Teenage Literature, Wet Brains


Ask The Paris Review

I need to buy a present for a thirteen-year-old boy. His parents suggested “a good book.” This thirteen year-old is not that interested in literature, so I want this book to be a gateway to good, weird literature for him. Suggestions? —James in Providence

This is such an excellent—and delicate—question, we decided to call in some experts.

Lev Grossman is a senior writer and book critic for Time magazine. He is also the author of the novels Warp, Codex, and The Magicians, the last of which is centrally concerned with teenagers and gateway reading. Lev recommends:

Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. I read and reread this book constantly from ages thirteen through sixteen. Vonnegut seamlessly merges (sorry for the cliché) the basic existential challenges of life with that early-adolescent sense of generalized grievance against the world of which thirteen year-olds are the chosen curators. Plus, it’s impossible to read Cat’s Cradle as a grownup, so it’s now or never. If that doesn’t work, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. After that I give up.

Laura Miller is a staff writer at Salon, which she helped found. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, the editor of The Salon Guide to Contemporary Fiction, and the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia. Laura writes:

The Maze Runner by James Dashner is not exactly a literary triumph, but it’s accessible and action-packed (important to many young male nonreaders) yet also features just enough of that good, Vonnegutesque mind-blowing to show him that books can take you to places no other medium can.

As a working girl, I need to use those spare minutes—on the subway, waiting in grocery store lines, heating up canned soup—for my reading pleasure. This often results in a lot of re-reading to get back into the story. Any suggestions for books that just keep on moving? —A.

Thomas Bernhard wrote Woodcutters in a state of advanced alcoholism. One gets the distinct impression that the author keeps losing his place and reminding himself, every few pages, what’s going on. (Not just in a Bernhardian way, in a wet brain way—if that distinction makes any sense.) A similar thing happens in Saul Bellow’s last novel Ravelstein, which he wrote in extreme old age. Then there is Mary Robison’s novel Why Did I Ever, the narrator of which suffers from ADD and tells her story in short confused bursts, a few (often very funny) sentences at a time. To lose one’s place in that novel strikes me as the best, most faithful way to read it. All three novels are immensely enjoyable, and (necessarily?) short.

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