It's 7:50 a.m., and you've indulged the snooze button for longer than you'd planned. You're not terribly excited about work, but feel better once you've thrown on your crisp, collared shirt and dress pants; donning your professional uniform still evokes a feeling of purpose, even now, two years out of college.
So what if your work get-up is the only part of the job that makes you feel important? It pays the bills, it's better than living with Mom and Dad, and while you have inklings of what you might want to do — write, go to grad school, make movies, start a business — none of that feels overwhelmingly right or certain, so until it does, why rock the boat? (Even if the boat is, at best, mediocre.)
So you stick with it. In the solace of your cubicle, you get your work done, but your heart isn't in it. You fill that void by reading about the things you do care about — on news websites, social media outlets or obscure spots around the blogosphere. At night, you go to happy hour with friends, where you talk jobs and compare bosses.
We are today's recent college graduates; we have virtually limitless opportunities, but that freedom can breed indecision — and complacency. Below are three books to help pull you out of this twentysomething rut; to remind you to take bold steps in the name of progress, even when your ideas for progress are a little blurry — and even if you'll still have plenty to figure out as you go along.
All In The Timing: Fourteen Plays
By David Ives, paperback 336 pages, Vintage, list price: $15.95
It's easier to tackle the quarterlife blues, of course, if you've found a camaraderie of lost, disenchanted peers. All in the Timing — David Ives' collection of 14 one-act plays — offers that solidarity as its descriptions of adulthood follies hit uncannily close to home. Each character gives voice to realities that we've probably sensed, but likely couldn't verbalize with Ives' elegance. "Sure Thing" pokes fun at modern-day dating; "Mere Mortals" contemplates the human tendency to embellish; and "A Singular Kinda Guy" takes on the difficulties of self-definition. There, the "Guy" is Mitch, and he's an ordinary male on the outside. On the inside, though, he's an Olivetti 250, portable electric typewriter, and he's struggling to reconcile his true, typewriter-ly identity with the altered version that he wears in the presence of others. This delightfully cynical, insightful little book will make you realize that you are not alone in puzzling through the real world's absurdities — not by a long shot.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
By Maya Angelou, paperback 304 pages, Ballantine, list price: $6.99
Camaraderie is helpful, but it's not enough. In bars and on back porches, you and your fellow amateur adults have pondered this odd, aimless stage of life. But if you're serious about life change, this talk needs to translate to action. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings can help spur that transition: the first of six autobiographical works by writer and poet Maya Angelou, this book recounts a struggle for self fulfillment that is, most of all, motivating. Angelou begins the novel a victim of racism, a young girl stricken by feelings of inferiority as she internalizes the anti-black sentiments of the 1930s American South. Over the course of this and later autobiographical writings, Angelou battles this degradation to ultimately become — among other things — a professor, a speaker at Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration, and a Pulitzer Prize nominee.
Angelou is a caged bird who learns to sing, to make noise that resonates outside the constraints imposed by her universe. To move forward, be equally bold in breaking down your own metaphorical cages.
Sometimes A Great Notion
By Ken Kesey, paperback 736 pages, Penguin, list price: $17
Once you do find the courage to leap — to begin writing, or applying to grad school, or starting that business — you'll have to stand by that decision when it is challenged. Sometimes a Great Notion advocates for precisely such unyielding individualism. Written by Ken Kesey — author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — this lesser-known novel centers on the Stampers, a family of loggers living in the fictional Wakonda, Ore. When the other loggers in their community go on strike to protest the pay decreases they've suffered since the introduction of the chainsaw, the Stamper family persists, refusing to break their contracts. Led by Hank Stamper — raised on his father's motto "Never Give A Inch" — this family resists their surrounding pressures, facing townwide ostracism and scare tactics.
As you make change, obstacles are sure to emerge, be they externally imposed barriers or your own, internal hurdles — indecision, fatigue, fear of failure. But like the Stampers, if something feels right, don't be afraid to risk, persevere and defy your nonbelievers.
With little knowledge of what the world beyond academia looks like, we can't expect ourselves to make perfect decisions as soon as we leave college. But we can hold ourselves to the high standard of adaptability — admitting our missteps, our fears and pushing ourselves to move past them. These three books are gateways to those first, tepid steps toward progress. Without doubt, you'll follow each character's journey with eager appetite; hopefully, you'll craft your own pathways with equal enthusiasm.
Hannah Levintova is a contributor to NPR. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.