Yesterday, we pored over Slate staffers’ wonderful, diverse, and irreverent list of books they recommend students read before starting college in the fall. Their picks ranged from Saul Bellow to Joseph Mitchell to Zadie Smith… and an essential tome on how to brew your own beer. After adding some of their suggestions to our own to-read list, we got to thinking about the authors that you really need to read before you set off for college, that halfway house to adulthood — the writers whose work is too wide-eyed, precocious, idealistic, dramatic, drug-fueled, or otherwise youthful to fully appreciate once you’re holding down a 9-to-5 and paying rent. They aren’t necessarily “childish” writers but simply legends you might hate if you’ve never looked at them with a teenager’s eyes. We suggest that those of you with only a month left until you move into the dorms get started now.
JD SalingerWhy he’s important: The recently deceased writer remains one of the mid-20th century’s most important novelists. His singular, skeptical, intelligent, wry but also somehow idealistic voice has become ubiquitous in contemporary pop culture — right, Wes Anderson fans?Pre-college reaction: Wow, these people around me really are phonies! And this smart, charismatic Glass family has it all figured out! Move over, Franny and Zooey! I want a spot on that couch.Post-college reaction: Could these self-satisfied New York intellectuals take their eyes off their navels for a second?
NietzscheWhy he’s important: Friedrich Nietzsche’s contribution to philosophy can’t be overestimated. One of the vital links between 19th century thinkers and 20th-century modernism, he pushed the limits of what we could say about religion, art, and human history.Pre-college reaction: God is dead! I am the Übermensch! Morality is bullshit! Let’s get decadent!Post-college reaction: So, this is what happens when you mix brilliance with syphilis.
Jack KerouacWhy he’s important: As one of the central figures of the Beat movement, Kerouac chronicled a world of archetypal American outsiders. His speed-addled descriptions of landscapes, characters, and adventures still sets the pace for countercultural mischief.Pre-college reaction: I need to take a road trip and really, like, figure myself out. How can I know what I want until I know who I am?Post-college reaction: What a lot of angst for a guy with the freedom to ramble all over the country drinking, doing drugs, and hooking up with girls!
Bret Easton EllisWhy he’s important: He captures a certain kind of moneyed, vintage-’80s numbness and ennui. His satire is merciless. All his books are page turners.Pre-college reaction: I, too, would like to be cold, callous, slutty, and pumped full of chemicals. I am confused about whether being dead inside(/a homicidal maniac) is attractive or reprehensible.Post-college reaction: I am no longer confused about whether being dead inside is attractive or reprehensible. I have learned that nihilism is, in fact, a strange, youthful form of idealism, and I am over it.
Sylvia PlathWhy she’s important: Plath was among the first female poets to plumb the depths of depression, suicide, sexuality, and abuse. Her imagery is some of the rawest and most brutal in all of literature.Pre-college reaction: Wow, she knows just how I feel.Post-college reaction: I am so glad I will never have to be an adolescent again.
Anthony BurgessWhy he’s important: The author of A Clockwork Orange was a master linguist, inventing his own dialects and futuristic dystopias (see also: The Wanting Seed). And if you’ve got a taste for the outlandish, he’s certain to deliver.Pre-college reaction: The adult world is self-serving, bureaucratic, and suspect. I trust no one because everyone has an agenda. I am vaguely uncomfortable with the glamorization of rape, but this moloko-with-knives business sounds appealing. Maybe I should give Beethoven another chance.Post-college reaction: If I see one more Little Alex Halloween costume, I’m going to kick someone in the codpiece.
Hunter S. ThompsonWhy he’s important: A touchstone of New Journalism, Thompson injected his own personality into his work, Gonzo voice, epic drug abuse, and all. He was freak royalty. And somehow, he even managed to get some important reporting done.Pre-college reaction: What are these things called amyl nitrates, and how can I get my hands on them? All non-fiction writing that came before Fear and Loathing is stiff, square, and fake. Hunter S. Thompson is my role model.Post-college reaction: If I have to read one more undergraduate Hunter S. Thompson writing-workshop ripoff, I’m dropping out.
Ken KeseyWhy he’s important: The leader of San Francisco hippie mischief makers the Merry Pranksters is best know for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a classic book about the inmates of a mental hospital that asks big questions about freedom and control.Pre-college reaction: My mind is blown. What is “crazy,” anyway? Maybe the people in the asylum are actually the sanest ones of all…Post-college reaction: You mean the people in power are often corrupt? No shit! Tell me something I didn’t know.