Age limitations in literature seem like a waste of time. As long as you don’t have children reading Mein Kampf or tosh like The Hunger Games, they’ll be fine. Letting kids loose in a library is the equivalent of letting them fall out of a tree, it’s necessary to toughen them up and give them some idea of the world that waits out there. Having said that, there are some books which will speak to you the most when you’re hovering around your early 20s, books that might give you an idea of where you want your life to go, and keep you going in that direction when times are tough. This isn’t to say you can’t enjoy these books as a 70 year-old, or even one or two of them as a child, but if you come to them in your 20s you should find they could have been written just for you.
The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
The novel about the troubles of growing up. For most people, Holden Caulfield was their introduction to the word ‘angst’ in much the same way that My Chemical Romance were responsible for all those black-glad misery guts hanging about shopping centres. With more than 65 million copies sold, it’d be difficult to not have an idea of the plot, but if you’ve managed to avoid Salinger’s most famous work, all you need to know to begin with is that the story follows 17 year-old Holden being expelled from his expensive private school and setting off into New York City, struggling to convince himself of his own identity, whilst doing his best to avoid ‘phoneys’. There are some critics who view the cynical Caulfield as nothing more than a spoilt brat, a character who has no capacity for maturation (as noted by his unchanging attitude and slight naivety throughout the novel), but for me, Holden Caulfield will always be one of literature’s most likeable greats. The book’s also responsible for one of Green Day’s best songs, ‘Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?’
Ham on Rye - Charles Bukowski
Hank’s 1982 work follows the writer’s early years from orange-stealing infant to angry young man, by way of pimple-addled tough guy. There have been suggestions that the title is a play on Salinger’s work, whilst a second theory suggests it comes from Bukowski’s love of Fante and a line in Ask the Dusk about ‘liverwurst on rye’. Whatever the origins of the title, it’s some of Bukowski’s best writing.
‘At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole god-damned nation of assholes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst possible way...’
The beauty of Bukowski is not that he’s an overly likeable character, it’s just that he’s the best guy of a world full of bad guys, and when you’re feeling down and out, there’s no one better to turn to for solace than a guy who’s had it a thousand times worse than you, his whole life, but somehow came out on top.
Danny, the Champion of the World - Roald Dahl
A book about fathers and their sons as much as it is about boys and their fathers, Danny, the Champion of the World remains one of Dahl’s best stories. Adapted from his short story Champion of the World, it’s the least fantastical of Dahl’s children’s books and as such manages to transcend any age barriers. The story offers a sense of adventure, but one grounded in reality, and is therefore more easily accessible to all. The tale of Danny and his father stealing 120 of the rich Victor Hazel’s pheasants is a brilliant blow against ‘the man’ that any young person should relish. The novel was also the first mention of The BFG, a story which Danny’s father tells him and Dahl used to tell his own children.
Wait Until Spring, Bandini - John Fante
The first of Fante’s Bandini Quartetis also, perhaps the best (Yes, even better than Ask the Dusk). As with Ham on Rye, Wait Until Spring... focuses on the exploits of the young Fante, under the guise of Arturo Bandini. Arturo grows up in a strict Catholic family with a typical Italian mama and a hardworking, womanising father. There isn’t a great deal of plot to the story, but the main action comes when Bandini senior goes off with another woman, leaving his family to fend for himself. Arturo is a troubled and unhappy child who knows what sort of life the world has in store for him, but the overall message is just to hang on, to wait until spring, when things will be good again. If it worked for Fante, it can work for you.
Bright Lights, Big City - Jay McInerney
A slinky little number, Bright Lights... clocks in at around 170 pages, but really, that’s all Jay McInerney needs to tell this brilliant tale of heartbreak, hopelessness and alcoholism in New York City. The novel covers much of the same territory as Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (Bolivian marching powder, sex, nightclubs, INXS) but there isn’t any murder here, just the lonely human soul, alone in the city like a cold french-fry at the bottom of a McDonalds bag at 3a.m. The source of the protagonists heartbreak is his ex wife, Amanda, who left him for greener pastures once her modelling career took off. If you’ve ever had a partner who’s done something similar, you can’t help but relate. Tony Parsons called the novel ‘Probably the best book ever written about being young, about doing drugs and about music’, and he’s probably right.
Pic - Jack Kerouac
Kerouac’s account of Pictorial Review Jackson travelling to NYC with older brother Slim could be read in half an afternoon, but still deserves to be held up as one of the great Beat’s finest works. Pic was Kerouac’s last novel, and is perhaps his most experimental. The whole thing is told in a North Carolina dialect and recounts a young black boy’s journey through the U.S.A from the south to the north in the 1940s, encountering jazz, the Mason-Dixon Line and outdated prejudices. A new spin on Kerouac’s favourite theme of travel and personal exploration, guaranteed to give you itchy feet if you’ve not yet read On the Road.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain
A more mature effort than Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn remains a classic of American literature and is easily deserving of the title of ‘The Great American Novel.’ Like Pic, Huck Finn looks at the racial issues which simmer under the surface of American society. The novel’s great strength is plunging young Huck Finn into the heart of the matter, travelling down the river with house slave ‘Nigger’ Jim. On one level it’s a great and funny adventure about the pair’s adventures and on another level it’s about the innocence of youth, and the corruption of adulthood.
Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
A brilliant novel about attempting to escape our origins and the arrogance of youth. If we’re going to use big words, Great Expectations is a bildungsroman, a novel that follows its protagonist from youth to adulthood. Unlike many of the other protagonists on this list, it can be hard to like Pip. He’s a bit too big for his boots at times, thinking he’s too good for his old pal Joe and assuming his benefactor must be the incredibly rich Miss Havisham, but isn’t a little bit of arrogance needed at times? Interestingly, Dickens had planned the novel to be twice as long, but restrictions caused by serialising the novel in Dickens’ own weekly periodical meant it had to be cut down. Also well worth a read for the character of Magwitch, a man whose introduction is one of the most unsettling things ever committed to paper.
Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury
Not my favourite of Bradbury’s work, but still a fantastic novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes tells the story of Jim and Will, two best friends who stumble upon the dark plot of a centuries-old carnival that has arrived in town on a train the colour of shadows. The boys are helped on their mission to destroy the carnival by Will’s father, who feels he is too old for his son and is slowly losing his grip on youth and the things he loved as a boy. A great novel about fathers and sons, and a great novel about staying young and mischievous. It also contains some of Bradbury’s best descriptive writing, with imagery to rival Cormac McCarthy,
‘Maybe once it was just one man walking across Europe, jingling his ankle bells, a lute on his shoulder making a hunchbacked shadow, before Columbus. Maybe a man walked around in a monkey skin a million years ago, stuffing himself with other people’s unhappiness, chewed their pain all day like spearmint gum, for the sweet savor, and trotted faster, revivified by personal disaster.’
Brighton Rock - Graham Greene
This is pretty much your classic coming of age novel, if for your formative years involved marrying a witness to a murder you’ve committed, in order to stop them testifying against you. Greene’s Brighton is a world of flick knives, acid and gangs, all held together by a strict Catholic code. 17 year-old Pinky, the novel’s professional antagonist is a right old piece of work, hungry to take over the Brighton underworld, regardless of who’s caught in the crossfire. A great morality tale about how not to spend your teenage years. Greene aficionados may be interested to know that the events of Brighton Rock carry on from Greene’s ‘entertainment’ A Gun for Salein which the murder of mob boss Kite is first mentioned.