By Sarah Wright
Important Books, Fun Reads
Lists like these are always controversial. People have strong opinions about books, and it's quite a task to condense the whole of literature down to ten selections that are particularly important for incoming college freshmen to be familiar with. Instead of trying to define a specific classic canon, we selected books that will help prepare rising college students for the mind-expanding intellectual work that lies ahead of them.
Though some of these suggestions may be outside of your comfort zone, reading them and analyzing, though not necessarily agreeing with, their messages will help prepare you for the critical thinking and open-mindedness required for postsecondary academic success. Presented in no particular order, we hope you find these suggestions enjoyable and helpful.
Crime and Punishment By Fyodor Dostoevsky
There are several good reasons to include Crime and Punishment on a must-read list. It's a classic, and it's dense enough to seem impressive. But under all the pomp, Crime and Punishment is an enjoyable thriller that is full of rich symbolism and deep philosophical questions. Students who find themselves wondering about the true nature of punishment and suffering will particularly enjoy the thematic twists and turns that take Raskolnikov, the book's iconic main character, on a torturous psychological journey.
This isn't a religious recommendation, though spirituality certainly is a valid reason to read both the Old and New Testaments. Even if you aren't affiliated with a faith that draws from the Bible, it is important to be familiar with the stories and characters in the book. Countless works of Western art, music, literature, film, theatre and architecture make heavy and frequent reference to the Bible. Being able to use your own wits to recognize Cain and Abel in a painting, or a subtle reference to the Sermon on the Mount in a short story, will be incredibly valuable.
Man's Search for Meaning By Viktor E. Frankl
A Holocaust survivor, Frankl smuggled an early version of this book into Auschwitz by sewing it into the lining of his coat. As he tells his story, he points to the book itself as a major factor in his survival. This work of philosophical psychology makes the argument that there must be a 'why' to the 'how' in our lives. Reading it can inspire and encourage you to think of what really matters in your life - and to go for it.
Female Chauvinist Pigs By Ariel Levy
Written in 2005, this work of nonfiction questions the ways in which feminism and women's liberation have developed into a trend that Levy calls 'raunch culture.' Few are likely to agree with Levy's every argument, but the themes she explores are good food for thought for everyone entering college. Women in particular may be interested in a work of contemporary feminism that takes new media into account.
Watchmen By Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Reading Watchmen is an excellent exercise in opening your mind to new forms of artistic and philosophical expression. Like Crime and Punishment, Watchmen deals with classic themes of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong and man vs. law. It's a classic graphic novel, and serves as a great introduction to the concept that meaningful literature can be delivered in a variety of formats. Plus, being familiar with Watchmen is likely to earn you some points with comic book and graphic novel enthusiasts - just don't make the mistake of watching the movie and considering the book read.
Candide By Voltaire
Voltaire's humor and social commentary have stood the test of time, making Candide every bit as enjoyable and thought-provoking now as it was when it was first published in 1759. This short satire is easy to read, and is a classic that is considered a major work of Enlightenment-era writing. Sarcastic and dark-humored students will particularly get a kick out of this book, and will likely wish that Martin, the title character's sardonic traveling companion, was alive and available for friendship.
The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985 By James Baldwin
This book is a collection of essays by James Baldwin, an writer who was born in Harlem in 1924 and expatriated to France, where he died in 1987. Baldwin's unique voice brings a clarity and honesty to touchy issues like race, sex and class, all of which are issues that are likely to come up in college courses. Baldwin pulls from his own experiences in much of his work, and his essay Notes of a Native Son is a standout example from this compilation. His work helps others to see through the eyes of a black man in the pre-desegregation United States.
Jane Eyre By Charlotte Brontë
This book is a common high school reading assignment, and we think that contributes to the bad rap it gets with some students. It's never fun to be forced to read a seemingly dull story about some pathetic English chick and her boyfriend's crazy wife. But if you give it a chance, Jane Eyre is a powerful story about a woman who fights her way from poverty to ultimate happiness by refusing to give up on herself or compromise her morals. Jane, the title character, is a strong, independent woman who is a fantastic role model for people of all genders and generations.
The Picture of Dorian Gray By Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde is primarily known as a humorist, and a few bits and snatches of his quick, dark wit find their way into this classic novel. But overall, the themes dealt with in The Picture of Dorian Gray are serious, and are likely to make readers question their vanity and fear of aging. Though it's a little early for college freshmen to get hung up on wrinkles, the question of the value of physical beauty over morality is one that is likely to be reflected in many different social situations. Plus, reading this oft-referenced book will help you understand why people always joke that your attractive older aunt must have a picture of herself in an attic somewhere.
Waiting for Godot By Samuel Beckett
This play is a great example of absurdist theatre. Reading it is amusing, thanks to the somewhat silly characters and events that unfold. But underneath the current of the absurd are some interesting questions. Looking for meaning and thinking between the words of this play reveals some rich rewards. And perhaps most enjoyable of all is the central question of who, or what, is this Godot?
Though certain classics are important to read, reading for fun can also be beneficial.