Note from Katie: This post is a guest "rebuttal" to my earlier post "The 5 Books All Students Should Read BEFORE Freshman Year of College, and is itself challenged by "The 5 Books to Read Before College, According to Professor X."
I suspected that not everyone would agree with this list, and happily I was right. This guest response from Miles is hopefully the first of several, offering different lists of texts that can best serve students before they head off to university.
Miles has been a guest contributor here before, offering his thoughts on majoring in a "useless" major and his advice on peer editing. In addition to writing for My College Advice, Miles also blogs at Words & Dirt and has an active and enthusiastic presence on Goodreads, where he reviews every book he reads.
The 5 Books to Read BEFORE Freshman Year, According to Miles Raymer
Before trotting out my own starting lineup of books to read in preparation for your college experience, Katie requested that I offer a few quick thoughts about her own list. I think Katie has put together a great group of books, any of which would serve a curious reader well. I can't comment on each as thoroughly as I might like, given that I've only read three of them, and only one of those all the way through. I was annoyed with Katie for picking Brave New World, which I was planning to put on my own list. Huxley's prescient work is one of the great achievements of speculative fiction. It seems forever condemned to be compared to and sometimes eclipsed by Orwell's 1984, but over the years I've found Brave New World to be much more intellectually fruitful. This is because while it is virtually impossible to find an individual who considers the Orwellian nightmare at all desirable, the appeal of Huxley's frivolous yet also strangely seductive future is a matter of ongoing and lively debate. Also, if you enjoy this book, make sure to check out the less well known Island––something of a companion novel in which Huxley offers his view of what an actual utopia might look like.
Guns, Germs, and Steel is a must-read for anyone interested in getting past the oversimplified historical narratives that still dominate many American high school history classes. Diamond paints a sprawling but highly coherent portrait of the events leading up to that fateful moment when Europe "discovered" the New World––guaranteed to deepen your understanding of past and present generations.
Personally, I found Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything to be a real dud when I tried to read it. That was quite a few years ago, so perhaps my view would be different if I picked it up again. Based on recommendations from friends and family, I expected the book to be a condensed but thorough account of natural history. Instead, I encountered a tedious list of the accomplishments of rich men, who until very recently dominated the world of scientific inquiry. Bryson's writing is famously tangential, and while some readers find it endearing, I just wanted him to focus the story instead of rolling out yet another obscure exposé on yet another under-praised but over-privileged white guy. So, if you're interested in the history of human knowledge of the natural world, maybe this book is for you. But if you're looking for a less anthropocentric primer on key developments in Earth's geological and biological history, as I was, you might want to look elsewhere.
Now, on to my list. Please keep in mind that both Katie and I were careful to pick books that we think are good fits for the pre-college mind. These may not be the most comprehensive or challenging offerings from their respective genres, but they all have the potential to strike the balance between accessibility and depth that is crucial before launching a college career.
1. On Human Nature, by E. O. Wilson
This brief but groundbreaking treatise, first published in 1978, is widely considered to be the founding text of evolutionary psychology. E. O. Wilson is one of the scientific community's most cherished interdisciplinary thinkers, and this book sketches his first serious attempt to utilize evolutionary biology as a tool for augmenting our understanding of human behavior. Though hotly controversial at the time of publication, subsequent decades vindicated the majority of Wilson's claims, which are now understood as indispensable insights regarding the relationship between our biological proclivities and our cultural and personal experiences. While the field of evolutionary psychology remains controversial for many reasons (some legitimate, some erroneous), this text avoids overreaching in ways popularized by some of Wilson's successors. Highly accessible and enduring in its relevance, On Human Nature is a wonderful starting point for students interested in contemplating the question of what makes us all human.
2. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan
This is a book I desperately wish I'd read before college, but that I didn't actually read until after graduation. Despite his untimely death in 1996, Carl Sagan remains one of America's most important and effective science communicators. The Demon-Haunted World is one of the flagship texts of the contemporary skeptical movement. It contains the broad framework of something every modern human needs: an intellectual filter. Sagan contends that America's success in the 21st century will depend heavily on the ability of common citizens to distinguish between credible and untrustworthy sources of information, and he drives home the message that no democracy can flourish if citizens accept everything at face value. He then goes on to outline a pragmatic and distinctly scientific form of critical thinking that emphasizes a basic understanding of proper argumentation and empirical analysis. The Demon-Haunted World is a rallying cry for advocates of informed skepticism and the notion that science can offer both concrete knowledge and deep spiritual fulfillment. Sagan's infectious intellectual verve and elegant prose make this a delightful as well as a highly informative read.
3. Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli
If I could recommend just one book to a student on the cusp of the collegiate enterprise, it would be David Mazzucchelli's peerless graphic novel, Asterios Polyp. This story can be consumed in an afternoon but would take a whole lifetime to fully absorb and analyze. It is the tale of two unique lovers: Asterios, an architect made famous by his innovative but purely theoretical designs, and Hana, a deeply intuitive sculptor who eschews theory but excels at generating physical art. It's difficult to describe this book because so much of its emotional impact comes from Mazzucchelli's conceptually rich and often breathtaking art. These sublime combinations of color, line, and language shape a narrative that is emotionally touching as well as intellectually edifying. Asterios and Hana represent distinct and seemingly opposed approaches to the act of human creation, and their relationship touches on a broad range of academic concepts that pervade undergraduate courses of study. Beyond their value as mere subjects of intellectual curiosity, the victories and defeats of this romantic entanglement strike at the heart of our most burning questions about how profoundly different creatures can come to peacefully coexist––and even thrive. This blend of scholastic poise and emotive vigor meets the highest standard for literary fiction and raises the bar for the graphic novel.
4. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
There are a solid handful of great novels that also deserve to be called "epics," and John Steinbeck's East of Eden is one of them. Written toward the end of Steinbeck's career, this timeless combination of Genesis-influenced narrative and the author's own family history takes place in the period between the American Civil War and World War I. It covers several generations of Americans from two interconnected families: the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The Trask family's central conflict, repeated over two generations and loosely based on the biblical story of Cain and Abel, provides a profound and touching examination of how children flourish or falter when struggling for parental approval. The Hamiltons, based on Steinbeck’s actual family, form an intimate portrait of the kind of hardworking, inventive people that have always been the backbone of this strange country. Along with a fascinating cast of supporting characters, these two families carry the reader through a sweeping tale of loss, perseverance, and forgiveness. While Steinbeck is most commonly praised for The Grapes of Wrath, I think East of Eden offers a superior window into the universal realities of human frailty and fortitude.
5. The Lover, by Marguerite Duras
I once took an undergraduate literature seminar called "Through Adolescent Eyes." It focused on novels narrated by adolescent females––somewhat off the beaten path for me––but I ended up loving the class for several reasons, the foremost of which was my discovery of Marguerite Duras' autobiographical novel The Lover. This radiant, fragmented story straddles the line between fact and fantasy. While technically a work of fiction, the story is based on Duras' actual childhood experiences growing up in French colonial Vietnam. Duras' vivid recollections of adolescent sexuality, as awakened by a passionate affair with an older Chinese man, convey an expectant youthfulness shot through with the nostalgia of old age. Duras wrote the novel late in life, when her memories were ravaged by years of heavy drinking. These factors may have blurred the details somewhat, but they did not dull Duras' ability to capture the multifaceted mind of a young woman discovering her adult self. With sparse prose and poignant description, this sad and seductive story provides a searing snapshot of the indelible marks left in the wake of young love.
If anyone would like to weigh in on the comparative merit of the two book lists, or has other comments, critiques, questions, or other thoughts to share, please do so here!