books that changed my life: adolescence

The last post on books that changed my life took me to about age 12. As I entered adolescence my life was forever changed not only because I had become a teenager but also because of a series of events that would shape my life long after I left adolescence behind. During this time books were both a source of understanding and a space of solace. The books on this list reflect that range.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

What I love about Great Expectations is the atmosphere of mystery and intrigue. But it's also sad and dark. I was fascinated by the story and the way it reflected yearning. Though Pip eventually finds success and moves up the social ladder, he struggles to understand his new social position and it never endears him to his love, Estella. In his success, Pip is never really content. And even at the end, as Pip's social status returns to where it began, he is ultimately resigned to the choices before him. Great Expectations was the first book that made me think about the consequences of wanting. During a time in my life when I wanted to be anyone else, anywhere else, a part of anyone else's family but my my own, reading this book complicated the desire to fulfill wishes that would make my life feel easier. I think Great Expectations is about gratefulness as much as it is about social class, suffering and redemption. At least, in part, that's what it taught me.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
For a kid with an active imagination who often wanted to escape her life, as most teens do, the characters, the philosophy and the strangeness of this novel provided me with much needed release. I still love the book and had a "un-birthday" party this year and I was Queen of Hearts for Halloween. I still find joy with the story and I remember my first reading of it. I asked my father a lot of the riddles and it was one of the few times during my early teen years that we really connected over the philosophical underpinnings. It helped reinforce the idea that a story is not always what it seems.

I read Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald the summer I decided I was too developed, too uncomfortable in a swimsuit to spend all day at the pool. So Dick Diver and his gang were my companions. Though I did not comprehend, not fully, the nuances of the characters or the plot, I was engrossed with the inner workings of the group of people. The level of manipulation and strangeness among the characters struck me, even at 14. By then I knew a bit about the cruelty of the world. Though upon my re-reading of the novel, I found myself disturbed by the portrayal of women as manipulative and controlling but given F. Scott's own experiences I suppose I can understand it. This novel allowed me a glimpse into an adult world, a world that I already knew was full of secrets and sadness. As I struggled to understand my parents, as I disagreed with them on almost everything, reading this novel was my search for clues. What I found was both enlightening and disappointing, feelings I would learn often coexist.

Most people cite Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead as a life-changing book but for me it was her novella Anthem. I read this right after I moved to Pensacola from a small Alabama town where everyone knew everyone else. I was struggling to adjust to my new environment and I landed in an AP English course where I read for the first time. I was fascinated by the story of a society where "I" is an Unmentionable Word. I appreciated the rebellion of Equality and his inventiveness. My love of dystopic fiction was born upon finishing this novel. And I began to understand the power of voice, of one person asking, "Why?"

This next one is not a book but reading Hamlet as a high school senior was an amazing experience. I don't know whether it was the play or the class discussion or the way my teacher taught that influenced me more. But it was the first time I really understood the scope of studying of work of literature. I also became obsessed with the genre of tragedy where one different decision can change everything. Even now when I watch Shakespeare's tragedies I hold out hope that Romeo will receive the letter, that Othello won't fall for Iago's tricks, etc. I love the melodrama of Hamlet, the ghost story, the sex, the revenge. Reading Hamlet made me want to study English in college. I began to understand consequence in significant ways.

All of these books (in some way) are about consequence, something that as an adolescent resonated with the word Responsibility, a word I hated to hear from my mother's mouth. "Be responsible." I take responsibility seriously, sometimes too seriously. I learned about the realities of responsibility and inaction from my mother and these books further deepened my understanding and challenged my thinking about what responsibility looks like in action.