Books That Rocked Your World at 16 But Fall Flat Now


We all have a few: the books we read when we were young that altered everything. These were the world-changers, the reality-definers, the stories you died over, gushed to your friends about, pushed into the hands of boyfriends and girlfriends, urgently, sincerely. They were pivotal, inspirational, important.

And then: you grow up a bit and return to the books that started a revolution in the way you existed in the world, the ones you thought would change you ever-after, and you think, oh, goddammit, that’s what had me so hot-and-bothered? And this is fine, this is natural. You were changed for a time, and changed again. You get older, you learn some things. Which is not to say the books below ought be avoided altogether. No, these are a few of the books that knocked you off the roof when you were a kid, that fall flat to re-read right now (plus a few suggestions on grown-up alternatives).

What you loved: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand Why you shouldn’t now: When you were a kid, and therefore infallible, Rand’s Objectivist novel about architecture and individualism blew your doors off. But Rand’s a lot like Michael Moore — so ham-fisted she undermines her own work and is ever preaching to choir. Read Instead: The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape by James Howard Kuntsler

What you loved: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho Why you shouldn’t now: This international bestseller (65 million copies sold in 150 countries in 67 languages) has gotta have something going for it. But the story of the prophetic, questing Andalusian shepherd is thinly veiled self-help. Turns out when you want something, all the universe isn’t necessarily going to conspire to help you achieve it. Read Instead: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

What you loved: The “Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan Why you shouldn’t now: Nothing wrong with some teenage nerdery of the highest order, but there comes a day when one has to retire the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Or, in the case of Jordan’s famous fantasy series — 11 novels!, 30 million books in print! — the Wheel needs to stop turning. Read instead: Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney

What you loved: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe Why you shouldn’t: The LSD-fueled mischief and mayhem of Wolfe’s hippie tome goes a long way in igniting the bong-hit imaginations of your classic high school sophomore. Life on the bus seems like maybe the coolest life there is. Except not. Chances are when you return to the Acid Test, you won’t be quite so desperate to be a Merry Prankster. Read Instead: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

What you loved: White Fang by Jack London Why you shouldn’t: Violence! Man vs. nature! Redemption! Morality! The dark soul of humanity! Except a lot of it is told from the perspective of a canine. Read Instead: The Portable Conrad by Joseph Conrad

What you loved: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig Why you shouldn’t now: Part pop-philosophy, part memoir, part road-trip book, Pirsig’s breakdown of classic vs. romantic approaches to the world and his exploration of the concept of “quality” serves as a moving mind-blower for a young brain. Trust us that you’ll be embarrassed by all your teenage underlines and in-the-margins exclamation points when you go back to it over the age of 25. Read Instead: Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford

What you loved: Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger Why you shouldn’t: In this case, it’s not so much why you shouldn’t, but why you can’t. It’s a sadness to pick up with Holden Caulfield a decade or more after your first Catcher in the Rye reading and find that you’re no longer quite as stirred or as impacted as you were that first time through when you were young and everything Holden said, and the way he saw the world, was exactly and explosively true. Read Instead: Well, crap, this has us feeling a little grim, and we’re at a bit of a loss for grown-up alternatives to Catcher in the Rye. Suggestions welcome and encouraged.