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Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Road to Destiny: Books for the Graduate

What books would you give to a young person just stepping out into the world? I started thinking about this as my seniors get ready to discover the world and themselves. Could I come up with a list of books that might help them carve a path both in the great world outside themselves and into their own souls? I'm a high school English teacher, so I know about short attention spans. The books I offer to the eager graduate must be compelling. My list can't be long: a long list evokes the specter of giving up. Ten is my arbitrary limit; I came up with a list, similarly arbitrary, that might help the graduate imagine the worlds without and within. The books on this list include fiction and non-fiction.  Many of the books on this list involve a main character struggling with issues of identity and formation of self.  A couple of the books on the list I simply think are irresistible for younger readers (or any readers).  Tell me what you think--I'm sure I left something off my list that you think is absolutely essential....

1. The Inferno by Dante Aligheri:  Dante was in the middle of his life when he found himself in a dark wood, but this spiritual journey all the way to the ninth circle of Hell never fails to capture the imaginations of my high school students.  I find that most have spent very little time thinking of sin and their souls, but the vivid imagery of this poem is irresistible, and young folks love to think about the larger ideas of good and evil.
2. The Narrative of Frederick Douglass:  this is one of my all-time favorite books.  If it were simply about the evils of slavery I wouldn't come back to it again and again, but Douglass shows how perfectly nice people are corrupted by the evils of an unjustifiable and criminal system.  The narrative also has a powerful lesson of the importance of literacy, and the ability of one man to form himself through the power of reading and writing.
3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley:  what does it mean to be human?  What do we owe to those who love us?  This amazing novel has nearly everything in it:  monsters, both human and inhuman; the inhumanity and arrogance of power over others; an exploration of childhood and learning; and vivid, powerful imaginative writing.
4. East of Eden by John Steinbeck:  I know this book is long, but people from every walk of life claim this as a transforming book, a favorite book.  A powerful, primordial, mythical story about sibling rivalry, love, and the absence of love.
5. Persuasion by Jane Austen:  what happens when the one person you could love slips away from you because you were too young and too impressionable to think for yourself?  Is it possible to change a life-altering decision?
6. Black Boy by Richard Wright:  this is a classic novel of the journey from innocence to experience.  Set against a background of social injustice and suffering, the novel is also the story of a writer's intellectual self-education.
7. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers:  for the small-town misfit, a beautiful and evocative exploration of loneliness and belonging.
8. Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks:  this is the story of a child marginalized by a family and a society which all too easily abandon him as incorrigible and not worth saving.  The main character, Bone, finds a mentor and takes a spiritual journey against a disturbing backdrop of neglect and exploitation.
9. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving:  another long book that draws the reader in and compels completion.  The question is, does each of us have an irrevocable destiny? 
10.Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer:  I was going to put Walden on this list, but this book is one that asks some of the same questions that Walden does, but with a different sort of urgency and more tragic consequences.  Christopher McCandless was a wealthy college graduate who walked away from everyone and everything he knew.  Why did this young man drop out of society, and what were the tragic errors that led to his death by starvation.  This non-fiction book reads like a novel, and asks more questions than it can answer.

I'm eager to get your feedback, dear readers.  What books would you hand to the recent graduate (high school or college) to help them navigate their inner and outer roads to destiny?

14 comments:

Kate said...

Great list...

I agree with "A Prayer for Owen Meany"! My absolute favorite! If asked, I would indeed label it as "essential". :)

Amateur Reader said...

Joseph Epstein's advice "is to have some time-tested and officially great book going at all times... alongside which you can read less thumpingly significant books." Also: "read no junky books," "haunt used-book stores," let one book lead... to another."

Not that yours isn't a good list!

All of this is from "Joseph Epstein's Lifetime Reading Plan", available in Once More Around the Block.

Miel Abeille said...

"The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho! Pleas tell me that you're aware of this book! Perfect for the graduate or anyone struggling with a transition in their life.

On a less intellectual note, I would give females "How to Be a Hepburn in a Hilton World," by Jordan Christy. It is not your standard self-help book. The focus is on women respecting themselves and how to demonstrate respect. Definitely a winner.

Brenna said...

When I graduated one of the most memorable books I received was "What Now?" by Ann Patchett. It gives the message that it's ok to not have a set plan for the rest of your life and the not knowing can open many doors for opportunity.

bibliophiliac said...

@Kate-A Prayer for Owen Meany is a favorite read for me@Amateur Reader-I'm going to try to find the Epstein book, it sounds good; love used bookstores, reserve the right to read something junky every now & then @Miel--I keep meaning to read The Alchemist!@Brenna-Ann Patchett is one of my favorite writers-good suggestion!

Julie P said...

My senior is currently reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. He isn't much of a reader, so any book I can get him to read, I throw it at him!!!

the Ape said...

I guess the ideal books would be inspirational, cautionary, and instructive, no?

If the graduate is a bookish/artistic sort already, then LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET by Rilke would be my choice.

Fiona said...

You know what is funny, I had never heard of The Narrative of Frederick Douglass until the other day. I am reading Uncle Tom's Cabin so my interest in slavery has of course risen.

During the blogger hop someone wrote a book review about it and so I immediately added it to my TBR.

And then the other day someone recommended it to me on Facebook... and now you are recommending it.

That is three times I have come across it - in what I'm sure are quite unrelated incidents. If I believed in fate and destiny...

Have you read the autobiography by Olaudah Equiano? I have that one in my bookshelf to read. I came across it in an English literature exam - it was a 'new' text we had to read and write and essay about.

I absolutely agree with East of Eden. I didn't expect to love that one, but I certainly did. I'll have to look out for the others - I have a few John Irving books but I can't remember which ones they are now.

bibliophiliac said...

@JulieP-you're right, The Road appeals to all kinds of readers, & it is certainly a journey@Ape-Rilke is always a good rec@Fiona-yes, I've read Olaudah Equiano, and his narrative is compelling, but I always come back to Frederick Douglass. I've posted about his narrative before;)I like to sneak my favorites in over & over again. If you are interested in slave narratives, there is a paperback collection edited by Henry Louis Gates...

Bybee said...

I love your choices, especially Into The Wild.

I'd start them out with The Complete Tightwad Gazette because author Amy Dacyczyn encourages people to really examine the small ways they can save money and even though the economy is bad, she has a staunch and feisty Yankee "I can do it!" attitude that is contagious. A little dated, but some things, like her paradigm shift from feeling deprived to "it's cool to see how long I can make this work/do without this thing" doesn't go out of style.

Grad said...

Great list. There's so much great stuff out there it's difficult to limit it to ten, isn't it! I might add David Copperfield (for obvious reasons, although they probably already read that in high school) and To Kill a Mockingbird (and perhaps Kidnapped (pirates make such good copy!)

Priya Parmar said...

this is a wonderful list. i gave my student the complete a. ginsberg as he is off to hampshire college. he is also taking the complete auden, akhmatova, cavafy and neruda. for his summer trip he has: midllemarch, brideshead, brighton rock, and for whom the bell tolls.

i think i will tell him to include owen meany!

Amateur Reader said...

I should mention that Epstein's essay, which is really about his own education, was prompted by trying to answer a graduating college student who asked "What should I read now?"

I, like you, take "read no junky books" as advice, not a rule, and have modified it to "not too much junk."

bibliophiliac said...

More great suggestions. Greg, I would like to read that DFW text myself. Amateur Reader, I ordered the Epstein book (used) today! David Copperfield and Rilke both deserve to be on the list...I needed (still need) the Tightwad Gazette myself...