“Teenagers shouldn’t read “great” literature because it’s good for them, but because it’s like them. ”
But teenagers – at least the teenagers I knew and know, and the teenager I happened to be – are not so world-weary. They’re still trying to figure out this place, this land, and to assimilate all the sensations that come with being a new sort of creature: suddenly not a child. When I started reading fiction like Kafka’s Metamorphosis (and who but a teenager is the perfect audience for Gregor’s alienation from his body and his family, waking up suddenly a bug?); or Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, with their subtle heartbreak and humour; or Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with its haunting amorality and self-torture – I finally felt understood: These writers became my closest friends, able to articulate life and feelings in ways I was needing to, but could not.
What we tend to think of as “real” or “great” literature are just those books whose primary concern is our place in this confusing universe, and what sort of world or society this is, and existence and relationships and our deepest feelings and sex. All of this is conveyed in a style and form that is the most appropriate and best, with sentences that are simple and complex, messy and beautiful and true. Yet these books evoke suspicion – certainly in the mind of a teenager who doesn’t know any better – the same exact same way “the nice daughter of someone at work” might evoke suspicion in the mind of a boy whose mother wants to set him up.
Canonized by adults, these great writers are often assumed by teenagers to be the ur-adults: wise (as opposed to seeking); sure (as opposed to desperate and lost); transmitters of the most conservative social values (as opposed to those values’ most ardent questioners). Yet the greatest writers are more like teenagers than anyone else – they are people who are obsessed with questioning social structures, consumed with the minutiae of their own emotional, psychological andromantic lives, and the state of their soul. Teenagers shouldn’t read “great” literature because it’s good for them, but because it’s like them. So why isn’t it being marketed to them? Why doesn’t the publisher of Herman Hesse’s Siddartha, for instance, package it for teens, and advertise the book on subways? It just doesn’t make sense.