The Book That Changed My Life

As it’s Book Week Scotland this week, I thought I’d devote a post to one of my all-time favourite novels. I first read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton in my early days of high school, and without getting too melodramatic here, I’d go so far as to say it completely changed my life. Although I’d read books before – lots of them – this was the first book that really instilled in me a lifelong love of reading. It was also the book that made me want to be a writer one day (prompting a very brief – and bad – attempt at novel-writing thankfully long since forgotten in the corridors of time). Back in the late 1980’s The Outsiders was as intrinsic to my life as homework, backcombing and my Rimmel spot-reducing concealer stick. I loved it so much that in the course of my adolescence I must have read it at least twenty or thirty times.

The book tells the story of Ponyboy Curtis, a fourteen year old living with his two older brothers Sodapop and Darry in 1960’s Oklahoma. The brothers form part of a gang of ‘Greasers’ (including other unconventionally named characters like Two-Bit and Dallas), who live tough lives – with personalities to match. Their lives play out against the backdrop of class division, violence and ‘rumbles’ with their arch enemies the ‘Socs’ (AKA the rich kids). These knife-wielding ne’er do wells hardly seem like the sort of characters a thirteen year old from a happy, sheltered background would find herself drawn to – yet inexplicably, I was.

The themes of disconnection, feeling different and being on the outside are perhaps universal to that particular condition known as adolescence. ‘For in its innermost depths youth is lonelier than old age’ is a quote I read recently that really resonates for me. The Outsiders taught me that it was okay to feel different, okay to be a little on the outside of things. While most of my classmates were sniggering over the naughty bits in the latest Judy Blume offering, I kept returning to Ponyboy, Johnny and the other characters who had become friends to me. When you’re a shy, studious thirteen year old, friends like those can be really good to have.

Picture of 'The Outsiders' book on bed

Ponyboy was in fact inhabited so completely by the author that it was years before I finally accepted that 1). S.E. Hinton wasn’t actually Ponyboy and 2). S.E. Hinton was in fact actually a girl. A mere sixteen years of age when she wrote the book, it was definitely a case of a teenager speaking to teenagers and voicing the things that probably couldn’t be felt by someone ‘old’. Ponyboy loved sunsets, poetry and his older brother Soda. He was also prone to familiar bouts of teenage melodrama. As he says in one scene: ‘I wished I was dead and buried somewhere. Or at least that I had on a decent shirt.’ Through Ponyboy and his friend Johnny, I found a lifelong appreciation for Robert Frost poetry, and for years signed off letters to a similarly-obsessed friend with totally un-self conscious pleas about ‘staying gold’ inked inside lovehearts and fluffy clouds. And I never forgot the novel’s opening lines of course – the ultimate test of any self-respecting Outsiders fangirl loyalty. ‘When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house….’ remains the only opening line of a novel I can properly remember even to this day.

And let’s not forget the film adaptation, which featured everyone you ever fancied in the 80’s, and launched the careers of several of Hollywood’s ‘Brat Pack’ – Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise and Patrick Swayze to name a few. It all left me feeling hopeful that there might be teenagers out there somewhere who liked poetry and sunsets and existed outside of fairytales and John Hughes movie sets. In short – The Outsiders made me feel like there might be other people in the world who were a little bit like me.

I’m not suggesting that someone is going to read the book for the first time as a forty-something and declare it the best thing that’s ever happened to them – that’s not what I’m getting at. Just last week, I re-read it (as said 40-something), and naturally, the experience isn’t quite the same. What does remain is the heart and soul and honesty that leaps out from every single page (along with the realisation that THIS WAS WRITTEN BY A SIXTEEN YEAR OLD.) It’s still as fresh as it was all those years ago – despite being over fifty years old, it feels like it could have been written literally just the other day.

When I placed my copy back on the bookshelf and said goodbye to the friends contained within its pages last week I wondered if I’d read it again one day. And then I realised it doesn’t really matter – it will always be with me, as the things you love best in life truly always are. It’s there for my own kids, should they one day choose to read it.

Along with all the other books in the world, just waiting to be opened.

Waiting quietly on the bookshelf, ready to change another life.

G x