The Outsiders by SE Hinton, book of a lifetime: A powerful feeling of hope

SE Hinton's novel - which she wrote when she was only 19-years-old - was the first proper book Matt Haig read without parental or teacher endorsement

Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, C. Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, and Ralph Macchio in Francis Ford Coppola's film of the book
Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, C. Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, and Ralph Macchio in Francis Ford Coppola's film of the book

I have various books that mean a lot to me. But The Outsiders, a tale of a gang of American kids from the wrong side of the tracks, was a book that comforted me at various points in my life. When I first read it I was about 13, and having a not particularly great time at school and so the book became a kind of friend to me. I would read about all these characters with ridiculously strange names – Ponyboy Curtis, Dallas, Cherry, and Sodapop – and feel like they were my friends too. Ponyboy, in particular, as the first-person narrator,

This is not the best written book in the world, and nor is it saying the most (though re-reading it recently it does have a lot to say politically, about how socio-economic divides shape the lives of young people), but what it has is a powerful feeling of hope coupled with a beautifully sentimental sense of life. This might have something to do with the fact that SE Hinton was only 19-years-old when she wrote it, and it might also be to do with the love of literature that infuses the book.

Ponyboy is not exactly an academic boy, but while he and his friend Johnny are on the run, after Johnny has accidentally killed a boy from another gang, Ponyboy gains comfort from reading Gone With the Wind and Robert Frost.

Most people in this country probably know The Outsiders as a film, rather than a book. But Francis Ford Coppola's film, for me, while gorgeous and well-acted (featuring then unknowns Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon and Patrick Swayze) doesn't have the same emotional value as the book. In part that's because this novel was the first proper book I had read that wasn't being read because of parental or teacher endorsement. It didn't feel like it was there to do me good – though it did – and was at least as entertaining as any film or piece of music could be.

When I fell ill with a severe case of depression and anxiety in my twenties, struggling to find a reason to cope with the pain and to stay alive, I re-read this book. It was one of the few things I was able to concentrate on. It took me back to my younger, healthier self and that American sense of hope was like medicine. Books were one of the things that saved me, and this felt a kind of therapy. It's one of those I like to keep close by, like a life-raft, for future storms.

Matt Haig's new book is 'A Boy Called Christmas' (Canongate)

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