Worried about being prepared for college? I was. In fact, I wrote an email to a professor during the summer before my freshman year, requesting a list of books to be read before I showed up for the first day of class (In my defense, the University of Oregon's fall semester starts waaay after most schools, so all my friends were gone and I was very, very bored). Professor Louise Bishop wisely refused to supply a list to this slightly neurotic incoming student, choosing, instead, to advise me to follow my passions and to continue to read widely.
Today's post offers a next step to this advice. I bring you a list post of the most dreaded kind: a book list of "must reads" before college begins. This because I love books and believe reading should be undertaken constantly and widely, and it is also because I believe this selection will honestly improve lives and minds of future students.
This is just my opinion. I joyfully invite the impassioned addition of alternative titles to this list.
The 5 Books All Students should Read Before Freshman Year of College
1. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
This book was the first thing that came to mind in creating this list. Bill Bryson is the ultimate smartass, and his writing is exceptionally approachable and fun. Science literacy is absolutely essential in the modern world, and he makes a base-line understanding of the history and progress of scientific thought the joy that it should be. I love this book for the subject matter secondarily, however, to his treatment of it. You can just imagine him delving into research on a particular scientist or breakthrough moment and absolutely grinning in delight when he encountered some particularly juicy anecdote or clarifying bit of information. His writing is delightful, and you will learn just as much about the value of well-written research as you will gain a baseline context for scientific thought.
2. Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver
This series of essays is another great example of the importance of informed and well-researched writing in the popular arena. Kingsolver is best known for her works of fiction—which I also love—but in this collection she addresses issues from biodiversity and water conservation to an emotional but well-considered first response to 9/11. I love this book because it is honest, intimate, and personal while also being informative and accurate. Themes of environmental and social responsibility, which are also at play in her works of fiction, are here given the full weight of the immediate and personal style of short essay writing.
I also love this book because it demonstrates the benefit of aspiring authors who choose to major in non-writing disciplines. She writes with the scientific authority of her academic background, and this is of critical value to the creation of literature and the communication of social issues.
3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Political scientists, economists, sociologists, psychologists…join your literary peers in a deep read of this novel. Dystopian science fiction offers a window into what our society could easily become. Far more than the overt government oppression described in George Orwell’s 1984, the subtle engineering of consumption, unquestioning labor, and the social control through the distraction of pleasure described in Brave New World terrifies me in the context of what I see around me in the world. Whether you ultimately agree with his specific projection of humanity’s future, this book can spark critical debate about what societies are, can be, and should not be. And, critically, what our role is within the broader march of human history.
4. Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks
This book changed my perspective on the power and potential of education to transform lives and challenge conventional and oppressive structures of power. Along with Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire, this book was foundational to my growing conviction that dialogue and personal experience hold a key place in the classroom. hooks focuses on race, capitalism, and gender and brings a harsh critique to the ways in which conventional educational structures uphold systems of oppression. I first encountered this book because of my experiences with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, and it gave me a completely different view of my experience as a student and my expectations for education.
5. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
I was assigned this book in several undergraduate classes. It explores the development of civilizations, and how a set of factors (primarily environmental and geographical) led to Eurasia’s development of powerful civilizations that went on to conquer so much of the rest of the world. This is the most academic book on my list, but it draws from a variety of backgrounds and would be applicable to a range of interests. Diamond himself is a geographer but he draws from evolutionary biology, ecology, history, psychology, anthropology, and other disciplines to make his arguments. One part of his theory I particularly enjoyed was the specific analysis of why the domestication of animals occurred in Europe (most large herbivores in Africa and the Americas have still not been successfully domesticated on a large scale), and what this meant for civilization (trade, and also the development of diseases and their immunities). This book is an excellent example of the creative use of interdisciplinary study to put forth an argument critical to our collective understanding of civilization and our history.
The best list of books is one that inspires further inquiry and passion in the reader. I hope that this set of five represents breadth of interest and the potential starting place for further research and study--both of the academic and joyful personal development sort.
Related posts: "High School Graduation: What Next?," "What to do When You Can't Finish the Reading," and "Reading for Fun as a College Student." UPDATE: You can also read a guest post "rebuttal" and addition to my list at "The 5 Books to Read BEFORE Freshman Year of College: Guest Post by Miles Raymer."
Do you agree with my list? Do you have books to add? I hope to share formal additions/rebuttals in the form of guest posts in the not-too-distant future. For now, all comments, questions, and critiques are warmly welcomed.