I was recently asked to recommend a book or two to a first year college student. She is interested in reading literature (classics) and, though many titles were on the tip of my tongue, I paused before making a recommendation.
Without knowing what she has already read and the degree of difficulty she is prepared for, selecting an appropriate recommendation is tricky. If she is already “a reader” dedicated to pursuing literature in the future, then any literature recommendation would do. However, if she is testing the literary waters and needs a book to draw her in then this recommendation is potentially important.
The goal of recommending a good piece of literature to a young person is double. Just like any recommendation, you want to suggest something that will bring pleasure, excitement and joy. Additionally, you want to open the reader’s eyes to the styles and voices that are so richly diverse across the spectrum of literature. You want to show them something special; something they will like and learn from.
What books can do this?
The natural criteria to consider in this situation are length and style.
The literary novel that we choose should not be over 500 pages (Anna Karenina & The Brother’s Karamazov are out of consideration).
The style of the novel should be engaging and inventive – to a degree. We don’t want throw our young reader into the extremely stylized, linguistic thicket of Joyce. Nor do we want to send our reader back to the Romantic era that she has almost certainly encountered already in high school. Hawthorne, Twain and Melville are off the list.
Another concern regarding style cuts the opposite way. We want to avoid the writers who eschew theme and character in favor of a narrow focus on story. These will be too close to “popular” or pulp fiction.
There are, of course, a number of writers of literature who have experimented with plot driven, action-and-dialogue oriented novels. And there is certainly merit in that endeavor. Our goal, however, is to expand our reader’s view of what a book can do, not confuse our reader as to whether or not a particular novel is literature or pulp.
This means that Phillip Roth is out of consideration.
What books fit these criteria? Five Recommended Novels for Someone Entering College
Having narrowed down a body of literature to choose from, we still have a very rich array of novels to recommend. Each of the following works of literature can claim to the title of “classic” and each is remarkable for clarity and originality of style: OneHundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez); As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner); The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath); The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald); The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway).
These novels are eye-opening. The genius of the style in each of these works is very much on display, but these books do more than show us new ways sentences can be written. They show us how flexible literature and story-telling can be. These novels show us how stories can engage the intellect, the imagination and the emotions all at the same time and on the same page.
Adding to our reasons for recommending these particular books is the idea that these novels represent a narrowly focused yet substantial portion of the cannon of essential reading for educated adults in America.
What if our reader has already encountered these five literature recommendations?
High school programs differ from year to year and from neighborhood to neighborhood, so we don’t always know exactly what literature a high school graduate has read. In my case, the young lady who asked me for a literature recommendation has already read The Great Gatsby.
In addition to adjusting for what has already been read, a list of lesser known literature may hold special interest for readers looking to explore more literature as there will be no pre-formed notions about these novels. In recommending lesser known novels, we provide a chance for discovery (one of the surest methods to keep people reading).
An assortment of highly regarded but somewhat less than famous books could include the following: Giovanni’s Room (James Baldwin); Ask the Dust (John Fante); All the Kings Men (Robert Penn Warren); White Noise (Don DeLillo).
We could go yet another route and choose solid works by master novelists that are shorter than the big books those writers are known for. Here we might think about such writers as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pynchon, Joyce and even Steinbeck. Each of these writers produced important books that ran over 500 pages and sometimes over 1,000. Each of them also wrote shorter works which are very good and occasionally, as in the case of Steinbeck, better than the longer works.
A list of these short novels could look like this: Hadji Murad (Leo Tolstoy); Resurrection (Leo Tolstoy); The Idiot (Fyodor Dostoyevsky); A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (James Joyce); The Crying of Lot 49 (Thomas Pynchon); Tortilla Flats (John Steinbeck); Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck).
Selecting literature recommendations for someone entering college is fun because there is so much territory yet unexplored. Yet, as with all good advice, we should be careful not to paint our own interests and values over those of the advisee.
That is why, after suggesting a couple of titles to the young lady who asked me for a recommendation, I ultimately encouraged her to read what she was planning to read anyway – East of Eden.
Though I feel East of Eden is not Steinbeck’s best work, I do remember liking the book when I read it for the first time when I was 19. I hope my reader will like it too…then keep reading.