Five Books That Made You Feel Like an Adult Reader

There comes a time in every reader's life when he or she graduates from kids books and young-adult titles to nonfiction with no holds barred and fiction that draws on the full resources of the language in portraying complex human relationships. My friend Jack is entering this phase now in Webster Groves, Mo., and I had the idea for this blog while Christmas shopping for him. The switchover doesn't happen all at once, of course, but there must have been a night when kid lit provided all the thrills and fascination I could handle, followed by a dawn when it seemed blah. Here are five books, read when I was about 14, that told me my mind was catching up with my developing body:

1. And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie.
My mother was a mystery-addict, and probably some sort of genetic transfer occurred because I ended up reading more Hardy Boys books than anybody else in my grammar-school class. And then one day I picked up this book, which, though not gory (Christie, after all, is the Queen of the Cozies), featured one murder after another, along with perhaps the cleverest plot in all of literature. For years afterward, I read a new Christie (new to me, that is) whenever I needed a break from more serious fare.

2. The Red Pony, by John Steinbeck.
This one was assigned for English class my freshman year of high school, by a Jesuit who made it clear that we shouldn't read it just for pleasure. Look for the super-theme, he urged, which was no easy task because the novella's fourth and last section, The Leader of the People, has no obvious connection with the rest. (By the way, I've hung on to my 25-cent Bantam paperback edition ever since.)

3. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë.
Whoa, Nelly -- a catch-phrase that actually works in this case because the servant Nelly Dean narrates the tale. And what a tale it is, throbbing with passion poured into a love affair so intense that it becomes destructive. Again, I still have the copy I read a half-century ago: Pocket Library, 35 cents.

4. A Short History of the Civil War (also known as Ordeal by Fire), by Fletcher Pratt.
If anyone had told my young self that I would become a Civil War buff, I would have laughed derisively -- I didn't even like war comics. But after resisting this one at first (another school assignment), I found Pratt to be a superlative storyteller and phrasemaker: He summed up the Battle of Chancellorsville as "the truest, the most splendid victory Robert Lee ever won, against all odds and a commander who had half shut a trap around his army -- an absolute masterpiece, beyond which no further art is possible." By the time I turned the last page, I was even poring over the battlefield maps!

5. Dracula, by Bram Stoker.
This novel is gory, and reading it was an act of rebellion. Over the Christmas holidays in freshman year of high school, we were supposed to read Ivanhoe. Snooze City. Couldn't finish it. Went to the drugstore, bought a paperback copy of Dracula and devoured that instead. I think I even got the sexual subtext.

Send in your own recollections of those transitional books that got you reading as a grownup.

-- Dennis Drabelle

By Christian Pelusi |  December 11, 2008; 7:32 AM ET Dennis Drabelle
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One day in 7th grade, my English teacher wheeled in a cart of books she had checked out of the library. She said to the class, "It is time you started reading adult books. Come up and pick something out." I waited for the mad rush to be over and took the last book, My Antonia. From then on, I read adult level books and never did know my generation's YA titles. I read Agatha Christie, memoirs and a lot of middlebrow stuff. I also read Dickens on my own. I initially despised Steinbeck for The Red Pony, The Wayward Bus and The Pearl but forgave him when I eventually got to The Grapes of Wrath.

Posted by: cebeling | December 11, 2008 8:36 AM

Back in the '60s a friend of mine from work loved Fletcher Pratt. (The friend later bacame a history professor.) I remember him quoting Pratt--something like: It's easy to remember 1492 because it rhymes with "ocean blue." 1493 would also have worked since it rhymes with "ocean sea." My friend, after a little thought, later told me: "You know 1494 wouldn't have it worked at all since it rhymes with 'ocean floor.'"

I think Pratt had a reputation of being free with the facts but there was no denying his reader appeal.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | December 11, 2008 11:39 AM

"The Foundation Trilogy" by Isaac Asimov

Besides getting me started on a long stretch of liking and reading science fiction, it started to give me a glimpse of the complexities of the world and human beings I was about to encounter.

Posted by: cjbriggs | December 11, 2008 1:29 PM

"Of mice and men" by John Steinbeck

This was originally an assigned read, but I loved it so much I have reread it more than any other book. It was heartbreaking and seemed very adult.

Posted by: cjbriggs | December 11, 2008 1:32 PM

My father was a voracious reader of cheapo 1950's paperbacks with lurid covers. When I was in sixth grade in 1958 I picked up a copy of The Farmer's Hotel by John O'Hara, attracted by the mysteriously prurient cover, the short length, and the fact that it was full of dialog - I think I was born loving dialog in fiction. I didn't get the subtexts of the story (I knew absolutely nothing about sex) but sensed that there were secrets of adulthood I wanted to understand. When an aunt turned pale upon seeing what I was reading, I knew I was on the right road. Been screaming down that highway ever since.

Posted by: JoeCottonwood | December 11, 2008 1:38 PM

I read Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullars when I was about 13 and I recognized myself in the main character, Frankie. I then had to read every other Carson McCullars book. I can't say that I recognized myself again in any other of the other titles, but I found her characterizations extreemly compelling. McCullars was my introduction to adult literature. I regret that she didn't live longer to write more. What an incredible artist.

Posted by: rabbfamily | December 11, 2008 2:49 PM

I went through all of Agatha Christie too, but probably the first book that made me feel like an adult was Gone With the Wind. It was thick; there was a terrible war going on; and while Scarlett was as "plucky" as the young heroines I was familiar with, she also had an adult edge that I found complicated and fascinating.

Posted by: LesliePietrzyk | December 11, 2008 4:29 PM

The earliest "good" "adult" books I remember reading were Agatha Christie's novels in middle school. But I seem to remember reading, around the same age (don't know if my parents even knew if I was reading it), a book called "The Debutantes." It was trashy and sex-soaked and I tore through it.

Posted by: kleewrite | December 11, 2008 4:40 PM

In grade school I found The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk in the bookcase at home. It captivated me. I kept it hidden under the bed because it the began with a scene of naked pink men standing in line for a physical to join the navy. So risque... I was afraid it would be confiscated.
The powerful psychological nature of that book fascinated me, and so began my love of reading.

Posted by: Elaine10 | December 11, 2008 8:46 PM

Mine was "Memoirs of a Geisha" when I was about 13. My grandma had a copy in her basement, given to her by my uncle, and she thought it was "inappropriate" for me to read. The cover captivated me. I snuck it out and read the whole thing during a weekend visit (only reading it in my room, of course). The epic scope of the story swept me away (although I thought it slowed down a bit towards the end), and I loved the character of Sayuri, who was about my age at the beginning of the book. I finally got my own copy a few years later.

Posted by: choirgirl04 | December 12, 2008 9:49 AM

Animal Farm. The first time I read it I instantly fell in love with the story and reading. At least once a year I pull it out and read it again.

Posted by: petalceleb | December 16, 2008 10:27 AM

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