There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs. -- John RogersI saw this quote in the comments on Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog this morning (in a post on Ron Paul, for context), and wanted to throw it up here to save because it ties to one of my pet theories: that the book you fall in love with between the ages of twelve and fourteen has a defining effect on the entire rest of your life. For me it was Pride and Prejudice, and I've written before about where that's gotten me now. (The quote above is very male, I have to observe. And I bet a lot of people in their twenties now would say simply "Harry Potter.") Did you all have a book like this when you were a young teenager? What was it, and how has it played out in your life since?
I also went through an Ayn Rand phase, actually, where I loved Anthem and The Fountainhead, though I never quite got around to Atlas Shrugged. I never believed in the books' economic or cultural theories, partly because I spent nearly every Sunday morning of the prior sixteen years in church, and Jesus's words about loving your neighbor were planted far deeper in my consciousness than Ms. Rand's screeds against it. (I read The Fountainhead on a youth-group mission trip, which is probably the single most ironic place possible to read an Ayn Rand novel.) But her ideas about identity and self-knowledge and self-reliance had a major effect on me -- for instance, that "To say 'I love you,' one must first be able to say the 'I'": that concept that it was important to have your own strong, whole sense of self before you could truly commit that self to another person. And also the idea of work as a basis for and expression of identity . . . Both of these things spoke powerfully to my burgeoning feminist intellectual self. I have no use for most of the rest of what she's written, and I'd doubtless sniff at the prose style today (and I remember thinking, "Goodness, these speeches go on for a while" and skimming when I was sixteen), but I'm grateful to her still for in part making me who I am.
And we do teenagers too little credit sometimes, I think, in worrying that they can't filter ideology from real life as I did. But probably this depends on the teenager. And I can't explore that idea in more depth now because I am, in fact, running late for my lovely, liberal, love-your-neighbor church . . . Which shows you truly which idea won out.