Best Books I've Read for College Courses
By Charlotte Klein
In my experience, reading for academic courses in high school was a make or break situation. Reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce for AP English Literature was a seemingly endless month of essays that analyzed symbolism, tone, themes -- the whole shebang. Analyzing literary devices marred the experience of stream of consciousness that is unique to James Joyce, and I struggled to get through the book. A close friend told me they reread A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on their gap year and had a completely different experience, free from the looming cloud of a reading quiz. On the other hand, certain books were enhanced by the classroom discussion, such as works of Faulkner and Hemingway. I think it depends on the book, the professor, and the classroom environment. The books (mostly memoirs) that I read for my creative nonfiction writing class in college were specifically assigned to aid in weekly prompts, such as “Place” or “Interpersonal Conflict.” If you didn’t read the book, there was no punishment, and I took pleasure in ‘reading to read’ and to improve my writing. Here are my favorites:
The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
I can’t recommend this book enough. Beautiful writing, captivating plot, humor, sadness -- this memoir has it all. Karr’s memoir of growing up in East Texas may seem like another dysfunctional family tale, but the vividness of her memories and the equal spells of humor and misery with which she writes earns this book a spot not only in this post, but on my all-time favorite reads. Each line can stand alone as a story in itself. The Liars’ Club achieves what all memoirs strive to do; I felt Karr reliving her childhood as I read, and it was painstakingly clear what she had only just come to realize in writing these words.
“Those are only rumors of suffering. Real suffering has a face and a smell. It lasts in the most intense form no matter what you drape over it. And it knows your name.”
“And you snap out of it. Or are snapped out of it. Never again will you lay a hand against yourself, not as long as there are plums to eat and somebody--anybody--who gives enough of a damn to haul them to you. So long as you bear the least nibblet of love for any other creature in this dark world, though in love portions are never stingy. There are no smidgens on pinches, only rolling abundance. That's how you acquire the resolution for survival that the upcoming years are about to demand. You don't give it. You earn it.”
Darkness Visible by William Styron
One of the most profound meditations on depression (and recovery), and it’s only about eighty pages. It’s a quick read that I think everyone should read, whether familiar with depression or not. Darkness Visible is straightforward; Styron succeeds in his ability to explicate a topic as abstract as depression, mental anguish, and the reality of recovery without the use of DSM definitions. I love the way the memoir begins: Styron, in Paris, descending into his own mind.
“It has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to a failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience.”
“The night was blustery and raw, with a chill wet wind blowing down the avenues, and when Rose and I met Françoise and her son and a friend at La Lorraine, a glittering brassiere not far from L'Étoile, rain was descending from the heavens in torrents. Someone in the group, sensing my state of mind, apologized for the evil night, but I recall thinking that even if this were one of those warmly scented and passionate evenings for which Paris is celebrated I would respond like the zombie I had become. The weather of depression is unmodulated, its light a brownout.”
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
I had read In Cold Blood before, a few summers earlier, but did not remember nor appreciate Capote’s True Crime account as I did this year. In Cold Blood details the murder of the Clutter family, who were murdered ‘in cold blood’ in their Holcomb, Kansas home in 1959. The precision and detail with which he writes is something that all writers seek to emulate and all readers hope to stumble upon. Plus, I found Capote’s process in writing this book fascinating: he spent six years working on this book and formed personal relationships with the murderers. In Cold Blood essentially destroyed Capote, leaving him physically and mentally drained. My professor specifically used this book to reference fully rendered portraits of characters, as well as the importance of set-up when detailing a memory. I love how subtle and reserved Capote is, despite covering such horrific matters.
“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”
“Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.”
My professor would often take time during class to read short stories or essays aloud, which was one of my favorite aspects of the course. Some of my favorites were Memories of Being a Freshman Cheerleader for the Basketball Team by Donna Tartt, Goodbye, My Brother by John Cheever, and an excerpt from A Death in the Family by James Agee. While most of what we read in this course was nonfiction, Goodbye, My Brother was a work of fiction as believable (if not more) than The Liars’ Club. Donna Tartt’s piece is a classic memory of high school which is told with an interesting mix of nostalgia and relief; Cheever’s piece is a tumultuous family story, set by the sea; Agee’s style will likely only appeal to those who love beautiful, poetic prose and don’t mind a shadowy narrative for the sake of language.
“The other cheerleaders griped about not being allowed to ride with the players, but though I griped along with them, I was secretly appalled at the rowdy team bus, full of boys who shouted things when you walked by their table in the cafeteria. The cars, on the other hand, were wide, spacious, quiet. Somebody's mother usually would have made cookies; there were always potato chips and old issues of Seventeen. The girls punched listlessly at the radio, applied Bonne Bell lip gloss, did their homework or their hair.” (Memories of Being a Freshman Cheerleader for the Basketball Team)
“The east fog was thick and wet, and he was alone on the dock. He was not in costume. He had not even bothered to get himself up as a fisherman or a sailor. He looked particularly saturnine. The fog blew around us like a cold smoke. I wished that it had been a clear night, because the easterly fog seemed to play into my misanthropic brother’s hands. And I knew that the buoys - the groaners and bells that we could hear - would sound to him like half-human, half-drowned cries, although every sailor knows that buoys are necessary and reliable fixtures, and I knew that the foghorn at the lighthouse would mean wanderings and losses to him and that he could misconstrue the vivacity of the dance music.” (Goodbye, My Brother)
“He always felt different once he was across the river. This was the real, old, deep country, now. Home country. The cabins looked different to him, a little older and poorer and simpler, a little more homelike; the trees and rocks seemed to come differently out of the ground; the air smelled different.”(A Death in the Family)
Honorable mention: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I didn’t read all of this book, only the first fifty pages. But I plan to go back and finish Coates’ memoir, which is written in the format of letters to his son. In the parts that I read, Coates discusses the concept of race and addresses the fallacy of both ‘The Dream’ and the language we are taught in a failed effort to be tactful.
“The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”
“And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”