Transitional reading

One grad recommends novel takes on growing up

Aug 24, 2011 at 12:00 am

"Adult" and "youth" are nebulous terms. The transition between the two is as well. We've all known adults who act like children or children who are wise beyond their years. Are there some criteria for adulthood? Does it become official when we reach a certain age? In Judaism, that age is 13. But I know my parents, for all their talk about "becoming a man," didn't give me all the freedoms of an adult after my Bar Mitzvah. 

Independence certainly is an important feature of the transition. Not just financial or spatial independence, but of the mind as well. Accepting responsibility, making decisions that impact others. This heady stage in development is a great one for writers, combining worldliness and impulsiveness. Good books are largely about transformative change and the realization of undiscovered truths. We sometimes call this "growing up." 

For a lot of people, this period occurs around college. That's mostly true for me. I think it could be useful to arm yourself with books that speak to this stage. Not to be prepared per se, but to help with thinking through these issues. Most of these stories take place outside the university, but this makes sense since life provides much more useful lessons than textbooks.

The Tin Drum 

by Günter Grass

Growth, or lack thereof, is the prominent theme in this bizarre tale. The setting is the town of Danzig, Germany, in and around World War II. When, at the age of 1, Oskar Matzerath overhears his father's dream of having the boy take over the family business, he decides to not grow up. Instead, Oskar maintains the appearance and outward mannerisms of a 3-year old. While everyone in Danzig thinks him to be an unfortunate oddity, he secretly finds ways to infiltrate the adult world through his glass-breaking voice and virtuoso capabilities on the snare drum (he can imitate sounds such as rain, or bring forth long-forgotten memories).

Forget all the talk about lessons for a sec. This is one of the richest books I've ever read and worth reading for its sheer creative power. But if you must learn something, Grass' clever adult-stays-young inversion of the typical coming of age story says a lot about lost childhood. Ultimately, Oskar is brilliant but socially stunted (the ever-present growth metaphor). 

Kafka on

the Shore 

by Haruki        Murakami

I read this book by Japanese-born, West-obsessed Murakami as I flew back to America after two years in Japan. I don't know what this reading-and-travel order means, but it seemed significant. And so did this book. But that's probably because I was thinking a lot about personal change on the flight back. And so is the narrator Kafka. This preternaturally mature 15-year-old is running away from his unloving father in search of his mother and sister and ... something else. 

Like all Murakami, this is of the "magic realism" genre. There's a man who talks to cats, a shape-shifting figure who takes the form of product mascots, and an alternate reality where lost souls rest. Highly introspective, funny at times, creative, this is truly a book for the college-bound, becoming-self-aware crowd.

The Sot-Weed Factor 

by John Barth

Mirth, bawd, and philosophie describe this post-modern yarn set in colonial times. Ebenezer Cooke, a home-schooled youth from England, sets sail to become the poet laureate of Maryland. Despite dogged attempts to preserve his purity and innocence through pen and wit, Ebenezer is abused throughout Sot-Weed and constantly reminded of the perfidious truth about human nature. 

Barth constructed a brilliant plot that has a laugh a page. Its re-creation of the vocabulary and cadences of the time is quite impressive. Best of all is the way naïve Ebenezer is thrown into ribald, smutty America and the hilarious situations which ensue. It will open the eyes of the optimist and entertain the pessimist. 

Empire of the Sun

by J.G. Ballard

Many of the books on this list are about youths who must grow up prematurely and unexpectedly — and none more so than this one. Ballard witnessed some true horrors as a youth and put off novelizing them until he was in his 50s. After reading about Jim Graham's fight for survival in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, one can see why.

There's very little ambiguity in this semi-autobiographical book, no large realization at the novel's end. The reader must reconcile everything Jim has witnessed and done, for the boy doesn't yet have the capacity. The adult characters are disturbed by the way Jim admires the Japanese and fantasizes about being a fighter pilot as if he's enjoying himself at times. They are old enough to realize what an impressionistic youth might grow into amid such destruction and cruelty. The real Ballard became a genius author of unforgiving stories showcasing the violent side of humanity. (But, hey, he could have turned out worse.) This story puts his entire literary career into perspective.

Please Kill Me 

by Legs McNeil

College is largely about partying, right? Not like these people. This book, the only nonfiction on the list, is an oral history of punk rock. Rock has always been rebellious music steeped in sex and drugs. But punk rock, a genre pioneered by youth, took that decadence to a new extreme.

Open it to any page and you're sure to be entertained, inspired and perhaps warned by these musicians' behavior. I like to have this book near my bedside (or, appropriately, the shitter) for quick snippets of insanity. Another neat feature is that a lot of it takes place in Detroit and Ann Arbor, home of such proto-punk figureheads as Iggy Pop, Wayne Kramer, and John Sinclair.

The Adventures of Augie March 

by Saul Bellow

Augie March typifies the precocious youth character. Growing up fatherless in Chicago during the Great Depression, Augie must scrape out a living using his above-average intellect. This street education suffices though his life remains entertainingly turbulent, perhaps because of his lack of mooring and formal education.

The reader follows Augie through his most formative years, and the story takes a number of drastic twists. Augie begins impoverished, then befriends a rich family and glimpses aristocratic life. There is a lengthy side-adventure in Mexico involving eagle training. Depending on your personality, Augie's adventures might be cautionary, or the catalyst to your own.

White Noise 

by Don DeLillo

College professors have anxieties, doubts, and faults sometimes far exceeding us less knowledgeable types. Jack Gladney started his own Department of Hitler Studies in the fictional and isolated college town of Blacksmith. He often has no clue what he's doing, though he's really good at making people think he does — an invaluable skill for "experts."

I think this book does a lot of good at clearing the obfuscation that often exists in academia. Gladney is the so-called foremost Hitler scholar in the country, yet hardly knows any German. He'll authoritatively make a point during a class discussion, then wonder why he said it and what it means. His family is a confused mess of ex-wives and stepchildren. Read it and you'll be less willing to swallow everything professors force-feed you.