Every May, as dependable as “Pomp and Circumstance,” graduation gift books come marching up the bestseller list.
For years, the class has been led by Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” a cheery and — one would hope — somewhat undemanding text for students who have completed four years of advanced coursework. Clearly, things have changed since Ralph Waldo Emerson shocked the graduating scholars at Harvard’s Divinity School in 1838.
The Ivy League platitudes of presidents, billionaires and other celebrities are regularly reported by the media, but in recent years all those black-robed students with cellphones have made it possible to survey thousands of graduating addresses. Surprisingly, some of them are not eye-crossingly dull. In fact, some of them are pretty clever, inspiring, even moving.
(Quick: Who gave your graduation speech?)
In 2005, David Foster Wallace delivered a commencement address at Kenyon College, and four years later, after it had become an Internet sensation, Little, Brown republished the speech in a precious book format that sold well enough to encourage more entrants in this rarefied genre.
George Saunders’s 2013 address at Syracuse University was recently published by Random House as “Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness.” His book has been joined by “You Are Not Special: … And Other Encouragements” (Ecco), an expanded version of David McCullough, Jr.’s 2012 commencement speech at the public high school outside of Boston where he teaches English. (More than 2 million people have watched it on YouTube.)
A clever editor and marketing department can re-position a non-graduation text into a graduation gift book. Sheryl Sandberg’s massive bestseller “Lean In” (2013) has now been expanded with six extra chapters and retitled “Lean In for Graduates” (Knopf).
Hovering earnestly between a greeting card and a bound sermon, will these books succeed? Yes, they will indeed (98-3⁄4 percent guaranteed). Or at least that’s the hope of editors and publishers who have money on the line.
Paul Bogaards, director of media relations at Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, says, “Publishers are always on the hunt for books that could establish a toehold in the graduation marketplace. It’s a viable category with established evergreen titles. The publishing model is equal parts innovation and derivation. You can actively publish into the category, but serendipity often plays a role.”
Hilary Redmon, executive editor at Ecco, agrees. “Clearly, agents are seeing opportunities,” she says. “I’ve been looking at the other books, and they do have things in common. They’re talking about mankind and kindness and mortality.” Graduation books aren’t a category for her house (she usually publishes science and history), but she sees McCullough’s book as a likely perennial. “He’s not talking about pop culture,” she says. “He’s talking about how to live, and how not to let your life go by. I don’t see this going away.”
But Reagan Arthur, the publisher of Little, Brown, raises a note of caution. “I’m not sure how much more the market can bear,” she says. “These are very singular voices that have found their way to book form. They are appealing and work as books because of that, but I’m not sure that will a genre make. It’s too soon for us to say. Next May we may well have something. We’d definitely want to do it again it we could.”
Our era’s depressed job market could be helping the sale of these graduation titles. Jordan Pavlin, Sheryl Sandberg’s editor at Knopf, says, “Young people today need concrete, practical advice as well as inspiration.”
Bogaards notes that “parents want to provide their kids with a map to a job and the prospect of a happy, fulfilled life. A book is obviously the perfect vessel for delivering both. A bottle of bourbon also works.”