College Guide 2011
One grad recommends novel takes on growing up
Published: August 24, 2011
"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).
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.
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