I was 20 years old and in undergrad when I first picked up Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The book had been making the rounds among my friends for five years before I finally got around to picking it up. In the thick of my major in English Literature, I imagine I thought myself too good for a young adult novel published by MTV, a network I had only begun to roll my eyes at in the years leading up to Teen Mom and Jersey Shore. Eventually, though, the book became hard to ignore and I bought a copy to see what all the hype was about. I’m so glad I did.
When I started reading Perks, as it is affectionately called among its many devoted fans, I was in the most tumultuous and self-destructive relationship of my dating life. I met him at a book signing for an author visiting campus, and our mutual love of music and writing led to an intense, on-again off-again relationship. His Hemingway-esque tendencies to devote himself entirely to his writing or disappear for days at a time left me questioning my own self worth; after all, if he wasn’t willing to spend time with me, there must be something wrong with me, right? But then he would come back, put a Radiohead album in the CD player, and we would wax philosophical about music and the state of the world until the wee hours of the morning and everything was right again.
Perks spoke to me at this time of my life for many reasons, not least of which is because the themes of the book center around love, friendship, self-esteem, and music. On the surface, Perks is about a boy who feels rejected by those around him and finds comfort in writing letters to an anonymous recipient. The boy, Charlie, befriends a quirky group of high schoolers and throws himself into their passions while working toward finding his own. They participate in the high school culture – from football games to parties to school dances – and make each other mixtapes and, eventually, have to say good-bye. Their struggles are ones that high school students face on a daily basis. The book goes deeper than that, though, and does a good job of dealing with heavy topics that ring true to anyone who has suffered through the awkward years of adolescence, including sex, sexuality (one of the main characters in the book is gay), drugs, and trying to fit in.
I had first avoided the book for the same reasons that it is so great. While it recounts my terrible and unforgettable years of high school, it contains quotable insights into life, no matter your age. When Charlie’s English teacher said to him, “We accept the love we think we deserve,” for example, I cried. I looked at my relationship at the time and was floored; this was the love I thought I deserved? Days with no contact, feeling bad about myself, letting him dictate how I spent my time?
Charlie has inspired me to really see what goes on around me, and to make my life better in so many ways. Now, as an English teacher myself, I see students attracted to this book, and it’s no wonder. The bright green, minimalistic cover piques their interest, and they are soon sucked into its pages just as I was. Every year, I buy at least two copies of the book for my classroom library. Every year, those copies disappear. I would be angry, but I understand the impulse – they want to keep the book that has meant so much to them during a tumultuous time in their lives.
Recently, MTV released the trailer for the upcoming movie version during the 2012 Movie Awards. Though I am in an entirely different place in my life than I was when I first read Perks, I found myself simultaneously tearing up and smiling while watching the trailer. I hope the movie manages to be everything the book was. Most of all, I hope the movie rings emotionally true and inspires a new generation of young people to observe and analyze their lives, and also to step off the wall and participate in the wonderful things going on around them. If the trailer is any indication, I believe it will do all of this and then some.
Photo Credit: elizabeth catherine