Graduation season is here, and with it brings the many graduation books given as gifts. Amid the classic Dr. Seuss books and career advice nonfiction, there are plenty of insightful reads worth reading at any age. Filled with wonderful anecdotes and life-changing wisdom, these books can be read at any time in a bookworm’s life. Check out these popular graduation books you may not have read, but should. Publishers’ descriptions included below.
Very Good Lives by J.K. Rowling
In 2008, J.K. Rowling delivered a deeply affecting commencement speech at Harvard University. Now published for the first time in book form, Very Good Lives presents J.K. Rowling’s words of wisdom for anyone at a turning point in life. How can we embrace failure? And how can we use our imagination to better both ourselves and others?
Drawing from stories of her own post-graduate years, the world famous author addresses some of life’s most important questions with acuity and emotional force.
Sales of Very Good Lives will benefit both Lumos, a non-profit international organization founded by J.K. Rowling, which works to end the institutionalization of children around the world, and university-wide financial aid at Harvard University.
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Life can be hard: Your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills — and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar — the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild — is the person thousands turn to for advice.
Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond. Rich with humor, insight, compassion — and absolute honesty — this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Every few decades a book is published that changes the lives of its readers forever. The Alchemist is such a book. With over a million and a half copies sold around the world, The Alchemist has already established itself as a modern classic, universally admired. Paulo Coelho’s charming fable, now available in English for the first time, will enchant and inspire an even wider audience of readers for generations to come.
The Alchemist is the magical story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who yearns to travel in search of a worldly treasure as extravagant as any ever found. From his home in Spain he journeys to the markets of Tangiers and across the Egyptian desert to a fateful encounter with the alchemist.
The story of the treasures Santiago finds along the way teaches us, as only a few stories have done, about the essential wisdom of listening to our hearts, learning to read the omens strewn along life’s path, and, above all, following our dreams.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
A penetrating examination of how we live and how to live better.
A narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance becomes a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions on how to live. The narrator’s relationship with his son leads to a powerful self-reckoning; the craft of motorcycle maintenance leads to an austerely beautiful process for reconciling science, religion, and humanism. Resonant with the confusions of existence, this classic is a touching and transcendent book of life.
This Is Water by David Foster Wallace
Only once did David Foster Wallace give a public talk on his views on life, during a commencement address given in 2005 at Kenyon College. The speech is reprinted for the first time in book form in This is Water. How does one keep from going through their comfortable, prosperous adult life unconsciously? How do we get ourselves out of the foreground of our thoughts and achieve compassion? The speech captures Wallace’s electric intellect as well as his grace in attention to others. After his death, it became a treasured piece of writing reprinted in The Wall Street Journal and the London Times, commented on endlessly in blogs, and emailed from friend to friend.
Writing with his one-of-a-kind blend of causal humor, exacting intellect, and practical philosophy, David Foster Wallace probes the challenges of daily living and offers advice that renews us with every reading.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books for years. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity. With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives. Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us. Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work, embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion, Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy.
Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes
In this poignant, hilarious and deeply intimate call to arms, Hollywood’s most powerful woman, the mega-talented creator of Grey’s Anatomy andScandal and executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder, reveals how saying YES changed her life — and how it can change yours too.
With three hit shows on television and three children at home, Shonda Rhimes had lots of good reasons to say no when invitations arrived. Hollywood party? No. Speaking engagement? No. Media appearances? No.
And to an introvert like Shonda, who describes herself as ‘hugging the walls’ at social events and experiencing panic attacks before press interviews, there was a particular benefit to saying no: nothing new to fear.
Then came Thanksgiving 2013, when Shonda’s sister Delorse muttered six little words at her: You never say yes to anything.
Profound, impassioned and laugh-out-loud funny, in Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes reveals how saying YES changed — and saved — her life. And inspires readers everywhere to change their own lives with one little word: Yes.
You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero
In this refreshingly entertaining how-to guide, bestselling author and world-traveling success coach, Jen Sincero, serves up 27 bitesized chapters full of hilariously inspiring stories, sage advice, easy exercises, and the occasional swear word, helping you to: Identify and change the self-sabotaging beliefs and behaviors that stop you from getting what you want, Create a life you totally love. And create it NOW, Make some damn money already. The kind you’ve never made before.
By the end of You Are a Badass, you’ll understand why you are how you are, how to love what you can’t change, how to change what you don’t love, and how to use The Force to kick some serious ass.
You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt
One of the most beloved figures of the 20th century, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt remains a role model for a life well lived. At the age of 76, Roosevelt penned this simple guide to living a fuller life. You Learn by Living is a powerful volume of enduring commonsense ideas and heartfelt values. Offering her own philosophy on living, Eleanor takes readers on a path to compassion, confidence, maturity, civic stewardship, and more.
You Are Not Special by David McCullough, Jr.
A profound expansion of David McCullough, Jr.’s popular commencement speech — a call to arms against a prevailing, narrow, conception of success viewed by millions on YouTube — You Are (Not) Special is a love letter to students and parents as well as a guide to a truly fulfilling, happy life.
Children today, says David McCullough — high school English teacher, father of four, and son and namesake of the famous historian — are being encouraged to sacrifice passionate engagement with life for specious notions of success. The intense pressure to excel discourages kids from taking chances, failing, and learning empathy and self-confidence from those failures.
In You Are (Not) Special, McCullough elaborates on his now-famous speech exploring how, for what purpose, and for whose sake, we’re raising our kids. With wry, affectionate humor, McCullough takes on hovering parents, ineffectual schools, professional college prep, electronic distractions, club sports, and generally the manifestations, and the applications and consequences of privilege. By acknowledging that the world is indifferent to them, McCullough takes pressure off of students to be extraordinary achievers and instead exhorts them to roll up their sleeves and do something useful with their advantages.
On the Move by Oliver Sacks
When Oliver Sacks was 12 years old, a perceptive schoolmaster wrote in his report: “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.” It is now abundantly clear that Sacks has never stopped going. From its opening pages on his youthful obsession with motorcycles and speed, On the Move is infused with his restless energy. As he recounts his experiences as a young neurologist in the early 1960s, first in California, where he struggled with drug addiction, and then in New York, where he discovered a long-forgotten illness in the back wards of a chronic hospital, we see how his engagement with patients comes to define his life.
With unbridled honesty and humor, Sacks shows us that the same energy that drives his physical passions — weight lifting and swimming — also drives his cerebral passions. He writes about his love affairs, both romantic and intellectual; his guilt over leaving his family to come to America; his bond with his schizophrenic brother; and the writers and scientists — Thom Gunn, A. R. Luria, W. H. Auden, Gerald M. Edelman, Francis Crick — who influenced him. On the Move is the story of a brilliantly unconventional physician and writer — and of the man who has illuminated the many ways that the brain makes us human.
Make Your Bed by William H. McRaven
On May 17, 2014, Admiral William H. McRaven addressed the graduating class of the University of Texas at Austin on their Commencement day. Taking inspiration from the university’s slogan, “What starts here changes the world,” he shared the 10 principles he learned during Navy Seal training that helped him overcome challenges not only in his training and long Naval career, but also throughout his life; and he explained how anyone can use these basic lessons to change themselves — and the world — for the better.
Admiral McRaven’s original speech went viral with over 10 million views. Building on the core tenets laid out in his speech, McRaven now recounts tales from his own life and from those of people he encountered during his military service who dealt with hardship and made tough decisions with determination, compassion, honor, and courage. Told with great humility and optimism, this timeless book provides simple wisdom, practical advice, and words of encouragement that will inspire readers to achieve more, even in life’s darkest moments.
Rising Strong by Brené Brown
Social scientist Brené Brown has ignited a global conversation on courage, vulnerability, shame, and worthiness. Her pioneering work uncovered a profound truth: Vulnerability — the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome — is the only path to more love, belonging, creativity, and joy. But living a brave life is not always easy: We are, inevitably, going to stumble and fall.
It is the rise from falling that Brown takes as her subject in Rising Strong. As a grounded theory researcher, Brown has listened as a range of people — from leaders in Fortune 500 companies and the military to artists, couples in long-term relationships, teachers, and parents — shared their stories of being brave, falling, and getting back up. She asked herself, What do these people with strong and loving relationships, leaders nurturing creativity, artists pushing innovation, and clergy walking with people through faith and mystery have in common? The answer was clear: They recognize the power of emotion and they’re not afraid to lean in to discomfort.
Walking into our stories of hurt can feel dangerous. But the process of regaining our footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Our stories of struggle can be big ones, like the loss of a job or the end of a relationship, or smaller ones, like a conflict with a friend or colleague. Regardless of magnitude or circumstance, the rising strong process is the same: We reckon with our emotions and get curious about what we’re feeling; we rumble with our stories until we get to a place of truth; and we live this process, every day, until it becomes a practice and creates nothing short of a revolution in our lives. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness. It’s the process, Brown writes, that teaches us the most about who we are.
Congratulations, by the way by George Saunders
Three months after George Saunders gave a graduation address at Syracuse University, a transcript of that speech was posted on the website of The New York Times, where its simple, uplifting message struck a deep chord. Within days, it had been shared more than one million times. Why? Because Saunders’s words tap into a desire in all of us to lead kinder, more fulfilling lives. Powerful, funny, and wise, Congratulations, by the Way is an inspiring message from one of today’s most influential and original writers.
The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
Marina Keegan’s star was on the rise when she graduated from Yale in May 2012. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at the New Yorker. Tragically, five days after graduation, Marina died in a car crash.
As her family, friends and classmates, deep in grief, joined to create a memorial service for Marina, her unforgettable last essay for the Yale Daily News, ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits. She had struck a chord.
Even though she was just 22 when she died, Marina left behind a rich, expansive trove of prose that, like her title essay, captures the hope, uncertainty and possibility of her generation. The Opposite of Loneliness is an assemblage of Marina’s essays and stories that articulates the universal struggle we all face as we work out what we aspire to be and how we can harness our talents to make an impact on the world.
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
In a perfect world, we’d get to hang out with Amy Poehler, watching dumb movies, listening to music, and swapping tales about our coworkers and difficult childhoods. Because in a perfect world, we’d all be friends with Amy — someone who seems so fun, is full of interesting stories, tells great jokes, and offers plenty of advice and wisdom (the useful kind, not the annoying kind you didn’t ask for, anyway). Unfortunately, between her Golden Globe-winning role on Parks and Recreation, work as a producer and director, place as one of the most beloved SNL alumni and cofounder of the Upright Citizens’ Brigade, involvement with the website Smart Girls at the Party, frequent turns as acting double for Meryl Streep, and her other gig as the mom of two young sons, she’s not available for movie night. Luckily we have the next best thing: Yes Please, Amy’s hilarious and candid book. A collection of stories, thoughts, ideas, lists, and haikus from the mind of one of our most beloved entertainers, Yes Please offers Amy’s thoughts on everything from her “too safe” childhood outside of Boston to her early days in New York City, her ideas about Hollywood and “the biz,” the demon that looks back at all of us in the mirror, and her joy at being told she has a “face for wigs.” Yes Please is chock-full of words and wisdom to live by.
Advice from My 80-Year-Old Self by Susan O’Malley
What advice would your 80-year-old self give you? That is the question artist Susan O’Malley, who was herself to die far too young, asked more than a hundred ordinary people of every age, from every walk of life. She then transformed their responses into vibrant text-based images. From a prompt to do things that matter to your heart, to a reminder that it’s okay to have sugar in your tea, these are calls to action and words to live by — heartfelt, sometimes humorous, and always fiercely compassionate. This stirring celebration of our collective humanity unveils the wisdom we hold inside ourselves right now.
Headstrong by Rachel Swaby
In 2013, the New York Times published an obituary for Yvonne Brill. It began: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” It wasn’t until the second paragraph that readers discovered why the Times had devoted several hundred words to her life: Brill was a brilliant rocket scientist who invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites in orbit, and had recently been awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Among the questions the obituary — and consequent outcry — prompted were, Who are the role models for today’s female scientists, and where can we find the stories that cast them in their true light?
Headstrong delivers a powerful, global, and engaging response. Covering Nobel Prize winners and major innovators, as well as lesser-known but hugely significant scientists who influence our every day, Rachel Swaby’s vibrant profiles span centuries of courageous thinkers and illustrate how each one’s ideas developed, from their first moment of scientific engagement through the research and discovery for which they’re best known. This fascinating tour reveals these 52 women at their best — while encouraging and inspiring a new generation of girls to put on their lab coats.
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain — real and imagined, her own and others’ — Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory — from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration — in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.
Have you read any of these books? Tell us in the comments!