Rather than simply regurgitate my own utterly incoherent and random holiday reading list or start foisting my all-time favorites on you, I thought I would instead offer a list of books that, in this avid readerâ€™s opinion, have the potential to change oneâ€™s life, to alter the way one thinks and acts in the world. Heck, if nothing else, I can guarantee that, should you read even one of them, you will come back to campus with new perspectives in addition to your new presents.
Without further ado…
Yes, it is an 800-page Victorian novelâ€” what my roommate would call a â€œMr. Johnson Comes to Teaâ€ sort of book. But if you come to this book willing to wade through a few dull parlor chats, you will likely get swept up in the story of Dorothea Brooke, a pious but troubled girl wrestling with questions of love and responsibility in a provincial town. Its massive cast of carefully and colorfully drawn characters will not leave your headâ€” and its clear-eyed, unsentimental celebration of little acts of kindness and mercy will remain in your heart.
The metaphor at the center of the book is a bit obviousâ€” a battle over the titular estate represents struggles over countless other issues and emotions. But everything else about itâ€” the characters, the painterly proseâ€” is beautifully nuanced. In writing this book, E.M. Forster was grappling with, among other things, the proper response to modernity. His suggested responseâ€” â€œOnly connect!â€â€” still rings true today.
â€œA Clean, Well-Lighted Placeâ€
â€œI am with all those who need a light for that night.â€ That deeply moving sentence, one of my favorites in all of literature, is at the heart of this Hemingway short story. Like the manâ€™s best work, it finds the big in what is seemingly simple and small. Here, a chat between two waiters at closing time becomes a stirring affirmation of human solidarity.
â€œSlouching Towards Bethlehemâ€
The articles anthologized in the bookâ€™s first half are classic examples of New Journalism, but the essays in its second half pack a nigh-incomparable punch. The titles of those essaysâ€” â€On Going Home,â€ â€œOn Keeping A Notebook,â€ â€œGoodbye To All Thatâ€â€” indicate that Didion is taking on the Big Topics, and when someone of her perspicacity and genius does that, we must listen.
â€œThis Is Waterâ€
If you want maximum genius at minimal length, check out the late, great David Foster Wallaceâ€™s speech, surely the best graduation talk ever given. Here, he touches on generational angst (we are in danger of winding up â€œimperially aloneâ€), faith (â€œthe only choice we get is what to worshipâ€), love (which is sustained in â€œmyriad petty little unsexy ways, every dayâ€) and so much more. His impeccably crafted phrases are unforgettable; his generosity, which practically radiates off the page, is contagious.