Autumnal Books for Fall Fanatics

Remember in the movie You’ve Got Mail, when Tom Hanks writes an email to Meg Ryan about how much he loves the fall? “It makes me want to buy school supplies,” he writes. “If I had your name and address I would send you a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils.” That’s how I feel, too. The other day, I stepped outside my apartment to find that it was The First Crisp Morning, and I wanted to do a little dance. The first orange leaf might actually elicit a cartwheel.

Say what you want about spring – for me, fall is the true time of rebirth. After languishing all summer, too sweaty and sleepy to read anything more complicated that Cosmopolitan, I just wake up in the autumn, when I can get back inside a classroom and give my flabby brain some much-needed exercise. I can learn and grow and set all kinds of new goals. I can write in my planner – is there anything better than writing in a planner!?

And, most importantly, I can go to my favorite cozy spots and read. Currently, I am knee deep in novels for my thesis and Norton anthologies, but if you’re not a senior in college like me (or even if you are, and you’re just better at time management) here are some books that I think are perfect for scarf-and-coffee weather.

  1. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – I’ve written about my relationship to this book before (it is somewhat turbulent) but there’s no denying this is a gorgeous novel about love and academia. The story begins at Brown University in 1982, when English major Madeleine Hanna leaves her graduation ceremony after discovering her ex-boyfriend, Leonard, has been hospitalized for bipolar disorder. The reader then follows Madeleine, Leonard, and Madeleine’s close friend Mitchell through their post-grad years, as they desperately try to reconcile the challenges of “real life” with classroom brilliance. The depictions of Leonard’s mental illness are devastating, and the embedded marriage plot is properly complicated, but my favorite aspect is the texts that the characters rely upon for translation of their surroundings. For romantic Madeleine, it’s Barthes’ The Lover’s Discourse; self-righteous Mitchell becomes obsessed with the writings of Mother Teresa.
  2. On Beauty by Zadie Smith – Another “liberal arts” novel, this book follows exploits of the multiracial Belsey family in the fictional college town of Wellington, MA. The Belseys are Howard, a white Englishman who teaches art history, his African-American wife Kiki and their three nearly-grown children, Jerome, Zora, and Levi. The family’s relationship is already complicated by Howard’s infidelities, Jerome’s religious piety, and Levi’s exploration of his racial identity, but things become explosive upon the arrival of Howard’s academic nemesis and his own dysfunctional brood. In characteristic Smith fashion, this novel is both uproariously funny and relentlessly provocative. It’s also one of my favorites of all time.
  3. The History Boys by Alan Bennett – How many times can I use the word “brilliant” in one article? Bennett’s classic play about a group of English schoolboys trying to gain acceptance into Oxford and Cambridge is witty and eyebrow-raising, and fabulously rich in historical and literary references. The most iconic character, in my opinion, is Mrs. Lintott, the lone female force on a stage full of men. “History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men,” Lintott exclaims during the mock college interview process. “What is history? History is women following behind with a bucket.” Just perfect.
  4. Wild by Cheryl Strayed – This is the only book on my list that doesn’t have something to do with academia (oops), but it speaks to my vision of fall as  a time for new beginnings. Cheryl Strayed loses her beloved mother to cancer and hikes the Pacific Crest Trail in order to dig herself out of the abyss of drugs and depression. The writing in this memoir is incredible, and the PCT is as much the protagonist as Strayed herself: a harsh, healing force that nearly kills Strayed just to bring her back to life. Strayed (literally) marks her path with poetry and excerpts from the books she reads (and then tears up to reduce the weight of her backpack). Read this to feel renewed.
  5. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri – Full disclosure: I haven’t read this book, but it’s on my TBR list. When I asked my sisters for their opinions on books for fall, my sister Maggie (a huge Lahiri fan) immediately mentioned The Namesake, and had this to say about it:  “The Namesake follows the lives of Ashoke and Ashima, a Bengali couple who move from India to the United States where Ashoke is an engineering student. The novel deals with themes of transplantation and growth in Lahiri’s typically gorgeous prose – perfect for autumn and the start of a new academic year.” Enough said.

There are, of course, a zillion books that will come in handy when you’re building your cold-weather book barricade. That said, what are your favorite books for fall? And – very importantly – does anyone have any coffee/book pairings they want to share?

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