Books for Graduates

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Many of us know someone who is graduating – from middle school or high school or college. It’s a time of meaningful transitions for thousands of young people. It’s easy for me to decide on a graduation gift – a book, of course. The fun is trying to select the right book, one that inspires and celebrates without resorting to the standard bookstore display shelf featuring stacks of Oh, The Places You’ll Go! and books about Chicken Soup.

Here are ten ideas for books to delight the graduate in your life. None of them are about decorating dorm rooms or basic cooking skills or careers for the 21st century. They are books to delight and passageways to some of the wonders the world.

This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life by David Foster Wallace – This is my most obvious graduation-related book choice. The late essayist and novelist, David Foster Wallace, only gave one commencement address. This is it. Time magazine called This is WaterThe Last Lecture for intellectuals.”

Abstract City by Christoph Niemann – Niemann is the illustrator of several children’s books and the person behind the very cool visual blog, Abstract City, which inspired this collection of 16 blog posts – observations of everyday life and his LEGO re-creation of New York City.

Waterlife by Rambharos Jha – I learned about this book from one of my favorite websites,, where Waterlife was described as: “without a shadow of exaggeration, the most beautiful book I’ve ever laid eyes on.”  There’s no one among us, young or old, who doesn’t need to see beautiful things. When the daily paper is filled with war and starvation and violence, a book of folk painting from the banks of the river Ganga can feed our souls.

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan (exhibition catalog from the National Gallery in London) Perhaps an odd choice for my graduation list. It’s an expensive catalog from an art exhibit. But here’s the reason it’s on my list. Who better to inspire a young person than Leonardo da Vinci? An inventor, a scientist and artist, Da Vinci is often referred to as the most curious man who ever lived.

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall – This is a new book, but it’s on my summer reading list, and it would be a meaningful gift. It’s about one of the most basic human impulses – to tell stories. We tell stories to help us understand ourselves and others and to deal with our heartbreaks and setbacks.  Here’s my favorite blurb from the back of Gottschall’s book: “The Storytelling Animal is a delight to read. It’s boundlessly interesting, filled with great observations and clever insights about television, books, movies, videogames, dreams, children, madness, evolution, morality, love, and more. And it’s beautifully written—fittingly enough, Gottschall is himself a skilled storyteller.” Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale

And the Pursuit of Happiness by Maira Kalman – One of my all-time favorite books and another one (like Abstract City) that began its life as a blog. Kalman, an artist and frequent contributor to the New York Times and The New Yorker, traveled to Washington,D.C.for the inauguration of Barack Obama. Her book is a tribute to democracy and our history. This is one of my bedside table books – kept there so I can look at it whenever I have a few extra minutes.

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury – I have not read this book in many years, but a good friend’s love for it inspired me to read it again. This book, along with Jim the Boy by Tony Earley, are coming-of-age stories about the joys of being alive. These two novels are not driven by plot, but rather by the power of memories.  

Jim the Boy by Tony Earley – See above, but this one has a sequel, The Blue Star….

Essays of E.B. White – A book that reminds us of the possibilities of language. Elegant and observant, White’s essays are desert island reading. If you wanted to give someone a gift that they can return to again and again, this is the one.

Keel’s Simple Diary – Different from the other books, this one is more of a do it yourself project. It’s a journal for those of us who don’t like staring at the blank page. Keel’s diaries come in a wide variety of colors and, most importantly, they have structure – giving the owner prompts that makes journaling a little less daunting.


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