells a personal story but also a historical story. Malcolm is well-narrated and has an almost endlessly interesting perspective as well as experiences he tells about. He is a transformative character throughout the whole book. He is a picture of learning, even as he died, his whole way of understanding the world was changing.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A great American story, a classic that will not be work to get through.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. These are good books for younger readers, 11 years old to 15 I would imagine, but I think that I would enjoy them now too. They are smart, engaging, though I haven’t read enough of them to take away a message from them, except that they are fun to read. Plus they don’t really fit into the “classic” category, more like the “super fun to read” category.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. This is sort of a cultural literacy book. Plus it is just in itself a complete depiction of irony. I would love to read this at the same time with my kid, if life presented these sorts of opportunities. Naturally this would be for the older teen, younger 20 set.
Kurt Vonnegut. Does it matter which book? His books are so rich. Maybe I will go get one from the library now. I might not agree totally with the way he views the world, but appreciate his intelligence, creativity, insight etc. I hardly care that I disagree. Is that so wrong?
And here I leave off, I may come back and put in more works. I haven’t read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, The Giver or the Narnia books, but I can only believe the overwhelming majority of people who like them.
As I research more about the books themselves and the writers, I realize that these choices tell a little bit of a story of my own youth. Perhaps they are not the right choices for every youth, but they were the books that made me feel less isolated in those days. I see the contrarian that I was (am?). Maybe I shouldn’t give these books to my kids.
Hah. But truthfully, some of these books answer questions with more questions, rather than giving answers. I might offer a book or two that had some answers.
In that vein I would add The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis and The Shack. Both books that I refer to mentally repeatedly. And a book about Mother Teresa. And Shane Claiborne, because he is a very refreshing voice.
Gentle reader, what classics do you think young people should read? What did you read that changed you a little bit when you were young? What is a classic, formative in understanding this world? Leave me your recommended fiction (nonfiction?) that is more than your average good read…please?