The piece I came across last week, Your Favorites: 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels, was an in-depth example of such insight. Insight into how American popular opinion these days seems to be sorely lacking in depth. I’ll start off with some grown-up bias here; how could there even be a list of 100 (and presumably more) novels for teenagers that grown-ups find themselves enamored with? While the quality of most new American adult literature is pretty weak (with a few notable exceptions), there is no shortage of great American literature from the past, and there are plenty of contemporary authors around the world today still producing excellent work.
But OK, for argument’s sake, I’ll agree that there is some literature written for a younger audience that can be more fully appreciated when reread as an adult. Madeline L’Engle’s books, for one example, which I remember being fascinated by when I was younger, in spite of my dislike for the fantasy and science fiction genres. There’s something undeniable and eternal about truly great writing, and I think I could probably get more out of A Ring Of Endless Light, #61 on the NPR list, if I gave it another reading now. That’s about the only book I could say that for from the entire list.
Since my ambitious mother cleared most “youth reading” from my routine before I entered my teenage years, I’ve never even heard of 72 of these, and several of the ones I’ve heard of (like the Twilight series) is more due to their contemporary popularity. But it struck me as really surprising to find a series on this list chosen by adults (and one such as Twilight no less). You never know, there could be the occasional series or trilogy that actually has depth and substance to it that would make for an enriching adult literary experience too, like The Lord Of The Rings, listed at #7 here.
BUT FORTY DIFFERENT SERIES/TRILOGY COLLECTIONS? I’m sorry, but it’s pretty pathetic when The Princess Diaries books make it into the top 50 on a list like this. I’ve not read the series myself, so maybe it’s not completely fair of me to criticize, but I think I’m justified in being appalled when my broader age group (I’m 27) so highly rates a set of books described as being for ages 12 and up.But OK, maybe I shouldn’t expect much from the last 90 books on the list. Maybe it’s the top 10 that indicate a continuing youthful level of fascination and curiosity, while affirming that these are mature, adult picks. Not a chance. I’m going to run down the top 10 one-by-one; I can only get through a few with a straight face:
1. Harry Potter series
The top-billing by the best-selling book series in history did not surprise me. It didn’t make me feel any better either. My little brother LOVED the Harry Potter books when they came out, and while I avoided them for years, I finally read the first one after the movie version hit theaters in 2001; I feel no shame in admitting that I thought the movie was pretty fun. This was one of the few times in my life that I found the movie better than the book. So many adults rave about the book, and I’ve never been able to get it. It’s A KID’S book for chrissakes, written in language specifically intended to stimulate and dazzle the imaginations of children. Reading the book felt like the literary equivalent of being one of the miscreants in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory (Roald Dahl’s classic will always be superior to anything that JK Rowling churned out.)
3. To Kill A Mockingbird
I read this as part of the school curriculum, twice, and while I never loved it, I can agree that it was well-written, had important themes and ideas, and that both kids and adults would do well to read it at least once, if not multiple times. It didn’t connect with me, but here’s a pick I can at least respect.
5. The Hobbit
Someone got this for me when I was 10, but I couldn’t bring myself to read it. Fantasy, especially in the complex telling of Tolkien, has really never been my thing. But from my conversations with others who are Tolkien fans and/or have read the books, I can appreciate that here too is another example of literature that I may never have been able to connect with, but there is actual depth and substance to be found. For those who are fans of the fantasy genre, this would be a rare example that can actually expand a reader’s perspective and make him/her think.
6. The Catcher In The Rye
I read this as part of my high school curriculum (who hasn’t?) and it’s still one of the best examples of teenage angst and ennui that I’ve come across in literature. I would normally balk at seeing this on a top 10 list chosen by adult readers though. You’d think that by adulthood one should have progressed past teenage ennui to its mature adult form, of accepting the world for what it is but still not giving up on, maybe even striving to make things better in one way or another. But since this is a list chosen by American adults, I am less surprised. The level of national optimism and “don’t worry be happy” attitude can’t be approached anywhere else in the world, so maybe The Catcher In The Rye is a necessary wake-up call. And goodness knows America can use a wake-up call, and a reality check to boot.
7. The Lord Of The Rings
8. Fahrenheit 451
I HATED this book with a passion when forced to read it in the 8th grade. When Ray Bradbury died a few months ago, the first thing that came to mind was how much I hated this book of his. The writing and the premise were tiresome and uninteresting. Maybe during an earlier period in US history the ideas might have been daring, but my 13-year old self found the writing too labored to inspire me to care. Maybe it was my anti-science fiction bias. Still, to the extent that it at least has something to say, I’ll grant that this is by far one of the better books on the list. But for the life of me I can’t understand why my fellow adults would ever read it if they weren’t being forced to.
The Hunger Games came along too late for me (I don’t waste my time reading kid’s books when there are so much fascinating adult literature to explore), but I fully trust the judgment of my favorite person in the world. I also haven't read books 4, 9 or 10. So the only books on the top 10 of this list that I can even respect are the ones that our teachers selected for us in school for the express purpose of personal growth and literary advancement. Other than that, it’s escapist fantasy for adults who still seem to be stuck with #6’s Holden Caulfield in his disdain for the real world. The newer books that I haven’t read may be decent enough to have earned their places on this list, but I’m not Americanistically optimistic. If #8’s Guy Montag were to come along and set fire to most of the books on this top 100 list, I don’t think the world would be much the worse for it.