10 Books Every Student Should Read Before College

If you are starting out college as a reader, you are way ahead of the game!

As a college professor and former high school teacher, I know that educators don’t have time to assign all the books that we would love for our students to read, and the summer offers the perfect opportunity for students to catch up on important titles. The summer before college is a particularly fruitful time to prepare for the challenges that a new academic setting can bring.

Here is a list of books that are essential for college-bound students. Several genres and fields are represented here — we all want well-rounded students who are both interested and interesting. Happy reading!

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

Following the life of Okonkwo, this novel cultivates readers’ empathy for a character typically not represented in the traditional canon. Achebe's novel brought the thriving African literary tradition to a global audience. Reading “Things Fall Apart” helps students rethink negative images of Africa — a continent often represented as a war-torn and desperate place in the media — and exposes them to the effects that colonialism had (and has) on the developing world.

To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

OK, so I am cheating and putting these two together. But I can't help it — at this moment, these two are inextricably linked. I suggest them both so readers can study the importance of point of view in a novel. Hearing from Scout, the child in “Mockingbird,” and then the adult persona Jean Louise in “Watchman,” helps students appreciate the importance of perspective in literature. In addition, reading these books — the first published in 1960 and the second published this year — together as a set opens students’ minds to questions about the evolution of an author’s voice and style. At some point in your education, these two books will come up in conversation, and reading them now means you’ll be able to participate!

I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai

A champion for girls’ right to education, Malala Yousafzai was a target of the Taliban. The group shot her when she walked onto her bus for daring to attend school, and she miraculously survived. Her story helps students understand the complicated relationship Pakistan has with the rest of the world — and the complicated emotions Pakistanis have for their country. She also reminds readers to value the privileges of receiving an education and of speaking one’s mind. Her activism and politics — which earned Malala the Nobel Peace Prize (she is the youngest recipient of the award in history) — will likely be mentioned in courses, and students will be expected to know who this important world figure is.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

In this nonfiction page-turner, the reader is confronted with the upsetting story of Henrietta Lacks and the ways scientists used her cells to work on cancer research without getting permission from her or her family. Her cells, and the discoveries they led to, play a crucial role in the medical industry — and in the treatment of patients worldwide. For its critical consideration of race, gender, and class in the scientific world, this book deserves a read.

Feminism Is For Everybody: Passionate Politics, bell hooks

In college, your professors will ask you to reflect on gender in a variety of contexts, and bell hooks is one of the most important thinkers when it comes to theories about gender. This book is a primer of feminist thought and discourse. You don’t need to agree with hooks; however, understanding hooks’s ideas and framework will help you grasp key elements of your humanities courses.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid

With one of the most creative and intelligent voices in contemporary writing, Hamid offers a stinging, often funny look at the desires that arise as globalization "flattens" (see another book you may want to read by Thomas Friedman) the world and capital becomes more attainable to the majority of the world's population. The book is a great example of clever plays with language and innovative literary forms, and students may look to it as they critique literature in college courses. This enjoyable novel also puts students in touch with voices that are, unfortunately, not frequently represented in the literary canon.

The Elements of Style, Strunk and White

You will not be able to escape writing during your time at school. So much of your responsibility as a student comes down to communicating effectively with those within and outside of your field of study. Your grades will be determined by writing assignments. And, most importantly, you will start having something to say, and you will want people to listen! I still learn something every time I pick up my tattered copy of this book. Read a few pages every month, and work on your writing style. Your future readers (and employers!) will appreciate it. And while I am recommending books about writing ...

Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott

Perfectionism is the bane of the scholar's existence. It gets in the way of taking risks and finding one's voice. In “Bird by Bird,” Lamott explores this and other challenges that writers confront in their work, and, as the subtitle announces, in life. Who can't use instruction on those two things? This book is one you will enjoy reading in bits over a summer or semester when you are looking for inspiration.

Americans' Favorite Poems, Favorite Poem Project

My students are convinced that poetry is no longer relevant. That is, until we start to talk about a poem that has mattered to us, and then suddenly we all share lines that have offered us solace in a dark hour or a giggle on a parent's lap. Each poem in this anthology is prefaced with an explanation of its importance to the person who submitted it to the Favorite Poem Project. The anthology reminds us that we are never alone when we have a book of poetry at our bedside. It is a must-read for all students, not just those studying the humanities. In fact, it is especially a must-read for those not studying the humanities. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are all human, regardless of what we study.

You can find more insight from Colleen Clemens and additional book recommendations here on Noodle.