08 February 2007

13 books that changed my teenaged life

This meme is from A Shrewdness of Apes. It was a fascinating exercise in remembering books that I so loved and was amazed by when I was between the ages of 12 and 20. I grew up without a TV and read voraciously, so this was fun.

13 books that changed my teenage life (in what my hazy memory suggests may be chronological order):

1. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. These were the teen years, right? So it included the early teens when I raced through these great, plot-driven stories. I still think that Burroughs’ cliff hanging chapters were some of the most exciting I’ve read and I refuse to return to them to learn that his books were, in fact, not so great.

2. Various by Louis L’Amour. All forgettable, all gone through like a bag of potato chips on 4th of July weekend. For a few hours, I felt like the good guy.

3. Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I was so amazed that someone could so easily manipulate the craft of fiction writing and reach directly into a reader’s mind. Between about 15 and 18, Vonnegut was my hero.

4. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Now that I’m a business consultant, I realize that this is not just hilarious – it is the best book on organizational behavior I’ve yet read. A critic once told Heller, “You haven’t written anything as good since.” He quipped, “No one has.” He was right.

5. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Reading this made me feel oddly exhilarated, like I’d just been privy to an incredible performance that was put on for me as a private audience. It must have been how kings felt when people like Bach performed just for them.

6. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa. A brilliant play on stories within stories that put two wildly improbable worlds into a collision course. It wasn’t just a great excuse for wonderful story telling; it was a tour de force in fiction writing.

7. Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. Preceded hypertext by about 20 years. This was an amazing book that allowed the reader, at the end of each chapter, to “hop” to a different chapter in order to follow different story lines. I felt like a participant in creating the story.

8. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Made me realize two things. One, books that everyone seemed to think were amazing could, indeed, be amazing. Two, a person could create fiction that transported the reader from places that seemed so ordinary. (I grew up in Northern California and wouldn’t have believed at the time that it could be a source of great fiction.)

9. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This book actually made me think that I understood what it was like to be black. Now that's a work of fiction.

10. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I was left bedazzled by the way that Pynchon played with ideas and perhaps first realized, when reading this, that I was an idea junkie.

11. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. Science and fiction – not just science fiction. I got the sense that Asimov was actually trying out scientific ideas under the guise of telling a story. It changed how I thought one could use fiction.

12. Sosha by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The first half was transcendent. The second half was merely great. It made me feel like I knew something about romantic love (an illusion) and being Jewish during the horror of the holocaust (another illusion). At his best, Singer was an illusionist.
13. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. If Burroughs was one of the first authors I remember reading as a teen, Faulkner is one of the last. (What a lot of changes between 12 and 20, no?) This wasn’t just an amazing story. It was a lesson in how radically truth could change as one changed perspectives, which I suppose is the lesson of all great fiction.


Tisha! said...

oh Ron no TV, no wonder you are so cultivated! Now how can we get teens to read more, they are all stuck on their computers, TVs, mobile phones and iPods?

Vladimir Dzhuvinov said...

Teens don't have to read, they already know everything :)

Dave said...

I've never been able to appreciate Vonnegut, though I've tried. To your list I'd add The Old Man and the Sea and Look Homeward Angel. Heinlein was my L'Amour.

To stray from your point, the opening scene in the Grapes Of Wrath with Tom, the turtle and the Dustbowl has to be on list of all time best starts of a novel.

Ron Davison said...

It may well be that you started too late to appreciate Vonnegut. I remember a few years back trying one of his books and realizing that as much as I still admired him, my infatuation with his work was quite dependent age. If you haven't first read Vonnegut by, say, 22, you'll probably never become a fan.

Teens really do absorb gigabytes of information. Books force a person to reflect a bit more than the items you listed. It is a problem. Maybe we should just shut down the power grid for, say, 6 months and see what they're able to create.

Anonymous said...


My father-in-law just used his pocket knife. When he caught his kids watching TV when they were supposed to be doing something else, he would cut the plug off the cord.

However, my brother-in-laws all tell me they became experts at wiring a plug back onto the cord '-)

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

What a great list! I must say I am not so much enthralled with Vonnegut, but I do love ANYTHING Steinbeck.

And Heinein should be everyone's L'Amour.

Thanks for stopping by my place, Ron!

Ron Davison said...

ms. corneilius,

never entralled with Vonnegut? You must have never been a 15 year-old teen age boy.

That's an hilarious story that provides the kids with three lessons: the importance of priorities, wiring, and story-telling (You have to believe that they got some mileage out of that story.)