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As he prepares his summer reading list, book lover and journalist Danny Heitman says he’s worried college students aren’t reading for fun anymore.
In a recent writing course he taught, he asked his students the last book they read for pleasure. Many of them hadn’t read a book for fun since “Harry Potter.”
Heitman is hesitant to offer a reading list to college-age young men and women, since lists tend to have an air of assigned reading. But he offers these 10 titles.
“They’re not necessarily the best books of all time,” Heitman told Here & Now. “Just a handful of volumes that I love, and that hold some appeal, I hope, for college kids.”
1. “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. “I laughed so hard that my sides were sore for days when I read this comic novel around my senior year in high school,” Heitman recalled. “The main character, thirty-something Ignatius Reilly, is in an extended adolescence, firmly convinced that the grown-up world is governed by idiots. When forced to get a job, Ignatius embarks upon a series of misadventures, each one a perfect exercise in the absurd. The book’s premise – that the adult universe isn’t really worth the trouble – really resonated with me when I read it on the cusp of college.”
2. “Walking Across Egypt” by Clyde Edgerton. “This is one of the first books I read in my first year out of college, when I was free of assigned reading,” Heitman recalled. “It’s also a comic novel, and it involves an unlikely relationship between an old Southern lady and a juvenile delinquent. Just thinking about some of the passages in this book would make me giggle so hard that I’d have to find a private corner to compose myself.”
3. “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. “I almost wish that teachers wouldn’t assign this book in school, because that can make Lee’s novel seem like a chore, and it’s really a joy,” Heitman said. “The book’s topic – a life-or-death criminal trial in a racially-charged Southern hamlet – is obviously serious, but there’s gentle humor here, too, and Lee’s prose has so much music in it. An unalloyed joy to read.”
4. “The Best of Roald Dahl” “Most college students these days will remember Dahl for his children’s stories like ‘James and the Giant Peach’ and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’” Heitman said. “But Dahl was a wickedly mordant writer of adult stories, too, and I think college students would really enjoy reconnecting with Dahl’s vision, which can sometimes fall squarely in the genre of horror writing.”
5. “The Lottery and Other Stories” by Shirley Jackson. “I think most of us read Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ in grade school or high school and were horrified by its surprise ending about a ritual of judgment in a quiet little town,” Heitman said. “But Jackson’s just too good to limit to one tale. The best thing about the eerie narratives in this anthology is that each story can easily be read in one sitting – a nice benefit for someone who isn’t a naturally enthusiastic reader.”
6. “Bobcat and Other Stories” by Rebecca Lee. “I don’t want college students to think of books as a dead language – as works that inevitably came into being a long time ago,” Heitman said. “This collection of short stories by Rebecca Lee was just published, and Lee’s wry sense of irony and beautiful turns of phrase are a real treat. College students might especially like the short story ‘The Banks of The Vistula,’ which involves a university student’s sly attempt to escape the consequences of plagiarism.”
7. “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” by Bill Bryson. “Bryson is one of our great comic writers, and this memoir of Bryson’s 1950s American childhood is breathlessly funny from start to finish,” said Heitman. Bryson’s somewhat skeptical views concerning the wisdom of parents will surely resonate with twentyish readers still in the orbit of their moms and dads. Bryson had me from the first page, when he mentioned the day his mom sent him to school in Capri pants.”
8. “How Green Was My Valley” by Richard Llewellyn. “This is a book to live in for a while,” Heitman said. “Llewellyn’s charming novel of life in a Welsh mining town doesn’t seem so much written as voiced, since the language is acutely tuned to the ear rather than the eye. The whole story has the feel of a shared confidence passed between friends.”
9. “Hallucinations” by Oliver Sacks. “Since I’m a nonfiction writer, I’d like readers of all ages to know about the pleasure that can come from reading books grounded in fact,” Heitman said. “This latest book from neurologist Oliver Sacks explores how our eyes can fool us, and it’s written in Sacks’ typically engaging style. My hope is that readers will get hooked on all of Sacks’ books.”
10. “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough. “The reality show genre has a lot of currency among college kids these days because I think they’re drawn to the appeal of stories that promise real-life urgency. Good history delivers on that promise. McCullough’s ‘The Johnstown Flood’ unfolds with the intensity of a thriller, recalling in vivid detail how a dam break doomed more than 2,000 people to death. I dare anyone to pick up any of McCullough’s many books and not fall in love with history.”
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