From the Archives: Reading in the Dark

by |April 20, 2012

When I was a teen dark had to be dark dark, it had to be midnight or nothing… twilight could never be dark enough.

And it had to be real… not like reality TV ‘real’… but real, as in authentic. Yes, it had to be dark and it had to be real.

Which meant it had to be true. More true than the truths teachers and parents were trying to teach. More true than any camera could capture. More true than was good for the young to know.

But what was ‘it’?

‘It’ was big ideas. Ideas we angrily supposed our elders were too complacent to address or teach.

So we turned to books.Hunger

Which books?

Books from Northern Europe, where long dark winters encouraged long dark thoughts. We sought such literature, for it had an edge to it, a bite, and it had the power to transform us into creatures of the night.

Yes, we were to become intellectuals.

We found novels like:

Knut Hamsun’s Hungerwhose protagonist puts art before the necessities of life and works stubbornly to earn his bread by the pen alone, starving in the process.

Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which pointed out that a bourgeois or suburban existence was, in fact, a living death.

Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood, a horror story so real that we went to bed suddenly thankful for our suburban birth.

And all of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels from Devils, The Idiot and Notes from Underground to Crime and Punishment, The House of the Dead and The Brothers Karamazov.

Our minds were hungry and we needed substance. We read Penguin Classics, Penguin Modern Classics, Picadors, Vintage Classics, Oxford Classics etc…

Of course, there were casualties; a few went wild for the Marquis de Sade, whose Philosophy of the Boudoir and 120 Days of Sodom left some readers with unsightly facial tics and bizarre sexual practices. Some fell for Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and took to goose-stepping about the place because they didn’t read the antidote to Rand, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt. And then there were those dullards who preferred Sartre’s Nausea to Camus’ The Outsider!

But on the main this diet of dark reading made us happy, happier than our friends who sought solace in Stephen King or Virginia Andrews. We were happier because our reading made us feel important, active, relevant and because we were being challenged and intellectually stimulated.

Fanciful creatures of the night are immortal, but sadly, the real creatures of the night, teen intellectuals, live but briefly, for just as they begin to burn most brightly they are cut down by toxic adult responsibilities – responsibilities, however, for which they are well prepared.

Ten More Novels To Sink Your Teeth Into

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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