At some point in your college career, you’ll find that conversations about frat parties and foamy beer get old fast, and not to mention, they don’t make you sound supremely intelligent. If you want to dazzle friends and family with your “college educated” mental capacity, the trick is to talk about literature. Notice that English professors often encourage alternate ways of interpreting a text and praise your attempt to add to the conversation, no matter how misguided it might be.
Below are a few written works that will undoubtedly spark some lively conversations showcasing your collegiate learning curve … or your ability to BS your way out of anything.
1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
With an upcoming movie (the December release has been pushed back to next summer), Gatsby is going to be a topic of conversation. Whether it be an argument that Leonardo DiCaprio is better in the role than Robert Redford (my bet is no way) or people claiming the book is far better than any scripted adaptation, Gatsby is never short in supply of critics. Either way, this book will make itself relevant again, just as it did in your high school days when English teachers made you write essays about the American Dream.
But this time, actually read it rather than SparkNoting it the night before your final exam.
The nuances of the novel are easily lost on skimmers more concerned with finding easily accessible symbolism rather than understanding the intricacies of Jay Gatsby’s relationships and innate magnetism. Do yourself a favor and reread Fitzgerald’s masterpiece so your debates about the 1920s’ extravagance can be based on the text instead of a hyped-up screenplay complete with Jay-Z and Kanye’s “No Church in the Wild.”
Read if only for this line: “No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
2. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Your intelligence will undoubtedly be hailed if you make it through this World War II tale of bombardiers, not because you’ll be able to draw similarities between capitalism’s amorality then and now (trust me, you will be able to do that — pay particular attention to Milo), but because anyone who can finagle their way through Heller’s paradoxical satire is already far beyond most readers. The intertwining of human stories and complex round-about iteration is why most people give up on Heller’s novel before they even get to the best part, which is hinted at from the very first page. Catch-22 may come off as a comical tale of history, but at its end, it answers all of our questions about life and death, leaving you to mull over the reality of war for time to come.
Read if only for this line: “Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret.”
3. Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
A collection of short stories, Salinger’s compilation still resonates with fans of his best-known novel, The Catcher in the Rye. With most of the stories in the collection focusing on the fictional Glass family, Salinger’s work still hinges on the isolation many readers recognized in the ostracized Holden Caulfield, but at differing stages in each character’s life. Exercising the mind on human frailties, Nine Stories portrays the dark and reclusive life of Salinger himself. And of course, Salinger’s work wouldn’t be complete without a comment on the absolute phoniness of society and those that inhabit it. If you can figure out who the “phony” is in each story, everyone will marvel at your literary genius.
Read if only for this line: “’If you want to look at my feet, say so,’ said the young man. ‘But don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.’”
I lump these books together because for me, I don’t think just one adequately tells the story of drug addiction, family, honesty, hopelessness, love and redemption. But together, Tweak and Beautiful Boy tell the true story of son Nic’s addiction to crystal meth and father David’s unending battle to save him. While novels like Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and William S. Burroughs’ Junky tell the tale of drug-addled existence, readers never experience the outsiders’ (i.e. clean and sober family members and friends) understanding of our addicted protagonists. Instead we recognize their plight but find adventure in it as well.
Tweak and Beautiful Boy together do what no one single novel has accomplished when it comes to drug dependency: tell the whole story. Through Nic’s ramblings of his compulsions to David’s acceptance of his son’s condition, readers finally see both sides of a complex story where sometimes, there is no hero.
Read if only for this line: “We deny the severity of our loved one’s problem not because we are naïve, but because we can’t know.”
5. Inferno by Dante Alighieri
Want to be the smartest person in the room? Just go ahead and casually drop into conversation that you translated Dante’s Inferno from the original Italian. No, you probably didn’t, but don’t worry, there are editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy that offer dual translations side-by-side. Dante’s allegory for hell follows Dante and Virgil (author of the Aeneid) through the nine circles of Hell, all complete with friends and foes being tortured for eternity. Reading this epic poem opens the philosophical and religious debate about what really makes a person a sinner and the ever-pressing question of the afterlife. Delving into the organization of Dante’s Hell also begs examination and will absolutely ensure a lively dispute about why treachery is far worse than violence.
Read if only for this line: “There is no great sorrow / than to be mindful of the happy time / in misery.”
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