Sometimes Your 17-Year-Old Suggests The Best Gift Idea Ever
My 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.
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!”