It’s September again, which means it is quickly becoming my favorite time of year: fall. I must be a nerd at heart because I love this time of year, and the main reason is that it marks the beginning of the new school year. I am about to enter my last year of graduate school so I feel especially nostalgic about the start of school–for sharpened pencils, a new pair of jeans, and a syllabus worth of books to read. Sometimes I wish I could return to high school and reread some classic novels for the first time. From staring with Jay Gatsby at the green light to navigating social etiquette with Elizabeth Bennet, many of the great books teachers introduced to me in school are part of the reason I’m still an avid reader today.
Even though I cannot repeat high school, I can live vicariously through my soon-to-be a teenager niece, Raven. She’ll turn thirteen next year, and as her education unfolds before her, I can’t wait to see which avenues she will travel down. Currently, Raven acts in drama class, works on the yearbook staff (just like her aunty did), and is on ASB. She also voraciously eats up books. While she may be a sucker for books I wholeheartedly steer clear of (let’s just say they have sparkly vampires in them), she is open to trying all genres. So, for this week’s post, I present to Raven (and any other young reader), the books I think are pertinent to a young person’s education and development.
So You Will be Adventurous: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
This was the first classic novel I read outside of school. I remember it clearly. My brother gave me a battered old copy of one of his favorite books, an adventure story by the author of The Three Musketeers about a noble young man, Dantes, who is betrayed by jealous enemies. He is framed for treason and sent away to rot in prison. While there, he befriends an elderly inmate who tells him of a secret fortune hidden on an island. After Dantes escapes from prison, finds the fortune, and creates a new identity, he sets into motion an elaborate plan to slowly destroy each man who ruined his life. Years later, I discovered that the book my brother had given to me was a stolen copy from my junior high. Something about that made the book seem even more exciting to me. As a side note, never watch the film versions. This book is too intricate and expansive to be reduced to a two-hour film so inevitably characters and plot lines were cut in the movies. Read this book. Read this book to escape. Read this book to impress boys. But mostly, read this book to show those boys that girls can enjoy adventure stories too.
So You Will Learn how to not be a Phony: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
You will inevitably read this book in an English class. High School English teachers love to teach this book, and because of its ubiquity in classrooms across the country, many people devalue this book as an overrated, pretentious novel by an overrated, pretentious New York writer. I disagree. Beyond the memorable setting (Manhattan in the 1950s), the glimpse into the exclusive world of East Coast prep schools, and the author’s commentary on alienation and phoniness, Salinger created one of the most memorable characters in modern fiction: Holden Caulfield. Holden is an anti-hero. He is cynical, a trouble maker, and an individual. He wanders through New York after being expelled from Pencey Prep (his fourth expulsion) on a sort of odyssey. As he is introduced to dark situations and dangerous people, his innocence is lost (a loss that occurs at some point for all teenagers). Although he is an unreliable narrator (not that that’s a bad thing, I do love Humbert Humbert in Lolita), he is a valuable representation of the anti-teenager, those kids that don’t always fit into the expected structure of the hierarchical society that is high school. Everyone has a different experience in school. This is important to remember. Maybe you’re a Holden Caulfield or maybe you’re not. Read this book and decide for yourself. That’s what counts.
So You Can Understand What the Other Women are Talking About, With a Twist: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Women love Jane Austen. She’s a bit inescapable. I read Pride and Prejudice in AP English. I’ve also read Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion. Austen is classic. She’s book club. She’s literary romantic comedy. But there is something to be said for her accomplishments. She is one of the most read English authors. That’s a lot for a female writer who lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Along with the Bronte sisters and George Eliot, Jane Austen is one of the early female writers who contributed to the literary canon. She may not be outright feminist, but she had valuable commentary on marriage and relationships. I recommend Northanger Abbey because it’s the book I feel Austen had the most fun with, the book where she really winked at the audience as if to say, “I get the joke.” It may not be as popular as Sense and Sensibility or as academic as Pride and Prejudice, but I think there is a lot to be said for this “lesser” novel. It follows young Catherine Morland on vacation in Bath, her friendships, and her romantic entanglements. What it does best is to mock the popular Gothic genre of Austen’s time, with their haunted locations and supernatural occurrences. Morland is obsessed with the genre and travels to the titular abbey with the hopes of finding something Gothic waiting for her. She is greatly disappointed to discover this isn’t the case. As all young girls will learn eventually, many boys will turn out this way as well.
So You Will Never, Ever Lose Your Imagination: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
I admit I’m cheating with this one. I already leant Raven my copy of The Phantom Tollbooth years ago because it is my favorite book of all time, and I say that without sentimentality. I truly believe this is an important story for children and adults to read, so I recommend it again and again. Whether you are thirteen or thirty, you should never forget to see the world with the eyes of a child. Use your imagination. Tell stories. Read books. School will only get you so far. Your sense of wonder will lead you the rest of the way.