I have compiled a comprehensive and completely subjective list of books I think you should read before heading off to college. What are my qualifications? Well, I went to college—so I was once a person considering what books to read before college. I’m also a bookseller, and thus exposed to a wider variety of texts. But I don’t kid myself in thinking these are must-reads or absolutes. These are just thirty books, broken up into five sections, that I think could serve you well should you have them in your brain before leaving home for grand, academic pursuits.
You may notice that Famous Classic of the Literary Cannon by That White Guy is missing from my list. Although I’ve certainly included some classics here—and I’ll concede that there are important so-called classics to read before college—I generally avoided books I thought you may have been assigned and books I noticed on many other books-to-read-before-college lists. I figure you know the classics, the canon—and if you don’t, there are lists aplenty on the internet. Instead, I’ve focused on books to read before college you may not have thought of, books you may not have been assigned.
Expand Your Brain
A smattering of science, history, math, and the arts, these six books will teach you everything you may’ve missed in high school.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Does the title not say it all? From the Big Bang to modern civilization, Bryson attempts to explain how we grew from nothing at all to the harried, ever-pulsing society we are today. Bryson is engaging, funny, and clear in the way you always wish your history and science teachers could be.
Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science by Charles Wheelan
This is an economics book that made me literally laugh out loud. If you want a better understanding of finance and economics (not a bad idea for those entering “adulthood”) without feeling like an idiot, this is the book for you. I felt at least ten times smarter after turning the final page.
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli
Rovelli takes some of the biggest ideas in physics and simplifies them in a way that is intriguing and understandable to even the most science-adverse. Reading it, I was angry with my public education for all the fascinating facts it glossed over. Did you know gravity isn’t actually a force? And that time moves faster when you’re higher up? Read this and feel confident in your higher-than-freshman-level-physics-knowledge.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
You want to be able to discuss music intelligently, right? Abdurraqib’s collection of culture and music criticism will teach you not only how to discuss music, but how to use it and pop culture as lens to examine and better understand our society. From Bruce Springsteen to Carly Rae Jepsen, Abdurraqib’s observations are sharp and illuminating.
Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era by Daniel J. Levitin
It’s an unfortunate fact of our current society that you must question almost everything you read. Critical thinking should be taught to kindergarteners, but it’s often skimmed over, assumed. In the era of #fakenews, you can assume nothing. Fortunately, Levitin is here to show you both how we are lied to—how data is manipulated and news stories mislead—and how we can avoid falling for it.
What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund
Peter Mendelsund, associate art director of publishing company Alfred A. Knopf, has designed some of the most iconic book covers. Who better to write a book about what we visualize when reading? This book is fully illustrated and extremely fascinating, sure to answer literary questions you didn’t even know you had.
Expand Your Horizons
One of the best things about college is meeting new people—people whose backgrounds will vary wildly from yours. Read up on the experiences of others so you can learn to speak and, more importantly, listen with intelligence.
Freedom Is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis
This collection of essays, speeches, and interviews from Angela Davis— activist, teacher, author, and icon of the Black Power movement—isn’t the one thing you should read about oppression and civil rights, but it’s a good place to start. Davis’s words on Black feminism, intersectionality, oppression, and exploitation are smart and incisive.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This tiny book is a short and powerful primer on what feminism means in the 21st century. Adichie focuses on inclusion and identifying both blatant discrimination and the more subtle, institutional behaviors that work against women. Her points are clear, well-argued, and supported by personal experience. I don’t care what gender you identify as: we should all be feminists.
Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler
If you want to study gender, feminism, sexual politics, or queer theory, this is a great book to begin with. Gender Trouble is a classic, a solid foundation for beginning your inquiries into gender and identity. It will challenge your assumptions make you question how you move through the world, how you perform your gender.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
This was the first graphic work I ever read, and I’m still recommending it to anyone who is new to the form, is an English major, identifies as queer, or is a human being asking me for book recommendations. It’s a graphic memoir about coming out and coming-of-age, and—bonus—it is chock full of literary allusions.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Do you want to better understand racism, oppression, white privilege and their far-reaching effects on our society? To learn how to have constructive conversations on these topics, or, if you’re a white person, how to listen? Oluo offers invaluable advice and insight. This isn’t just a must-read for incoming freshman; it’s a must-read for, well, everyone.
Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
In this memoir, Janet Mock—writer, TV host, and transgender rights activist—recounts her coming-of-age as a multiracial, poor, and transgender teenager. A beautifully written book about the struggle of being marginalized and misunderstood. Mock is an inspiration—corny as that may sound—to anyone looking for acceptance or wanting to learn how to accept.
Damn Good Books
It’s not all about non-fiction. Sometimes you can learn even more about the world by reading things that are completely made up. Here are six new(ish) fiction books that are beautiful, genre-defining, and well worth a read.
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
Just flipping through the pages of Whereas, with its crossed out lines, boxes and unconventional spacing, you can tell it’s not your average poetry book. Here, Layli Long Soldier—an Oglala Lakota poet, writer, and artist—confronts and responds to the U.S. government’s treatment of Native American peoples and tribes. Innovative, lovely, and wrenching, if you only read two poetry books this year, make one Whereas.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Her Body and Other Parties is an intoxicating combination of folklore and pop culture, fabulism and realism—each story lands like a spell. These stories dig into the wounds inflicted upon women by society, themselves, and their peers. At turns seductive and sickening, this collection will enchant you and make your skin crawl.
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
I know, I know. Putting Franny and Zooey on this list feels like putting Catcher in the Rye on a high school must-read list—boring and obvious. I hated Catcher in the Rye, probably because I read it the summer after my freshman year of college and had no sympathy for Holden whatsoever. But Franny on the other hand, Franny got me. As a recent high school graduate, I devoured this book; maybe you will too.
So Lucky by Nicola Griffith
Griffith herself describes this book best, calling it a “spear-thrust—hard, fast, and very pointed.” There aren’t many books written by and centered around characters who are disabled and/or chronically ill. So Lucky is one of them. A psychological-thriller, a character portrait, and a book with some damn good metaphors; read So Lucky because there is nothing else like it.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
If you read one book of poetry in your entire college career, it should be Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Hell, if you read one book period it should be Citizen—with Rankine’s amalgamation of poetry, essay, and images you may not have even noticed it’s a book of poetry. Hilton Als said it best when he wrote “Citizen comes at you like doom. It’s the best note in the wrong song that is America.”
There There by Tommy Orange
There There is a multigenerational novel that weaves the lives of twelve characters together, telling a story of suffering, joy, violence, perseverance—a story of the urban Native American. This debut, only just out, is already being hailed as “wondrous and shattering,” and “thunderclap,” and it deserves all the attention it’s getting, and more.
There are certain skills you will likely find useful as you enter college—like knowing how to apply for a credit card, meditate, and get shit done. These books can help teach you all these skills and more.
Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties by Beth Kobliner
Your twenties are right around the corner. Get ahead of the financial game by reading this book now. With chapters on banking, investing, savings, student loans, insurance, and taxes, Kobliner approaches basic financial concerns in a clear, calm fashion.
TheRE Is No Right Way To Meditate by Yumi Sakugawa
In this simply illustrated book, Sakugawa offers up advice for how to live a more mindful life, how to stay present and find stillness. College can be a whirlwind of stress and anxiety—better to know how to dial that down and tune in to your body early on.
Getting Things Done by David Allen
I’ve read a lot of books about time management and getting organized. This one is the best I’ve read. Allen can’t provide you with more than twenty-four hours in a day, but he can teach you how to prioritize your life so your attention is always aimed at what is most important at that moment. Follow the GTD methodology and you will feel calm, in control, and able to tackle any project.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
As an incoming freshman, you’re maybe not think much about death and dying. While I’m not saying you should focus on these concepts, it is important, to keep life in perspective, that you remember we all die eventually. Eloquent and unnerving, Gawande raises important questions about how our society treats this truth. Being Mortal explores the unavoidable realities of aging and dying—without being completely depressing.
Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes
What if you said “yes” to every opportunity, every event that scared, but excited you? Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal took up this challenge, and with the help of her book so can you. You’ll only be a freshman in college once (hopefully), so why not say “yes” just to see what happens?
The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love by Sonya Renee Taylor
In this slim, powerful book, Sonya Renee Taylor insists on radical self-love, on interrupting the systems and people that encourage body-shaming, on celebrating and treating your body in the manner it deserves. So many people out there are trying to sell you something to fix yourself, but you’re not broken and you don’t need to buy their bullshit. (But maybe buy this book.)
New experiences can be terrifying. I don’t know about you, but when I want to ward off terror, I turn to books. If you’re wondering what college is going to be like, these books—all set during or just before the characters’ first year of college—are prime, if not always super realistic, examples of college life.
Giant Days: Not on the Test Vol 1 by john allison, illustrated by lissa treiman and max sarin
Giant Days follows the lives of three women who meet each other their freshman year of Uni (aka college, to us Americans) and become best friends. It’s like your favorite sitcom where nothing much happens, but you find yourself re-watching old episodes and laughing like it’s the first time. Let Esther, Susan, and Daisy become your very first college friends.
We Are Okay by Nina Lacour
When Marin left for college she left everything behind, hoping to outrun tragedy. But, unfortunately, you can’t run away from emotions. Set during winter break on an empty college campus, We Are Okay is not exactly a joyful read, but as Marin figures out how to deal with change and upheaval, you may learn something as well.
Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando
Do you know who you’re rooming with first semester? Might they be your complete and total opposite? East Coaster Elizabeth and West Coaster Lauren are navigating this very issue in Roomies. Set before their freshman year and told in alternating POVs, Roomies realistic and relatable story of that awkward summer where you’re no longer a high schooler and not yet a college student.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, is entering her freshman year at Harvard; she engages in all the typical freshman activities: signing up for classes in unknown subjects, befriending new people and, of course, falling in love. Witty and emotional, Batuman’s novel is a completely accurate portrait of what life is like on the very cusp of adulthood.
American Panda by Gloria Chao
Mei’s parents have her whole life planned out for her: go to MIT, become a doctor, and marry a fellow Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer. Unfortunately that’s not exactly what Mei—MIT freshman (one down!), germaphobe with a crush on her cute Japanese classmate—wants. If you’ve ever felt caught between two worlds or crushed by the pressure of parental expectations, you will identify with this book.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North, illustrated by Erica Henderson
Squirrel Girl is a freshman in college—a freshman in college who happens to have the proportional strength and agility of squirrels, and a squirrel tail. Smart, hilarious, and refreshing, Squirrel Girl is the hero we need; before knocking heads, she attempts to reason with her villains. She will teach you the power of reasoning, but also the joy of kicking butts and eating nuts.
Looking for even more recommendations? We’ve got another post here, again, specifically for incoming freshman. If you’re looking for more freshman fiction, we’ve got that here. Or, if you were hoping for college prep books, we’ve got you covered.
As usual, I’m curious to hear what titles I may have missed. What are your recommended books to read before college? What book do you think everyone should read before heading off to academia?