The only thing I like more than consuming media is irreparably spoiling it for myself by overthinking.
With this in mind, I’m embarking upon a new challenge, what with my recent thoughts about nostalgia and taking novels too personally: I’m going to read the books I loved most as a teenager and see how my perceptions of them are altered by reading them as an adult. This is potentially due to the quarter life crisis that’s brewing within me (and won’t that be fun when the wave eventually breaks?).
These can’t just be books I really liked, or even loved – Harry Potter isn’t allowed in, for example – the criteria are a bit narrower than that:
- The book needs to have ‘changed’ or shaped my teenage brain in some way. I need to have credited, either at the time or retrospectively, the novel with changing the way I felt or thought significantly. Bonus points if I thought it was “like, so deep” and quoted it on my MySpace profile.
- The book needs to be ‘cool’. The books that change your life as a teenager are usually countercultural or in some way ‘edgy’ or other. It’s important for this project that the book is something that I thought was incredibly cool as a teenager that I might find naff or pretentious now.
- The book needs to be something I actually liked. Not something I pretended to like to score cool points before I grew up and became a hateful contrarian, like On the Road.
With these qualifications laid out, I’ve settled on six books to start with, which I’ve arranged in the order that I initially read them (as far as I can remember):
- The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger – Mercifully short, if nothing else. The prototypical edgy teenager book, I read it when I was about twelve and didn’t get it at all, then reread at fourteen and fell in sweaty teenage love with it. I don’t remember too much, except for that the line “it is history, it is poetry” was my favourite thing ever, and I’m sort of excited to rediscover the context of that quote beyond my hazy rememberings.
- Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl – Potentially the least ‘cult’ of any of the books on this list, this novel never gained the popularity or edgy teen status of the other titles. I remember being blown away by it as a fifteen year old, I remember where I was and what I was wearing when I finished it. I loved Pessl’s recent novel Night Film, so I’m excited to go back and see what all the fuss was about.
- Adverbs, Daniel Handler – This is my favourite on the list by miles. I can’t actually remember my age when I read this, only that I’d always been a huge fan of Handler’s work as Lemony Snicket, and that this book absolutely changed me. The prose was complicated and beautiful and frustrating, the characters were difficult and the plotlines were so tangled and dark and sad and funny. This is the book that makes me want to be a better writer. Handler’s other books for adults worked for me too, but never as hard as this.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky – I was instructed to read this when I was fifteen by a well-read friend. I remember liking it because it referenced Rocky Horror and The Smiths, two of my passions both then and now. The film came out fairly recently so I think I know that I still like it, but the text will be the decider.
- The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides – I read this book in the summer between GCSE and A Level, which was the gap between my being a maybe slightly pretentious bookworm and a bukowski reading, bourbon chugging edgelord. I loved the way this book spoke non judgementally about suicide and acknowledged the legitimacy of teenage feelings, although we’ll see if this holds up as an adult. The movie is incredible, as I remember, and I haven’t seen it in a few years, so I may watch that as well.
- Invisible Monsters, Chuck Palahniuk – It was hard to choose which of Palahniuk’s books to use, because he was my absolute favourite when I was about sixteen. I loved Fight Club (which I might do as a bonus book because I feel like I would hate it now), I loved Haunted, which I recently reread and enjoyed. I loved Lullaby and Survivor and pretty much anything he churned out for a couple of years, but this is the one that started it all. Invisible Monsters was the most quotable, edgy, exciting thing I’d ever read, and the ideas in it about constructing identity gripped me hard. This one will be tough, because I loved it so much, but I think I’ll have problems with its gender politics as an adult.
So that’s my list! I’m going to get started on Catcher tonight, and I’m really excited to do so. I’m obviously hoping it’ll be funny to see the differences between my opinions now and then, and to see my own personal growth, but I do also sincerely want to engage in a sort of dialogue with my teenage self, and maybe find just a bit of that real excitement and passion for reading that I had then. Ideas are never as incendiary as an adult as they are in your adolescence, but as someone uncomfortably straddling the border between my early and mid twenties, it’d be great to feel just one fraction of the energy and excitement that reading these novels the first time over created in me. If you want to join in, or want to do/have already done a similar project, let me know – it’d be great to hear from you.