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

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. )

Youth: Scenes From Provincial Life II by J.M. Coetzee

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.

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

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.

The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

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.

Speedboat by Renata Adler

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

Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly

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.

Within the Context of No Context by George W.S. Trow

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.

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

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.

NW by Zadie Smith

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.

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

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.

A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal

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

Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte

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.

Boredom by Alberto Moravia

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.

Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish

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.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

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.

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

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

The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst

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.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

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

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17 Non-Cheesy Graduation-Gift Books