by Annette Ferran
Books for Boys and Other Humans
There are two novels on the Modern Library’s list that are credited with turning generations of adolescent boys into readers of literature. One is Lord of the Flies (#41, William Golding) and the other is Catcher in the Rye (#64, J.D. Salinger).
To be sure, the primary appeal is that the characters themselves are adolescent boys, with their myriad confusing, angry, wild and joyful impulses, trying to make their way through to adulthood, that boring, concession-filled state.
Both of these novels are extremely well known. Lord of the Flies is a fantastical story of what would happen if a passel of boys were left to govern themselves (spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well). Catcher in the Rye is a realistic story of a boy more or less alone in New York City and in life, or so he fears.
With their being so well known, the question is, how did they achieve their status? What qualities have made each not only reach successive new generations of readers—or, more importantly, reluctant readers—but also endure as classics of literature with the ability to touch adult readers as well? These novels do not have a lot in common with one another on the surface. What they do have in common is something that is a pillar of good storytelling: character.
Think of Catcher in the Rye and you think of Holden Caulfield. Holden could be your little brother, and with trepidation you watch him as you watch your brother struggle through his preternatural cynicism, knowing that he is unreachable, hoping he’ll make it okay to the other side. You understand his anger and confusion, his disgust with everything ordinary. You get a charge out of his foul-mouthed mode of expression, though you are supposed to disapprove. You feel the undercurrent of his vulnerability.
If you are the little brother, you see in Holden a reflection of your own inner self. Holden articulates for you what you’ve always felt to be impossible to articulate. You love him, and thus love yourself.
Your little brother could also go the way of the boys in Lord of the Flies. They are so ungovernable, yet longing for governance. They are unformed creatures sorely in need of a firm adult hand, that guidance that in this story is literally absent and in the lives of so many young people lacking in essence if not in body.
Without someone to teach them and control them, they create their own hierarchies. They play out the naturalness of the human animal in society. Their approach is a mix of instinct—for self-preservation, for dominance—and the inborn inclination to form a structure around themselves in order to create meaning beyond mere basic need. Both instincts are equally human. You can see how easily your little brother might become one of these archetypal members of society: the strong, the bullied, the wise, the incapable. And again, if you are the little brother, here is a range of characters you could mold yourself after, as well as those you secretly fear you are.
Even as adults we struggle with these fears and aspirations: Who can I become, and what idiocies and unacceptable futures must I face down on my way?
Thus both novels achieved something extraordinary. They speak directly to the adolescent sensibility, particularly the male one (which is not so well served as the female). And they embed themselves in the reader’s mind, so that the adult can read with a kind of duality, simultaneously as a wild adolescent and as the person he did eventually become.
Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.