Blindness, by José Saramago I would assign Blindness by the recently deceased Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, although not as a model of punctuation: Saramago rarely used periods, never used quotation marks, and in this novel (and others) dispensed with names for his characters. Sounds like a run-on, abstract bore? To discover that daunting formal constraints can give rise to a novel that is just the opposite—a suspenseful, astonishingly vivid fable—is a good way to launch a career of college reading. Don't prejudge; seek out surprises. Saramago's plot, too, should appeal to freshmen, for whom unpredictable twists and turns, miseries and opportunities, terrors and epiphanies lie ahead. In Blindness, a sudden epidemic of blindness uproots the citizens of an entire country, who have to feel their way, alone and together, in the face of the unknown. Staying up late to debate the characters' plight might help put freshman disorientation in some perspective.—Recommended by Ann Hulbert, books editor
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
There are three kinds of teachers: Those who teach because they actively want to, those who teach because they like long summer vacations, and those who teach because they don't quite fit into the adult world. Muriel Spark's (very short) The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a portrait of the third type—and thus a portrait of the kind of teacher you should avoid at all costs. Impatient with the give-and-take of peer relations, Miss Brodie harvests her classroom for kids willing to follow her like a cult leader. If, in reading the novel, you realize you're under the influence of a Brodie, fear not: The end provides a ruthless way to stake your independence.—Recommended by Juliet Lapidos, associate editor
McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, by Joseph Mitchell
College is a time when you read about a lot of Big Ideas and learn a lot of big words. Like solipsism, for instance: the state of mind that can be an unfortunate side effect of higher education. Head this off at the pass by reading McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, a collection of observational writing by New Yorker scribe Joseph Mitchell that also happens to be wonderfully free of big words and Big Ideas (save a lurking, generous humanism). Develop your outward-turning gaze by reading his crisply turned accounts, mostly from 1930s and 1940s New York City, of beefsteak dinners, of Bowery movie ticket-sellers, of a stripper who starts her act naked and slowly puts on her clothes, of all manner of regulars and eccentrics and lowlifes rendered lovingly. And, of course, the title essay, about a sawdust-covered all-male saloon in Greenwich Village, can serve as your inspiration for occasionally choosing a watering hole over the library.
—Recommended by Noreen Malone, contributor
Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States, by George Stewart Tempting though it is to presume that the class of 2014 will be rife with pill-poppers best served by the Physicians' Desk Reference, I will put a word in for George Stewart's Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States. It chronicles the nomenclatural adventures of explorers, legislators, and common folk and amounts to a fizzy refresher on America's past and her character. It proceeds in a spruce voice that's a model for producing scholarship that doesn't feel leaden, and it further inspires meditations on tricks of rhetoric and laws of euphony ("Twenty-eight of the [state] names fit into the pattern most beloved of the orator—a long word accented on the next-to-last syllable, such as Montana or Minnesota"). Perhaps most importantly, it is an aid to fighting tedium: You are about to have several hundred conversations touching on the matter of where your interlocutor is from, and Stewart gives you a map for navigating this chatter with a bit of style.—Recommended by Troy Patterson, television critic
The Magicians,by Lev Grossman
In Lev Grossman's The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater, a miserable but brilliant high school senior, discovers he has magical talents and gets whisked off to a secret college for wizards. It all sounds very Hogwarts-goes-to-Harvard, and while The Magicians does owe much to Rowling (and Lewis and Tolkien), its tone is decidedly more adult, its sensibility much less sunny. It's also great preparation for the prospective freshman. Your own college experience will probably involve somewhat less transmogrification than Quentin's, but there will be at least as much drinking and screwing around (in every sense of the phrase). The mix of genres in The Magicians can sometimes be unwieldy, but it captures the flavor of the awkward, exhilarating, confusing period you're about to begin. And, hey—if you ever mess up in class, you can at least take comfort in the fact that, in doing so, you didn't accidentally conjure up a hellbeast that will eat one of your classmates.—Recommended by Nina Shen Rastogi, "Green Lantern" columnist
Out of Sheer Rage, by Geoff Dyer
This is the most hilarious book on this list. I guarantee it! And I don't even know what else is on the list. Because you can't get any funnier than Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer's comic epic, a brilliant and brainy disquisition on how he drove himself crazy trying to write a study of D.H. Lawrence. It's the best book about not writing ever written.
It's a cult favorite of many writers I know, and Out of Sheer Rage will be immensely valuable to any freshmen thinking of becoming a writer some day, because it renders ridiculous all your excuses for procrastination—it discredits all the eminently sane-sounding reasons that centuries of writers have devised for not writing by holding them up to ruthlessly comic scorn.
But the truly wonderful thing about this book is that as it mocks you for postponing, reading (and rereading) it gives you a wonderfully enjoyable excuse to do just that.
—Recommended by Ron Rosenbaum, "Spectator" columnist
Mencken on Mencken, by H.L. Mencken Listen, you little bastards: My editor wants me to recommend a book for you to read before mom and step-dad drop your privileged asses off at college. It's supposed to be something useful, something that will prepare you for the rigors and psychodrama of university life. I'm here to tell you: There are no useful books unless your house has no heat but does have a fireplace. Then all books are useful. In that spirit, I can suggest a new book whose BTUs can be harnessed by either a fire or a brain that's powerful enough to oxidize it: Mencken on Mencken, previously uncollected autobiographical works that stand right up there with his famed trilogy of Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days. H.L. Mencken writes about his youth, about being a young journalist, about politics and literature and editing, and about his travels. It's all very sardonic.