September always reminds us of back-to-school season. Whether you’re packing your bags for campus or getting back into that collegiate state of mind, here are six books that have educated us about life.
Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker
You might already know Morgan Parker for her poetry collections Magical Negro and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. In her debut YA novel, she writes an autobiographical story of a teenager (also named Morgan Parker) struggling with depression and searching for a sense of belonging in her suburban town. Parker keeps the reader right inside book-Morgan’s head, where, despite what she shares out loud, her inner life runs wild. Morgan loves Radiohead and ‘80s rom-coms; she’s a keen and clever observer of her peers. She’s also regularly asked to speak for the black population at her majority-white high school (“I can’t be the entire black student body,” she thinks to herself when a teacher asks her to weigh in on the prospect of Obama’s presidency). Over time, Morgan finds the tools to manage her mental health issues and branches out into new experiences. It’s an honest, funny, and sometimes tough-to-read portrait of a young black woman coming into her own.
The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison
With the recent passing of literary legend Toni Morrison, it’s natural to revisit some of her monumental novels centered on Black-American lives. But her non-fiction works are worthy of close analysis, too. In fact, her latest collection, The Source of Self-Regard, released just earlier this year, could serve as a behind-the-scenes commentary on some of her most vital titles to grace the syllabi of American literature and English courses, like The Bluest Eye and Beloved. It’s a generous portal into her brilliant mind and she gives precise clarity on her written mission: “Of all the characters chosen for artistic examination, with empathy or contempt, vulnerable young black girls were profoundly absent. [...] To me the enforced or chosen silence, the way history was written, controlled and shaped the national discourse.” Truth cuts deepest when it’s undeniable.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
In his 2011 followup to Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides takes a page out of the great nineteenth-century romance novels by Austen and the Brontës to write a modern day story of love, marriage, and higher education. It begins at Brown University in the 1980s, where an English major named Madeliene finds herself immersed in Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse and its acute relevance to her life. Soon, Madeleine finds herself in what can only be described as a classic love triangle with two very different men: Leonard, a charming yet moody biologist, and Mitchell, a world-traveling theology student in search of spiritual answers. Madeleine graduates and enters the real world, bouncing between her two suitors. Where—and with whom—will Madeleine end up? You’ll swoon, you’ll weep, you’ll wince with recognition at the complicated lives we lead when possessed by love.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
If you’re in the mood for a devilish and cinematic novel about young intellectuals behaving very badly, this is the book to pack for your autumnal retreat. It’s about the brutal murder of an insufferable classics student who is offed by the people in his very own program, and the desperate coverup that consequently ensues. Set at a liberal college that is similar to Bennington (the author’s real life alma mater), the novel drips with as much psychotic suspense and unspeakable acts as it does images of New England academic crispness. Summer may be synonymous with extended faraway vacations, whereas fall tends to inspire short weekend jaunts, the ones where you might travel just a little north or south of where you are to experience some changing-of-the-seasons splendor. This book goes well with knitwear and outdoor reading; the vibe is chilly.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Freshman year of college is often a daunting time. We’re often trying to figure out who we hope to be in the world, and where we want to go within it. This much is true for Greer Kadetsky, a freshman at a small liberal arts school who aspires to make something of her life, she’s just not sure what yet. Enter Faith Frank, a Gloria Steinem-esque leader of the feminist movement, who speaks at Greer’s school and ignites a fire within her. When Greer gets the chance to work at Faith’s new foundation post-college, she jumps at the opportunity, despite what it might mean for her friendships and long-term boyfriend back home. Through Faith and Greer’s closeness, Wolitzer explores the mentor-mentee relationship, and the challenges that arise from putting one’s life and career behind the ideas of one person.
Smothered in Hugs by Dennis Cooper
If you grew up in 90s America, there’s a lot to be giddy about in this collection of essays, written and culled by the singular Dennis Cooper, who is perhaps best-known for his queer novels and films. Here, it’s all about the slightly left-field pop culture subjects Cooper has either interviewed or ruminated on for various magazines. The works span from the mid-80s through mid-aughts. A sampling: a Q&A with a wide-eyed Leonardo DiCaprio, who just found out he has landed the lead role in Titanic; obituaries written for Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix; a conversation with the grateful John Waters, who says he’s lucky to only be recognized by true fans. Cooper has a firm finger on the pulse throughout these pieces—he offers great care and attention to people who have yet to see themselves as influential figures in the art world, who have no idea what marks they’ll leave. It’s remarkable Cooper has captured them at such vulnerable stages of their early careers, and served them up in this mind-trip of a book.