Novels in one form or another have existed since the first century, and English majors drunk on Keystone Light have been using them for bragging rights ever since. There’s no way to know for certain which obscure reference the tipsy lit-ster will insert into a conversation, but you’d better be able to offer something more than a pitiable “I haven’t read that one” if you ever want to be invited back to party hard with the coolest kids on campus. Just remember that even they haven’t read ’em all, and for all their pretentious Tweets and bulging book bags, there’s a good chance you’ve read something interesting they haven’t. So take what we’ve taught you, knock back a few shots, and join the conversation; nodding at their obscure references and hating on those who use Sparknotes will serve you well. If you find yourself at a total loss, a tried-and-true last line of defense is to just make something up and then tell them you read it in The New Yorker.
To conclude this series, here are three more books that frequently pop up in English majors’ party chatter, but don’t necessarily fall neatly into a genre. Not usually taught in undergrad courses, these are books English majors will have read on their own time and then think they’re special for doing so. All are weird and amusing and wonderful, and reading them makes being part of the crazy literary world look like a lot of fun.
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
This book, truly a standout freak show, probably gets talked about more than it should. But even after 60 years, it still has shock value. Maybe that’s because it’s so hard to cope with the nasty sympathy one ultimately feels for the narrator Humbert Humbert—an outright pedophile obsessed with the young girl Lolita. The novel really is a fascinating read, and Nabokov’s prose is so enchanting and emotional that it’s easy to forget how awful the what’s taking place actually is. More than anything, it proves the power of good writing. Everyone seems to have their own thoughts on the book, so it’s bound to at least drum up some compelling conversation.
- Say this: “Don’t blame the writer when it’s the reader’s fault.”
On The Road, by Jack Kerouac
The 1950s beatniks were a generation of writers that have abundant disciples today among undergrad writers and poets, and On The Road is more or less their bible. It’s about roadtrips backdropped by Americana, drugs, sex, and jazz. It’s about young people living in the unsure stagnancy of the Cold War, doing what they want, where they want, when they want, succeeding and failing, getting married again and again and drinking heavily all the while. It’s almost impossible to read this without wanting to drop everything and take off with someone like Tom Waits in a Cadillac bound for Mexico.
- Say this: “These guys, with their drugs and free spirits and artsy friends, these were the original hipsters.”
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
I conclude this list with Fear and Loathing because you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone, even a nonreader, who doesn’t like talking about this book (or the movie, if they’re really not into reading). It has a similar flavor to On The Road, but was published in the 1970s by perhaps the most notorious author of the century, so the drugs and booze are amped up to maximum levels. The first paragraph alone is enough to draw almost anyone in, and the rest of the novel jolts around with the same wild energy Thompson is known for. The plot is balanced between reality and hallucination as Duke and Gonzo, the infamous lawyer/journalist duo, try to chase down the American Dream in the city of greed, and the best part about it all is that it’s semiautobiographical. Thompson could out-party your school’s most legendary waste case without even trying. Just please don’t emulate it—yes, drugs are bad, so let this book be your substitute.
- Say this: “A toast! May we be blessed with the riches of Gonzo and the heroic liver of Duke. May we live life in the passenger seat of that red Chevy convertible, and die undaunted, with absolutely no sympathy for the devil.”