To the extent that I engaged with the Three Books program, I loved it. While the books chosen for the class of 2021 were strikingly pertinent and super well written, what I appreciated most about the program was not the books themselves, but rather what the program itself signified: that as cheesy as it sounds, Stanford was where I belonged. Any school that sends its 1700 frosh three books over the summer — with the intention of helping us connect, discuss and generally stay woke — seemed the right school for a bibliophile like me.
Given my appreciation for the Three Books concept, I can’t help but wonder, now seven weeks into my frosh fall, which three books I would have wanted my classmates to read, were I given the chance to ship all 1700 of them any three novels.
To me, literature is about both escapism and confrontation: It’s about contending with someone else’s life trajectory, their mistakes and triumphs, as though they were your own, but with the comforting knowledge that ultimately, they are not your own — even if you really identify with them. Books let you learn in a low-stakes way and are, therefore, perfect preparatory material to help us navigate the big transition to college.
Without further ado, right before I moved halfway across the world to start a wildly new phase in my short life, here are three books that I would’ve appreciated re-reading:
“Prep” by Curtis Sittenfeld
“I wanted my life to start — but in those rare moments when it seemed like something might actually change, panic shot through me.” —Curtis Sittenfeld, “Prep”
While this 2005 bestseller follows 14-year-old Lee Fiora, a girl from an Indiana prep school in New England, “Prep” explores themes that feel oddly relevant to 18-year-old me, a girl from Singapore starting college at Stanford. The book’s Goodreads blurb does well to describe it as “an insightful, achingly funny coming-of-age story as well as a brilliant dissection of class, race and gender in a hothouse of adolescent angst and ambition.” The novel charts Lee’s journey assimilating at her prep school and cautions against losing too much of yourself in an attempt to fit in. Re-reading “Prep” at the beginning of college, I fiercely identified with Lee’s attitude towards change: confusion, slight desperation and therefore a proneness to making mistakes.
While Stanford does not strike me as “preppy,” given all the connotations of the word, our ambitious community definitely grapples with the manifestations of privilege and moments of alienation, often socioeconomic, that define Lee’s experience. More than social commentary, however, what I love about “Prep” is its painfully relatable character-study, which captures the nuances of wanting to measure up: of wanting to carve a place for yourself amongst brilliant peers, while grappling with the voice in your head that urges you to just take a loss because it seems like the playing field is uneven or like some head-starts cannot be made up.
Fun fact: Curtis Sittenfeld, like authors of the actual Three Books, is affiliated with Stanford. As an undergrad here, she studied creative writing and was even a staffer for The Daily!
“Radio Silence” by Alice Oseman
“Everyone’s different inside their head.” —Alice Oseman, “Radio Silence”
The protagonist of “Radio Silence,” Frances, is British high school senior with the basic programming of just about any Stanford student. She’s super book-smart, gunning to go to Cambridge but also has a huge non-academic passion for art and fandoms. Frances, like several of my friends at Stanford and me, struggles to reconcile other’s perceptions of her as an achiever with her inner identity as a quirky, self-conscious teen who wants to be seen as more than just a hardworking machine. Through a friendship with Aled, a classmate and creator of her favorite fantasy podcast, Frances not only begins reconciling her two selves, but also learns the value of making and being the sort of friend that enables this reconciliation.
Part of me believes that Stanford is the place where I, like Frances, will connect my identities — no longer restrained by certain things I had to do and sacrifice to get here — and finally grow-into the Whole Person I really (hopefully) am. As a result, Frances’ journey towards a truer self is both relatable, but also subversive in how she realizes that there is more to life than “getting to university.” On one hand, Frances’ revelation suggests I may be too late, but, on the other, it reminds me that, now that I’m at university, becoming my “true self” won’t be a passive change or a given consequence of getting to Stanford — I’ll have to work for it.
“The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories” by Marina Keegan
“There’s this sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping in our collective conscious as we lay alone after a party, or pack up our books when we give in and go out — that it is somehow too late. That others are somehow ahead. More accomplished, more specialized. More on the path to somehow saving the world, somehow creating or inventing or improving. That it’s too late now to BEGIN a beginning and we must settle for continuance, for commencement…What we have to remember is that we can still do anything.” —Marina Keegan, “The Opposite of Loneliness”
When choosing a nonfiction book, I immediately thought of “The Opposite of Loneliness,” perhaps because the anthology’s eponymous essay is about college’s unique, hard-to-define and all-consuming social experience. However, besides the essay “The Opposite of Loneliness,” Keegan’s other works also grapple with the simultaneous invincibility and vulnerability of being a young adult, which is something I have benefited from internalizing.
Nevertheless, I will focus on “The Opposite of Loneliness” because I — and college students nationwide — have really connected with it since it went viral online in 2012, when Keegan wrote the essay for the Yale Daily News in the days before her graduation. In it, she reflects on feeling “the opposite of loneliness” during college.
Although I first read it as a high-school junior, with barely an inkling of what college life entailed, Keegan’s observations somehow seemed full of truth. The anecdotes, self-deprecation and introspection make Keegan’s call to action convincing. She urges her fellow graduates to not succumb to the perverse fatalism — the sense that, as college graduates, it’s too late in the game to change the game itself, whether this be personally, socially or professionally.
Even as frosh, I sometimes get an inkling of this fatalism, as do my friends; I’m sure this inkling could grow over my time at Stanford, when I start honing in on what I want to study, how I want to spend my time and who I want to be. That’s why it’s useful for us to learn from an astute upperclassman that — even as seniors — we will just be at the beginning, that the starry-eyed optimism we felt on convocation is something we should protect fiercely, and that there is so much potential for our time at college, too, to be filled with the opposite of loneliness.
Contact Megha Parwani at mparwani ‘at’ stanford.edu.