Alternate title: “things I read in college that were actually pleasant.” Although, not all of these picks are pleasant in the sense that they’ll leave you with a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. But in my opinion, they were enjoyable… at the very least, I didn’t want to gouge my eyes out while reading them. (Far from it, actually.) That special classification goes to books like Plato’s Republic, E.O. Wilson’s Consilience, and St. Augustine’s Confessions. Well, you know, that’s the price you pay for a classical education.
But thankfully, it’s not all an intellectual torture-fest. Just take these literary gems for a spin and you’ll see. They’re thought-provoking and extremely well-written, and you can definitely learn some writing skills from them. For the sake of focus, I’ve limited my top 5 selections to fiction, but who knows? Maybe I’ll do a non-fiction follow-up one day.
1. Kindred by Octavia Butler
Some of you may have heard of this or even read this. In a nutshell, it’s about a young, black woman who gets mysteriously transported back to the time of slavery. She meets her ancestors and tries to figure out what she’s doing there and if–or how–she’s supposed to change her history.
To be quite frank, this is probably the closest thing to genre fiction I ever had the privilege of reading in college. But its masterful storytelling and discussion-worthy exploration of race and the historical legacy of slavery definitely elevates it beyond your average novel. It is, however, sometimes considered science fiction–and for that, I love it.
2. Eat a Bowl of Tea by Louis Chu
Following the lift of the Chinese Exclusion Act after World War II, this novel documents the trials and tribulations of a young Chinese-American couple trying to balance the old world traditions of their parents with the new ideas of American culture.
This book is very heartwarming and actually will give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside by the end–but in the meantime, it plays out a little bit like a soap opera with the gossip and intrigue of the Chinatown community, and at times it is actually pretty hilarious. It’s a rich and insightful look into post-WWII Chinese-American culture, and I really enjoyed it.
If you’re wondering where “eat a bowl of tea” comes from, well… you’ll just have to read it and find out.
3. The Gangster We’re All Looking For by Lê Thi Diem Thúy
Here we go, this one isn’t so warm and fuzzy. Also, this book borderlines poetry–it blurs the line between the metaphorical and the literal as it follows the story of a Vietnamese immigrant girl and her family after they relocate in California: the loss, the grief, the love. This one may not have been an easy read, but it was beautiful and captivating. For anyone who likes rich, poetic prose, I highly recommend this one.
4. Disgraced by Ayad Aktar
I’m cheating a little bit on this one: this is a play, not a novel, but I never said I was just covering novels, did I? Besides, I didn’t get to see the play–I had to read the script, but holy crap, was it a good read. Set in the modern (post 9/11) age, it follows a Pakistani-American lawyer struggling to balance his Muslim heritage with his American ideals. When he and his American wife host a dinner party for their uppity friends, tensions rise… and mistakes are made. I would love to see this live someday. It’s gotta be intense, but it’s also extremely subtle. It’s the kind of story that doesn’t really end good or bad, but the ending makes sense (from what I can remember) and gives you a lot to think about.
5. Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville
So, the guy who wrote the egregiously long novel Moby Dick also wrote the tastefully short novella Bartleby, the Scrivener, and honestly, it’s a good read for anyone who likes walking away from a book scratching their head. It plays out a little like an episode of Twilight Zone wherein a lawyer hires the mysterious Bartleby to transcribe documents. All is going well until one day, for seemingly no reason whatsoever, Bartleby refuses to work, and thus begins the slow unravelling of the bourgeoise. Oh yes, you can go full Marxist on this bitch. But it’s actually kind of fun.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Office Space, that’s basically a modern version of Bartleby. I actually wrote a whole essay on it. Yes, a college essay. Hm, maybe I’ll post it one day. An abridged version, of course.
What was the best and/or worst thing you read in college (or high school)? I’m genuinely curious, so feel free to comment below!