Reading suggestions for a 17 yr old who's never read anything enjoyable
February 13, 2020 5:52 AM   Subscribe

This is a two part question. Part 1 is: Can you help me find a blogpost or essay I read in the past couple of weeks where a male worker writes about his daily life as a welder on construction sites, with flashbacks to his younger years, including being deaf in one ear and never telling his mom 'til he was in his teens. He also writes about standing around the lunch truck, and also about being the only blue-collar writer in a writing program, and about why he writes. Part 2 is: A teenager of my acquaintance recently said to me "I've never read anything I liked", after I asked him if he was liking the book he's reading for lit class. What would you suggest he read?
posted by cyclicker to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's hard to answer the question about what to read without knowing more about why he doesn't like reading.

Is he a fluent reader? If reading is very slow and annoying for him, it will be hard for him to like even the most enticing book. I would suggest graphic novels and comics because they can help him build fluency while offering a range of fun and/or age appropriate stuff. I would suggest if at all possible a trip to a large specialist comics store - the kind where they will have both mainstream (superhero, big press) and small press stuff. There are also a lot of comics online.

Has he ever had a chance to for books, at a big bookstore with money in his pocket and plenty of time? Take him to a big good bookstore and give him a gift certificate which you ask that he spend at least partly on books (since any bookstore will have non-book miscellany.)

What hobbies does he have? What about histories/in depth books associated with them? This can also build fluency if it's a fluency problem.

Does he play dungeons and dragons? I passed many a happy hour as a tween reading various monster guides and magazines associated with role playing games. I assume that there are similar books and magazines about video games.

I am a boring and stodgy person and it is my observation that if a kid grows up with unrestricted screen time and a lot of video games (especially if he has a lot of restrictions around everything else, like going places on his own) he probably won't like reading absent a lot of personal, motivated work on it - just like a kid who spends many years eating nothing at all but junk food is going to have to do some work before he likes vegetables. If he is a kid who is under a lot of academic pressure, doesn't have a lot of unscheduled time and spends what little time he has playing video games, it is unlikely that he has the bandwidth for books and that's not really his fault.

I would also ask him some open-ended questions about why he dislikes the books he reads for class - I could have told you a history about why I hated Carson McCullers (still hate Carson McCullers, towering giant of queer lit whatever IDC) and Johnny Tremaine and Great Expectations. I am almost against English literature classes, actually, and much more in favor of reading for fluency, because schools can't help but try to instill "values" through literature, and while literature is indeed a great source of values, high school is a kind of prison and the values instilled in you by prison are values you'll fight.
posted by Frowner at 6:10 AM on February 13 [13 favorites]

What would you suggest he read?

Kitchen Confidential. You can start him with the essay that it originated from, Don't Eat Before Reading This. Everyone can relate to the circumstances (food, restaurants) and Bourdain's got an attitude that will resonate with a 17 year old.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 6:10 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]

Frowner has the best answer - if all he's ever read are things he had to read for school, then maybe encouraging him to self-select would be the way to go. I appreciate this isn't your kid (at least it sounds that way) so you may not have as much impact on this. So, a couple anecdotes -

My brother was a similarly reluctant reader in school; my mother bought him a subscription to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED magazine because it was the only thing he was even marginally interested in reading. The only thing I remember him enjoying reading in high school was a biography of Bob Marley.

When my brother got to college, also, his freshman year roommate loaned him Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and that changed everything.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:13 AM on February 13

Is this the FPP that your first question is looking for?
posted by wenestvedt at 6:16 AM on February 13 [4 favorites]

For the first part of your question -- alas, I haven't the slightest clue. It sounds rather interesting, though :)

For the second part, I have to echo Frowner -- it really depends on the teenager.

Generally, though, I think The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is an excellent read. It has a little bit of everything for everyone -- adventure, love, war, family, and many references to Jesse Owens. The size of the novel can be a little intimidating, but it's one of those books that's difficult to put down once you start.
posted by NewShoo at 6:18 AM on February 13

One of my friends who "hated reading" casually picked up one of my Tony Hillerman mysteries set on the Navajo reservation and loved it.
posted by notsnot at 6:19 AM on February 13

I feel like there's a real possibility of getting to 17 and never having read a book that you actually liked. Johnny Tremaine can put you off reading for years.

I'd suggest Steppenwolf, A Wizard of Earthsea or Use of Weapons. Maybe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I suggest you buy these books, describe the, then hand one of them to this person.
posted by bdc34 at 6:24 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Does your 17-year-old friend just not like fiction? I know that for me, a dreamy, head-in-the-clouds fantasist that seems inconceivable!, but it's a valid brain orientation. Source: my kid. All his favorite books have been nonfiction because fiction, to him, is just a bunch of falsehoods and why is that interesting? For a 17-year-old how about something like Into Thin Air? Or, a biography of a major personage in one of his hobbies. My kid (7, so different demographic) loved the book I got him for Christmas that was a history of video game consoles and biographies of famous various game designers.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:36 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]

True Grit
posted by H21 at 6:37 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

The correlation between not liking a book and being given it to read is probably a perfect circle at that age. I'd go with the open ended questions. It will really depend on the type of kid he is.

I could see it being something real and rough about working like Kitchen Confidential, rough and outdoors like Into Thin Air or Call of the Wild, something fun like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which shows him how free language can be, a sprawling fantasy or sci-fi epic like Red Rising or a Brandon Sanderson series. My first thought was The Phantom Tollbooth.

Asking to learn more about what he didn't like will probably be the best solution.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:38 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]

I'd also suggest giving him a choice in a bookshop or comic shop rather than trying to guess something that he'd like, simply because without more info it's difficult to make a proper recommendation. I at least am also inclined to recommend stuff that people were reading when I was 17ish, forgetting that that was over 20 years ago, and probably wouldn't automatically appeal to a current 17 year old.

However, you could also ask him what tv/movies he's enjoying, and see whether he would like something related to that. (Star Wars tie-ins for example don't tend to be the height of literature, but they are something, and tend to be quick-reading.)
posted by scorbet at 6:57 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Finding out what you like and don't like is an iterative process and because everyone is different and has different interests it'll be hard to point to one book and say "this is the one for him". It is even possible that in the future he returns to books he's already read and didn't like and finds that he likes them now. I think if he's just starting out reading for pleasure he's probably better off with shorter stories or essays so that there isn't such a time investment required and he can figure out what kinds of things he likes and doesn't.

Find out what media (TV shows, movies, comic books, video games, etc) he likes and then work from there would be my suggestion.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:58 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Try him on Geek Love. There's enough WTF in the first few pages to engage even the most jaded teen reader and it just keeps getting better. Or possibly worse. Indisputably great either way, and difficult to imagine anybody getting away with delivering it at full strength in anything other than book form.
posted by flabdablet at 7:14 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Please consider audiobooks as a medium.

Not everyone is a natural *reader* and for those of us with disordered executive function or time constraints, putting on headphones is less imposing than cracking open a book.

For a non-reading teenager there may also be a stigma associated with reading in his social circles, but nobody knows you're listening to an audiobook and not angsty music under that hoodie.

Plus ... audiobooks are incredibly easy and free to get through your local library with apps like OverDrive/Libby and Hoopla!! You don't have to even go to the library, and you can borrow and return at the touch of the screen.
posted by ellenaim at 7:32 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]

At that age I wanted to be an adult, and I couldn't figure out why I was being given books that were stuffy, or opaque, or old, or written to an audience that just didn't include me. There were some of those that I picked to read on my own (like H.L.Mencken and Twain), but I was also reading a lot of fantasy & sci-fi.

William Langeweische writes factual books that scratch an itch a lot of engineer-types may not know they had. Maybe he would like one of those? Same for Sebastian Junger: "Perfect Storm" talks about fishing and storms and risk and death...or maybe "War" because it's about young men being tested?

The book "Generation Kill" is simultaneously horrifying and exhilarating. I loved it, and at 17 would have read it in one sitting. (Lots of problematic content, though: I mean, it's Marines.)

I bet there are memoirs that he would like, because it's an adult talking/writing directly to the reader -- which very few teen agers get! Ben Hamper's "Rivethead" (which I mentioned in the FPP you wanted) does that, and my high school English teacher gave us an excerpt from the December 1985 issue of Harper's (not free online) in 1989.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:35 AM on February 13

Martha Wells's "Murderbot" books are amaaaaazing, and the language is certainly accessible.

Marko Kloos's military sci-fi "Frontline" books are good, too: Goodreads page on the series.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:40 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]

I've heard Catcher in the Rye isn't as big as it used to be, but I've never met a teenaged boy who didn't respond to it.

I was 16 when I started reading Hemingway. Not for everyone, but a common favorite, especially for boys who don't like other literary novels.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius popped into my head for some reason, and it might work, although I'm sad that the cultural references might be too dated.

In general, though, nthing the idea of nonfiction. This is the golden age of literary nonfiction. If you can't find something engaging at this point, you might be serious about not liking reading. So much is stuff that a teenager could relate to, as well: sports, pop culture, etc. Check out's best articles and see if there's anything there that catches his attention. A lot of the older stuff there has been anthologized, and many of the authors have books that he can find. Also remember that not all reading is novels, so if he just likes reading magazine articles like at Longform, that's cool too.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:53 AM on February 13

Is this the FPP that your first question is looking for?

Seconding wenestvedt, I remembered that article immediately!
posted by M. at 8:05 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

I was a voracious reader from 2nd grade onward but I viscerally despised every single book I was ever assigned to read for my entire gradeschool career... Until 10th grade when I was assign Slaughterhouse-Five. It blew my mind wide open to the possibility that books a teacher decided had merit could also be in any way readable, let alone outstanding, and somehow flipped my switch from hating all assigned reading to enthusiastically absorbing whatever I could from subsequent assignments. I was still resentful as hell about book reports and essays and whatever else, but finally the reading of the assigned material was no longer a struggle. Thanks, Vonnegut!
posted by Mizu at 8:45 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]

Stephen King. One of his better ones. Regardless of the artistic "merit," once you start a King book, they are hard to put down. Kid needs a page-turner.
posted by SoberHighland at 8:48 AM on February 13 [4 favorites]

Honestly, I would just recommend him the stuff that I'm the most passionate about. Is there a particularly high probability that our tastes overlap? Absolutely not, but I think trying to guess his taste at this point is a fool's game anyway.

My goal in talking up my own favs wouldn't be so much in getting him to read those books specifically (for the moment), but in conveying the idea that reading can be fun, upsetting, illuminating, comforting, challenging, transformative in the most unexpected ways - not just something you do for self-improvement/educational purposes. I would talk about what reading does for me and to me and the myriad different sort of pleasures it can provide, how a book can be so great you can't put it away, and how a book can be so great, you frequently have to put it away, because it's just too much all at once, how some books want to be read cover to cover, and some books are really more for dipping in and out as the mood strikes, how every book needs to meet you in the right frame of mind, and how sometimes the book you start and stop most often can ultimately become a favourite when its time has come.

And I would also talk about the sort of books I want to fling against the wall, and books I found really a waste of time and all my worst habits as a reader (skipping the boring bits, and reading the ending first, reading a book just to trash-talk it afterwards, trash-talking without having read more than a couple of pages, and generally talking about books I barely remember and sometimes barely read and sometimes only read about in other texts as if I just finished my dissertation on them, and not reading at all for months and months because I'm not in the right frame of mind for it), to convey the idea that reading is nothing to get overly precious about.

Sometimes it pays to take the long view. I finally got my brother really into Jane Austen and it only took me 15 years. I did make some efforts to also recommend stuff I thought he would like at once though, with mixed results. My best bet were usually standard young men classics you can read for coolness points if you want to seem intellectual to other young men, but maybe that's not a draw for your guy. It did give me some credibility with my brother but it didn't immediately instil a more general love of reading.

You could also try asking your friend what specifically he objects to about the books he has to read for school and then recommend books that do the exact opposite, but honestly, I'd be somewhat surprised if he could be terribly specific about it.
posted by sohalt at 9:29 AM on February 13

It's dripping with gore and swearing and fantasy crime in a jaw-dropping world, so the book "The Lies of Locke Lamora" by Scott Lynch might grab him if he is willing to give it a chance.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:41 AM on February 13

Depending on his reading level, he might enjoy Artemis Fowl, or even Rick Riordan.

But yeah, nthing a) asking your friend why he doesn't like reading and b) going to a bookstore with him and browsing together
posted by Tamanna at 9:17 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]

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