Nothing makes a new year first feel real quite like a trip from Labyrinth, feeling the weight of the semester’s responsibilities literally settle on my shoulders. By the end of my freshman year, the initial thrill and motivation of receiving my first coursebooks had dried up — I didn’t totally feel I was learning for myself anymore. At Princeton, we all need ways of reminding ourselves why we do what we do, and, even more so, why we love it. As an English/humanities student, it’s easy to make a chore out of something that’s given me joy my whole life — reading.
I still feel some of that end-of-year fatigue, but I feel that reading for myself over the summer is what re-motivates and re-centers me for the new year. Keeping a list of vacation to-reads on my own terms, at my own pace, can help keep me from getting burnt out over class material. These are the books that made me happiest in a bunch of different ways this past summer:
“Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami:
This novel was recommended and gifted by a friend — the best kind of book. It’s a novel about loneliness posing as a love story, and it feels slow and full while still being easy to get through. The story meanders through the college years of a young man in 1960s Japan; his world feels distinctly different from Princeton, but each character is strange in ways that slowly grow jarringly relatable. The apathetic way in which Toru Watanabe, the frequently passive protagonist, recalls his most painful experiences only makes them feel sharper. Loneliness is rendered with both specificity and universality. After a whirlwind year of life changes, reading this book felt like a welcome meditation.
“Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson:
This book by a lawyer who has spent his life advocating for the most vulnerable in the criminal justice system, including people on death row, is not only heavy and eye-opening, but also personal and gripping thanks to Stevenson’s use of storytelling. The titular word “mercy” is impossible without empathy, something Stevenson inspires even where it seems impossible. This guiding theme makes the book important even beyond its direct subject matter.
“Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:
“Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing” are the opening words of this novel. Beyond providing the indulgence of reading a book very partially about Princeton, this is a truly feminist book written by the author whose speech on feminism is featured in Beyoncé’s song “Flawless.” This book is about everything, the personal and the political, and follows the internal and geographical journey of a Nigerian woman as she moves to America and then back to Nigeria. Reading this book reminded me of how much I love language and the expansiveness of storytelling.
“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell:
Malcolm Gladwell’s books are digestible smart people books: they give you loosely related facts and stories you can insert into any given intellectual conversation. The overall thesis of the book, that circumstance matters more than innate talent in determining success, is mostly intuitive, but the examples are fascinating. This book is a good idea if you don’t feel like reading a novel or want something that can be put down or picked back up at any time.
“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah:
This book is a very quick read — it can be finished in a couple days. Read it if you love Trevor Noah, but also even if you don’t. The story of his life made me laugh and cry; it also presents an image of Apartheid-era South Africa with honesty, nuance, and humor. Again, good storytelling makes things personal — and gives them staying power.
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” by Jenny Han:
At the end of the summer, the craze surrounding this instant Netflix classic inspired me to revisit YA, once my genre of choice (now very much by the wayside). There’s something deliciously simple about the highest stakes in a YA novel like TATBILB — I recommend this occasional guilty pleasure to everyone.