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.3. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel: Thomas Cromwell didn’t go to college. He went to war, to hang out with wool merchants in Amsterdam, across England with Cardinal Wolsey, and ultimately to the court of Henry V. But Wolf Hall, the first of Mantel’s planned trilogy about Cromwell’s life, is a striking meditation on what it means to make your own fortune and reputation, and to build a home and a family. We may live in a society that’s vastly more socially mobile than the one in which Cromwell grew up, and we’re certainly lucky that losing royal favor no longer (at least in the West) means losing your head. But on subjects like maintaining your loyalty to disgraced friends or employers, loving people even when their paths diverge from yours, and treating even difficult people with respect, Wolf Hall is a wonderful consideration of how to make a life you can be proud of.
4. My Life In France, Julia Child: One of the most distorting impressions I got during my first several years out of college was that everyone was rushing to accomplish everything by the age of 30, be it finding a partner, having children, or achieving preeminence in their careers. And one of the most valuable things I had to really internalize was that most of us will be working for at least 35 years after 30, so we’d better leave some things we plan to accomplish to fill those decades up. Julia Child’s memoir of moving to France at 36, the point at which she began to discover her life’s vocation, is incredibly mouth-watering, but read right, it’s a reminder that now that you’re out of school, any deadlines you feel for accomplishments and life milestones are purely artificial, and often self-imposed. Child didn’t publish Mastering The Art of French Cooking until she was 49, and it was what she did with the later decades of her life, not the early ones, that changed the way we cook and eat.
5. Reamde, Neal Stephenson: I realize that a propulsive, pulpy novel about terrorism, video games, and pot smuggling might seem out of place on this list. But this wildly entertaining novel, which follows a young woman named Zula Forthrast after she is kidnapped and she and her family make extraordinary efforts to get her safely back home, is a story about the ends a good family will go to for each other when things get almost ludicrously bad. It’s easy to convince yourself that you shouldn’t lean on your family when you’re trying to make it as an independent person, but even if you don’t end up snaffled by Russian mobsters and Welsh-born terrorists, it’s okay to learn from your family’s experience, given that your parents have actual experience with the whole learning-to-be-adults thing. And if you and your family aren’t close, Reamde is a story about finding your people in unexpected places, and building a patchwork family of your own.