From what I remember, being a teenager was being in a constant state of change and anxiety. Existentialism weighed heavy – even though I didn’t yet know what name to give that feeling. If you know a teenager, or are indeed one yourself, this won’t be much of a surprise.
Obviously, some teens emerge from teen-dom unscathed, skipping merrily into their twenties with nary an acne-riddled memory in common with their not-so-hormonally blessed counterparts. Good for them; we’ll meet them at the twenty-year high school reunion and until then reserve judgment.
I have compiled this reading list for the other category of teen; the kind who needs outsider confirmation as well as affirmation of their innermost misanthropic worldview. I’m not saying that all these books are relatable to the teen experience, in fact, very few of them deal with anything remotely teenage, but respectively, I think each of the following titles say something important about the human condition. All offer unique insights and contextualise the concepts of longing, passion and despair in a way that might just set off a powerful chain of thought in the teenage reader; harnessing possible negative thought patterns and channelling them into critical thinking. Because ultimately it’s what you do with the thoughts and feelings that count, isn’t it?
If you happen to be one of those happy-go-lucky teenagers I mentioned earlier and fancy giving these books a whirl, your life is your own, knock yourself out! There is plenty of sex in some of them, and to make things easier I will hereto mark the most gratuitous of them with an asterisk (or two), if they are particularly racy.
20. *Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis
Whatever thoughts you’ve had can’t be as bad as what the teenagers in this debut novel actually get up to.
19. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
A posthumously published picaresque ode to disenchantment and adult failure. This is a truly brutal assessment of the life of a weirdo.
18. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
Suggested year 13 reading for a reason. A roman-à-clef portraying the protagonist’s descent into mental illness. Bold, yet subtle, and way ahead of its time.
17. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Don’t be dissuaded by the sheer density of this book; I know I was for years, mistakenly thinking that Russian authors were too wordy and impenetrable. A simple word structure belies the true complexity of themes such as anihilism, alienation and justice.
Social commentary and revolutionary manifesto of the beat generation.
The high highs and the low lows of trying to score in New York. Is there a modicum of shame or guilt running through these characters? Questionable, but there is a whole lot of drugs.
Another roman-à-clef; chasing the American dream across America in a drug-fuelled haze. This one might make you want to consider Gonzo journalism as a career option. Resist that urge.
Based on Kerouac’s travels across America and considered to be one of the defining novels of the beat generation.
Bukowski’s first and finest work.
Chasing the American dream, and finding it lacking, Harry “Rabbit’ Angstrom is one of the most thought provoking characters in modern American literature.
A short story that takes place at an alcohol rehabilitation centre and meditates on the oftentimes cathartic process of storytelling.
College friendships become sordid and obsessive, a terrible crime is committed, but who can be held accountable when anything among this group of bookish eccentrics seems infinitely permissible?
For forty years Professor Nathan Zuckerman has hidden a secret of such magnitude that it has completely altered the course of his life. This novel explores the duality of public and private life with deft realism as well as a poetic turn of phrase.
Exploring the concepts of misinterpretation as well as innocence and naivety, eight year old Briony makes a choice that is to have devastating consequences.
With the first lines being: When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous vermin…; you can’t say that’s not at least a little intriguing.
The friendships formed in this dystopian universe, where people are cultivated solely to be used for replacement body parts, run deep as well as shallow and expose the frailties and ineffectiveness of a lot of human communication.
How could any Top 20 not have this gloriously obscene book listed? Go and read the book, because the first rule is: we’re not allowed to talk about Fight Club…
A nihilistic little tale of a fatalistic little man.
A totalitarian society ruled by Big Brother, with thought crimes punishable by forced exile into the infamous Room 101. 1984 reads like a contemporary dystopian novel, remaining fresh and exciting some sixty years after first being published.
Lolita would arguably still be the greatest book of all time, even if one were only to read the first magnificent chapter. Vladimir Nabokov tells the tale of a middle-aged man, his sick desire and mad passion for a twelve year old girl with such alarming detail and warped clarity that it is at once heartbreaking and creepily disconcerting all in the same paragraph.