In my English 11 class we are wrapping up our study of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The book has often been described as an “anti-censorship” novel, and while Bradbury was certainly opposed to censorship, this is really one of the least interesting of the novel’s themes. Fundamentally, Fahrenheit 451 is the story of the awakening of a mind. Its protagonist, Guy Montag, changes from being a man who burns books for a living to one who eagerly seeks them out and longs to learn as much as he can about the riches of the past and the beauty and power of the written word. In the end, this is what teachers should most strive for: to wake their students up, to ignite their curiosity about the world, to instill in them a restless longing for lifelong learning.
But suppose a student finds that he or she, like Montag, wants to begin (or continue) this process. What next? Let me suggest six books that, in the words of Faber in Fahrenheit 451, “touch life often.” I would highly recommend any of these books to teenagers (or people of any age) who would like to begin thinking more seriously about the world and their place in it.
1. Thomas Nagel, What Does it All Mean?
In this superb introduction to philosophy, Nagel uses very sparse and conversational prose to tackle some of the most important ideas one can think about, such as knowledge, justice, morality, death, and the meaning of life. The book is written, Nagel assures us, for people who don’t know the first thing about philosophy but who want to learn how to think about ideas that matter.
2. Jostein Gaarder Sophie’s World
An intriguing novel about a young girl who finds two letters in her mailbox. One asks, “Who are you?” The other asks “Where did the world come from?” From this inauspicious beginning she begins an intellectual journey exploring the history of thought and the truth about her own existence. This book is part novel and part history of philosophy, and builds up to a mind-bending twist ending.
3. Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning
The only book on this list considered a “classic” (a snobby term I am not generally fond of), Viktor Frankl’s combination Holocaust memoir/psychological treastise is one of the great books of the twentieth century. The title says it all: it concerns the meaning of life itself, deeply informed by Frankl’s own experiences as a Holocaust survivor. I often teach this novel in my English 12 class.
4. Alok Jha, Science: Without the Boring Bits
Alok Jha’s book is written for people like me (and like some of you reading this blog, I imagine): people who are fascinated by science and realize its supreme importance to human life, yet who have little formal background or education in it beyond some of the rudimentary facts learned in high school. This is an incredible, highly readable book that uses everyday language to introduce its reader to black holes, genetics, nuclear weapons, brain dissection, parallel universes, and the weirdness of quantum mechanics, to name but a few topics.
[NOTE: This book is not the same as “Science Without the Boring Bits” by Ian Crofton. I haven’t read Crofton’s book, so I have no opinion on it either way, but the similar titles could easily cause confusion.]
5. Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
Unlike some of the books on this list, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work isn’t an easy read, but it’s well worth the effort (and, I think, not too hard for teenage readers, as I’ve used it before in my English 11 classes). A meditation on the meaning of work and the search for a fulfilling career, the book is part philosophy and part career guidance. Highly recommended, as is anything else by Alain de Botton.
6. Pete Hautmann, Godless
Winner of the prestigious National Book Award, Pete Hautman’s Godless is a short novel about a young man named Jason who becomes disillusioned with the religion of his parents, and so decides to create his own religion, centered on the worship of the town water tower. At first he thinks of it mainly as a joke, but the religion takes on a strange life of its own as some of Jason’s friends find themselves taking the faith far more seriously than he does. Godless is a thought-provoking book about the nature of belief, the power of religious faith, the mutability and permanence of tradition, and the inherent need of all young people to differentiate themselves in some way from their parents.
It’s a small start, but I’m sure you know by now that every journey begins with a single step, or a single book, as the case may be. If any of you have questions or comments on these books, I would welcome your comments here.