There’s a bit of a trend going around on Youtube in which vloggers recreate the hair, makeup and fashion looks they rocked in high school, typically to much comedic effect (especially if you’re my age – the 1990s weren’t particularly kind to anyone…). Now, I’m not much into style, but I was inspired to write a post about a pivotal book in my high school reading career. So prepare yourself for a blast from the past as we fire up the way-back machine and head all the way back to the late 1990s!
There’s pretty much only one word to describe my high school reading obsession – RUSSIAN. I was obsessed with Russian literature – the intensity of emotions, the world-weariness, the angst – it all seemed perfectly attuned to my high school sensibilities. And the novel that first sparked my adolescent Slavic obsession was Cancer Ward, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Based on the author’s experiences while undergoing cancer treatment, Cancer Ward was a revelation – darkly humorous, honest and completely unflinching, this was unlike any novel that I’d ever encountered before, and certainly unlike any of the teen novels available at my local school or public library. I remember being absolutely gobsmacked, and devoured the entire book in a few fascinated sittings. Solzhenitsyn opened my eyes to a whole new literary world, and helped rekindle a childhood passion for books that had been somewhat dimmed by the young adult materials that well-meaning but uninspiring librarians and teachers recommended – suffice it to say, the world of young adult literature was very different in the ’90s, and there was little that appealed to me the way this novel did.
There’s also a bit of a funny story about how this life-changing book ended up in my hands. When I was in high school I sang in my local church choir. While waiting for practice to start one day, I found myself browsing a bookshelf in the rectory. I don’t know what initially drew me to Cancer Ward – I’d never heard of the author and hadn’t read anything Russian before, and the cover certainly wasn’t all that exciting, but for some reason I pulled it off the shelf and started to read. When the rest of the choir members arrived I went to put the book back on the shelf, but Fr. Rossi encouraged me to borrow it, and said I was always welcome to any of the books in his collection. I took the book home and finished it, and the rest was history.
Cancer Ward is a pretty heavy book with some potentially “adult” content, but neither the parish priest nor my parents ever questioned whether or not I was old enough or mature enough to read it. I’ve always felt free to read whatever I want, whenever I want, and that’s such an important feeling, especially for a teenager. I’m a vocal champion of thinking outside the box and connecting readers with the right books without judgement, regardless of the category that society has slotted them into. If teenagers find comfort in childhood books or enjoy the challenge of adult novels, whether they enjoy graphic novels, nonfiction, romances or controversial topics, what matters is that they connect with what they’re reading, and that it speaks to them in the right way at the right moment in their lives. Novels geared towards teenagers just didn’t appeal to me when I was a teenager, but because I was encouraged to explore beyond the YA world, my love of reading survived and even flourished during my awkward adolescence.
Thanks for taking this trip down memory lane with me! Are there any pivotal books that you remember from your high school years? I’d love to hear about them!