“Teen reading” is a phrase I use not to describe a certain type of book — you can “teen read” Jane Austen or David Foster Wallace — but a certain style of reading: when you block everything and everyone else out, and immerse yourself in the world of the book until you reach the point that even going to the bathroom is an annoyance.
Teens can read like this because (many) of them have the freedom that comes with no full-time job and few obligations. Teens don’t have to spend an hour in traffic to attend a distant cousin’s baby shower; teens don’t have to wait in line at Ann Taylor Loft to return three pairs of shoes you ill-advisedly bought after two glasses of wine.
Indeed, what I remember most about being a teen wasn’t what I did do, but what I didn’t: long stretches of afternoons, weekends, whole weeks in summer that were totally unstructured and seemed to furl out forever. I’d fill them, always, with reading. When I was younger, it was The Baby-sitters Club and The Chronicles of Narnia, all of which were addictive in their various charming ways.
But as I grew older, the books grew more complicated, and so too did my immersion in them: I’d reread the Lois Duncan books, so twisted and supernatural and vaguely sexual, in the hungry way that teens devour things that they know their mom might not find “appropriate.” I got swallowed up by A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and wholly addicted to everything ever written by Madeleine L’Engle, from the dark fantasy worlds of A Wrinkle in Time to the expansive, knotty family dynamics of Meet the Austins. My mom would tell me to go outside and get some fresh air — so I’d go outside and get some fresh air with my book.
If you’re the type of person who reads BuzzFeed Books, then you know what I’m talking about. Even hearing it described makes you nostalgic. I miss that feeling so much that sometimes, in pursuit of recapturing it, I ignore things about a book that would otherwise offend or repulse me: I knew, 100 pages in, that the depiction of Bella Swan in Twilight was, well, a problem, but you know what I loved more? Being enveloped by that story. Coming home and forgetting to eat because I was still reading. Staying up until 2 a.m. because I was still reading. Being worthless the next day but that’s OK because all I wanted to do was STILL READ.
As adults, we’re taught to avoid that sort of reading — that sort of envelopment — because it makes us irresponsible. Bad parents, bad housekeepers, bad employees. The ability to be “bad” at the bigger (and often somewhat boring) things in life, simply because a book has consumed you — that’s what I miss about being a teen, and the sort of reading that accompanied it.
As adults, our lattice of responsibility, guilt, and shame often makes it nearly impossible to make a conscious decision to read like a teen. It’s hard to say, “Today I’m going to shirk all worldly responsibilities!” Which means we often have to be tricked into teen reading: not by our peers, or our partner, but by the power of a book.
This past weekend, that book was The Fever, the latest from Megan Abbott, who was responsible for Dare Me. The Fever tells the story of a tight-knit group of high school girls who succumbs to a mysterious affliction — fainting, convulsions, vomiting, visions; the specifics change from girl to girl, as do the potential causes. As the school and town try to figure out the cause, the hysteria breeds, amplifies, and everything from vaccinations to pollution gets blamed. I won’t say much more about the specifics of the plot or its unraveling, but Abbott is fiercely aware of the antecedents in teenage hysteria (think The Crucible). That awareness, however, is never used as a gimmick — more like a sly wink, an acknowledgement that the anxiety over young women “acting out” in various forms is itself a long and screwed up story.
The Fever is set in high school, and two of the three narrators are high school students, but it’s one of those teen books that manages to simultaneously feel pitch-perfect (the texting language is particularly on point) and keenly observant in a way that mirrors teens’ actual thoughts. Put differently, Abbott is able to render the texture, ambivalence, and confusion of the inner life of a teen, coupling it with sparse, plain dialogue that highlights the disjunction between the way a teen experiences the world and how he or she can actually articulate that experience.
And the plot! It’s like a riptide! I was hooked by Page 4. Seriously, Page 4 — the end of the first, highly ambiguous, totally tantalizing mini-chapter that begins the book. I knew, four pages in, that I was ruined for the rest of the day. I laid in bed and watched the sun slowly creep down, a slight breeze and the sounds of Saturday-crazed children filtering in through the windows, and lost myself, and four hours of the day, to finishing these 300 pages.
It was delicious. And writing about it today, I realize that all the language we use to talk about those stolen days of teen reading is, itself, propagating the feelings of shame and regret associated with adults reading like teens: I lost myself in the narrative; it consumed me. But these periods of deep, teen-like engagement with the text are far more crucial to my sense of self than any amount of errand-running or quotidian responsibility.
I can’t read like a teen every day: The dishes do, at some point, need to get done. But if I forget to periodically “lose” myself to a book, what I’ll actually lose is my grounding in the real world. I need to periodically read like a teen, in other words, to actually live like an adult. So find The Fever or your own anchor back into the world of teen reading, waste the day in its clutches, and remember just how valuable — and crucial — that sort of waste can be.