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What should teenagers be reading?

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

In my experience over eleven years as a private tutor, unfortunately a common admission students have shared with me is that they hate reading. On the surface this is a pretty sad state of affairs. However, in every case I have found that when I dig down further, what they actually mean is that they hate reading classic literature.

The question of what should be included within a widely accepted pantheon of literature is a challenging one. The concept of a literary cannon is problematic in itself - who decides what is in and out? Who ultimately decides what is valuable literature? The commonly accepted pantheon can only ever reflect the subjective tastes and concerns of university professors and critics - neither are have any ultimate authority in the matter so any established body of texts is necessarily subjective. In any case, the majority of the pantheon of classic literature was never really designed for young people. I personally had no idea what Shakespeare was addressing until I got into my mid-twenties; intense lust for power, manipulation, treachery, intense love, situational irony etc are aspects of the adult world. They’re not really that relatable to teenagers.

I personally don’t care what my students read, as long as they are reading. This is the most important point I want to convey here - students should read things they enjoy. Everyone has topics that interest them - the trick is simply to begin reading around those areas, whether it is science, cars, history, sport or music. There are some sports and music biographies that are better crafted than esteemed novels. It’s not surprising given that they are written by extremely skilled ghost-writers. One of the best examples of this is Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open.

That said, I', happy to share some novels that I have found students responded well to over the years. On the contemporary literature front I’d advice taking a look at some of the more interesting and off the wall novels. Fight Club and Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk are pretty fine examples of this although both contain some pretty disturbing scenes. I’ve seen student’s faces literally light up when engaging with Palahniuk’s prose though.

In terms of the late 19th century, there is a wide selection of interesting and well known reference points. Pretty much all of Oscar Wilde’s work is accessible and fun for students to engage with. His expression is clear and there is a lightness to the work which I makes it a lot of fun. I’m also a fan of The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for teenage students. It’s only a novella but contains so many interesting themes related to late 19th century history and thinking.

In terms of 20th century English classics, I'd put Huxley’s Brave New World ahead of most other dystopian novels when considering what would be most interesting for young people. Orwell and Golding are also decent examples but, page for page, I think BNW is more engaging.

I’d also recommend some of the Calypso poets to get students to engage more closely with language and themes like colonialism and displacement. John Agard, Benjamin Zephaniah, John Lyons and Linton Johnson are all great places to start. Their work is thought provoking and alive.

Paolo Coelho’s work also lends itself well to students - The Alchemist, The Aleph and the Zahir are appreciable by students in any age group. Manuel of the Warrior of Light is also a decent one to get students to think more deeply about their own lives and what kind of person they wish to become.

Perhaps to get a grip on something from the early modern period, Voltaire’s Candide would be a good place to start. One of my old lecturers, professor Roger Pearson, translated the Penguin edition and I have to say he did a good job of maintaining the energy and life of the original work. I’d definitely consider having students read this work.

Overall, my feeling is that schools forcing students to read the likes of Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Dylan Thomas etc certainly does more harm than good. Most students come away basically hating literature because they were given texts that were too heavy and, frankly, quite depressing, before they really had the chance to grow as readers.

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