Teenage Angst Literature

Teenage boys like to turn to a certain type of literature. It is literature that deals with people outside the norm; this resonates with teenage feelings of not belonging anywhere. The literature is so much part of growing up, it has become a rite of passage. The let down for all teenagers is usually when they find out that their parents have read the exactly same books in their teenage years, too.

In 1942, the novel The Outsider (The Stranger) by Albert Camus was published. It forms part of a select list of books that generation after generation of teenagers turn to when trying to determine their position within society. The novel tells about a French Algerian called Meursault murdering an Arab without cause or reason. The book deals with the implications of his subsequent indifference to his own execution. The central character has become alienated from society and thereby an outsider as implied in the book's title.

Another famous book on this list is The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. Is central character Holden is just as alienated from society as Meursault. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four primarily is a critique of totalitarian societies, but it also deals with Winston Smith's alienation from society. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World provides a dystopian vision of the world through the eyes of an outsider. Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar has a female protagonist whose mental illness is in part to be blamed on her alienation from a society propagating a fixed expectation of women and their role in that society. Finally, there are Joseph Heller's Catch-22 with a rather alienated Yossarian and Franz Kafka's The Trial with another… Do you get the picture?

These books form a canon of literature dealing with disaffection appealing to disaffected teenagers. At the age of 17 and 18, readers are looking for stuff that caters to their need for existential angst. Nothing taps into the idea of teenage angst like the idea of being an outsider, exceptional, and not part of society. This is an appropriate reaction for someone passing from childhood to adulthood; the path in between these two basic existences happens largely outside society's strict definitions.

The books in the teenage canon are able to provide a feeling of inclusive uniqueness, a clandestine understanding of the world that nobody else quite gets; it is like belonging to a secret society made up of oneself, the author, and the characters in the book. The books also act as a signalling device for other teenagers belonging to the secret society. Carrying them around to be seen, or reading them in public places is part of the game. It is the start of fitting into a society (of outsiders) and thereby clearing the way into society in general. The books are the uniform of nonconformists.

Such a canon is not stable or set in stone. New books are written all the time and one might make the list, others become famous as movies and might be dropped as reading stuff. Trainspotting, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are such drop outs. And it helps a book to stay on the list if it is include into school lessons. Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four are therefore much read, while Tales of The City will need some determination on the side of the teenager interested in reading.

It is usually with a sense of shocked disbelieve that a teenage boy finds out that his father was reading the same books at the same age. 

Further reading