Formative fiction

What novel sustained you through transition or crisis? British researchers discovered women and men have different formative favorites. For women, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is the stand-out with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in second. Men favor Camus’s The Outsider, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. From The Guardian:

Our final top 20 of men’s reading clearly shows a majority of books with strong active narrative themes – books that might traditionally be described at quintessential boys’ books. . . Men’s reading choices tend to identify themselves with novels that include intellectual struggle. Personal vulnerability is represented as a more or less angst-ridden struggle against convention, a sense of isolation from social normality. Catastrophe and the struggle to rise above circumstance characterise the plots.

Women’s formative reading was done between the ages of 12 and 20, while men picked pooks they’d read at 15 or 16 years old. Many of the men had stopped reading fiction after their teens.

In the New York Times (but behind the subscription barrier), David Brooks cites the survey and speculates that boys don’t like to read because they’re assigned too many girly books in school.

(Boys) are sent home with these new-wave young adult problem novels, which all seem to be about introspectively morose young women whose parents are either suicidal drug addicts or fatally ill manic depressives.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that according to a National Endowment for the Arts study, the percentage of young men who read has plummeted over the past 14 years. Reading rates are falling three times as fast among young men as among young women.

For boys, Brooks recommends “more Hemingway, Tolstoy, Homer and Twain.” I don’t know about Tolstoy, but definitely more Hemingway and Twain. Tom Sawyer is one of my formative novels, along with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

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  1. Tolstoy and Homer and Hemingway….oh my!

    I really don’t know why people insist that there’s a gender gap in performance, as opposed to a gender gap in college attendance. But to the extent that one exists, the boys who aren’t going to college don’t have the reading skills to master Harry Potter, much less Hemingway or Homer.;

  2. There is too much estrogen and not enough testosterone in today’s high school English classes. My own department has only two other males besides myself. So guys get a lot of girly books and do a lot of worthless girly projects such as memory books and literature circles. I use novels written by men, war novels, male-protagonist novels, novels to raise your testosterone level novels. Someone has to counter-balance the feminine fluff.

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Kipling, anyone?

  4. Jason Bontrager says:

    Rafael Sabatini. Anything by Sabatini will grab the interest of just about any teenage boy.

  5. I loved Rafael Sabatini!(I read like a boy when I was a girl. Well, I loved Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice too.) Kipling is great too. Kim is such a wonderful novel, though I wish Kipling didn’t make such a big deal about Kim’s all-white ancestry.

  6. What an odd question. I go through books like a politician through lies, but I have never thought of a book as something sustaining in a crisis or transition. Is that common?

  7. Sabatini, Dumas, Heinlein, Rand.

  8. Anything but Hesse.

  9. esunola says:

    Favorites were Twain and Melville. Beowulf was great as well. I have a sixth grade son, and the crap that they have him reading now is enough to turn anyone away from reading. Their text is a compilation of excerpts from books or longer stories, so they rarely read anything from beginning to end. And of course, they have the obligatory stories from Africa, Asia, South America, and Central America so he is turned off to literature from other parts of the world as well. But put a 600 page Harry Potter Book in his hands, or Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and you have to drag him to the table to make sure he stops reading and eats something.

  10. Robert Wright says:

    I was going to point out that Camus didn’t write The Outsider but now I see that’s what some call The Stranger.

    There’s a book out called Guy’s Read which is pretty good. It’s an anthology of stories geared toward teenage boys. Stephen King writes about farts, etc. NPR did a piece on it. I bought it and I like it.

    Boys get turned off by girl literature but girls almost always like boy literature.

    To Build a Fire is an excellent story. The Most Dangerous Game is good. Of Missing Persons by Jack Finney is haunting and powerful. Primo Levi is good.

    You know, the problem with Nancy Drew was that when she was chasing a suspect in her car, she still stayed within the speed limit.

  11. I’m not sure I would have gone for a Stephen King story about farts. (So maybe I’m the “almost” in “almost always”) I also didn’t really get into Jack London or Hemingway.

    Books I do remember reading and enjoying in high school were Kafka’s Metamorphosis (weird, creepy, and ultimately sad but a good example that a book for “grown ups” doesn’t have to be strictly “realistic”)

    Jane Eyre (read that on my own)

    Homer’s works (a long slow slog but interesting if you have a good teacher who brings out how DIFFERENT ancient Greece was from our times.)

    Flannery O’Connor (again, sort of weird and creepy but good writing).

    We also read a lot of short stories; I still remember a really creepy one called “Two Bottles of Relish.”

    I did NOT like Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” I felt like the protagonist was whiny. (Definitely not a book for reluctant-reader boys, I think)

    I was made to read Conrad Richter’s “A Light in the Forest” in seventh grade and hated it then; reread it as an adult and wondered at why I hated it. It’s not a bad read at all.

    When I was younger: Chronicles of Narnia, the Moomintroll books, the Miss Bianca books my Margery Sharpe, the various-color “Fairy” books, the Little House books, “My Side of the Mountain” (I think that would appeal to boys too). Those were all read on my own or as a book I selected for “sustained silent reading time” at school.

    I suspect that some science-fiction would be a good choice. I read Connie Willis’ “Doomsday Book” a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it – had a hard time putting it down. And science fiction often has interesting plot twists, or raises interesting moral questions – good for discussion.

    I think I would have been turned off as a reader if I had been given a steady diet of “problem novels.” In fact, my transition from a reader of “children’s books” to “adult literature” at about 12 was difficult because the first few “grown up” books I picked were so relentlessly “grown up” (kind of like reading a soap opera) that I thought, ugh, being a grown up is boring and filled with problems.

    I think also having kids do creative writing along with reading can help – or at least I found it helpful and fun to try and write poetry “in the style of” or to do my own short stories after reading a bunch of short stories in an anthology.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Rosemary Sutcliff. Historical YA novels.

    Harry Turtledove has some alt-hist “Crosstime” YA novels out.

    Heinlein through Starship Troopers. Stuff after that could get a teacher in trouble for porn.

    Andre Norton’s hard sci-fi, up to Witch World, when she went soft fantasy and the secret decoder ring could deus ex machina the hero out of any plot blind alley.

    Kenneth Roberts and Shellabarger. These are historical novelists for adults, but they wrote in PG times, and would suit older teens.

  13. Kyle –

    I think certain parts of the underword would freeze over before most school administrators would let the “subversive” individualism of Ayn Rand into their classrooms, unfortunately.

  14. Twill00 says:

    I loved Lang’s “various colored fairy” books. They are available on a public domain CD for about $5, although I have hard copies of most of them.

    Andre Norton’s Dane Thorssen novels, like “Postmarked the Stars”. (Yes, she tends to have her magic rocks save the day, but they’re great adventures.)

    Anything Twain, preferably before he got morose.

    Narnia or Perelandra.

    Captain Blood.

    Robert B Parker’s Spencer novels

    Emma Lathen’s John Thatcher financial mystery novels.

    Almost Perfect, Dianne Blacklock.

  15. Robert Wright says:

    Thank you to those who posted recommendations.

    Because of what I’ve read here, I’ve got some bids on eBay for a few Rafael Sabatini books.

    I remember reading some Mary Lasswell books in 7th grade and they made an impression on me. Instead of being about a boy and his dog or a boy and his pony, Suds In Your Eyes was a WWII era book about a fat woman who ran a junk yard. She drank so much beer that her fence was made out of beer cans.

    Everybody paid attention during my oral book report. I liked that.

    Who wrote “Two Bottles of Relish” and what is it about?

    I’m going to give Beowulf and Metamorphosis another go.

    Thanks again.

  16. tsiroth says:

    Poe, Kipling, Twain, London, Heinlein, Verne, Stevenson, Swift, Hemingway

    Somewhat lesser known, Jim Kjelgaard’s books are wonderful adventure stories about dogs or a boy and his dog. Also, Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books. These books are probably suitable for about age 8-14, depending on reading/maturity level.

  17. Jack Tanner says:

    Cooper and London

    The Last of the Mohicans and The Call of the Wild