Books that help form a person
January 2, 2012 8:31 AM   Subscribe

What novels do you wish you had read when you were 17?

Seriously. Any book that you think would be relevant to a 17-year-old's brain, especially those that challenge typical teenage preconceived notions, force different thinking, introduce new and adult concepts, etc. The Bell Jar did this for me; I stayed up until 4am to finish it, and continue to think about it a week later.

posted by jingle to Media & Arts (44 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
I was really moved by Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You and wished I'd read it while a teenager.
posted by mlle valentine at 8:35 AM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's a list of ten books to make a teenagers feel more human by Anna Quindlen. I think a catcher in the rye is the most appropriate.
posted by bananafish at 8:45 AM on January 2, 2012

I just read Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me by Mindy Kaling, and I think it'd make a good impression on someone that age.
posted by backwards guitar at 8:46 AM on January 2, 2012

For me, it was A Scanner Darkly. Don't know if the book would still resonate.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 8:46 AM on January 2, 2012

Demian by Herman Hesse helped me a lot.
posted by milarepa at 8:51 AM on January 2, 2012

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a great example of a young adult handling life-shit with humor and not losing a sense of reality or responsibility.
posted by thewestinggame at 8:52 AM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is not a novel, but you go on to say "any book", so I'll mention it; apologies if you really do want only novels.

I first read A People's History of the United States in my mid-to-late-twenties; I distinctly remember wishing that I had read it a decade earlier.
posted by Flunkie at 8:55 AM on January 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, both by Ursula Le Guin, made me question a lot of the notions I'd been raised with.

Also, like Flunkie, I wish I'd read A People's History much earlier.
posted by JaredSeth at 8:56 AM on January 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Generally speaking, reading as many classics before turning 21 is a good idea, especially if you have any aspirations in any form of art.

I wish I had read 'Crime and Punishment' when I was 17 - especially resonant at that age.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 8:58 AM on January 2, 2012

I read Atlas Shrugged and it gave me much food for thought on philosophy, particularly that of 'fair trade' and ever since, I've preferred knowing that companions were with me because they wanted to be rather than because they may feel obliged to be there.
posted by infini at 9:04 AM on January 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's a comic, not a novel, but I decided recently that if I'd been exposed to Jaime Hernandez' The Girl From HOPPERS as a teen, it would have been massively life-changing and opened me up to stuff that it really took me until my 30s to get hep to.
posted by COBRA! at 9:05 AM on January 2, 2012

I read 100 Years of Solitude at 16, and it blew my mind.
posted by matildaben at 9:20 AM on January 2, 2012

There are some works that are valuable to read while young because they'll never have the same impact when read as an adult: The Fountainhead, Animal Farm, Catcher in the Rye. And there are a few authors whose works are so perfect for that age range that I'd say if you don't read them now, you'll never have quite the same appreciation for them: Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Chuck Palahniuk, Salinger. The beats are good for this, too. Nothing like On the Road to capture that feeling of suburban aimlessness that hits most teens at the end of high school.

I might steer clear of the classics, though, particularly as most teenagers have had them shoved down their throats for years by the time they hit 17. Frankly, I think the art of works like Madame Bovary and Germinale were lost on me then.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:21 AM on January 2, 2012

It´s meant for slightly younger readers, but Ursula K. Le Guin´s Very Far Away from Anywhere Else is a great book about coming to terms with your own quirks and finding accepting community. Wish I´d read it earlier, though it resonated a lot to my post-college self too.

Note: It´s not sci-fi or fantasy, like most of Le Guin´s other work. I love The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, mentioned above, as well, but I don´t know that I would have appreciated them as much before college.
posted by ActionPopulated at 9:24 AM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read Perks of Being a Wallflower when I was 19 and wished I'd read it sooner. (I have no idea if it holds up, but it resonated with me then).
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:27 AM on January 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by gyusan at 9:42 AM on January 2, 2012

The Dud Avocado

Absolute Beginners
posted by Ideefixe at 9:49 AM on January 2, 2012

Seconding the recommendation to hit up the classics. I read East of Eden as a senior in high school and it remains my favorite book of all time.
posted by shes_ajar at 10:02 AM on January 2, 2012

A short story:

I read "Andrea Is Changing Her Name" by Kevin Brockmeier as a angsty 21-year-old and it captured my experience as an angsty 17-year-old eerily well. I mentioned it here.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 10:38 AM on January 2, 2012

Albert Camus, The Stranger.
Françoise Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:48 AM on January 2, 2012

I should add The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique as well though I don't know what things are like today, its been a bit more than a quarter of a century.
posted by infini at 10:50 AM on January 2, 2012

Having read many of the classics (english, european and asian) in my teens, I wish I had read more nonfiction and in particular history, philosophy of self and some plain "howto' guides. I frankly think that many fiction novels and empowerment texts tend to send people off the rails (including myself, once) as badly as junk like Atlas Shrugged.

So -- read some history, even pop history, like Ghosts of Cannae. The Languages of China. The Ego Tunnel.

Seconding "A Scanner Darkly" though.
posted by rr at 11:23 AM on January 2, 2012

Some graphic novels: Blankets by Craig Thompson, The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and Ghost World by Daniel Clowes.
posted by gudrun at 11:25 AM on January 2, 2012

I've always read books for "adults" so I'm not sure what might be best for a 17-year-old (as opposed to a 40-year-old), but there are 3 books that really changed how I see things:

1) How to Win Friends and Influence People. The title is off-putting, but it teaches an awful lot about how people view you vs. how you view yourself. This is an important distinction for young people to learn.

2) A crappy self help book called The Ultimate Secrets of Total Self-Confidence. This was loaned to me by a friend in college who swore by it, and pretty soon we referred to it as The Good Book.

The basic premise is that every action you take and every emotion you have is something you've chosen. If you're sad or anxious, it's because you've chosen to feel that way. If someone makes you mad, it's because you've allowed that person to control you. Interesting stuff for a young person. Not 100% true, but enough to make a positive difference in my life.

3) Atlas Shrugged. I was a 22-year-old socialist when I read it, and it succeeded in making me a capitalist. At the same time, all the logical fallacies and obviously incorrect thinking made me realize what a hack Rand was. Like the other books here (and all things everywhere), take the good and throw away the bad.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:30 AM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Having been a terribly naive and accommodating 17-year-old, I wish I'd read Machiavelli's The Prince. Not to become a manipulative or ruthless person, but to understand that the dubious dynamics that a 15th century prince would have to live with and play along with apply also (sometimes strikingly) to 21st century 17-year-olds, and to be motivated to stand up for oneself accordingly.
posted by larb at 11:38 AM on January 2, 2012

Totally agree with "read all the canonic works" if you have any goal in the arts: You've got to know the canon, and it has to be internalized so you can pull from it fluidly. This includes more than just Cannery Row and Red Badge Of Courage. Read bibles of many flavors, because this is the mythology of our age: Plates in Syracuse? Pillar of salt?

Totally agree with reading viewpoints that you disagree with or are just plain squicky. Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" and Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" come to mind. Ooh, "Battlefield Earth" by L Ron Hubbard is fun.

Totally agree with the books that give you easy foundational concepts and traits to work with, like "How To Win Friends And Influence People" and "Seven Habits of Effective People". Not for everyone is "So You're A Creative Genius... Now What?" by Carl King is new and has a lot of stuff that I believe is valuable.

"Godel, Escher, Bach" by Doug Hofstadter was my most important read around age 17, also not for everyone. Maybe my subscription to Playboy, too, as it's sort of a sampler of adult pop culture.
posted by lothar at 12:07 PM on January 2, 2012

For me, the previously mentioned Gödel, Escher, Bach and The Stranger had a big impact right around 17. Also, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams.
posted by jraenar at 1:28 PM on January 2, 2012

Not a novel, but I read The Real Thing, by Tom Stoppard, at age 18, and if I had read it a year earlier it would have changed my life.
posted by willbaude at 1:31 PM on January 2, 2012

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder.
posted by mukade at 2:04 PM on January 2, 2012

This former nerdling benefitted from the following, as well as many of the books mentioned above:

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco (kind of a ponderous read but I thought it was hilarious)
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Tales from the Drones Club by P.G. Wodehouse (a lighthearted look at people who are deeply lacking self-awareness)
posted by gauche at 2:06 PM on January 2, 2012

I prefer Seven Habits of Effective Teens over its adult version. It's written by Sean Covey and is just so much more accessible, or at least it was to me as a teen.

Also, un-reccing both Fountainhead and Atlas shrugged. Those are the /last/ things anyone needs to read at 17. Also the English translation of The Second Sex, it's complete crap.

I would recommend The Beauty Myth (changed my life when I read it in college), The Feminine Mystique, and The Purity Myth, regardless of the 17-year-old's gender. The world would be a better place if more people were aware of stuff like this.
posted by Tamanna at 3:44 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

n'thing A People's History

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn had a big impact on me when I was a teenager.
posted by bradbane at 3:49 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anna Karenina for me, at 17. But seconding The Dispossessed, and the great novels of Vonnegut (Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, etc.). Shikasta, by Doris Lessing, was huge for me when I was a little older (21) as was Patrick White's The Solid Mandala, which I think was the last book I read at a single sitting, when I was 19. What all these books had in common was that they introduced me to new worlds and new ways of experiencing the world: each one was a profound education. And of course TS Eliot and Sylvia Plath, poets best read, in some ways, by angsty youth.
posted by jokeefe at 4:39 PM on January 2, 2012

Poor People by William T. Vollmann
posted by mahorn at 7:35 PM on January 2, 2012

Hitchhiker's Guide for sure.

Man's Search for Meaning was pretty life-changing for my 17 year old self.

And Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott) was too. But that's more about writing, which was relevant to me at that point, but YMMV.

I was 19 when I read them, but these three books changed my life and made me who I am, even now: J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, Rian Malan's My Traitor's Heart, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. All three equally brilliant in different ways.

Flannery O'Connor's short stories were resonant to me at 17 as well. So was As I Lay Dying by Faulkner. And Grapes of Wrath. And Beloved. And To the Lighthouse. And Portrait of the Artist. All of those were popular when I taught them to 11th and 12th graders (except Joyce - I wasn't brave enough to teach him!).
posted by guster4lovers at 8:22 PM on January 2, 2012

Read at least one book that speaks to why you should read. I like Harold Bloom, who writes about the classics and has very precise opinions about the important books, but others find him stuffy and biased.

The point anyway is to find a guide, someone who can help you understand how reading can shape you and aid you in cultivating both yourself and your understanding of the world.
posted by vecchio at 8:34 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Neil Postman: Amusing Ourselves to Death. Or, if that's too advanced, Huxley's Brave New World.
posted by hishtafel at 9:45 PM on January 2, 2012

I'd avoid Ayn Rand for a 17-year-old, personally - I think her material is more appropriate for an older age group.

I'd second Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but I'd say Terry Pratchett's books would be smoother and easier for a 17-year-old to stay with, though they're similar. Pratchett writes wonderful parody - very entertaining, yet it makes you think, and I think he's good at teaching us to take ourselves a little less seriously. Mort or Reaper Man, Night Watch, or Small Gods would be a good place to start.

Water for Elephants - Susan Gruen
Dakota - Martha Grimes
1984 - George Orwell

Personally, I'd avoid "how-to-be-a-better-person" books (or, heaven forbid, why-you-shouldn't-commit-suicide books) unless the gifter knows for certain that specific material of that sort is needed; I think most 17-year-olds feel preached-at enough already, but that's just my opinion.

If this young person enjoyed the Harry Potter books, Tolkien's The Hobbit may be in order; Bilbo's story was the introduction to Middle Earth for most of us Tolkien fanatics.
posted by aryma at 11:32 PM on January 2, 2012

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Seconding Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and Catch-22
posted by j03 at 11:45 PM on January 2, 2012

Individual context is going to be important as well; not every 17-year-old is coming at this from the same perspective and background. For me as a teen growing up in a deeply, deeply conservative Christian fundamentalist rural backwater, it was absolutely mindblowing to read Joseph Campbell's "Power of Myth" my senior year in high school, but like infini points out, that's just me and my own personal context speaking.

I agree with those who are recommending some of the more accessible psychology / self-help and gender / race relations stuff, personally; I think there are many (in my experience primarily white, relatively privileged) teens and young adults out there who could be made aware of alternative points of view.

I agree that "the classics" as a recommendation overlooks the part where (for kids in the US anyhow) there's a raft of that stuff that gets clumsily and unhelpfully shoved down our throats for rote regurgitation in high school, so tread carefully... after a particularly egregious manhandling by my lousy sophomore year English teacher, lemme tell you it was YEARS before I could stomach anything by either Shakespeare or Steinbeck, personally.
posted by lonefrontranger at 5:39 AM on January 3, 2012

Left field suggestion: Sol Gordon's book A New You-
I read it in my 20s, but I wished I had come across it when I was 16.
posted by wittgenstein at 12:50 PM on January 3, 2012

Man is this question fraught with peril. Having read Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, Anthem, and everything else written by Ayn Rand, I absolutely wish I had approached them when I wasn't so impressionable and had an appropriate filter (life experience) through which to judge them.

Brave New World and 1984 would be good for expanding ideas about conditioning and language and how they effect how we think.

I wish I had read Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle at that age, or Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep at 17, as well as Hesse's Journey to the East and Borges's Ficciones.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 2:10 PM on January 4, 2012

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