Light reading: Novels for undergrad

The Rock

Perhaps the best building on campus

College (University, for our international friends) is a stretch of time that seems to exist apart from the rest of our lives. It’s a very particular environment, and one that we’re unlikely to return to. Really, the only ways back are grad school and tenure, two particularly treacherous paths. If you intend to travel them, I can only wish you good luck.

What I feel should get more attention than “the college experience” itself is the clear distinction between the years we spend at school. Each of them brings new challenges and experiences, and while the temptation is there to just call them hedonism “college” and be done with it, there’s something to be gained from approaching each year as its own entity. With that in mind, I recommend each of these novels for a bit of light reading (okay, one of them isn’t nearly so light as the others), one for each year, in hopes that they’ll prove illuminating for the days and nights you spend at Brown. Read them in order, out of order, the one for your current year, any of them, none of them (I don’t recommend his choice, but I’m not your mother), or however else you choose.

Freshman Year: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

As a first year student at Brown, the knowledge you clearly need is how to become romantically involved with someone who is filthy rich.

Alright, none of us here is actually so shallow (or at least not so daft as to admit to being so), but Austen’s classic novel of stuffy British (but here I repeat myself) society and its various intrigues draws several parallels to the new college student’s experience. There is an acute pressure to present yourself well to your new peers, and the fear of committing some faux pas that will follow you for the rest of your days at school. (Note: It’s tremendously unlikely that you could misstep in such spectacular fashion.) Worse yet, for the romantically inclined among us, there is the pressure of trying to be desirable stacked on top of all the rest. What if your first lover is more in the mold of Wickham than Darcy? What if you think your lover is in the mold of Darcy, but in reality they’re just a prick?

Fortunately, Pride and Prejudice offers us some sage advice right in the title of what we should be careful of when meeting new people. Don’t go in thinking you’re better than anyone else, and give others a chance to open up before you decide they’re stone-hearted cads. Here at Brown, we’ve all got a bit of the brainy Elizabeth in us, so learn what you can from her mistakes. If nothing else, you can enjoy the parties.

Sophomore Year: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

Sophomore year, to me, stands out as the year when one is required to define oneself in the face of myriad contradictory forces. Perhaps you want to branch out from who you were as a freshman, but are afraid of losing touch with the friends who were your constants in a strange land in the first year. Perhaps you’re having severe doubts about what you believed about the world before Brown, or even about the things you’ve learned here. Most emblematic of these sorts of challenges is the requirement to choose a concentration. You must make a choice that defines the rest of your college life and beyond without being entirely certain of who you are. It’s difficult to know whether you’ll regret that choice or not.

Catch-22 is a story that centers around impossible, thoroughly unreasonable choices that are matters of life and death. In spite of the seemingly grim backdrop of a World War II story, the tale of Yossarian and his desperate drive to escape from a world that’s trying to do him in is probably the funniest book I’ve ever read, and may in fact be may single favorite novel. No other book has taken the terrifying prospect of being backed into a corner and had such fun with it. Similarly, I can say with confidence that Brown is often intimidating, yet always fascinating. While classes, concentrations, and intellectual callings can be dizzying to contemplate, I implore you to at least try to enjoy your time at Brown. You don’t have to feel on top of the world every day, but at least take solace in the fact that you’re not miles up in the sky in a bomber, hoping not to get shot out of the sky. (I mean this in the literal sense. What you do with metaphors is your own damned business.) A Catch-22 is a problem that you can’t reason through. Fretting over the future has severely diminishing returns, and you’ll likely get nowhere but deeper into your own head. Have a laugh about things; there’s always a joke somewhere.

Junior Year: Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

This is the aforementioned “not-so-light reading” selection on this list. While the other books I’m recommending have been at all times enjoyable and smooth reads, Moby Dick is a more troublesome quarry. Still, I contend that the tale of Ishmael as he sails under Ahab in pursuit of the great white whale is well worth your time. By the time junior year rolls around, you’ve spent a significant amount of time at Brown. Like life aboard the whaling ship Pequod, school life has peculiarities and customs that are not shared by the world at large, and your alcohol consumption may be nearing that of the typical 19th century sailor. Moby Dick is, in large part, a book about being aboard the whaling ship. The daily life of a sailor is every bit as important to the book as the madness of Ahab, and his battle against what he views as a malevolent force of nature. It’s this marriage of the humdrum and the epic that makes Moby Dick such a remarkable novel, and I encourage you to give it a try, and not to skip over chapters because they seem unimportant.

For example, there are passages devoted to 19th century whale science, which may read largely as gibberish to you, though Ishmael seems captivated by them. Now that your coursework is becoming more specialized, take care to remember that what you study may be fish philosophy nonsense to others who don’t share your expertise. (I know what you’re thinking: “Whales aren’t fish, English concentrator.” That assumes we’re using the modern category of “fish” that is defined by our knowledge of evolutionary science. To 19th century whalers, the most pertinent facts about whales were that they had fins and lived in the sea. Thus, fish. But I digress.) I think Moby Dick can allow us to step back and view our college experience from the point of view of an outsider, and appreciate it for the unique island of time that it is. In addition, Ahab provides a gripping study of a man who believes his fate is to battle with a primordial evil embodied in the form of his hated enemy, Moby Dick. Ahab has invested his whole self in his pursuit, and feels that to break it off would be tantamount to no longer being Ahab. He feels that it’s impossible to alter his course. Consider his example, and realize that you don’t have to emerge from college fully formed, knowing everything about the world and how you fit into it. Moby Dick was just a whale; he didn’t have the capacity for unending malevolence towards Ahab. Be careful of holding too static a view of the world, and take solace in the fact that it’s categorically impossible to not be yourself. Perhaps you want to change your course of study; you’re not marked by fate to battle the grim death with organic chemistry. Don’t get so hung up on the idea of yourself as a doctor that you forget the fact that you never wanted to be a doctor in the first place. Lastly, Melville provides us with a piece of quite valuable advice: “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” Words to live by, my friends.

Because Moby Dick can be such a difficult novel, I recommend not making it your only reading material. Take your time with it while reading other things. It goes down best as a slow-burning tale, in my experience.

Senior Year: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut

My final recommendation is a novel that I read in one night during my sophomore year, in my first semester as a Brown student. Vonnegut’s writing is lucid and humorous, and the story of Eliot Rosewater, the millionaire who is committed to his fellow men and women, is endlessly entertaining. (Supposing you actually want to read each book I’m recommending, Mr. Rosewater might make a good companion to Moby Dick, as a less laborious read. I fear that you will run out of Vonnegut before Melville, but perhaps Melville is just as easy for you. Some people tell me that whiskey tastes good, so I’ll believe in any sort of preference you express.)

Kurt Vonnegut stands out as a writer for his acerbic wit, but also for his unflinching belief in the idea that we should all treat each other decently. This comes through in many of his works, but none so strongly or movingly as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. As a senior, you’re preparing to move on from Brown to the rest of your life. While you will have certainly become capable thinkers, and masters of many valuable skills (yes, you–no need to sell yourself short, entry level jobs are hard enough to nab already), that shouldn’t be all you take away from Brown. Leaving specific policy ideas aside for the moment, the people I’ve known here have been kind and thoughtful, and have wanted what’s best for humanity as a whole. This is crucial, since the ends for which you employ your skills are just as important as the skills themselves. Here, Vonnegut has spoken more eloquently than I can, so I’ll treat you to an excerpt from Mr. Rosewater:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Whether you want to spend your time at Brown reading novels or not, please remember that. It’s as good a mantra as any to carry with you. If you read these books and find that they cast no light on your college experience at all, then I can only hope that you’ve enjoyed them just the same. Happy reading.

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