Young people of the twenty-first century do not just play video games and sit on their phones and engage in debauchery—they also read. Some quick Google searches show that an estimated 447 million copies of books in the Harry Potter series have been sold as of 2016. Similarly, about 120 million copies of the Twilight saga, and 65 million copies of The Hunger Games. This is an age of unprecedented literacy, and young people read, despite thousands of more visual, engaging distractions; yet the great works of the Western Canon that form the basis of a liberal arts education are not flourishing on the shelves of young people. It is a travesty, and neither Shakespeare nor Homer are to be blamed: it is for us proponents of the Great Books to convince readers that the writings of men and women long dead are more relevant, necessary, and even fulfilling to young readers of the twenty-first century than the scores of sexualized, violent, Dystopian quick-reads that aim at mere escapism.
On a basic level, the YA genre appeals to younger readers because the deep passion of the stories relates to the strong desires of young people, ultimately indulging in extreme doses of fancy to act as an escape. To bring our friends, family, and students to care about the Great Books, it is absolutely crucial that we can “meet them where they’re at.” Indeed, some thoughtful authors of YA, who care more for creating excellent art than make a large profit, have wisely seen this need to amalgamate content that is good for the mind and soul with an aesthetic that responds to the desires of young readers.
As parents, teachers, and proponents of “higher” literature engage with young adults and promote certain works, they must recognize that newness and even crudeness are not necessarily grounds for disqualifying a novel from a list of enlightening contemporary literature. The most obvious example of such a work is J.D. Salinger’s groundbreaking YA classic The Catcher in the Rye (1951), which remains immensely controversial for its use of cursing, explicit sexual issues, and depictions of depression. Such a work can be objectively measured by questioning the telos of those elements—to what end do the profane and the sexual aim? In the case of Catcher, the ends are profound and even admirable. In my first reading of this novel as a teen, I remember being struck by the brilliance of Salinger’s prose when the protagonist Holden Caulfield agrees to pay a pimp for a prostitute, even though he really only wants to have a conversation with the girl. Holden obsesses over modern youth’s loss of innocence; he wants to defend the young from the very horrors that are presented on every page. Rather than wallowing in the vice of the modern world, Catcher is a problem novel that recognizes the fallen status of the world and needles young readers so they might consider how one ought to live in the face of hopelessness.
Obviously, Catcher in the Rye was widely censored for many years, and more recent works often fall into similar gray areas as educators determine which novels are worthy of the aegis of Liberal Arts canonization. Thus, we must soberly consider the objective value of YA authors and books so that a corpus of works can form and cement itself. Indeed, the truths passed down by Virgil, Milton, and Dickens are no less urgent than they have ever been, but to achieve a reinvigorated interest in the Great Books we must now calculate the trajectory of the tradition. In the discussion to follow, I hope to show a more in-depth example of how giving careful attention to the central concerns of a YA story can reveal that there are good books within this genre that can act as a gateway for young people toward the inherent beauty of the Great Books of tradition.
Dystopian YA novels have dominated the genre for approximately 15 years, bringing astounding commercial success, but Australian author Markus Zusak has found acclaim by carving out a less cathartic, less nostalgic niché for his writing talent. Zusak is less than prolific, but his three novels I Am the Messenger (2002), The Book Thief (2005), and Bridge of Clay (2018), are the crown jewels of YA. In fact, I Am the Messenger is the primary book I recommend to peers and teen readers who would never get past the first page of most classic works. I Am the Messenger centers around a 20-year-old part-time taxi driver named Ed, who begins receiving anonymous mail with names and addresses written on playing cards. Every person on the cards needs his help in some way, and he is obligated to aid them despite the inherent challenges.
The book begins with an outrageous scene in which Ed and his friends are hostages in a stick up at a bank and need the thief to hurry so they won’t receive a parking ticket. Zusak’s prose has a refreshing hint of a great writer’s juvenilia; it is never overwrought and shockingly witty, but uses the language of actual working class Australian youths. To continue this short synopsis, Ed miraculously stops the bank robber and becomes a hero for a couple days to the community—a romantic experience that foreshadows the comic inversions of heroism throughout the book. These inversions of heroism occur in his interactions with the people on the playing cards, as he is often helpless to bring about definitive change in their lives. Initially, the people Ed must help are complete strangers, like an old woman with dementia, a woman victimized by an abusive husband, and a preacher with virtually no congregants, but as his journey proceeds the new addresses are people related tangentially to his own life, and the final three people are his three dearest friends.
Ed’s friend Ritchie is a 20-year-old deadbeat. As Ed lists out about Ritchie: “occupation: none, achievements: none, ambitions: none, likelihood of ever attaining answers to the previous three questions: none.” Ritchie leaves the house only to go to the pub and to bet on sports, and, as Ed comes to observe, his friend sits up into the wee hours of the morning at the kitchen table, listening to the radio until he falls asleep. In giving sincere attention Ritchie’s life, Ed slowly comes to understand the message he must tell his friend, and he confronts him, and says ‘“Ritchie—you’re a complete disgrace to yourself.”’ The next night, Ritchie asks Ed to go on a walk, and the reader is given a strikingly poignant moment:
Ritchie stands up and walks into the river. The water rises above his knees. He says, “This is what our lives are, Ed.” He’s picked up on the idea of things rushing past us. “I’m twenty years old, and…look at me—there isn’t a thing I want to do.”
It’s impeccable how brutal the truth can be at times. You can only admire it…I get to my feet and join Ritchie in the river.
We both stand there, knee-deep in water, and the truth has well and truly pulled our pants down. The river rushes by.
“Ed?” Ritchie says later. We’re still standing in the water. “There’s only one thing I want.”
“What’s that, Ritchie?”
His answer is simple.
In this moment of epiphany, readers are not simply entertained. Zusak melds passion and rationality to evoke the same internal struggle that readers witness in St. Augustine’s Confessions. As his studying, friends, and personal convictions all bring Augustine nearer to his conversion, he finds himself praying, “Lord make me chaste and good, but not yet.” Our actions and thoughts aim at what we think will make our lives better, and often there is an initial moment in which one wants to want a higher good for his or her life. It is easy to be caught up in complacency, in a desire to simply exist and do nothing, but when Ritchie, like Augustine, feels that initial pull, that ache of emptiness common to all people, he starts with the same small step towards higher things. He does not have romantic aspirations to change the world. He is not idealistic. He simply acknowledges his pathetic state, and confesses a desire to stop wallowing in the nothingness that has inhibited him from living a meaningful life. Admittedly, this Augustinian journey towards right living does not reach the same point of fruition in I Am the Messenger, but Zusak finds common ground with his intended audience, all the while demonstrating the power of literature to lead toward profound truths.
Ever in touch with the modern style, Zusak offers a truly postmodern ending to I Am the Messenger by making the book painfully aware of itself as being an entirely made up piece of fiction. Indeed, the author writes himself into the plot, and Zusak knocks at Ed’s door, and admits to his protagonist,
“I did it all to you. I made you a less-than-competent taxi driver and got you to do all those things you thought you couldn’t.” We stand now, staring. Waiting for more words. “And why?” He pauses, but he doesn’t move back. “I did it because you are the epitome of ordinariness, Ed.” He looks at me seriously. “And if a guy like you can stand up and do what you did for all those people, well, maybe everyone can. Maybe everyone can live beyond what they’re capable of.”
A dumb, poor, taxi driver is never made into a competent hero. He is not an Aeneas or a Beowulf. He is limited from “changing the world” in that his creator authored him within particular, restrained circumstances. Throughout the novel, Ed is caught in awkward situations. He is beaten up and he is often unable to fully fix the broken people he meets, but despite his powerless state, Ed always has opportunities to invest in the lives of others. He lives beyond what he is capable of by making others greater and himself less. He is not a hero; he is a good man.
The stylistic choice of Zusak’s appearance in the novel makes the theme of selflessness direct, but it also raises questions about what one’s duty is to people they do not know, and to what extent one can control the situations of life. The latter of these would be especially disconcerting to contemporary readers, for it is uncomfortable to consider that one really has very little power to choose his own destiny. Many Great Books approach this from the opposite side—the cynical, sinister side—to consider how humans crave to use what little influence they have to control the lives of others. Whether it be Shakespeare’s great villain Iago or Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, many great writers have convicted their audiences about how they ought to use the influence they have been given. Henrik Ibsen’s tragedy Hedda Gaebler comes to mind, in which the titular character wants “for once in my life to mould a human destiny,” yet, when she loses her sense of control of her own life, she commits suicide to maintain her agency above all else.
Furthermore, while I Am the Messenger interacts with the tradition, it also stands out from the more successful novels beside it on the shelf because the center of its concerns rejects the vice and self-indulgence that is preached in many YA works. Indeed, it is almost difficult not to read I Am the Messenger as a response to Stephen Chbosky’s influential early YA novel The Perks of Being A Wallflower (1999). In this novel about a high school boy dealing with romance, death, suicide, and abuse, the disheartening conclusion of the protagonist, Charlie, is that
Things change and friends leave. And life doesn’t stop for anybody. I wanted to laugh. Or maybe get mad. Or maybe shrug at how strange everybody was, especially me. I think the idea is that every person has to live for his or her own life and then make the choice to share it with other people. You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things. I’m going to do what I want to do. I’m going to be who I really am…I feel infinite.
The dichotomy between these two contemporary novels is astounding; both meet young people “where they are at,” and appeal to their passions and desires, but Chbosky tells impressionable people what their flesh wants to hear. He promises that their own desires are all that matter. That their purpose is in doing what they want. It is corrosive to tell teenagers that they are “infinite,” and it is disheartening to see the powerful emotional style of YA used for such ends. Indeed, what the YA-pioneer Salinger and Zusak have done so well is that they juxtapose the inherent pathos of YA’s relatable settings, appealing characters, and charming aesthetics with deep truths about agency, duty, and fulfillment that are fundamentally uncomfortable.
YA novels written with proper aims in mind shed light on previously unidentified truths by harmonizing opposites. With crude language and poignant expressions of personhood they engage critical thinking. With witty avowals of love and dedicated service they exemplify an alternative to the distressing evils of this life. By pointing to the rich heritage of deeply smart and passionate thinkers they reveal that there are greater things than the temporal reality that surrounds us in this nihilistic twenty-first century. The dichotomies found in the great works of YA fiction do not indulge the reader in escapism, but they do demand inquiry. And they promise that truth is attainable. Our job is not just to read, but help others to read well. We can do that better with YA on our shelves.
Ryan Pfeiffer is a senior staff writer studying English