Classic novels with themes of alienation are revered by today's teenagers (especially boys)

Books by authors like J.D. Salinger and Aldous Huxley are so highly thought of by teenagers that those who are reading them will display them prominently in backpacks or pockets.

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    'The Catcher in the Rye' and 'Brave New World' are two novels that many teenagers turn to.
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Is there a teenage canon? A class of books teenagers typically turn to as a rite of passage, a form of identity, an expression of belonging – or not belonging?

Not only is the teenage canon alive and well, there appear to be multiple teenage canons: An angst canon especially for young men, a social canon especially for young women, a classic canon that spans the generations, and a modern one for today’s youth. 

That’s according to a new article by the BBC examining the angst canon, a collection of “disaffected literature for disaffected teenagers.”

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“At the age of 17 and 18, readers are often searching for something with a bit of existential angst. And nothing taps into teenage angst quite like the idea of exceptionalism,” writes the BBC. “The books in 'the canon' can provide a feeling of uniqueness – a clandestine understanding of the world that nobody else quite gets.” 

The irony, of course, is that everybody else is undergoing the same experience and reading the same literature, books like Albert Camus’s “The Stranger,” J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” George Orwell’s “1984,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” and Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.”

Because they command such respect in the adolescent crowd, these are the books no teenager would read only as an e-book, or surreptitiously stuff into a backpack. No, these are the books youngsters tote as a badge of honor, what one might read in a coffee shop, on the subway, even “wear.”

That’s right, “the book itself might be placed conspicuously on show, with the titles poking out of school blazer pockets and tops of satchels,” writes the BBC, with one commenter calling such works “accessory books” and “statement reading.”

Unifying these books is a theme of alienation, a sense of not belonging, of being an outsider – not coincidentally, the very same themes of adolescence.

Curiously, however, the article found a dramatic gender disparity in the teenage canon.

Whereas young men tend to gravitate toward angst-themed works, young women turn to works exploring social mores.

“There’s an absolutely dramatic difference between what girls and boys read at puberty,” Lisa Jardine, a historian who has researched reading preferences of men and women, told the BBC. “Boys read angst books, so they read ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ ‘L’Etranger,’ and books like that. Girls read expanding emotion and sensibility books. ‘Jane Eyre,’ [Dodie Smith’s] ‘Capture the Castle,’ the Brontes…books about difficult relationships.”

And while generations of teenagers and young adults have turned to classics like “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Catch-22,” and “1984,” a new canon appears to have sprung in recent years, one that appears to capture the interest of both young (and not-so-young) men and women.

Forming this canon are such series as Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games,” Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight,” and J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter.”

Unique in this canon is its ability to attract the interest of both young men and young women, to simultaneously explore themes of exclusivity and exclusive societies along with explorations of intricate social structures.

And while this modern canon reflects the evolving set of issues today’s teenagers face, the classic canon – “The Stranger,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Catch-22” – has a certain timelessness that makes it a perpetual source of comfort for generations of teens.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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