17 of the Best (and Least Cheesy) Graduation-Gift Books, According to Our Book Critic

By
Best graduation books.

While graduations are an often emotional and always important life event, the cheese levels they come along with can become overbearing. All the life lessons, all the advice to embrace starting from the bottom and not be scared of failure, all the copies of Oh The Places You’ll Go. So to urge everyone to move beyond the same old graduation gift cliches we’ve asked New York’s book critic Christian Lorentzen to recommend his least cheesy and most graduation appropriate books. “Most of them are about what you might call post-college life. A couple of them are the sort of works of criticism that don’t get taught in college. A couple are just books I read sometime after college that I wish I’d read sooner,” he told us. (And make sure to check out our picks for the year’s best coffee table books, which happen to also make a great first-apartment gifts. )

best graduation books

The second volume in an autobiographical trilogy, Youth chronicles the Nobel laureate’s exquisitely lonely years as a computer programmer in London in the early 1960s.

Buy
Youth: Scenes From Provincial Life II by J.M. Coetzee $10, Amazon
best graduation books

Lockwood is the poet laureate of the internet age, and her memoir of going home with her husband to her parents is heartbreaking when it isn’t hilarious.

Buy
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood $14, Amazon
best graduation books

This autofiction novel in stories captures what it was like to live, love, feud, and frolic in the intellectual and political hothouse of Manhattan in the 1930s.

Buy
The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy $31, Amazon
best graduation books

A diaristic masterpiece, Speedboat demonstrates that youth can be full of mystery and intrigue, even as it proceeds without a discernible plot.

Buy
Speedboat by Renata Adler $9, Amazon
best graduation books

Perfect for the budding young writer, Connolly’s treatise identifies the obstacles to achieving literary greatness, and offers portraits of the greats he knew in his youth, among them, George Orwell and Henry Green.

Buy
Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly $22, Amazon
best graduation books

Exiled from the classroom, the new graduate has no choice but to take in the world through the media, and this book from 1980 about the dawn and conquest of television, though a couple of revolutions old now, is still the best primer for comprehending technology’s powers of coercion.

Buy
Within the Context of No Context by George W.S. Trow $10, Amazon
best graduation books

The brilliant first novel by the author of last year’s knockout The Underground Railroad is, in its sly, postmodern way, the story of a young woman making her way in her first job — as an elevator inspector — with the chips stacked against her.

Buy
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead $4, Amazon
best graduation books

Following a few West London friends from youth to the brink of middle age, NW is a brilliant warning that things don’t get any easier — if you aren’t careful, adulthood is a form of personal entropy.

Buy
NW by Zadie Smith $12, Amazon
best graduation books

The great U.S. expatriate novel of the 21st century follows a poet in Madrid, as he tells lies about himself, tries and fails to have profound experiences of art, falls in love with one woman — or was it the other? — and yearns to be anything but what he’ll always be, an American.

Buy
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner $34, Amazon
best graduation books

College summer love yields to postcollege tragedy in this heartbreaking story of two Oklahoma homecomings.

Buy
A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal $7, Amazon
best graduation books

A group portrait of a gaggle of Stanford grads in the era of Google hegemony and post–Great Recession anxiety — Private Citizens is the first great millennial novel.

Buy
Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte $7, Amazon
best graduation books

The painter who narrates this novel believes boredom is the engine of history and lives his life accordingly — a darkly comic portrait of failed masculinity in postwar Rome that could be postcollegiate anywhere.

Buy
Boredom by Alberto Moravia $11, Amazon
best graduation gifts

Lish’s desperate characters, an Iraq War vet and an illegal immigrant, find each other in Queens, and then things fall apart: This is the most brilliant first novel of the decade, and that its author was well past 40 when he published it is proof that genius sometimes takes time.

Buy
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish $7, Amazon
best graduation books

Sometimes, the best way to fall in love is to steal the jerk at the party’s girl — if you lose your job in the process, that’s how it goes in this classic acid comedy.

Buy
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis $20, Amazon
best graduation books

Friendship, sex, and the creation of art — the Toronto bohemians in this novel prove that angst isn’t just for teenagers.

Buy
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti $17, Amazon
best graduation books

With this young man’s account of his erotic life along the Central Line in London, Hollinghurst reimagined the English novel for a liberated era.

Buy
The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst $17, Amazon
best graduation books

A black comedy of manners set in gentrified Brooklyn, this novel asks whether the right résumé is enough for a real romance.

Buy
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman $16, Amazon

Get the best of The Strategist delivered to your inbox.

The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best women’s jeans, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, ultra-flattering pants, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.

Every editorial product is independently selected. If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.

17 Non-Cheesy Graduation-Gift Books