Candide by Voltaire (1759)
When I was 16, I felt myself drawn in two directions: inwards, to the workings of the mind (I was fascinated by the stream-of-consciousness writing of James Joyce); and outwards, towards descriptions of and explanations for inequality, tyranny and militarism. I can remember my sheer joy and excitement at being asked in my A-level French class to read Candide by Voltaire. It translates very well into English and though politicians and militarists tend not to use the exact phrase “the best of all possible worlds”, the perpetual lie that they use to sustain their power is, in essence, the same. To any 16-year-old wanting to see beyond the endless flow of bullshit that sustains the cruelties and inequalities of history, I would say: give Candide a go.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood (1985)
Image Music Text
by Roland Barthes (1977)
I’d favour either The Bell Jar or The Handmaid’s Tale – both highly political works, though Plath’s has had shorter shrift over time, as it is always associated with autobiographical stuff that really isn’t relevant to a work of such high irony and analysis. You come away from both of these books with your senses and your intelligence opened wider. For non-fiction, I’d suggest Barthes’s Image Music Text, a book that endows its readers with a profound connective playfulness – crucial critical equipment.
Brother of the More Famous Jack
by Barbara Trapido (1982)
The Tightrope Walkers
by David Almond (2014)
Trapido’s novel is the quirky tale of a decade-long love affair between an intelligent suburban teenager, Katherine, and her Jewish professor’s bohemian family – wife, babies, louche sons and all. Think Brideshead Revisited set in the 1970s, only sexier and much funnier. It kills me that I didn’t read it at university, when I really needed it.
David Almond’s adult novel The Tightrope Walkers is another coming-of-age story, this one set on a housing estate near Newcastle. A rich, morally ambiguous fictional memoir, it takes place in that seemingly endless instant between childhood and adulthood and it made me weep, as much out of writerly jealousy as anything else.
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1912)
I first read Death in Venice at 16 and subsequently spent my entire school holiday mercilessly plagiarising it, before eventually realising that, while small-town Ireland provided plenty of scope for tales of unrequited and inappropriate longing, the essential quality of disease-ridden fetidness was – and would probably remain – absent. This misfortune aside, I would still throw Death in Venice into the lap of any passing teenager and encourage them to read it. It seems that a battle for the soul of literature may be afoot, so how better to encourage them to fight the good fight than through a perfectly judged, deeply affecting story of desire, decay, beauty and art?
The Humans by Matt Haig (2013)
A Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson (2003)
Haig’s novel looks at human beings, their strengths, frailties and foibles, through the eyes of a visiting alien. This fresh take on our planet and its human inhabitants makes the reader reappraise his or her own life. It’s a book that is accessible and as humorous as it is serious. For non-fiction, I’d go to Bill Bryson. His curiosity is infectious and his style engaging, as he takes the reader on a journey from the Big Bang to Darwin. This is a science book for the non-scientist and it’s filled with delights.
Portrait of an Age: Victorian England
by G M Young (1936)
Written some 80 years ago, this remains a bewitchingly magisterial survey. For me in my teens, it was inspirational. Young revealed how beliefs and ideas matter, how a sense of governing purpose matters – even as individuals with widely differing characters collide amid the contingencies of happenstance. Thereafter I knew that the past could be a terrain of infinite interest, whatever was happening in the present.
Frank Cottrell Boyce
The Mismeasure of Man
by Stephen Jay Gould (1981)
The Voyage of the Beagle
by Charles Darwin (1839)
Gould is a brilliant prose stylist and here he deals with the comedy and tragedy of our attempts to reduce ourselves to data. Modern teenagers are trapped in an education system blighted with testing. Hopefully it will be liberating for them to hear Gould explain that the intellectual foundations of those tests are always nonsensical and often fraudulent. More importantly it will help them appreciate those ways of thinking that don’t win them prizes at school.
Charles Darwin’s hugely enjoyable account of perhaps the most important intellectual journey ever made should be required reading for everyone. Evolution is one of the greatest ideas we have ever had, so if you want to know where great ideas come from, start here. You’ll find that things such as “focus”, “aims and objectives” and “outcomes” have no place in the story.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
The Best of Myles by Flann O’Brien (1968)
I’d like every 16-year-old to feel something of what it was like to be young in the beat era, so I’d make them a present of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. When I was that age, I found it almost unbearably thrilling, even though it was too late for me to be a beat and too early for me to be a hippie. The big dangers for bright 16-year-olds are solemnity and taking everything too seriously, so I’d add a copy of The Best of Myles, from Flann O’Brien’s newspaper column, the funniest there has ever been.
Purity and Danger
by Mary Douglas (1966)
Any sharp 16-year-old would get a lot out of Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger: an Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Sure, there’s more up-to-date anthropology but she has a wonderful knack of making the reader see beneath the surface of everyday preconceptions and attitudes – particularly to do with dirt. I still remember being struck by her simple question: why is gravy on a tie “dirty” but on a plate “good to eat”? The answer, for me, was eye-opening.
Alexander McCall Smith
A Fortunate Life by Albert Facey (1981)
Collected Shorter Poems, 1927-57
by W H Auden (1966)
There’s no doubt that being 16 today is easier than it used to be – in some respects, at least. Sixteen-year-olds in our society do not have to do hard physical work, nor do too many of them go hungry (even if some undoubtedly do). Albert Facey’s classic life story tells a very different tale. A Fortunate Life is a vivid account of a life of real hardship in Australia. Facey was exploited and beaten as a child; he survived that and then spent the rest of his life doing back-breaking work in rural Australia. At the end, he concludes: I have had a fortunate life. This book is widely appreciated in Australia and read in schools. It is virtually unknown here but has so much to say about making the most of life, whatever the setbacks.
I wish I’d had W H Auden at 16. If I’d grasped even a tenth of what he says, it would have made such a difference. The trouble with being a teenager is that you’ve no idea what to do with your enthusiasm, your desire for love, your soulful impulses. Being 16 can be trying, but Auden helps.
The Making of the English Landscape by W G Hoskins (1955)
In the Centre of Immensities
by Bernard Lovell (1979)
The Making of the English Landscape gave my eyes understanding. It was my first week at Oxford and I was in Blackwell’s, buying the core texts for my studies, when I saw it on display. The cover showed my native Cheshire, which is why I picked up the book. I’ve not put it down since. It showed me the palimpsest of time which had formed the land into a story, and gave meaning to the shape of field and hedge, and made me ask why a road should bend.
Bernard Lovell’s In the Centre of Immensities opens up cosmology in much the same way. Lovell was a visionary who made his vision real in the shape of the radio telescope at the Jodrell Bank Observatory. What that great work of art discovers challenges comprehension; yet Lovell finds no conflict between science and faith. For him, the mathematics of counterpoint does not describe the beauty of a fugue.
The Poems of Emily Dickinson
edited by R W Franklin (1998)
Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946)
After her death in 1886, Emily Dickinson’s family found around 1,800 poems in her hand-sewn books. This volume is an inexhaustible source of wonder: a book to discover in youth and keep beside you for the rest of your life. “‘Faith’ is a fine invention/For Gentlemen who see!/But Microscopes are prudent/In an Emergency!”
John Hersey’s compelling and terrifying book about the dropping of the first atomic bomb was the work that showed me the power of narrative reportage and taught me that history isn’t something that happens to other people, back there in the past. It happens to us. It can be read in an afternoon but it will stay with you always.
The Reason Why by Cecil Woodham-Smith (1953)
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969)
The Reason Why is a masterly historical study into the cause of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the pig-headed idiocy of the Lords Cardigan and Lucan, whose pride, obstinacy and blundering led to the death of those in their charge. Cecil Woodham-Smith (a woman) also wrote The Great Hunger, about the Irish Famine. I can think of few history books written with such intellectual clarity, narrative control and sense of what happens when the upper classes go to the bad.
What if kings could get pregnant? The visionary Ursula Le Guin imagines the politics of a world in which people can change sex every month, and wraps it up in a gripping, heart-breaking quest through bitter winter which shakes you to your bones. Fantastic, thought-provoking, wonderful.