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July 21, 2010

Nina de Gramont: Twenty-Five Books to Read Before You Turn Twenty-Five

Posted by Marisa Emralino

NinaDeGramont.jpgelt.jpgOften considered staples of teen literature, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and A WRINKLE IN TIME are just three of author Nina de Gramont's (author of GOSSIP OF THE STARLINGS and EVERY LITTLE THING IN THE WORLD) favorite books that she's revisited time and time again. Below, she reflects on these adolescent discoveries, and shares a list of influential novels best read as young adults.

I have been meaning to write this list ever since I started teaching at a Southern University. It can be heartbreaking to learn the books my students haven’t read. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are two of the more obvious ones, but at least these titles are familiar. Others that, in my mind, should be equally recognizable --- like BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS or ANOTHER ROADSIDE ATTRACTION --- draw blank stares and shrugs. Most of them haven’t read Carson McCullers, and these kids are from the South! S.E. Hinton? Never heard of her. I started assigning THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW in my Freshman Composition class, even though it’s way below their reading level. Students always love this book, especially the boys, and the moral dilemma at the end makes for an excellent paper topic.

Of course we can all catch up on our reading later in life. But some books, I believe firmly, need to be encountered in adolescence. Maybe I’m prejudiced to the books I loved in my own adolescence, the ones I read over and over again. My seven-year-old daughter has a limitless tolerance for repetition; she can hear the same books, and watch the same movies and TV episodes, over and over and over again. It’s somewhere in adulthood, I think, that we lose this urge to revisit the stories we love. Books I adored when I was a teenager and even in my early twenties were books that I pored over endlessly, whenever I had a free moment. There were more obscure books, like a YA novel called THE SUMMER BEFORE by Patricia Windsor. My uncle gave me a novel my parents would have considered too trashy, called THE CALIFORNIA GENERATION, written by Jacqueline Briskin. I read it and read it until the paperback spine collapsed and I started finding random pages in odd corners of my room. When I bought a new copy with babysitting money, I discovered a new edition had been released with an alternate ending. Pure bliss.

The summer I spent with my mother and brother in France, I read BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS over and over again. When I got home I wrote Kurt Vonnegut a letter (he never wrote me back). The year I was sixteen I read Jean Stein’s oral biography of Edie Sedgwick so many times that my parents sent me to a therapist. I can remember my concerned father sitting at the end of my bed while I lay with the blue book (its dust cover long since lost) open on my chest. “Why are you so interested in this book?” my Dad asked. He had given it to me in the first place, so he probably felt guilty. “You don’t identify with her, do you?” No parent would ever want his child to identify with the tragically self-destructive Edie, and I didn’t, not exactly. I just loved reading about her. I couldn’t explain why, and I still can’t, though it’s a book I still return to and read with the same great pleasure.

In fact the only books I ever re-read, unless I’m teaching them, are books that I initially discovered in my youth. These are the books that claimed and formed a crucial part of my psyche. Reading them again is more personal than going through old photo albums or diaries. They are a part of myself, and my list might well say more about me than what today’s youth should be reading. Maybe everyone has a list of books that ought to be read before that first glimpse of mortality and compromise; before the grey sets in. Here’s mine, in no particular order.


1. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J. D. Salinger
2. BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS by Kurt Vonnegut
3. THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers
4. A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeline L’Engle
5. BELOVED by Toni Morrison
6. WALDEN by Henry David Thoureau
7. I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith
8, 9 and 10. THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW, THE OUTSIDERS, and RUMBLE FISH by S. E. Hinton
11. ENDLESS LOVE by Scott Spencer
12. EDIE: an American Biography by Jean Stein and George Plimpton
13. IF I LOVE YOU, AM I TRAPPED FOREVER? By M.E. Kerr
14. TENDER IS THE NIGHT by F. Scott Fitzgerald
15. THE CALIFORNIA GENERATION by Jacqueline Briskin
16. SHINING THROUGH by Susan Isaacs
17, 18, 19, 20. ANOTHER ROADSIDE ATTRACTION, STILL LIFE WITH WOODPECKER, EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES, and JITTERBUG PERFUME by Tom Robbins
21. THE GHOST WRITER by Philip Roth
22. ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac
23. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee
24. THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain
25. RABBIT REDUX by John Updike

-- Nina de Gramont