10 Books for My Son the Graduate

Bookseller Roxanne Coady has worried about her son for 21 years. But now she has to send him off as he graduates from college and embarks on a new life in a new home. Plus, more book bags from Terry Eagleton and Hilary Mantel.

Like thousands of other young men and women, my son Edward graduated from college last week. My husband and I spent 21 years raising him and hoping to instill in him a love of learning, a compassionate heart, and a passion and enthusiasm for all he can do.

I was nonetheless in a panic. Have we taught him enough? Has he listened? Has he read enough? Been exposed to enough? Is he independent enough? This may sound like helicopter parenting, but as a full-time working mother my fear was of having given too little, not too much.

As I watched him walk up to receive his diploma from Kenyon College on a sun-drenched, sparkling day, I found myself making mental notes. Does he know how to clean a bathroom? (Evidence would suggest not.) Does he know how to balance a checkbook? Does he have the moral fiber to always do the right thing? Of course, most of these concerns were unfounded. He has had chores, he knows how to cook, how to iron, how to be a first-rate gardening assistant, and much more. Still, it dawned on me that he will be moving on, and I wanted to feel secure that I’d given him everything he needed—that we’d filled him to the very top before shipping him off to his studio apartment.

So as to assuage my worry, I started a booklet organized by subject, and have been furiously filling it with notes from the sublime (“It’s not the first mistake; it’s the cover-up that gets you in trouble,” “People who work hard are luckier”) to the menial (“Always wipe down the kitchen counter after you cook”). I do realize that this isn’t really for him—he is unlikely to ever look at it. It is, alas, a way for me to make the transition as he begins his new life. I am determined to have it done by the time he leaves this summer to start his job. And since he may be reluctant to take the advice of his own mother, I figure I should include in my care package the perspective and wisdom of others.

As a bookseller I naturally think the solution to everything is books. Edward already owns thousands of books from the many stellar authors that have graced RJ Julia Booksellers. He has had the privilege of reading a lot of the classics and releases over the past two decades, and has become a voracious and curious man. It dawned on me that as he begins to set up his new home, he might welcome a special addition to his personal library—a new section tilted to the practical, but with the possibility of inspiring him.

Here is what I’m packing him off with:

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Personal Finance In Your 20s & 30s by Sarah Young Fisher and Susan Shelly

One thing that concerns me with a lot of young people today is that despite the fact that they can quote grand economic theories and have wonderful ambitions for their own careers, they are rarely prepared to create a budget for themselves, to know how to invest in their 401k, to understand the basics of health insurance. They may know the ins and outs of the country’s finances, but not a clue about their own. Moreover, they may have politically prudent questions like, “Why is my employer taking out money for Medicare when there apparently may not be Medicare when I need it?” This book provides sane, clear and immensely helpful answers to questions just like this.

Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson

At a cursory glance, this book might seem like too much information for a 21-year-old guy, but I’m attracted to its incredible amount of practical information, like how long to keep chicken in the refrigerator (i.e. the rule is NOT to wait for green fuzz to grow on it), or how to get stains out of clothes. Helpful advice for all of us, and essential reading for the modern domestic man.

Fast Food My Way by Jacques Pepin and Ben Fink

Edward hardly needs this to impress women (he has a lovely girlfriend), nor does he need inspiration to use his kitchen for more than a heating station for frozen dinners (he’s an burgeoning chef). But consulting this book is a brilliant way for anyone to adopt expert cooking techniques easily. It’s fun, and the recipes are simple and delicious.

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This is Water by David Foster Wallace

This transcription of Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College was apparently the only public talk he ever gave about his views on life. I’m not just selecting this one because the author, one of the most talented of our time, shares an alma mater with my son. I think this book should be on the shelf of every graduate—nay—of every human being.

Justice by Michael Sandel

This is that rare book that helps us think about justice, become good, smart citizens, and gives us access to ways to think compassionately. I want Edward to have Sandel’s guidance on the tip of his tongue as he reads the paper every morning, or starts to engage in political, cultural, and philosophical debate at the water cooler.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius On Solitude by Michel de Montaigne Why I Am So Wise by Friedrich Nietzsche On the Shortness Of Life by Lucius Annaeus Seneca

I would also want to include some favorites from the Penguin Great Ideas series. If you’re not yet familiar with these gorgeous little books, I urge you to run—not walk—to your local bookstore and check them out. Here are concise, original works by some of the greatest thinkers of all time, and Penguin has smartly chosen not to interpret the writing. It’s just there for us to enjoy inside beautiful little French flap paperbacks. I call these books “smart M&M’s.”

The Art Book by the editors Phaidon Press

I once read this in another great book, The Art of Possibility: “Art, after all, is about rearranging us, creating surprising juxtapositions, emotional openings, startling presences, and flight paths to the eternal.”

The problem is that each of these books reminds me of another that would be essential for Edward’s independent collection. (What about Common Sense by Thomas Paine? What about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays and Lectures from the Library of America?) I know I can’t overload him with too many extra boxes as he prepares for his move, and giving him dozens of books at once might dilute the importance of each one. So what’s a parent to do?

I know: I’ll send him a book every month.

Then I never have to stop.