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.


Reading Through the Years…



Beginning in January 1992, I began to make a list of every book I read. At the time, it seemed like it would help me to give recommendations to others (especially when I couldn’t remember what I’d read five books ago). Nineteen years into “the list,” it has proven to be that and so much more. Not only do I pull out my lists when trying to recall something, but the list has become a diary of sorts.  I can see what interested me, what author caught my attention.  For example, in 1993, I read three novels by Willa Cather.  If you’ve never read, Death Comes for the Archbishop – add it to your list for 2011.

I can also look at the number of books read in a given year and know exactly why the number was high or low. Take 1995.  My son was born in December 1994. So, in 1995 I can see that The English Patient took me three months to read!  I must have been reading pages in the middle of the night while feeding him. Admittedly, I don’t recall much of it. Of course, that was also the year I read Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott. 

What’s interesting is that every year after Bob was born, the number goes up. In 1995, I read only 14 books. But, it climbs steadily as he gets on his feet (literally) and by the time, he goes to school – I’m reading 50 books per year. I can see when Harry Potter arrives on the scene and the books people were talking about. What’s really interesting is when I begin graduate school. The number skyrockets! In 2004, I read over 100 books – nearly all of them assigned in one of my classes at Simmons. There are a few I remember reading on the subway – turning pages as fast as I could.

Which brings us to the 2010 list. I read 56 books this year. I finished one last night, and unless I read one today, that’s the total. I just looked over the list, and came up with my ten favorites of the year.  I’m not separating novels for children and adults – this is what stands out.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line by Martha Sandweiss

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

Small Island by Andrea Levy

The Cradle by Patrick Somerville

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Jim the Boy by Tony Earley

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Annexed by Sharon Dogar

I hope 2011 brings you good books and safe travels. Happy New Year!

Jim the Boy by Tony Earley

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This happens sometimes.  I’m between books I have to read for school and all of the sudden have an opening to read something that’s been on my list.  It can’t be a long novel because these windows of opportunity slam shut the minute I begin teaching a new novel in one of my literature classes at Inly. But I had some time this weekend to read a book I’ve wanted to read for years.  A decade to be exact.  I bought Jim the Boy by Tony Earley when it was published in 2000.  It has been sitting on my shelf since my now 15-year-old son was in kindergarten!  That’s embarrassing.

But here’s the thing: it was really good and well worth waiting for.  Jim the Boy is the story of a boy growing up in the 1930s in a small town in North Carolina.  Jim lives with his widowed mother and three uncles, and I fell in love with every one of them, especially Jim.  This is not a novel with lots of action, but it is moving and lovely.  It captures another time and place so brilliantly that I felt transported.   I have to quote another review here because it perfectly states what I’m trying to say. In his New York Times Book Review front page article, Walter Kirn wrote: “From its title to its closing sentence, Tony Earley’s first novel returns to basics, back to modernness in the old sense of the word. It’s not a big book, just a good one – and in this instance ‘good’ is higher praise than great.'”

The best part is that Earley wrote a sequel, The Blue Star, which follows Jim’s life into the 1940s. I’m not going to let this one sit on the shelf.  In fact, I’m going to start it tonight.  By the way, The Blue Star was published in 2008. It has only been sitting in my “to read” pile for two years.  Not bad…