As the school year draws to a close, The Daily Beast published a list of recommendations from famous authors about which books no student should fail to read before graduating from college. There are a lot of terrific texts in the roundup, but its very existence got me thinking. It’s a cliche that education is a life-long affair. And it strikes me that the year after you graduate from college—especially if you’re living independently rather than moving back home—is a time of even bigger adjustment than your first year in college and away from home. You’re no longer thrown together with people from your peer group, which makes dating and making new friends more complicated, if you’re financially independent for the first time, you’re learning a whole host of things about what your money will get you, and what your economic priorities are, and you’re living through your first year without structured breaks to help you recharge and catch up. There’s no one guide to doing that complicated first year right, but these are five books that are all about things I wish I’d thought through during that time.
1. Shopgirl, Steve Martin: Martin’s novella about Mirabelle Buttersfield, a young woman who “moved from Vermont hoping to begin her life, and now she is stranged in the vast openness of LA,” is a lightening-quick read if you want to race through it, but it’s worth lingering over. An aspiring artist who ends up selling gloves at a luxury department store, Mirabelle begins the book believing that simply being in Los Angeles will propel her into the kind of life that she hopes for, and it seems to have arrived in the form of Ray Porter, a much older wealthy businessman who begins an affair with her. But as their relationship evolves and stagnates, Mirabelle comes to terms with how much work it takes to make real friends, to find a way into the field she actually wants to be in, and to demand that she be treated as worthy of investment and consideration. It’s a sobering story, but a hopeful one. And for people who are walking out into the unstructured wilderness of adult life, it’s an emotionally sensitive cautionary tale about the importance of caring for yourself, and what it takes to build a satisfying adult life.
2. Open City, Teju Cole: Julius, the main character in Cole’s novel, is older than a recent college graduate—he’s a psychiatric resident. But one thing the novel gets at is that as big as a city like New York—or really, any place you move after graduation—is, there will still be people you knew when you were younger there, and how you treated them has consequences. Especially if you had an unpleasant experience in college or high school, moving somewhere else can feel like a way to make a clean break. But there’s no such thing. If you actually want to move forward without baggage from your past, making amends will get you a lot further than trying to forget or ignore the harm or hurt you’ve done to other people.