Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, August 3, 2009


Over at the Guardian’s Books blog, Philip Hall is remembering the books that meant a great deal to teenagers of his generation. He’s thinking of books that weren’t just popular, but were intellectual touchstones for smart young people — books like Catch-22 and Siddhartha and Slaughterhouse-Five. (I don't know how old Philip Hall is, but most of those books were on the unofficial lists of my intellectual friends, so we’re probably in the same generation.) It’s interesting, by the way, how many of them are American novels. And he’s wondering what those books are for the current generation of young people.

His commenters aren't giving him much help (so far, anyway). I’m inclined to say that they can't give him much help because there aren't any books that function that way for today’s adolescents in the U.S. and U.K. It’s not that young people aren't reading — though the evidence on that point is inconsistent — and in any case we’re talking about the smarter, more thoughtful, more questioning ones. Rather, I suspect that even very bright young people aren't using books to orient themselves ethically and politically to the world. At least not in ways that I can see. But if they’re not using books for orientation, what are they using?


  • Duh. Television! I mean what better "orienters" than "The Office," "Lost," "Weeds," and "American Idol."

    And if they are reading, it's Harry Potter.

    The future looks bright.

  • TV? That's what our parents were saying about *our* generation. TV is far less meaningful for these kids than it was for us.

  • They're getting their feed from video of all sorts: broadcast TV, YouTube, cable, movies, etc. But those media don't provide intellectual orientation; rather, they provide emotional orientation. The unwitting attempt to convert the last remaining thinking human beings into zombie consumers (not a conspiracy, really, just a marketing mistake) is proceeding apace.

  • I would say the first really intellectually stimulating (for a high schooler, anyway) book in the general American curriculum might be The Giver.

    Now I think I'd be underwhelmed by it, but for an 8th/9th/10th grader it stretches the imagination.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Cory Doctorow's _Little Brother_ desperately wants to be that sort of book, and while the book has sold well, I have no idea if it's the Book of Gold for any teenagers.

  • I'm not a teenager anymore, but for me, the touchstone books were the same ones you've listed (though I didn't like "Siddhartha" enough to finish it).

    But generally, kids nowadays don't like to read books that they feel are trying to tell them what to do. I didn't read those books because I wanted moral instruction; I read them because they sounded fun or interesting. Vonnegut and Heller were funny, which was their main appeal.

  • I still think music is a big one but I also see the online communities they're involved in as a place they'll look back to.

    That, for a lot of kids, is becoming the place where ideas and beliefs are formed. Not only are you reading posts on message boards, facebook groups and blogs but you're interacting with them and having your own opinions tested and shaped.

  • No one has mentioned movies. I am not sure which specific movies I would nominate, but I know in the classes I teach (Freshman Comp and Intro to Study of Literature for example), the touchstone pieces normally seem to be movies. A few years ago, "Pulp Fiction" got considerable comment in my classes. This year, a few students brought up "Milk," though not as many as I would have thought. Maybe I think of movies now because I find myself watching far more movies than I used to. The advent of good, inexpensive home theater has also made it possible for all of us to now think of movies - and other video - as literature in ways that we never previously could. We now have the capacity for video, as we have always had with print, to go back and watch and study critically what we have seen. We can repeat the experience, rewind.

    Try polling the students and young people you know to see what they come up with.

  • I should have added in the previous post that my list would be essentially the same as the ones listed. I graduated from college in 1973, just to give a time context.

  • That's a little harsh, Brad. Some of us college students do read real books, and not just for classes. And I have never even heard of a TV show called "Weeds."

    But I would have to agree that the viewpoints of most people in my generation are formed more by TV, movies, youtube, music, and the internet than they are by books (or parents, teachers, and religion, for that matter).

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    But see, folks, teenagers of my generation were just as shaped by TV and movies as teenagers today — right? I mean in general. And yet there was a subset of that generation who took their bearings primarily from a set of exciting and norm-challenging books. It's that subset I'm talking about, and wondering what's setting their agenda today.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Alan, I'd think you'd be in a better position than most people to answer this question. Aren't you basically asking, "What books do English majors read and argue about for fun? What do they quote when they do their mating dance?"

    Ask your students and report back!

  • Since the topic is books, I'll stick to the books and leave out the movies, music, and TV.

    I dropped out of high school in 1995, graduated university in 2003. This is what we were reading back then:

    -- Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
    -- Lolita, Nabokov
    -- Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon (I'm the only one who finished it)
    -- various Buddhist scriptures, like the Lotus Sutra
    -- Poetry by Keats and Browning
    -- Catch-22 (I didn't care for it, but all my friends did, and it sort of matched my anti-military feelings)
    -- Fight Club, by Chuck Pahalnihuk (how embarassing. Hey, we were young)
    -- anything by Hemingway (almost as embarassing)
    -- Slaughterhouse Five, by Vonnegut (though some of us said Cat's Cradle was better)

    Of course, now that I'm older my tastes have matured. Looking back at that list, I think the Huxley and Nabokov are the only two that still grip me.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Michael, I feel that I know my students pretty well, but Wheaton students are exactly representative of smart American teenagers in general.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Um, AREN'T exactly representative.

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