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Eight Must-Reads for College Students

Quick! What was the last book you read? For many in-coming university students, reading is something to be done because it's required, and the last books they read were assigned in a high-school English class. But books are so much more than stuffy classics to be analyzed for themes and structures, and one of the most important things you can do at university is to learn how to read – for pleasure, for information, and for a challenge. Here's a list to get you started, but don't stop there. The world is your library!

Sep 6, 2023
  • Education
Eight Must-Reads for College Students

In recent years, some university professors have noticed that their students don't read like students of the past. Modern students are often voracious readers, but instead of novels and books, their reading habits tend towards the instant, the disposable, and the click-able. Of course, educators recommend reading books because they improve concentration, build analytic skills, teach good writing techniques, and improve vocabularies. But while many writers agree that it doesn't matter what you read, so long as you are reading, there remains something ineffable about books. Stephen King called them a 'uniquely portable magic.' Malcolm X declared them his “alma mater.” And Oscar Wilde said that “what you read when you don't have to [determines] what you will be when you can't help it.” While this list is hardly definitive, we have a few suggestions to spark your interest. So, whether you're majoring in comparative literature or molecular biology, get thee to a library and start reading!

1.Thriller: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Tartt's debut novel about guilt and social hierarchies is filled with intrigue and literary references. It combines elements of a murder mystery (though it's not a 'who-done-it') with the classic campus-novel format. The Secret History uses philosophy, Victorian literature, and Greek mythology to peer into student life and the struggles associated with emerging into adulthood and finds a darkly comic but bleak reality. The wealth of quotations, allusions to classic stories, and literary tropes will have English majors feeling like insiders while the troubled, loner narrator is a great study for students of psychology, politics, and philosophy. Read this if you enjoyed Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

2. Cool Science: Life’s greatest secret: the story of the race to crack the genetic code by Matthew Cobb

Who says that science books have to be boring and full of formulas? Cobb's account of the research into the human genome is engaging and incredibly human. Life's greatest secret delves into the people and theories behind the science and looks at how physics, cybernetics, and early computer sciences influenced research into DNA and the genetic code. While this is, perhaps, a must-read for biology students, it's accessible to non-science students and explores the complex, flawed, and inspiring individuals that cracked the code to understanding life. If you're more history than science, try Guns, Germs and Steel by Jarad Diamond.

3. Classic dystopia: 1984 by George Orwell

If you haven't already read this classic story about the ultimate surveillance society, well, it's probably because you're such a loyal party member. Orwell predicted a future so bleak, so completely repressed, so frightening that Big Brother has become the boogeyman of modern society and every government wire-tap, every instance of censorship, and every historical 'reinvention' conjures up images of Airstrip One and Winston Smith. Poli-Sci majors who haven't read 1984 will find themselves lost in a sea of references, but this is an essential classic for students around the world, and will if nothing else, fuel endless debates about freedom, history, and the role of politics in society. Once you've read 1984, pick up The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

4. Dark comedy: The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis

Sometimes life on campus can seem like a farce. The Rules of Attraction is Ellis's dark send-up of 1980s college culture. The novel deals with love, vice, betrayal, and privilege and while the characters may seem exaggerated, you'll probably recognize your friends, roommates, classmates, and even yourself. If you've already read The Secret History, you might recognize the setting, and the worlds of Ellis and Tartt are unabashedly intertwined. Does Sean Bateman seem familiar? Follow his family's debauchery in another Ellis novel, American Psycho.

5. Historical sagas: Roots by Alex Haley and 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

When you study history, you are often struck by a sense of fate, a feeling of the inevitable, and simultaneously, the realization that even insignificant events can have a huge impact on people, events, and the world. While Roots and 100 Years of Solitude are two very different novels, they both encapsulate the epic grandeur of history in the microcosm of family sagas. While Haley based his novel on his family's oral traditions, Marquez utilizes symbolism and magical realism to explore ideas of individual and communal fate. For more sweeping historical fiction, try Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.

6. Zen: The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler

Sometimes all you need is some perspective, especially when you're studying. Cutler, a psychiatrist, uses conversations and interviews with the Dalai Lama to frame this introspective consideration of happiness and the human condition. The book is, ultimately, a guide to achieving peace and happiness by training oneself to alter the way in which one perceives the world. Religious or spiritual belief isn't a prerequisite for reading, and the book is conveniently divided into thematic sections. Looking for more wisdom? Read the classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.

7. Love and greed: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald is probably best known for his eulogy for the American Dream, The Great Gatsby. But in his first novel, This Side of Paradise, readers will find that Fitzgerald was already playing with themes of wealth and corruption. This novel, about a social-climbing co-ed, flirts with various styles and genres, and some critics consider it to be fairly autobiographical. This is a good one for fans of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery.

8. Nostalgic: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

The title of this Japanese novel refers to the Beatles song of the same name, and the story dwells on the narrator's student days in 1960s Tokyo. The retrospective nature of the narration taints the characters and events of the story with the jaded perception of age looking back on youthful ideals and ambitions, but the novel's overarching tones are of desire, nostalgia, and regret. The original English translation was intended for English-language learners, but Japanese-language learners might find it a useful as well. Murakami was influenced by J.D. Salinger so try Franny and Zooey once you've finished this one.