memoirs of a terrible english major
Wow, I honestly didn’t realize that my last post was a whole month ago (sorry to all of my disappointed subscribers, I’m sure, but to the select few of you that do subscribe to me, you guys are my favorites). I started writing this post a while ago, but never got around to posting it; I decided I would rather wait to write a quality post rather than post something really rushed just for the sake of posting. But I finally finished! This is for everyone who’s still looking for a summer project or who has asked me for book recommendations recently.
It sounds like a superfluous thing to say, given the fact that I am (was) an English major, but I love reading. I was the kid who would beg for trips to Barnes & Noble instead of ice cream (sometimes both), who would discreetly slip a book light under the covers and read way past my bedtime, who was raised on a healthy diet of Eric Carle and Dr. Seuss, who got placed in a special reading group by myself in the first grade because I complained that we were reading “too slowly,” who would finish Harry Potter books the day they came out, barricading myself in my room and devouring the whole thing in one sitting…and then spending the rest of the week rereading it.
But the reason why I am (was) probably the worst English major ever is that I actually hate being forced to read. I like reading a book for the fun of it, not analyzing it to death and then writing a ten-page paper on it. Which, as an English major, is kind of necessary. Also, I think a lot of English majors are super-pretentious and I hate it, and I sometimes just don’t finish books because I’ve already developed very strong opinions about one particular facet of them and get tired of reading the rest. I’m really fun in discussions, though.
Because I read so much for my major, and liked to keep myself busy in college, the little free time that I did have, I mostly spent doing mindless things like watching Netflix. I don’t think I’ve read a book for fun in years. Until last summer, when I spent my after-work hours peacefully alone in the [lovely, air-conditioned haven that is Barnes & Noble]. Not what the average tourist does in New York, but I loved it. It kind of rekindled my love of reading; it made me remember what it really felt like to get lost in a book, and I finished Gone Girl in two post-work marathon sessions.
Which brings me to my personal summer project (one of many, more on that later). Because of a recent anti-trust lawsuit settlement (thanks, Apple!) I recently received $100 in my Amazon account. And promptly spent it all on books. So this is my brand-new collection of summer/fall reading list books (if I’m being honest with myself), AKA what I’ve got currently waiting for me on my Kindle right now:
1. Freakonomics by Stephen J. Dubner & Steven Levitt
Actually not a Kindle book, I lied. This one I purchased a while ago because I’ve heard a lot about it but never picked it up, and I started reading it back [in April] but just recently finished. It poses a lot of provocative questions like “What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?” and “How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents?” It’s actually so rad, because it explores “the hidden side of everything” as its title promises, through economic data. And that is essentially the reason I want to go into marketing. I find psychographics endlessly fascinating, and economics is kind of the hard data to its soft science. I’m only halfway through, but I love it so far. It’s like taking you through a little mini treasure hunt. It makes you look at everything a little differently, it makes you reevaluate conventional wisdom and the world you live in, and gives you answers to what’s going on beneath the surface.
2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
This book was given to me by my friend [Conrad] for graduation. I’d heard the title tossed around a lot, but it never sounded particularly interesting. Until I read the first chapter. García Márquez is one of those authors that reminds you just how beautiful language is (and it was originally written in Spanish, which in my opinion is prettier than English); his vivid imagery and carefully-chosen words have a kind of lyricism to them. Some of his phrases are so elegant it makes me marvel at how great some writers are, that these small fragments kind of just come together in their heads and sound so harmonious. It’s classified as “magical realism,” which I actually really like because it brings this kind of whimsicality to an otherwise ordinary story about a multigenerational family settling in the fictional town of Macondo.
3. Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Recommended to me by Daniel as his favorite book, kind of a mystery/fantasy story (alternate title is The Cemetery of Forgotten Books). I’m only a couple of chapters in, but the concept alone is intriguing — I don’t think I’ve read a real mystery since The Westing Game in third grade. It’s about this boy (also named Daniel) who is swept up in the mystery surrounding the rare Shadow of the Wind book he has plucked from the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a secret place introduced to him on his eleventh birthday by his father. The first chapters were admittedly slow, but the brooding mystery of the storyline always led me to pick it back up again, and I’m currently in the middle of this one now. Ruiz Zafón has a talent for very evocative writing. He writes through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy, but somehow manages to convey ideas with an air of maturity beyond those years. There’s a richness to his writing that he captures in the very simple, very minute details — the artistry of a fountain pen or the light-headed sensation of falling in love — that is incomparable to most books I’ve read. Also, it’s only $0.01 on Amazon right now, so even if you hate it, it’s a worthwhile investment.
4. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
This was on a lot of “summer reading lists” and I thought it sounded compelling. It had comparisons to Gone Girl, so I was immediately attracted to it. It’s a psychological thriller, about a woman who witnesses a crime committed while on her daily commute on the train, but the pieces of it are jumbled up in her mind due to heavy drinking. I think psychological thrillers are the most fascinating kind, because it’s truly terrifying what the human mind is capable of (see: [false memory] and [gaslighting]; you’ll likely never sleep again). Unreliable narration is such a cool writing technique, and it holds a special kind of power that can’t be achieved through other means, one that makes the reader doubt everything he knows.
5. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
One of those books that’s on every entrepreneur’s bookshelf, and one I’ve always wanted to read. From my understanding, it’s a lot like Freakonomics in that it focuses on a macro concept (why do some people succeed, while others fail?) by posing micro-questions (why are so many hockey players born in January?). I really like reading about the dynamics of things like the economy and business because I think they’re so intricate and simultaneously delicate — they’re concepts that have always kind of intrinsically existed, but at the same time are products of human invention that have been refined over time. This one is particularly interesting, because success is such a hotly-contested attribute; everyone has a different opinion of its definition and what it entails. But I’ve yet to see someone that actually examines the mechanics of it, and this is what Gladwell seeks to accomplish.
6. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Recommended to me by my favorite high school English teacher. She’s one of the people I can actually say influenced me a lot in high school (to this day, I still never use the phrase “very unique”). I greatly admire her thought process and she’s such an interesting person (and very well read, of course), so I wanted to know what kinds of books caught her attention. This one is about “notorious, fearlessly opinionated, and agoraphobic architect” mother and wife Bernadette Fox, that suddenly disappears, and it’s up to her 15-year-old daughter to track her down. Ms. Moffett said it was a novel mostly about people and their relationships with one another, something we both agreed we liked, so the plot and the fact that this book is classified as a comedy novel were particularly appealing to me.
7. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Purchased for the same reasons as Outliers. It’s a relatively old book (written around 80 years ago) but is still cited in business and networking today, and the very fact that its relevancy has remained intact is amazing to me. Its tagline boldly proclaims that it is “The Only Book You Need to Lead You to Success,” so of course I had to read it. And like I’ve mentioned before, psychographics interests me, so I wanted to learn about Carnegie’s observations of people and their behavior and social patterns.
8. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Recommended to me by my friend [Brittany], whose taste is similar enough to mine that I was willing to buy it even without knowing the plot. But, I’m a sucker for dystopian fiction stories (especially ones that have film adaptations starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield…should I start a summer movie list also?) and complex moral problems of human identity (which is why the one I’m writing is both), so this sounded like the perfect book for me.
9. The Goldfinch: A Novel by Donna Tartt
Another one from Ms. Moffett. What she actually said was “read anything by Donna Tartt,” and this one was highly recommended and Pulitzer Prize-winning, so naturally, it was my first choice. The reason I like books about ordinary people so much is that I’ve always been sort of enamored with the idea of the fictional word “sonder,” or “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” Reading about ordinary people really puts in perspective the value of living, of the small but priceless moments in time, and the resilient nature of the human spirit and tendency to reconstruct oneself in the wake of a world-shattering event (this last part I actually wrote a full paper on for one of my classes). Or, sometimes it’s just learning how to live one day at a time. It always kind of refreshes my outlook on life and my attitude toward other people, and I think I need that from time to time.
10. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
This one was suggested to me years ago by my friend [Heather] as her favorite book. It’s won critical acclaim for its narrative of a 10-year-old autistic boy who loses his father in the 9/11 attacks (which seems like yesterday, so it was jolting to realize that it was actually 15 years ago). What I like about the concept is that 9/11 is so often discussed in a political and national context, but we often forget about the individual lives it affected. That’s why I always like reading stories about the survivors or the family members; it gives a human face to the tragedy, which I think is what makes it so profound. I actually purchased this book and started it a long time ago, but I could never get into it, so I think it’s due for a second try.
11. #GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso
Something I’ve always wanted to read. Sophia Amoruso is frequently mentioned in discussions about successful female entrepreneurs (there aren’t many, sadly), and Nastygal is a very well-known clothing retailer now, so I was interested in its origins. I admire the fact that she’s empowering young women to become entrepreneurs, just like she did, and it’s refreshing to hear it from someone who didn’t get their start selling lemonade as a kid and dreaming about starting their own business. This is a story about someone who kind of accidentally stumbled upon entrepreneurship, who didn’t immediately “know” she was an entrepreneur, and I think that’s much more relatable.
12. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
I always give Khaled Hosseini as my favorite author, not only because I was a huge fan of his first two books, [The Kite Runner] and [A Thousand Splendid Suns], but because I also consider him one of my biggest influences in creative writing. I love the way he writes; it’s so gorgeous with so much vivid imagery and characters that are so complex and multidimensional that it breaks your heart. He has a knack for tapping into those very primitive emotions, the ones you can’t quite name but are always on the tip of your tongue, and for connotative writing, which I admire. The Kite Runner is famous for a very tragic scene in particular, and while I was horrified by it when I read it, I couldn’t help but note the way he wrote it so delicately. There’s a beautifully understated quality about his writing, and it makes you feel things so much more intensely. This one is different — rather than focusing on the point of view of one person (a young boy in The Kite Runner and two women in A Thousand Splendid Suns), he switches between multiple perspectives in his story, which I found an interesting approach. I also started this one a while ago, but I didn’t connect with it in the same way that I did with his first two novels. But I’ve got a couple of long flights ahead of me this summer, so I figure now is a good time to give it another go.
Tell me your favorite book, what you’re currently reading, or what’s on your to-read list in the comments!
Originally published at www.jayemsey.com.