Thursday, February 28, 2013

Five Books Every Twentysomething Should Read

Several years back, during one of my online rants about the lack of reading in America, an old Bennington classmate called bullshit and offered some advice: Don’t chastise people for not reading enough, because they probably don’t know where to begin.

He’s right, of course. Bookstores and libraries are intimidating places that make it difficult to know whether a particular book will be an awe-inspiring epiphany or a waste of your time. If you’re at the same point in your life as I am, or have found any of this blog’s ramblings and reflections relatable, I recommend these five books as ones that expose the delights and perils of being a twentysomething in a way I wish I was capable of.

Starting with the most highly recommended, here’s the list:

#1. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby (1995)

The movie version is amazing (beating both Say Anything and Better Off Dead as my favorite John Cusack movie of all time), and the book is better. I recommend High Fidelity to everyone for four reasons:
  1. It’s a quick read
  2. It’s funny 
  3. It’s relatable
  4. It has enough pop culture references that you’ll feel clever for getting at least a few of them
But it’s more than this that make this book stand out. Hornby speaks to our insecurities, our curiosities, and to those thoughts we all have but can’t quite explain. His protagonist, Rob*, fucks up with women and wonders what went wrong, is mean to his friends without knowing why, and is disconcertingly aware of his unsettled state. He runs his own record store, revels in the music he loves, yet he’s unhappy and can’t seem to grow up. We spend the entire book in Rob’s head as he wonders about himself and the world around him, including those mysterious first discoveries of sex:
This is the sort of sex education I never had—the one that deals with G-spots and the like. No one ever told me about anything that mattered, about how to take your trousers off with dignity or what to say to someone when you can’t get an erection or what “good in bed” meant in 1975 or 1985, never mind 1955. Get this: no one ever told me about semen even, just sperm, and there’s a crucial difference. As far as I could tell, these microscopic tadpole things just leaped invisibly out of the end of your whatsit, and so when, on the occasion of my first. . .well, never you mind.
The entire book is full of these observational gems, most of which never made their way into the movie. It’s those moments when an author reflects on something you’ve always known, or been thinking about, or maybe just thought about in a different way, that make me love the medium. A good book will show you things about the world around you, and High Fidelity is no exception.

* Author’s Note: At the risk of being fact-checked in the comments section, I’ll note that Rob is actually a thirtysomething in the book, though his plights speak to anyone above college age who isn’t happily married with kids.

#2. Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was a basketball star in high school, but now demonstrates the MagiPeel vegetable peeler to housewives at department stores. His own wife drinks too much and watches television all day, and together they live in the same suburb they lived in when they were young and life was more exciting. One day, Rabbit gets in the car and starts driving, searching for something he can never quite describe to anyone and desperate to separate himself from his life’s confines. This is how the book begins.

Harry’s nameless dissatisfaction is still relevant today for college graduates who now lack the structured environment to pursue the things they used to. Readers are unsure whether to encourage Rabbit on his journey for self-discovery or to chastise him for abandoning his family. Is he a bad person for leaving his son and his pregnant wife? Or is he bettering himself by striving to break free of his bleak suburban existence? The novel never tells us for sure, and this dichotomy makes it all the more interesting.

Rabbit, Run also isn’t as dense as Updike’s later work, and is a far easier read than anything he wrote in his later years. His novels are full of great descriptions of things (for example, the dot on a tube television that lingers after you turn it off, or the way a stack of chairs gradually leans forward if you pile it high enough*), and contain a gracefulness of prose that perfectly captures these moments in time.

Finally, this one deserves a place on the top five books that changed my life because it (arguably) prompted me to break up with my own girlfriend. Who can argue that such a call to action isn’t indicative of the book’s power?

* Images from Rabbit Redux and Couples, respectively.

#3. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway (1926)

A lot of people read this book in high school and hate it; I probably would have too if I’d been forced to read it when I was sixteen and still living out the comforting routines of adolescence. The Sun Also Rises is a book for people whose lives lack definition and purpose: its expatriate characters wander Europe, drink themselves stupid on absinthe and champagne, avoid their families, work uninspiring jobs, and never get any girls. Its narrator, Jake, was left impotent after World War I, and can’t consummate his relationship with Brett, the woman of the group, who’s content to live up the night life with the rest of them instead of settling down and having a mess of children like a good housewife.

The book lacks a clear plot, and is basically just the main characters moving from one alcohol-fueled romp to another for two hundred and forty pages. While this frustrates a lot of people, I find it to be a more accurate representation of real life (which, in most cases, also lacks a clear plot). Behind the nights out and the exotic trips, Hemingway’s brief, understated prose hides a distinct sadness as readers become aware that nothing will come of the characters’ lives. This should make The Sun Also Rises more relatable to unmarried twentysomethings who lack concrete goals and whose jobs offer few opportunities for advancement, but it’s jarring for readers to see this emptiness captured in novel form when they’re accustomed to a three-act structure. Though more happens closer to the end (I won’t ruin it), the novel is best enjoyed as a look at the highs and lows of what life shouldn’t be.

#4. Afternoon Men, by Anthony Powell (1931)

This book is the British version of The Sun Also Rises, but with more plot. There’s more to it than that, but the situation is the same: a bunch of unmarried twentysomethings get drunk, have sex, nurse their hangovers, have witty conversations, and do very little that can be considered productive. The main character, Richard Atwater, spends the book in pursuit of a girl, Susan Nunnery, he really likes but who just isn’t interested in him. Let me clarify: no jealous boyfriends, no hidden psychological trauma, no climactic confrontations, Susan Nunnery just isn’t interested. The very banality of Atwater’s courtship makes it relatable because we’ve all experienced infatuation with someone we have no chance of getting with.

Like The Sun Also Rises, this is a novel of understatement, where we have to read between the lines to understand the characters’ feelings. In this dialogue between Atwater and Susan Nunnery before she leaves for America, we see both Atwater’s desperation and Susan Nunnery’s flippant replies:
“Anyway, I shall see you when you come back.”
“Yes,” she said, “whenever that is.”
“But you said it would be soon?”
“It will be soon. I don’t know why I said that.”
“Do you mean you’re going away for ages?”
“No. Only a little time.”
“We shall meet when you come back, shan’t we?”
“I don’t know. It always seems rather a business. Our meetings.”
“Perhaps we’d better not then?”
“I think we’d better not.”
“You won’t be away long, will you?”
“No,” she said. “Not long.” 
Aside from their unfulfilling relationship, Afternoon Men is notable for being one of the books to best portray a character slacking off at his job: Atwater works as a museum clerk, where he spends his workdays writing letters to friends and trying to convince visitors that their time would better be spent else elsewhere. Office Space, eat your heart out.

#5. Murphy, by Samuel Beckett (1938)

The most difficult book on the list (though easily the most approachable of Beckett’s novels), I’m including this one because, unlike the first four, Murphy features a protagonist who cannot fit in with society and has no desire to. Murphy is an Irishman living in London who wants nothing more than to sit in his rocking chair and be with his girlfriend Celia, a former prostitute who thinks Murphy should get a real job like everyone else. The thought of gainful employment makes Murphy ill, but rather than lose Celia he leaves his apartment in search of work, where he’s set adrift in a world that’s strange to him. The novel’s other characters, driven by money, sex, and greed, pursue and take advantage of Murphy to satisfy their own ends, though all he really wants is to be left alone.

Though Murphy speaks to the more misanthropic reader, the novel is essentially about a young person looking to make his way in the world and not having an easy time. Substitute Murphy’s chair for the comfort of living with one’s parents, and the novel becomes a story about growing up and becoming independent. (It’s not surprising that even in the 1930s Murphy is provoked by a woman to leave his nest.) Beckett, however, is never critical of his main character, and Murphy’s discomforts and misfortunes are unceasingly real.

I love this book, and in thinking about it recently, realize how relevant it really is.  Ours is a generation of Murphys: unwilling to face adult responsibilities, cynical of what the outside world can offer us, and eager to retreat into solitude (again, substitute Murphy’s self-reflection for, say, the Internet). How many people do you know who are stuck at home, spend too much time online, and are cynical about their chances on the outside? Could this be because the outside world is as twisted as Beckett makes it out to be?

I might be stretching this a bit, but if you can decipher its nonlinear plot and arcane dialogue, this one might offer you some perspective on your own existence, as I hope the other books on this list will as well.