The Two Books Every Graduate Should Read
Choosing a book to read is always an important decision, but rarely is it as crucial as when you’ve first graduated from college. You’re an infant once again, and the first book you pick up has the potential to leave as deep an imprint as Goodnight, Moon did so many years ago. Will you go the practical route and read What Color Is Your Parachute? Will you pretend, for as long as you can, that what just happened to you—full and irreversible ejection from the sweet confines of college into real life—didn’t happen, and indulge in something escapist, Game of Thrones, or Harry Potter (for the third time) perhaps? So many paths, so many books, so few right and wrong answers.
Rather than give you a daunting reading list, I’m going to talk about two books: the one I read when I first graduated three years ago; and the one, published this year, that every class of 2014 senior should read. They make good choices for any young adult, but those wishing to do something creative—write, make art, become an Instagram celebrity—will find them especially relevant.
“There is no measuring with time”: Letters to a Young Poet
When I graduated from college, I lived in a small apartment in the East Village that had mice and was situated too close (for my taste) to a string of cozy bar-restaurants that, day and night, filled my block with rowdy brunchers and drinkers. The living situation was not ideal; as you might be able to infer, I like quiet.
One upside of the apartment was that it had an accessible roof. Nearly every weekend that first summer, I took books up there, laid back on the baking reflective white paint, and read. The inaugural book I brought up was Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters; nothing else I read that summer made a deeper impression.
The tiny volume contains a back-and-forth between Rilke, by that time (1902) a well-established Bohemian-Austrian poet, and a 19-year-old officer cadet and aspiring poet named Franz Xaver Kappus. Kappus initially writes to Rilke to ask if he’ll provide a critique of some of his poetry. Rilke refuses: “Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings.”
And yet, in the paradoxical manner of Polonius advising Laertes to take advice from no one, Rilke proceeds to offer the young poet precisely the criticism, insight, and words of wisdom requested. He proves to be a grade-A mentor, combining sincere enthusiasm for the practice of writing with unadorned honesty about its hardships. “Almost everything serious is difficult,” he tells Kappus. “And everything is serious.”
The recurring motif of Rilke’s letters is a call to remain patient, to accept the anxiety and uncertainty of youth, and to look within oneself, not to others, for answers. These directives, as any mildly ambitious or anxious young person knows, contradict exactly the natural impulses of those who want to do great things. The modus operandi of the postgraduate person is a heightened anxiety and deep insecurity: One looks to the standards set by others and races to meet them; there seems to be no time to do otherwise. And if, in the flurry of work and achievement, one becomes estranged or dissociated from oneself, so be it.
But the most fruitful answers, Rilke tells Kappus, lie inside. “Always trust yourself and your own feeling,” he tells Kappus. “If it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights.”
I remember that, when I read this sentence, up there on the roof, an anxious rebuttal rose up in my throat: “What if I takes me whole life to figure out that I’ve been wrong? How am I supposed to know I’m not wasting my time?” Here again, Rilke had an answer: “There is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come.”
“We’re so young”: The Opposite of Loneliness
It would take a brave and deeply trusting young person to follow Rilke’s advice. But, though I never knew Marina Keegan myself, I suspect—from having heard her story and read her writing—that she understood what the poet was talking about.
Keegan was a young writer who, in 2012, at the age of 22, already had the makings of a major literary career: At Yale, her stories and essay had won her campus-wide stardom; she’d worked as a research assistant to the critic Harold Bloom; a play she’d written was set to be performed in New York; and she had a job at the New Yorker reserved for her. Tragically, she died in a car accident just five days after graduating—leaving behind, in the words of Bloom, “partial evidence of the extraordinary promise that departed with her.”
The Opposite of Loneliness, published two years after Keegan’s death, collects this evidence into a single volume. Her stories and essays—touching on everything from college romance and Celiac disease to whales and war in Afghanistan—signal prodigious talent. There’s a distinct voice here, an unmistakable energy and a courageous willingness to experiment. Here’s Keegan writing about the possibility of extraterrestrial life in an essay called “Putting the ‘Fun’ Back in Eschatology”: “It’s natural selection on a Universal scale. ‘The Origin of the Aliens,’ one could say; a survival of the fittest planets…. I suppose that without a God, NASA is my anti-nihilism.”
In an introduction to the collection, Keegan’s mentor and Yale writing instructor Anne Fadiman offers further insight into this young woman, particularly into her determination. Fadiman describes how she (Keegan) reacted when, during a master’s tea at Yale, the novelist Mark Helprin suggested that making it as a young writer today was impossible. “Hearing a famous writer tell me that the industry is dying and that we should probably do something else was sad,” she wrote to Fadiman. “I just expected him to be more encouraging of those hoping to stop the death of literature.” Another time, after being denied admission to a secret society at Yale, Keegan proved her resilience again: “I’ve vowed to spend the 12 hours a week writing a novel [instead],” she wrote to Fadiman. “6-12 [S]undays and [T]hursdays.”
Keegan’s dedication to writing brings to mind another frequent motif of Rilke’s letters: the need to write. “Ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?” he tells Kappus. “If this answer rings out in assent… then build your life in accordance with this necessity.” In every endeavor, Keegan seemed to be doing just that.
And Keegan, as Rilke advised Kappus to do, confidently embraced her youth. “Many of my students sound forty years old,” Fadiman tells us. “Marina was twenty-one and sounded twenty-one… a twenty-one year old who understood that there were few better subjects than being young and uncertain and starry-eyed and frustrated and hopeful.”
This, for me, is the most inspiring thing about Keegan: her ability to rejoice in the clumsiness and anxiety inherent in being young. Like Rilke before her, Keegan understood that youth, far from trivial, was the single deepest wellspring of anything—any writing, creation, career, endeavor—that’s meaningful and worthwhile. And she was quick to remind her fellow classmates and readers of this fact. In her eponymous essay, which was read by more than a million people following her death, she writes: “We’re so young. We’re so young…. We have so much time…. We have to remember we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over…. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”
Being in the still-scary, still-weird early years of adulthood myself, I’m not sure I’m in a position to give advice. But if there are any advice-givers I think the graduates of 2014 should listen to, they're Rilke and Keegan, who, more than a hundred years apart, remind us of a simple, timeless fact: The least certain and most anxiety-ridden years of our lives may, in fact, be our best.