Radhika Sanghani's sharp and hilarious debut novel Virgin follows 21-year-old Ellie’s relentless mission to rectify a disastrous first attempt at performing oral sex, get deflowered, find the perfect Brazilian wax, avoid her tradition-bound Greek mother’s nagging, graduate summa cum laude, be a writer, and fit in. Sanghani picked 10 books to make sure you've read before graduating.
In my novel, Virgin, the protagonist, Ellie, is in her final year of college but literature is not on her mind: she’s far too busy trying to lose her virginity to think about books. The only reading she’s doing is on ‘how-to’ websites to try and figure out how to be a normal, sexually active 21-year-old.
But, for the more balanced students trying to expand their literary horizons before they graduate, I have a few books I’d recommend. All of them helped me through the student-to-adult transition when I left college a few years ago, and I still re-read them for pleasure, comfort and some good old-fashioned perspective.
Because, college is a bubble. Whichever one you choose to study at, chances are your entire life becomes based around the same people, lecture halls and bars. For me, reading was the best way to get out of that bubble and remember there was a wider world out there that I was just about to enter and should probably know a little bit about.
I also just had a lot of spare time to read ‘those books’ that everyone should probably read at some point. So my list is a mixture of good classics, contemporary reads, and a little bit of self-help for a time when you really need it:
1. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides - Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides was fantastic, but The Marriage Plot is better. It tells the story of three college friends from Brown University–a woman and two men–and follows them during their first year post-graduation.
Even though it’s set in the early 80s, it sums up quintessential student life with the parties, the insecurities and the mistakes. It’s really in each character's failures that you learn the typical graduation pitfalls, and the comforting knowledge that no matter how bad everything is, at least it’s life experience.
2. The Women's Room by Marilyn French - This book should not just be read by women. Men should ignore the title and read it too. It was written in the 70s and tells the story of a 50s housewife who ditches the suburb to become a mature student at Harvard. It's also the story of a woman discovering herself and feminism. Even though it was written in a different era, the themes are still similar to ones we all face now: slut shaming, pressures and social constraints. The book is pretty seminal for the feminism movement - one I think every student should understand.
3. The Iliad by Homer - Not everything on this list is about helping with life advice - reading The Iliad will help you just by virtue of the fact that you'll be able to say you've read some Homer. Not that you should drop it into conversation too often or you'll become That Person.
The Iliad’s one of the most famous classical epic poems, and it’s still a great read. Literature as we know it generally came from the classics, and it gives a solid basis for everything we read now. On top of that, it's also a damn good story. If you get into it, you've also got The Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid to go.
4. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman - College relationships are tough, but dating as a graduate is even worse. This novel hilariously - and sometimes depressingly - sums up what it's like to try to find romance when you're still trying to find yourself.
Nathaniel is not a great boyfriend but he's also a pretty common one. His obsessions with status, coolness and looks are part of 20-something life. Even if you don't have them, you will encounter people who do. Reading this will help you recognise/avoid/laugh at them.
5. Shantaram by Gregory Roberts - Part of me doesn't want to include this because it's the book you'll see every young Gap Year traveller reading, but they're reading it for a reason. It tells the story of an escape Australian convict who creates a life for himself in India, and it's based on real events.
He learns the life lessons you can only gain from travelling and for any student who can’t go abroad, this is a must. His depictions of slum life are powerful, honest and definitely worth reading. The fact that his characters are incredibly compelling just makes it even more readable.
6. The Secret History by Donna Tartt - You’ve probably already read this but if you haven’t, I can’t recommend it more. It’s a historical, student-based thriller. Need I say more?
Not only does it explore the trope of the eccentric lecturer, it goes into the loneliness of student life and what it's like being sucked into a group or clique. If you fancy brushing up on Greek history, this is also the place to do it.
7. The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How To Make The Most Of Them Now by Meg Jay - This book isn’t even masquerading as a novel - it is pure self-help. But unlike most self-help books, you don’t need a real problem to gain something from it. If anything, it’s more preventative to stop you wasting your twenties.
The general message is that our twenties are a new decade. We used to go from being children to adults but modern life means there’s now an interim ten years when we’re not sure about anything. As this is when college/graduation is happening, it’s useful reading.
8. Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee - I loved this book. It’s about an American-Korean woman who graduates from Princeton and battles between her parent’s choices for her future and what she wants for it.
It shows the culture clash between parents and children of different generations, as well as the pressure on graduates to deal with the expectations of everyone around them. The moral? You’re not going to be happy until you do what’s right for you.
9. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway - For anyone who didn’t read this at school, read this book. Not only is it beautifully written, it’s an amazing insight into a different era, a lost generation and unrequited love.
It’s also full of wisdom and truisms: “It’s awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it's another thing.” Fact.
10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - This book taught me to grow up. It has a pretty addictive plot, but more than that, it’s the story of Jane’s journey from childhood to adolescence and adulthood. She learns to let go, to adapt and finally, that there are some things you need to just accept. I can’t think of any better time to read this book than when you’re learning to do the same.