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In Praise of Back-to-School Reading

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

By Emily Harnden

The most wonderful time of year, you ask? Right now. This minute. Mid-September at the height of back-to-school bliss — when everything seems possible and romantic — is and will always be my favorite season.

Though I finished grad school a few years ago, I still want to shop for a new backpack, throw on a Felicity Porter cable-knit sweater despite the ninety-degree Colorado heat, and copy Cat Power lyrics into my notebook. In the last week alone, on my various newsfeeds I have been unable to restrain myself from liking any mention of the “bouquet of newly sharpened pencils” that Tom Hanks waxes poetic about in the greatest fall film of all time (don’t @ me).

But most of all I want to read and read. Campus novels and coming-of-age heart-warmers, all the short stories that have made a cozy little home of my deeply nostalgic and once-academic heart.

So in honor of that bouquet of newly sharpened pencils and cardigans that came long before Taylor’s trio of James, Inez, and Betty, I give you a back-to-school-skewed reading list of recent-ish classics to ignite your own fall feelings:

  • The Idiot by Elif Batuman

    • One of my very favorite quotes on writing is by Elif Batuman in n+1, where she writes, “A novel says, ‘I looked for x, and found a, b, c, g, q, r, and w. The novel consists of all the irrelevant garbage, the effort to redeem that garbage, to integrate it into Life Itself, to redraw the boundaries of Life Itself.” Set in 1995 around the time that email became “a thing,” The Idiot follows Selin as she arrives for her freshman year at Harvard, where she meets classmates Svetlana and Ivan and begins to ask herself what sort of person she is hoping to become in the world. To put it briefly — this novel is smart and hilarious and sensitive, and I wanted to live in this world of “redeemed garbage” forever.

  • Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

    • This collection is special and Fajardo-Anstine’s ability to sink us into her characters’ lives so fully and honestly makes reading her debut story collection a true treat. Set against the backdrop of the American West (and Denver specifically), these stories stretch coming-of-age narratives and mother-daughter relationships movingly and with exquisite force. Fajardo-Anstine is a local herself (she used to work at Westside Books!) and will be headlining Fort Collins Book Fest in October — yay!

  • Chemistry by Weike Wang

    • Despite Joyce Carol Oates’ criticism of the direction of the novel toward “wan little husks of auto-fiction” on Literary Twitter, I myself adore a slim volume of brilliantly rendered husks (thank you very much). Enter Weike Wang’s debut novel Chemistry, which frankly makes a succinct argument that the fragmentary novel is alive and well and kicking ass. Wang’s sharp prose and even sharper humor injects this story — about a failing grad student whose passion for chemistry (and marriage) is less than stable — with surprising warmth and nuance.

  • Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

    • Theatre kids, this one's for you. Without giving too much away, this novel centers on a group of dramatic teens attending an elite performing arts high school in the early 1980s — and if you think you know what the novel is about based on its first half, you’ll have to stick around for Part Two to truly understand Choi’s genius at work. This book is gripping and impossible to not want to discuss immediately after reading — a great book club choice for sure.

  • The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

    • Danielle Evans is one of finest short story writers working today, and her second collection proves she is unmatched in crafting stories “examining race, female friendship, and privilege.” With her signature voice — at once knowing, heartbreaking, and winking — Evans’ collection probes our present moment with deft precision and poignancy.

And for the Forever YA Fam:

  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

    • I’ll admit that I feel as if Rainbow Rowell gazed through an open window into my soul when she wrote this book. Focused on twin sisters Cath and Wren as they begin their first year of college in Nebraska, Fangirl is about first love, fanfiction, and how to grow up without growing apart.

  • The Jessica Darling Series by Megan McCafferty

    • Mathematically, the feeling of back-to-school boils down to a well-known equation:

Fantasy > Reality. The anticipation of getting what we want will somehow always outweigh its reception. No one knows this better than our protagonist, Jessica “Not-So” Darling (as her dad aptly nicknames her). Think: 2000s angst galore + literary crush-to-end-all-crushes. This series has it in spades.

Fall is always a Big Book season in its own right — so if you’re looking for fresher fiction, I also highly recommend these under-the-radar gems: The Archer by Shruti Swamy, Three Rooms by Jo Hamya, How to Wrestle a Girl by Venita Blackburn, and Hao by Ye Chun. Happy reading!

Community Manager Emily (she/her) is a writer from the Midwest, currently residing in Denver. When she’s not copywriting she’s most likely reading, running, or rewatching riveting teen dramas of yore.



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