This list of my favourite books from my teenage years is inspired by Kate Forsyth, who celebrated her 50th birthday by writing a list of 50 writers who shaped her. In case you missed it, my first post in this series was my Top 10 Childhood Books.
My early teens are characterised by the trashiest reading I’ve ever done in my life, when I consumed the first fifty or so Sweet Valley High novels in three weeks. I was obsessed with Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. So pretty! So well-groomed! So American! And they had BOYS at their school (I did not). I read on the bus on the way to school and home again, and then in the evening after dinner and homework were dusted off. I chomped through two books a day and no part of my brain said, Gosh these are saccharine and formulaic, which I find hard to understand looking back but I blame the hormones surging through my body.
My childhood interest in science-fiction continued in my teens, with John Christopher’s The Tripods standing out as particularly imaginative and scary (enslaved by aliens!), as well as perhaps being the first science-fiction I read set in a post-technological society; something which has become of particular interest to me as it is the time-setting for Monkey See. I re-read The Tripods trilogy as an adult and still enjoyed it just as much.
In my mid-teens I moved from YA (Young Adult) science-fiction into classic dystopian novels for adults, including Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This turned out to be a book which didn’t bear the weight of a re-reading but it was the first satirical novel I read and at fifteen it struck me as brilliant piece of commentary; inventive, witty and prophetic.
Of all the books I studied in high school, perhaps the one that made the biggest impression on me was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. As a teenager I was just becoming switched onto ideas of justice and prejudice and it tapped right into my developing thoughts about race and poverty and misconceptions.
At seventeen I became obsessed with the novels of Czech writer Milan Kundera, especially The Unbearable Lightness of Being. His books are exactly the kind of books I loathe now, with next to no plot, and lots of pompous philosophical pontificating but at the time I thought they were oh-so-profound, especially in their insights about romantic relationships, in which I was criminally inexperienced. I think almost every friend I had received this as a gift from me for their eighteenth birthday (sorry, guys!).
The year I graduated from high school, my mum gave me Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar for Christmas. Oh, the biting wit and scrumptious calculated prose! And the angst! I probably didn’t even know the word angst then, but that didn’t stop me from having it, and I can’t even begin to describe all the ways this book spoke to it. Plath wrote things I thought no one else in the world I had felt. Whenever I’m asked, if you could meet any writer, living or dead…Plath is one who springs to mind.
The whole disaffected youth theme was obviously calling my name stridently at the time because I was similarly taken with JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The cynical voice of Holden Caulfield was music to my ears and I remember parts of it in vivid detail. I think of it still when something in my life comes to an end and I take a moment to ‘get a goodbye’.
I first read F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a school English text at sixteen and confidently wrote it off as a ‘silly book about nothing’. How lucky that three years later I had a chance to revisit it when I studied twentieth century American literature at university, and this time I loved it. I tried a few other things by Fitzgerald but none of them affected me the way poor old Daisy Buchanan did.
Before I studied American literature I found a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden in a second-hand bookshop. I don’t remember now what made me pick it up but it was the story of writing and marriage and madness – three things which are all of great interest to me now. It is light on bullfighting and other cruel and gory sports and heavy on relationships, food and wine and remote parts of northern Europe. I have since re-read it many many times and love it still.
In my second year at university I took a creative writing unit with Brenda Walker. I was writing terrible overwrought short stories about the horrors of unrequited crushes and so forth and Brenda directed me to Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach as a ‘less is more’ model. And what a model! I read everything she’d written to date and I’m still reading her now.
I hope you enjoyed this little trip down memory lane with me. My next list will be the books I loved in my twenties, which I’m quite sure I won’t be able to narrow down to 10! In the meantime, I really hope you’ll share your favourite teenage books in the comments.