Recommended Reading for Your College-bound Teen

“We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary.”
~ Miss Elizabeth Bennet

The last thing a high school graduate wants is books—I get it.

And high schoolers that grew up in bookish families want books least of all—I get that, too (although my two collegiate children would demur on that last point, and I suspect they might already be warning their soon-to-graduate sister to look for neatly wrapped rectangular gifts instead of a convertible from dad).

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All I can say is: Tough.

Look, I’m not going to apologize for surrounding my children with books. For starters, it turned out to be our primary decorating scheme by default. My wife and I each had hefty libraries before we married, and we expanded our combined post-nuptial collection by frequenting bookstores, thrift shops, and library sales. Early on it was mainly picture books and stories, but we also piled on science and history books, biographies and poetry, theology and philosophy, and (gasp!) actual encyclopedias—yes, bound volumes, numbered, lined up in order (more or less), and we had the temerity to insist that the kids look things up in them.

Can it get any worse? You know it can!

As fate would have it, and much to my kids’ dismay, both of us (both!) turned out to be incorrigible book pushers—that is, we weren’t satisfied with merely crowding our home with heaving bookshelves; nor did we simply limit ourselves to restricting screen time in favor of more reading time. To make matters worse (poor things), we also nagged and prodded them about which books to read. Interminably.

In my case, it included what you’d expect from a Catholic convert—C.S. Lewis, Watership Down, and J.R.R. Tolkien in adolescence; later, it was Mr. Blue, Flannery O’Connor, and A Confederacy of Dunces. Eventually, Brideshead Revisted, Sigrid Unset, and A Canticle for Leibowitz became part of the “you should read” chorus, culminating in the ultimate dad book-push: Dorothy Day’s autobiography. “Yes, dad,” groans each successive wave of readers at our house, “we know you want us to read The Long Loneliness.”

What can I say? Reading books changed my life for the better—leading me to the Church, for one thing—and I was confident that books will have a similar salutary effect in the lives of my kids. I might not be able to fend off iPhones, Twitter, and perpetual electronic distraction (as much as I’d like to), but at least our graduating seniors will have had a literary immersion in a bibliophile home where reading was both normal and expected.

 So enough already, right? After 18 years of constant book haranguing, don’t they deserve a break now? Besides, “Youth’s Last Summer” is yawning before our graduates, which often means plenty of parties and time with friends, not to mention work and preparation for a first year in the dorms. Despite the overkill of more books at this point, is there any realistic chance they’d actually get read?

Perhaps not, but I can’t help myself, and so I’ve selected three shortish works that I intend to send along with my own graduating daughter this spring. Maybe—just maybe—one or two will catch her eye, and their slim appearance may even tempt her to dive in … eventually.

The Elements of Style. Oddly enough, it was an interview with Bill Nye the Science Guy that got me thinking about this topic in the first place. In answer to a question regarding a “book everyone should read,” Nye replied, “The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. Omit needless words!”

I’m not sure Bill Nye and I have much else in common, but I’m with him on Strunk and White—absolutely! It’s a patchwork of writing advice that has survived the test of time (over 50 years in its current form; close to 100 years if you count its earliest antecedents), and you can’t choose a better guide for those aspiring to be clear thinkers and good communicators. Strunk was a Cornell professor of English who self-published the volume’s first version, and White, of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little fame, edited Strunk’s little volume for mass publication decades later. As Nye suggested, both authors were particularly interested in brevity and plain-spokenness, which gave rise to their precepts—active voice over passive, for example, and bypassing fancy vocabulary. Some of their grammar rules get a bit technical, and they’ve been widely challenged over the decades, but the overall value of the book is its fundamental respect for words as a means to a cherished end: the effective communication of ideas from one mind to another. Even if (and when) your graduate chooses to overrule Strunk and White in her own writing, she’ll surely still have benefited from exposure to the two authors’ devotion to lucidity. They’ve been helping turn avid readers into accomplished writers for generations.

The Peter Principle. Think of this book as a chaser to Strunk and White: Whereas The Elements of Style soberly fosters continued progress in clear thinking, The Peter Principle is a hilarious caution that clear thinking is not exactly in ample supply these days—if it ever was. This can be a rude awakening to the unprepared college-bound teen, not to mention very discouraging—even alarming. The Peter Principle is the literary equivalent of a gentle, yet insistent, shaking of the shoulders that allows your graduate to leave home with both eyes wide open to the pitfalls (and pratfalls) that lie ahead.Through biting sarcasm disguised as clever pseudo-science, The Peter Principle (1969) entertains while deftly instructing the reader as to “Why Things Always Go Wrong,” in the words of the sub-title. Authors Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull explain how the adult world really works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be) by means of satire, but it’s only thinly veiled—and for many, it’s rock solid truth as far as workaday experience is concerned. For example, take the primary “principle” for which the book was named: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of his incompetence.” For those of us who’ve been navigating adult society for some time, this seems to be axiomatic and painfully obvious. For our graduates, however, the Peter Principle is an incredible assertion whose veracity will only be confirmed by repeated firsthand validation—hard lessons, to be sure, but the sooner undertaken, the better.

Humanae Vitae. This is really a pamphlet, so one may object that it hardly qualifies as a book. Plus, it’s readily available online, so what’s the point of purchasing it as a gift? Besides, if we’re talking about Catholic high school graduates—particularly those that grew up in practicing Catholic families in which sound catechetical instruction was a mainstay—shouldn’t they already be well familiar with Pope Paul VI’s 1968 Humanae Vitae and its clear explanation of marital intimacy’s dual unitive and procreative meaning?  They’ll be familiar with the encyclical’s teaching, no doubt, but it’s less likely they’ll have actually read it, and even less likely they’ll have fully bought into it—which is why I’m suggesting it’s worth a couple bucks to purchase a hard copy: Put it literally in her hands and urge her to read it! There is no better benchmark of the Church’s breathtaking disregard for social and cultural vacillations than her flat-out and consistent rejection of artificial contraception, and Humanae Vitae brilliantly spells it out without apology. For the single high school graduate not yet contemplating marriage, it might seem like a strange gift. Nonetheless, it will remind her that she belongs to a Church that is wedded to Truth, not trend, and it will offer real food for thought when she begins to question her place in it.

Getting back to the notion that maybe this final pre-college book-push is overkill, let me confess that I have an ulterior motive aside from marking my daughter’s graduation. Giving and strongly recommending books invites scrutiny on the part of the recipient with regards to how well the giver/recommender has himself lived up to the books’ precepts and values. In the weeks ahead, as those three volumes arrive from various online retailers, I’ll be reading them again myself and taking stock: Am I giving words and clear thinking their due? Am I part of the incompetence problem or part of the solution? Aside from living out Humane Vitae’s fundamental teaching, am I unabashedly deferential to the Magisterium without hesitation?

Such will be the questions that will come up when my daughter returns for Christmas break in December—that is, if everything goes according to plan. God willing.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Reading” painted by Ivan Kramskoy in 1863.


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