Sometimes Your 17-Year-Old Suggests The Best Gift Idea Ever

This was the only title he knew for sure would be includedMy son, Kid Zoom, turned 17 yesterday. I’d had no idea what to get him for his birthday, so last weekend I asked him what he’d like. His answer kind of blew me away, because what 17-year-old would ever say, “How about you give me a stack of books that you think it’s absolutely essential for me to read”?

I swear I am not making that up. Kid has two English teachers for parents, so he was maybe doomed to be a hyperliterate nerd. OK, and his first thought was “how about a video game?” which I don’t think was serious anyway. It may have helped that, the day before, I’d handed him a paperback copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried that I’d picked up at a yard sale, and he’d stayed up late reading it, so “Dad’s recommended books” was already on his mind. Even so, I was touched — not quite touched enough to overcome my usual habit of last-minute shopping, but I did at least put a little thought into the list of books I ended up getting him.

I didn’t really have any absolute criteria for what books I’d get — they didn’t have to be “classics” or “important,” just books that I knew I’d enjoyed reading. And while I was shopping, I decided I’d also write up a few notes on each book and add those in a letter in the card — now that I think about it, if I’d planned more, it might also work to put those notes into each book. And so, here’s my letter (and some of the notes, with notes on my notes, in David Foster Wallace fashion) to a pretty darn nifty kid:

Dear [Kid Zoom],

Happy 17th birthday! I’m genuinely touched that you asked for a stack of books that I thought you should read. And here they are — I won’t claim they’re the best or the most important books ever; you get to decide which books meet that standard for you. But I’ve enjoyed every single one of these, and I wanted to give you a few notes on each, in no particular order.

Catch-22: [Joseph Heller] OK, this was a gimme. You knew you were getting this one. Possibly my favorite book ever, except on days when you catch me thinking that goes to Slaughterhouse Five. [which I’d already given him a couple years ago]

The Name of the Rose: Umberto Eco] A book that sucked me into its reality so completely that I kept reading it during a class. And that was in grad school, when you aren’t supposed to get away with that.

Moby-Dick: [Herman Melville] Here’s how you read this book: Read it like a novel. Just read that first page, enjoy the weird characters, and don’t worry about reading it as literature. You may have a class some time where you talk about symbolism and stuff, but forget that. It’s a hell of a story.

Dune: [Frank Herbert] Another novel that will have you living inside its world, and possibly leaving you thirsty. There are far too many sequels; only the first three are any good.

1984 [George Orwell] and Clockwork Orange: [Anthony Burgess] Best. Dystopias. Ever. And everyone should have their own copy.

Kindred: [Octavia Butler] Magical, lyrical, and terrifying. One of the best time-travel stories ever, by Octavia Butler, a science fiction writer who feels like a special little secret because not enough people know about her. [Confession: I love Kindred, but I also have to admit that it was my second choice for an Octavia Butler title. This is where not shopping in advance bit me — neither the indie bookstore nor the soulless big-box-bookstore had a copy of Parable of the Sower in stock. Best thing about book gifts: You can always throw more books at a kid!]

The Grapes of Wrath: [John Steinbeck] Read this novel and start a revolution.

Among Others: [Jo Walton] A book about the love of reading. And magic. Read it for the plot, and be ready for Dad to borrow it for the list of science fiction must-reads woven through it.

Love, and Happy Reading,


As it turns out, my last-minute shopping led me to miss three titles that I am just going to have to throw at the poor Kid later: Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven, neither of which was in stock (Hey, bookstores! She’s written a lot more than The Dispossessed and the Earthsea books!), and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, which was just a big blank spot on the shelves in both stores I went to Thursday, for obvious reasons. Unfortunately, those omissions also skewed the gender balance of my pile of books, which as a feminist dude I feel justly guilty about.

It went over pretty well, and next year, Kid’s mom gets to give him her Big Pile O’ Essential Reading.

This gift idea may not work for everyone. I wouldn’t suggest it, for instance, for a kid who isn’t already a bigtime reader — for those kids, you want to find the one or two books that may open up the fun of reading, not a giant pile of parentally imposed homework. The other thing that might be useful about a gift like this: if your kid decides they truly want to rebel, it would be a really convenient thing for them to soak in kerosene and set alight while shouting, “I reject you and everything you stand for!”

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  • msanthropesmr

    Couldn’t agree more with the Eco and Heller. I’d add The Crying of Lot 49, and I never could get through Melville, except for Bartelby the Scrivener.

    • Suttree

      /ffs I am still trying to finish Gravity’s Rainbow. Been trying for 20 years since I was Kid Zoom’s age.

      • Obot 50549535

        I’m 40 years older than Kid Zoom, so I got through it. Crying of Lot 49 is a good pick that doesn’t take years to read.

        • malsperanza

          And V is also a good place to start with Pynchon.

  • nzmccorm

    So weird that they didn’t have Left Hand of Darkness in stock. I always thought that was her most famous book.

    • andreamd

      I thought it was her EarthSea Novels but my favorite is the Dispossessed. She wrote me a postcard once- well, I wrote to her first.

    • James Donnaught

      “Not in stock” is encouraging news. “Not stocked” would be terrible.

      • glasspusher

        “Not stacked” is a bummer, too.

  • rebecca


    • msanthropesmr

      If Dok raised him right, at 17, he’s read hhgttg about 50 times.

      • glasspusher

        Anything other would be quite…improbable.

    • doktorzoom

      I only gave him stuff he hadn’t already read!

  • Hammiepants

    What great suggestions. “Foundation” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” are a couple of others (I mean, I could suggest A MILLION, but it looks like you like sci-fi…)

    • NationalGalleryofClipArt

      Thought that said Fountainhead, at first blush, & got nervous.

  • Zippy W Pinhead

    Lol, Kid Zoom was actually hinting that he wanted your old Playboy collection(nice list, I second Hammie’s suggestion re: the Foundation trilogy)

  • Respiteini

    My dad did the best ever thing a dad ever did when he told me at 16 I was too young for Kerouac. I’d finished his entire canon by 21. Good job making a person, Dok Zoom.

  • Jennifer A

    My daddy was also an English teacher (but not a feminist dude, alas); his list – and thus mine- includes Heart of Darkness (most perfect novella ever), Pride & Prejudice (everyone needs to read that book), The Good Soldier and All the King’s Men. I’d personally add Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children bc holy shit that book transported me.

    • brucej

      I’ll second the recommendation of ‘Heart of Darkness’ even if I can no longer read it without hearing the “thwock-thwock-thwock’ of a Huey in my head.

  • Ellis_Weiner

    What? No Neuromancer or Snow Crash? I want his money back. Next: Lucky Jim (K. Amis), The Code of the Woosters (Wodehouse), and One Hundred Years of You-Know-What (speaking of the dear departed).

    • TJ Barke

      Got a signed copy of Neuromancer. Love cyberpunk.

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  • No French or Russian novels? Meh!

  • dr2chase

    Not fiction, but useful/important:Influence, by CialdiniNormal Accidents, by PerrowThe Control of Nature, by McPheeI would consider alsoPrisoner’s Dilemma, by William PoundstoneWaves and Beaches, by BascomBicycling Science, by Wilson

  • Tangled sin tax

    Two Years Before the Mast/Richard Henry DanaYouth/Joseph ConradA New Voyage Round the World/William DampierThe Masks of God/Joseph CampbellMontcalm and Wolfe/Francis ParkmanAnabasis/XenophonAdventures in the Unknown Interior of America/Cabeza de VacaThe Golden Bough/FrazerAll the Flashman books/George McDonald Frazier – hilarious 19th century history

    • harryeagar

      Anabasis (in the Rouse translation) was the first grown-up book I read, and when my kids got to be around 11 or 12, I read it to them aloud (also the Bible and some books on skeptical thinking) so I am pleased to see you recommend it.If you have kids who don’t know that reading is fun, there is no question where to start them: Jan Harold Brunvand. “The Choking Doberman” is good.

  • willi0000000

    was somewhat distressed until you mentioned that they were out of The Lathe of Heaven, i’ve recommended that little gem to some “serious” science fiction readers who came away might want to try John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar for fun too.for anybody out there with i-hate-to-read children, start them on Sir Pterry’s Discworld series. it worked on my son, he was sick of not getting the “in jokes” between me and his sister.

    • doktorzoom

      There might be one or two Discworld books that he hasn’t read… Maybe.

      • willi0000000

        there’s at least that many i haven’t read, and i do try to keep up.

        • Ellis_Weiner

          Also JR, by Gaddis, but a) tell him to take notes as to who is who, and b) maybe wait a couple years.

    • Ellis_Weiner

      If it were down to one Brunner, I’d skip Zanzibar and read The Sheep Look Up.

      • willi0000000

        to each . . . i liked The Sheep Look Up but it is a lot less complex than SOZ.and then there’s Shockwave Rider.but SOZ has the best chapter titles ever! and it contains most of two books by Chad C.Mulligan!

  • $73376667

    When I was 17 I was an insufferable asshole.

  • RevZafod

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, and a second on The Control of Nature by John McPhee.

  • SCK

    Shit, almost all of those I would have chosen too. Lots of other good suggestions so I won’t duplicate, but will only add: Wisława Szymborska. If you’re not reading her then you should be. Oh, and some fucking Dorothy Parker. Just because.

  • Eddie_Merkin

    The Autobiography of Malcolm X, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Of Mice and Men, …This will give me something to think about on the drive home.I got my niece into reading (she is 10). Every time I see her reading a book and the enjoyment she derives from it always makes me feel good.

  • BeliTsari

    An ofay GUY? Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Old Fella, Hercules My Shipmate, Candide, The Painted Brid, Typee & Omoo, Tortilla Flats, Red Harvest… all tore up with the pages all indiscriminately stuck back together?

  • Ben Wheeler

    No poetry? How about From Now Until Muhammad Mahdi’s War , by yours truly!

  • Hey! I already read all of these!! Make a list for US

  • tegrat

    “Jayber Crow”, Wendell Berry

  • Llliberal

    Really, Foucault’s Pendulum was so much better than The Name of The Rose IMHO — but glad to see an Eco book on the list.

  • No Terry Pratchett? Not one? Barbarian.

    • doktorzoom

      Heh — as I mention below, that would be redundant. He’s read almost everything by Sir Pterry

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  • Greg Comlish

    Let’s show some love for Walter Rudin’s Principles of Mathematical Analysis. Understand that book and you will be far less retarded.

  • Kid Zoom is smart and knew that specifying “books” would reduce his chances of getting MLP slashfic.

  • discus_sucks_ass

    don’t neglect ones like “Stranger in a Strange Land”, not PC these days but fuck it. Oh, and Phillip K. Dick books should be must reads!

  • Wm Kiernan


    • glasspusher

      Portnoy’s Complaint

  • eastcoastlib

    Willie Shakespeare, he was pretty good too. I think he’d make my list

    • glasspusher

      I heard the dude just wrote sitcoms plays.

  • AlanInSF

    I’d defintely add Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Stories, because otherwise the wee one might be optimistic about life.

  • r_dale

    David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas and The Great Bridge. Mornings on Horseback, about Theodore Roosevelt. Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August (100th anniversary!) and A Distant Mirror: the calamitous 14th century. Son of the Morning Star, about Custer. Literature doesn’t have to be fiction.

  • CraigM

    In addition to your list, here are a few I’ve given or recommended to my kids when they turned 16 or 17:The Flounder – Gunter GrassGravity’s Rainbow – Thomas PynchonDubliners – James JoyceConfederate General from Big Sur – Richard BrautiganEncounters with the Archdruid – John McPhee

  • glasspusher

    No Mark Twain? That’s about as literate as I got. Diary of Adam and Eve…man that was funny.Edit: Sounds like The Kid has his head screwed on pretty well, Dok. Congrats and continued good fortune to you both.

    • doktorzoom

      Another tough call; he’s already read Huck Finn and when he was younger, I read Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi aloud to him, and he’s read several of the stories. I just might hand on my Library of America editions of the complete stories and essays.The two longer works I might yet get him would be Innocents Abroad and Roughing It.

      • glasspusher

        Ah, there you go. He’s clearly not Twain-less.

      • minneapolisgirl

        Oh, and Don’t forget Life on the Mississippi!

  • kath1y

    Good job. And especially for including a few women, even if belatedly. I have often wondered whether the behavior of men toward women might improve if men read as many books by women as women read books by men. And while we’re on the subject, hope Ms. Zoom includes Pride and Prejudice on her reading list.

    • doktorzoom

      Sorry if I gave the impression that LeGuin and Angelou were afterthoughts — they were both at the top of my list. But not, unfortunately, on the shelves during my last-minute bookstore dash.

  • Obot 50549535

    OK, so Kid Zoom wants books from Dad, and he wants books from Mom, fine — but one day, he will realize that what he really wants is book recommendations from some anonymous idiot on the Internet. When that wisdom comes to him: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon; The Shadow of the Torturer and its many sequels by Gene Wolfe; and Anathem by Neal Stephenson.

    • doktorzoom

      OK, forgetting Kavalier and Clay was a big mistake on my part. Thankfully, there should be plenty of other gift-giving occasions, the accident willing.

    • malsperanza

      Anathem is maybe not the first Neal Stephenson book I’d hand out. I usually pimp Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon first.

      • doktorzoom

        I did briefly call my cell phone a Jeejah…

  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt is a great read for college age readers! I loved it when I was a youngster!

  • motmelere

    Glad that The Left Hand of Darkness made the wish list. Hands down, no question, my favorite book. Not making a case for best book ever, but just sayin’.

  • gingerland62

    I really like Slaughterhouse 5 but Breakfast of Champions is my favorite. When I was a younger (easy) girl, a guy who said Catch-22 was their favorite book would have had me, long story

  • Monty

    This does nothing to refute my longstanding and constant assertion that all children, regardless of age, are scum.

  • Uncle Wally

    The Razor’s Edge.

  • HenryBayer

    Perhaps some non-literature is essential? Science-y stuff. Gave my son The Selfish Gene and The Sixth Extinction. Might alter how he thinks of humans.

  • malsperanza

    Nice mix of Big Books and those that are just pure immersive pleasure – deep, complete worlds. In the latter category I’d add almost any of Mary Renault’s books set in ancient Greece – The King Must Die, or The Last of the Wine. The books that gave me the world of history, classics, the idea that the past is made up of stories. Oh, and my first encounter with the concept that romantic love isn’t necessarily heterosexual, which came in handy a couple years later, when I began to understand certain facts about some friends of mine. Not such a big deal now, but 45 years ago, unusual.

  • Mojopo

    I love you, your family, and everything you stand for. Brilliant.

  • Annie Towne

    I’d add the brilliant ‘The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ by Junot Diaz and ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ by Shirley Jackson. Actually, I’d add lots more, but he’s your kid!

  • jimmyjazz101

    I have been spending time doing the same thing for my 17 year old who is off to college in the fall.He does not share Kid Zooms passion but as a jock who knows he will mature as asked me for summer reading material.I decided on This Boys Life by Tobias Wolff, Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn and Wampeters, Foma and Granfallons by Kurt Vonnegut.

  • Paul Ambos

    In the nonfiction realm, I’d suggest Helmholz, On the Sensations of Tone, and the second edition of Lukasiewicz, Aristotle’s Syllogistic from the Standpoint of Modern Formal Logic.

  • minneapolisgirl

    You already have a million suggestions, but here are a few more:A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusChekhov’s short storiesDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?All three volumes of Poems for the MillenniumGeorge Orwell’s essays

  • bradpants

    Am I the only one who considers the Hitchhiker’s series essential? (no)

  • gingerland62

    A Confederacy of Dunces

  • ihale

    Great list. Please do share “the list of science fiction must-reads” when you make that one!