Slate presents its own pre-college reading list.
Mencken never went to college. His father drafted him straight out of high school to work at the family's Baltimore cigar company. Then Mencken's father died, something Mencken later said might have been the "luck-iest" thing that ever happened to him, because it freed him to join the Baltimore Morning Herald as a reporter in 1899 at the age of 19.
Warning: Mencken's work is as controversial today as it was in his day, so don't let a professor, a fellow student, or a residential assistant catch you reading it. After you finish it, do yourself a favor. Burn it.
—Recommended by Jack Shafer, "Press Box" columnist
Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford Higher education, suggests Ph.D.-turned-motorcycle-mechanic Matthew Crawford, is indispensable—not because we need ever more acute minds to control our ever more complex society but, he says, because "college habituates young people to accept as the normal course of things a mismatch between form and content, official representations and reality." That is, it trains you for the abstract life of the knowledge worker, in which the tangible value of what one actually produces is always hazy. Yet Crawford's book, a paean to craftsmanship and working with one's hands, may discourage a reader or two from going to college. Which might not be a bad thing. As Joseph Schumpeter put it, when the educated workforce exceeds the supply of jobs, "it may create unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type. The man who has gone through college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual labor without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work." In other words, don't be like the Anthony Michael Hall character in The Breakfast Club: Learn how to make something.
—Recommended by Tom Vanderbilt, "Transport" columnist
The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow I don't know you, but I'd like to give you a paperback copy of my favorite novel, The Adventures of Augie March, to read over the summer, because it contains some crucial advice about your education from here on out. The advice is that it's entirely up to you. Saul Bellow's hero never quite gets to college, though he's always meaning to. But, boy, does Augie learn—from books he steals, from getting involved with different kinds of people, from his travels and travails. He is American literature's great autodidact, teaching himself everything from Greek philosophy to street-corner scams "free-style," as the novel's famous first sentence has it. At college, you should try to develop Augie's kind of passion for books, ideas, and experiences. If you're hungry to learn the way he is, the worst teacher at the worst community college can't stop you. If you're not hungry to learn, Harvard can't help you. Augie March will also get you lost enough in a crazy story to miss your stop and show you, at a sentence-by-sentence level, what a great writer can do with language. You'll learn something about the meaning of being an American and something about growing up.—Recommended by Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of T he Slate Group
The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink This entrancing, oneiric novel spins off the ancient Jewish myth of the Golem, who plays a surprisingly small part. I recommend The Golem simply because it is an example of how strange and wonderful the world can be if you open yourself to new ideas. And like college itself, the book is a neatly contained fantasy that eventually gives way to a mundane reality of employment and debt payments.—Recommended by Chris Wilson, associate editor.