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A literary look at life on the fringe

The semester is in full swing, assignments are piling up, chapters are being assigned and projects are getting organized. So why, in the beginning of this brewing chaos, would I ask you to add more book time to your already packed academic schedule? Because I care about your brain, and am sick of hearing professors preach that students are not well read.

Take these following suggestions to heart, and you will break stereotypes and entertain yourself all at once.

A disclaimer before proceeding: I am apparently one of the few – in our age of bright colors, crisp sound and sharp graphics – who still reads for fun. Yes, fun. I do not consider myself better than anyone else. I do not pretend my choice of leisure activity is somehow superior to yours. I really just want you to open up a book.

Knowing I am in a minority and you are most likely overloaded, I have composed the following list of suggestions with a few criteria in mind. First, the books are relatively small. If you are going to commit your time to a book, it has to be something you won’t mind fitting into the remaining space in your bag.

Second, the books are easy to read and are broken up into small chapters. Therefore, it is unnecessary to commit a lot of time to getting through them.

Third, the books are relatively cool.

Think of them more as windows into lost landscapes and less as text on a page. They highlight obscure and eccentric aspects of life that most of us will probably never experience. All of them effectively transport the reader to interesting, scary, dark and fun locales.

Without further ado, here are four titles that will help reduce the stress of the daily grind and maybe even teach you some big, fancy words along the way.

Jesus’ Son by Dennis Johnson is not about Jesus. The title most likely refers to the Lou Reed lyric, “When I’m rushing on my run and I feel like Jesus’ Son…” from the song “Heroin.” The book is a collection of short stories that portray the gritty reality of American life. Johnson is an intense writer with a minimalist style that cuts to both the bone and the point. The stories are often twisted and dirty, themed around hopeless drunks and recovering heroin addicts. It is not necessarily a feel-good novel, but an “it feels good not to be that guy” novel.

The Perks of being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is a much lighter read. The book is presented in the form of a series of letters written by a young boy entering high school. The first line of the book – “I am writing you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have” – speaks volumes of the honesty that saturates this novel. This coming-of-age story has a sufficient amount of edge that allows it to avoid the all-too-common saccharine message of triumph. The fact that the letters are written to an anonymous recipient allows the story to move along without detracting from the main themes.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac is an underground classic written in stream-of-consciousness style. The original manuscript for the novel was typed on 12-foot-long sheets of paper taped together to make one continuous roll. The story is about sex, drugs, jazz and wild road trips. Kerouac’s style is very entertaining because he jumps from sentences grounded in reality to wild abstract rants about very strange things, such as a massive snake wrapped around the world. This book is longer than the others on the list, but don’t let that deter you. It is very readable, and Kerouac manages to balance a certain level of wild abandon with heartfelt poignant moments.

The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones is a book of short stories with a variety of themes: aging boxers, soldiers in Vietnam and advertising geniuses helping sick horses in India. The writing is excellent and extremely well paced. Jones has the incredible ability to seamlessly transform his literary voice to adapt to the vernaculars of each of his characters. He can mimic the slang of a war-hardened marine in Vietnam and a misogynistic, Greek deep-sea diver with equal accuracy. I first discovered this author by violating one of the longest running literary clichés: I judged a book by its cover.

So there you have it: four literary works of various scope, depth, length and style. Give them a shot, and you may find something you like. You don’t have to read them all, but you might as well crack open one of them. At the very least you could take it to your favorite coffee shop and use it as a people-watching prop. There are some places where books make you look cool.