The college graduate comes home, books in tow


Robe- and mortar-bedecked students during the recent graduation of the Class of 2013 at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist June 25, 2013

Three boxes of books arrived via UPS on Monday, the literary possessions of my elder daughter, Gwyneth, who graduated from college last week and moved out of her apartment in Evanston, Ill. Teetering on our little stoop, the heavy boxes looked like a cardboard skyscraper.

These aren’t Gwyn’s only student artifacts — we’d taken five suitcases full of clothes and bedding home with us on the plane — but they might be her most important. That she had graduated from college was obvious from her diploma (magna cum laude, thank you very much), but the books represent more meaningful achievements.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

The books in the three boxes are the lucky ones, the ones that had made the cut. Others — books she didn’t like, or from classes she’d rather not remember — we took one morning to a Goodwill one town over.

Gwyn gave away most of her Proust, keeping just a single volume, the way one might kill a rattlesnake and keep just the rattle as a sort of talismanic reminder of a vanquished enemy: “Let me tell you about the time I killed a sidewinder/slogged through ‘In Search of Lost Time.’”

She kept some Wordsworth and gave some away, because, really, a little Wordsworth goes a long way.

Nietzsche went in the giveaway pile — surely it will just make him stronger — as did female Japanese short story writers. Male Japanese novelists, on the other hand, made the cut.

The prewar history of Italy was not something Gwyneth saw herself revisiting in the coming years. At a Goodwill in Illinois, a good deal can be had on books concerning the Risorgimento and the rise of Mussolini.

Gwyn’s birthday is next week. She’ll turn 22. More amazingly, I’ll turn into the father of a 22-year-old. If you had told me when I was 22 that would someday happen, I’d have dropped my beer (Carling Black Label, in a can).

And yet I recognize myself (an English major) in my daughter (a comparative literature major). I recognize the heft — psychological and physical — of those books. I remember how — after I’d finished at the University of Maryland and my uncle was helping me move out of my apartment in Langley Park, loading box after book-filled box into the U-Haul — he said, “Have you ever considered the benefits of illiteracy?”

While Gwyn was unpacking her boxes and filing the books on the shelves of her childhood bedroom — displacing Gail Carson Levine with Haruki Murakami — I went into the basement to see what I’d saved from college.

There was “The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, Vol. II” (from Blake to Auden), its pages onion-skin thin, and Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen,” its spine still sporting a yellow “Used” sticker from the Maryland Book Exchange.

There was my little clutch of Existentialism — Sartre, Camus, Malraux — books that had so affected me that I spent three days in my junior year sitting on the couch, smoking cigarettes and staring out the window, wondering what was the point of it all.

There was Erasmus’s “The Praise of Folly.” I’d left a book mark nestled between pages 136 and 137 and had scrawled something in black ink next to a passage that read: “Soon after, when they come to themselves, they say they do not know where they have been, whether in the body or out of it, whether waking or sleeping. They do not remember what they heard or saw or said or did except in a cloudy way, as if it were a dream. All they know is that they were never happier than while they were transported with such madness.”

My marginalia on this: “Stupidity and drunkenness.”

That may have been what Erasmus was literally writing about. His descriptions of the joys of a nice bender and the pain of a bad hangover are spot-on. But as I read his words in the musty cellar, I thought maybe they applied to something else, too: to that time in our lives when the lucky among us spend our days reading and thinking about what we’ve read.

Erasmus continued: “Thus, they lament that they have come to their senses and want above all to be forever mad with this kind of madness.”

And if the real world isn’t like the world we encounter in books, whose fault is that? The books’? Or the world’s?

Blueberry bonanza

Desserts made with homegrown blueberries are on the menu. Go to any of the area Clyde’s restaurants — or the Hamilton, the Tombs or Old Ebbitt Grill — and you’ll find at least one of these dishes: blueberry pie, blueberry crisp or blueberries with whipped cream. Order any of them and a portion of the proceeds benefits Camp Moss Hollow, a summer camp for at-risk kids from the D.C. area.

Not in a blueberry mood? To make a tax-deductible donation, go to washingtonpost.com/camp. Click where it says, “Give Now.” Or send a check, made payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Send a Kid to Camp, Family Matters of Greater Washington, P.O. Box 200045, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15251-0045.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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