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Ask a Book Question (#59): Books for Recent Graduates

By posted at 4:39 am on May 1, 2008 4

Bryan wrote in with this question:

I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:

Currently reading:

Recently read (sep 07 – april 08):

Bryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.

In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.

coverAutobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by Edan

This novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.

coverThe Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by Edan

Three teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.

coverAir Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by Edan

This is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.

coverGeorge Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by Andrew

So you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.

Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”

covercoverLucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by Max

To me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.

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4 Responses to “Ask a Book Question (#59): Books for Recent Graduates”

  1. armchair virtuoso
    at 7:20 am on May 1, 2008

    Everything by William Gaddis, starting with JR. The books are big but few; five novels, one book of essays and one published draft.

    Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich is underappreciated, I think.

    Susan Straight's Aquaboogie.

    CivilWarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders.

  2. Patrick
    at 4:39 pm on May 1, 2008

    Ah, Lucky Jim. The only book I reread with any regularity.

  3. Bryan
    at 12:55 pm on May 5, 2008

    I had no idea this would be posted on the actual blog, leaving me with no opportunity to defend some of the questionable choices I made. A few of these were gifts, let me just say that. I certainly wasn't trying to impress anyone here, it's just a list that I keep. A lot of it was just catch-up. -Bryan

  4. Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 9:05 am on May 6, 2008

    Brian- One should never have to defend one's reading list! In addition to which, you have nothing to be ashamed of here. There are some great books on this list. Now read "Mating!"

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