As I write this, my cap and gown are staring at me from their packages on my closet shelf—sometimes I feel like their taunting me, other times it seems like they’re just excited to bust out and get this thing rolling. “This thing,” of course, being the rest of our lives. And for that occasion, like most occasions, I turn to books. Here is your ultimate guide: books to read when you’re back living at home, off doing service in Tanzania, bartending and writing a novel, teaching in an under-privileged school or crushing it Schmidt-style on Wall Street; when you’re feeling hopeful or defeated, frustrated or proud, nostalgic or optimistic.
The Secret History Donna Tartt
Oh, if my friends could tell you how much I’ve nagged them to read this book (Just in the past few weeks I’ve forced both my boyfriend and my dad to read it, both to much praise and rejoicing by me). So now it’s your turn. This is the perfect novel for recent college graduates, especially of the liberal arts variety. It is thrilling, fascinating, and one of the most intellectually stimulating novels you’ll ever read. Tartt just won the Pulitzer for The Goldfinch, and I think this is better. So take that as you will.
If you like this read: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
Lean In: For Graduates Sheryl Sandberg
If you haven’t actually read it yet and only pretend to at networking events, now is the time. The full updated book, plus a letter from Sheryl to recent graduates, six additional chapters other career experts like Mindy Levy, Kunal Modi, and Rachel Simmons, and a dozen essays from readers about how they have been inspired by Lean In. This book is the phenomenon in women-in-the-workplace news of the past two years, and we should all at least be able to join in the debate.
If you like this read: I Just Graduated…Now What? by Katherine Schwarzenegger
This Is Water David Foster Wallace
Sheryl has you covered with success, but David Foster Wallace knows the meaning of true freedom, of the true value of an education, of awareness, of compassion. If you haven’t at least watched this video, do it now, and then also buy the book—the extended version is so worth it. This is one of those pieces of writing that is so powerful that after seeing it for the first time several years ago, I continue to think the phrase, “this is water,” in my every day life. So beautiful, so necessary.
If you like this read: On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz
Art of Living Epictetus
Honestly one of my favorite books that I read throughout my academic career was Epictetus’ Handbook. How did a Roman citizen born into slavery in the year 55 understand me so perfectly?? It sounds crazy, but Epictetus was truly a genius when it comes to recognizing what you can and cannot control, and finding peace and balance in your life. And speaking of books: “Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.”
If you like this read: Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Make Good Art Neil Gaiman
Another one of the greatest commencement speeches of all time, Make Good Art is Neil Gaiman’s philosophy of life to “Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.”
If you like this read: Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf
Speaking of making good art, Woolf’s series of lectures delivered to girls is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best commentaries on fiction there is. It’s been pegged as an argument about why women need money and a room of their own if they are to write fiction, but it is so much more than that. It’s about the nature of fiction and art, the differences between men and women, and the desperate need for the voices and genius of women to be expressed.
If you like this read: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (Actually read this regardless)
Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do Studs Terkel
This is an absolutely tremendous work of oral history, filled with short interviews with everyone from stockbrokers to housewives to hotel clerks to newspaper carriers. The fact that these histories were recorded in the 1970s does not in the least detract from its value: capturing the variety of American experience in the work force, showing that everyone has a story, and making you think about how people choose—and thus how you should choose—their careers.
If you like this read: What Should I Do with My Life? by Po Bronson
Outliers Malcolm Gladwell
I know many of you have likely already read it, but it’s worth it for those of you haven’t. There is a good reason why Gladwell’s books are everywhere—because they completely change the way you think. Outliers is my personal favorite, and the most appropriate since we’re about to graduate and presumably crave success. Gladwell looks at case studies of “prodigies,” ultimately concluding that it’s a combination of hard work, opportunity, and seizing the moment. It will light a fire under your butt, promise.
If you like this read: Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
How to Be Alone: Essays Jonathan Franzen
Actually anything but a depressing or isolating work, “the welcome paradox is that the reader need not feel isolated at all (The New York Times).” A social commentary with a vast array of topics: the sex-advice industry, the way a supermax prison works, and the American novel, Franzen will help inspire you to critically analyze the society in which we find ourselves.
If you like this read: Why Are You So Sad?: A Novel by Jason Porter
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