At Crossroads: 10 Must-Read Books for Recent Grads

Monday, April 30, 2018

More call to action than regurgitated self-help refrains, here is my curated collection of memoir, fiction, and (just a little) poetry. For the new generation of leaders and decision-makers, a reminder of what matters most.

Smart People Should Build Things: How to Restore Our Culture of Achievement, Build a Path for Entrepreneurs, and Create New Jobs in America | Andrew Yang 
This one’s for the valedictorians, the WSO subscribers, the business-casual-Fridays ones who did everything right. The AP-track turned double-major-double-minor turned investment banker/ management consultant/ doctor/ lawyer stars. Y’all did it, and I’m proud of you. Not easy being great. But what if you could do more? Or what if (and everybody feels this, I’m sure) you still feel unfulfilled?

Andrew Yang (Venture for America founder and 2020 presidential candidate) also did “it.” Got into Stanford and Brown, went to Brown, got a 178 on his LSATs, went to Columbia Law School, and then made a fuck ton of money in various roles. Smart People is sort of a long-winded pitch for his entrepreneurship-based nonprofit, VFA, but also confronts some very real existential crises of the talented and well-educated: you did everything you were supposed to, but have you left the people and community around you better than you found them?
Our identification and distribution of talent in the United States has gone from being a historic strength to a critical weakness. We’ve let the market dictate what our smart kids do, and they’re being systematically funneled into obvious, structured paths that don’t serve them or the economy terribly well.


Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship | Michelle Kuo
I aggressively recommend this to all my friends (particularly the firstborns and daughters of Asian parents) who never stopped wanting to do some good in this world. You would think a path of service and community empowerment would also be the path of least resistance. HAHA, no.

I interviewed Kuo for last summer after binge-reading and crying through her book and wrote: “nothing has come close to the paralyzing and breathtaking truths of Kuo’s memoir. Though definitely accessible by all, this is a book that uniquely affects us as Taiwanese or Asian Americans, sharpening our clumsy dialogue around the Asian American relationship with the black community. For everyone else, this is an inspirational story about literacy as a form of resistance; about the power of educators; a critique of systemic and institutional racism. For us, Reading with Patrick is this and more. It is equal parts an affirmation that we belong in the conversation and a reminder of our own privileges: our ability to leave, to play both sides, to have been both broken body and parasite. Kuo gets our hesitant neutrality, our imperative to be both filial and civic.”
To be educated meant you read books and entertained ideas that made you feel uncomfortable. It meant looking in the mirror and asking, What have I done that has cost me anything? What authority have I earned to speak? What work have I put in? It meant collapsing your certainties and tearing down your self-fortifications. You should feel unprotected, unarmed, open to attack.

Letters to a Young Poet | Rainer Maria Rilke  
For the artists and writers and creatives (and the latent, suffocated ones too -- right there with you, babes). I come back to Letters again and again and again. A collection of letters from Rilke (at whose feet I worship!), encouraging the recipient to examine the purpose and necessity of art.

Rilke was a 20th century Bohemian-Austrian poet who wrote in German, and we have pretty much nothing in common, but every letter haunts, destroys, comforts, and redeems me. His words always feel intensely relevant, personal, and sincere.

They are beautiful and wise, soul-searching and a reminder that though the pursuit of greatness, artistic or otherwise, is difficult and lonely, there is nothing more rewarding than creating splendid works of your own truths. I get emotional just thinking about how profoundly his works have changed me. When I die, bury me with this book.
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write? 

Free Food for Millionaires | Min Jin Lee
Lee also wrote Pachinko, an ICONIC work of historical fiction that nobody is prepared to read fresh out of college because it will have you sobbing on the bathroom floor. If you’re prepared for that experience, though, C and I highly recommend it.
But this one, dubbed the Middlemarch for Asian Americans, shifts gears back to Manhattan, to a Korean American who graduated from Princeton (of course) but without a job (whaaaat?). This book is what I mean when I say Asian American contemporary writers are so important. Joblessness has a different (though not necessarily more serious) implication when you’re the child of working-class immigrants. Interracial dating is different, and more closely examined. The impulse to enter and stay in the rarified, upper echelons of whiteness is different. Everything just feels different and more specific, and when you’re a minority, it’s incredibly important to have these small experiences reflected in the books you read. It complicates the Asian American narrative while affirming the complexities of it. Also, at times the protagonist really does not have her shit together, and I like reading about that because it makes me feel less alone.
Casey meant it when she said, 'Forgive us for our debts as we forgive our debtors,' because they were for her the hardest words to live by, and by saying them, she hoped they'd become possible. Like Ted, Casey would never discuss her ambivalent views on religion. She was honest enough to admit that her privacy cloaked a fear: the fear of being found out as a hypocrite.

When Breath Becomes Air | Paul Kalanithi
I knoooooow pretty much everybody has read and raved about this book, but I also know some of y’all (ahem, pre-med grads) haven’t “had time” to pick up a book for pleasure reading since middle school. So this is just a reminder that this book exists and you need to read it.

The synopsis is well-known, basically a hugely accomplished neurosurgeon is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and begins to pen his memoir about the meaning of life -- not the cheesy, recycled “do good and make others happy” mantras but a genuine consideration of what it means to lead a life worth living.

Such is the importance of being well-read, in my opinion -- to absorb the lessons that are too difficult to learn the hard way, to know better before it is too late. It’s always the kids who read a lot who doubt themselves most (in a good way). Your universe just gets so much bigger, you’re supposed to feel lost.
Don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul—was obvious in its sacredness. Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.

Private Citizens | Tony Tulathimutte

Also called the Middlemarch for millennials, which makes me think I really messed up by not having foundational knowledge of Middlemarch.

And also another book by or about graduates from the most prestigious schools in the world. (If you’re keeping count, the authors are Yang from Brown/Columbia, Kuo from Harvard, Lee from Yale, Kalanithi from Stanford/Cambridge, Tulathimutte also from Stanford -- I know, it’s exhausting but there is potentially a point I will eventually make.)

Follows four narrators who embody the four types of graduates: the idealistic, the tech-y, the still socially awkward, the scarily ambitious. All incredibly bright, articulate, with frustratingly shitty qualities. As in I hated every single character, which is difficult to accomplish. You root for their sudden death, and then feel bad because eventually they all get fucked in some small (and not small) ways. Confronts privilege and failure in this really strange, thesaurus-ized writing style, like satire but with such earnestness, you wonder if you’re being pranked and everyone's laughing at you. Definitely written by the smartest kid in class who knows he’s the smartest kid in class. You resent Tulathimutte, but you know it’s because he’s about a million steps ahead of you and doesn’t care that you resent him. I’ve also heard this book described as “meta-fiction,” so this guy has effectively invented a new genre because he’s too smart for the general fiction of the cerebral proletariat.
He wrote arguments for and against life; he began to think the slowest and most painful form of suicide was living, running the whole decathlon of suffering, no breather or bottled water. Fear of dying was irrational. Death was utilitarian. Decrease in net resource consumption and planetary suffering. Increase in net comedy. There was no afterlife but there was a right-before-death, and medical research said it was loopy and nice, all white lights and gentle voices. With booze it wasn't even scary. Some people with terrible lives didn't kill themselves, but that didn't mean they shouldn't. Most people weren't alive and didn't mind. You couldn't regret it. 

Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence | edited by Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, Dean Radar
At once visceral and intellectual, a declaration against gun violence published on the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hooks shooting, from poets Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith, Natalie Diaz, Martin Espada, Juan Felipe Herrerra, and more. Each poem is accompanied by an essay response from a gun violence prevention activist, political figure, or shooting survivor, including Nobel Peaze Prize Laureate Jody Williams, Samir Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, and survivors of the Columbine, Sandy Hook, Charleston Emmanuel AME, and Virginia Tech shootings. An exceptional anthology of works. 

I think a lot about how concern rarely translates to impact, how "thoughts and prayers" have never been enough. How violence only seems to remind us of our helplessness and hopelessness. As a sometimes-writer and a student, I worry about how works like these risk poeticizing violence and suffering, risk choosing its aesthetics over addressing its reconciliation. But the greater risk is to ignore it, this suffering of others - particularly that of the poor, the disenfranchised, the racially profiled. This book forces you to contemplate the complexities, the intricacies of that pain. In whatever you do, however successful you become, may you never forget.
Poets have known about the perpetuity of language, stories, and music making since the very first days when rock was scraped against the cave wall. In the beginning was the word. Others might repress it, torture it, burn it, chain it, mangle it, but the proper flesh of language cannot be outright annihilated. The hope -- and perhaps the enduring belief of literature -- is that it will present itself more inventively than before. 

So that's a lot. Here are some lighter (though they all get wonderfully dark) novels to get you back in the habit of middle-school binge reading. All about smart people who do weird shit (and two picks for the anthropology nerds!)

The Genius Plague | David Walton
On the twisted ways of Darwinian evolution, human arrogance, and a pathogenic IQ-increasing fungus. I'm admittedly not enough of an intellectual purist to be picky about sci-fi novels, but I thought this one was interestingly done and certainly a good read. I'd start with this one to build up reading stamina. 

“Nobody knows: they just believe, and then because everyone else believes it, too, it feels like it couldn’t possibly be wrong. But consensus doesn’t mean truth. In fact, it means a lack of critical thinking, a blind following of the status quo. Humans are really good at doing that, too.” 

Goodbye, Vitamin | Rachel Khong
Small, very vulnerable snippets of a daughter and her mother navigating a new relationship with her once-brilliant father, now suffering from dementia. Supposedly a funny book, but the humor went over my head, and it just made me quite sad. 

"What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That it has only to do with who we were around that person—what we felt about that person."

The People in the Trees | Hanya Yanigahara
Yanigahara wrote the canonical A Little Life, which I also highly recommend but it's on about a billion other "must-read" lists already. This little nugget (jk, it's a mammoth of a book) is another anthro-ish work of fiction about a tribe that has inadvertently found a way to live forever. One of those cautionary tales about the price of science, of research, of the fame that comes with it. Gets super dark, but deliciously so. Will need a bit of dedication, though -- it's very readable, but dense, and there are moments that are subtly so fucked up you'll need to pay close attention. 

“All ethics and morals are culturally relative. And Esme's reaction taught me that while cultural relativism is an easy concept to process intellectually, it is not, for many, an easy one to remember.” 

And finally, a wee bit of poetry, because I know the enthusiasts are far and few between, but I am here with you and for you.

What Women Are Made Of | Bianca Lynne Spriggs

Self Portrait as So Much Potential | Chen Chen

On Earth We Were Briefly Gorgeous | Ocean Vuong

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