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.
14 thoughts on “Top 10 Books I Loved as a Teenager”
1. The Outsiders – SE Hinton
2. Watership Down – Richard Adams
3. House of Stairs – William Sleator (Compelling but quite lurid by today’s standards)
4. The Friends – Ruby Guy (beautiful)
5. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (of course)
6. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte (teenaged girls should be banned from reading The Brontes really. Such bad role models)
7. Tess of the Durbervilles – Thomas Hardy (see comment at item 6)
8. Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on my Eyeball – Paul Zindel (I loved Edna Shinglebox – her integrity and emotional courage.)
9. Diary of a Young Girl -Anne Frank
10. Summer of my German Soldier – Bette Greene
Ooh, great list. I can’t remember what age I was when I read Watership Down – maybe it was my late teens. But the film which I saw at five made a more lasting impression. At the end when Hazel’s soul flies up my cousin said really loud ‘why did his skin come off’?! I was crying so hard and then laughing.
Oh my gosh, Tess and Wuthering Heights! You were a sucker for dark romances.
I was also a big Paul Zindel fan – the titles were always so quirky and appealing.
Oooh, so many wonderful memories! I, too, loved Harper Lee’s magnificent To Kill a Mockingbird, Richard Adams’s Watership Down (I once argued with a teacher, suggesting rabbits were a law unto themselves), and The Lord of the Rings, by Tolkien. SE Hinton’s gritty The Outiders (and Rumble Fish), assorted short stories by Alan Sillitoe (generally grim, but they appealed to my fraught emotions), and The Stand, by Stephen King, because your first adult book should be huge (literally and figuratively). I also read The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough, Great Expectations, by Dickens (heartbreaking), and Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre by Emily and Charlotte Bronte (wow to both!). I remember a lot of amazing short stories that I loved, too, but the one that stands out is Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes (still makes me cry).
wow, you were getting into some hard-hitting stuff Maureen. Flowers for Algernon is the most heartbreaking short story of all time. I also read as a teen and found it devastating. A few people have mentioned The Outsiders and Watership Down. The Outsiders was too gritty for me. I was a very clean cut teenager!
The Once and Future King T.H. White
Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh
The Stranger Albert Camus
If On A Winter’ s Night A Traveller Italo Calvino,
Name of the Rose Umberto Eco,
Tess of the Durbervilles Thomas Hardy
1984 George Orwell
The Idiot Dostoyevsky
Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen
Chekov short stories
Hmmm.. When I look at that I wasn’t reading any contemporary stuff really except for the Italian post modernists. Such fond memories of teen reading and discovering Hardy and Henry James and Virginia Woolf – and wallowing in books all weekend.
Wow, you were into the hard stuff at a young age. I got a lot of books off my mum’s shelves and the nineteenth century novel was king there – it looks like it might have been the same in your world.
Yeah lot’s of heavy classics. We didn’t have many books at home so some were books older siblings had studied for school. Older sisters also thrust books upon me – like Catch 22 which I read several times. The good thing about growing up in the country and fairly ignorant of literature was that you tackled books indiscriminately. Like Calvino and Eco at 15 years old. One of the most formative books I read as a teen was Hayden Herrera’s biography of Frida Kahlo which I got for my 16th birthday.
I think it’s true – sometimes it’s great to just read whatever comes your way. You can be exposed to some good stuff that way, and without having your expectations set up too much.
I LOVED Kundera too, but not until my 20s – you are so much more advanced than me.
>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
This is exactly the kind of book I fear I will end up writing. At least maybe teenagers would love me?
Oh, yeah, I was a real sophisticate.
You are way too zany to write a book like that!
Gosh, I’m lucky to remember what I read last month, let alone 2-3 decades ago!!
Here’s what I do remember.
Everything by LM Montgomery. Especially the Anne with an e series.
Everything by John Wyndham. Especially The Day of the Triffids. This was my first taste of sci-fi and it melted my mind! I devoured every book of his in our school library.
Do you remember those appalling Flowers in the Attic books? *shudders*
I’m better at remembering what I read thirty years ago than what I read last month! Long term memory holding up great, short-term – not so much. I loved the Anee of Green Gables books. Have you been to Prince Edward island on one of your Canda trips? It sounds like such a magical place.
John Wyndham’s books were pretty cool. They’re almost unreadable now though because they’re so sexist. The women just make sandwiches and stuff and the men are so patronising to them.
Flowers in the Attic were the sickest books. I loved them, of course.
I still think Milan was bang on about the lightness of being. It’s the promised “drama” that he failed to really capture!
Like Katie, I’m astounded by the detailed memories on show here. I do remember being affected by Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the only Fruit. Nothing of the book remains, but the promise of magic realism changed my outlook permanently.
Get out of town! You feel unbearably light? I don’t believe a word of it. There certainly was an absence of drama though. I think he went on for about 50pages on hand-holding.
Winterson’s books captured my heart and mind absolutely, but I didn’t read them until my twenties. You were ahead of the curve!