Best gifts for college freshmen: Books for the university-bound.

The Perfect Book for the Freshman in Your Life

The Perfect Book for the Freshman in Your Life

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 6 2013 7:30 AM

I’m a Freshman. What’s the One Book I Must Read?

Slate staffers recommend the perfect reading material for the college-bound.

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The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay
Recommended by Emma Roller, editorial assistant

My Intro to Political Science professor freshman year was a very natty dresser, and he scared the crap out of me. Unlike the feel-good, no-wrong-answer vibe the other professors at my liberal arts school gave off, this one adhered to a strict Socratic method: If you were wrong, he would shoot. You. Down. Then again, if your answer was too smart, he'd tell you to "go out and play on I-80." Needless to say, I spent the entire hour motionless, praying he wouldn't call on me to explain the intent of the authors in The Federalist Papers. But The Federalist Papers, for their part, turned this would-be jaded English major into an equally jaded poli sci major. If you don't have time for the whole thing, just read Federalist No. 10—it'll take you half an hour, tops—in which James Madison writes that the role of government is to find the fulcrum between upholding personal liberties and preventing humans' factious nature from turning us violently against one another: "Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency." Oh, go out and play on I-80.


Dubliners by James Joyce
Recommended by Seth Stevenson, contributor

The fall of my freshman year of college, a dormmate's father came for a visit and decided to chat a little with his son's friends. He asked me what my favorite piece of writing was. I answered James Joyce's “The Dead,” from the 1914 short story collection Dubliners. The man's smile dropped, and he turned gravely serious. "You're too young to read ‘The Dead,’ " he warned me, brow knitted in genuine concern. I take his point. It is a heaping serving of despair—perhaps more than a college frosh needs. Yet I still feel that every incipient adult could benefit from an evening spent at the Morkan sisters' annual dinner and dance. Joyce eerily evokes the emotional distance that can haunt relationships, the melancholy of recalling a long-ago love, the deep sadness that floats in on snowflakes. (Oh, by the way, it's the best-written prose in the history of the English language.) 


White: Essays on Race and Culture by Richard Dyer
Recommended by Aisha Harris, Brow Beat assistant

I didn’t read Richard Dyer’s White until graduate school, but I definitely would have benefited from reading it sooner. It’s an insightful read that poses the oft-ignored subject of “what it means to be white.” In it, the English scholar traces the concept of whiteness through an utterly amazing scope of entry points including Christianity, photography, muscle-men in movies, and death. And with such an array of subject matter, pretty much any college freshman—especially one majoring in the humanities—is certain to gain an important understanding of Western culture that will be useful to them in the long run.


Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson
Recommended by J. Bryan Lowder, editorial assistant

If a quality education in the liberal arts should begin with a novice trekking through the endless epithets of The Iliad, it should end with a graduate capable of the kind of erudite, useful, and engaging critical thinking on display in Slate music critic Carl Wilson’s delightful study of Celine Dion, Let's Talk About Love. So why not present the goal at the outset? If more of our college students emerged from the experience with the mix of curiosity, critical empathy, and intellectual capaciousness on display in this little book, our society may well hope, as Dion so bewitchingly puts it, to “go on.”


The Book of Ecclesiastes
Recommended by Ryan Vogt, copy editor

The foundation of the Western canon is probably the last book most college freshmen are reaching for, given its association with religion, but there's at least one of the King James Bible's 66 sections that young scholars should set aside some time for between all the hookups. Rich with metaphor—including, of course, Byrds lyrics—and written by an impossibly wise author—some say God—the book drives home a lesson you might not find in class: that we will all be gone someday and completely forgotten. A deeply humbling, perversely thrilling funeral for the entire world, Ecclesiastes was carpe diem way before Robin Williams—and, heck, even before Horace. Let us not take our lives for granted, the author tells us, for we're here by the whims of time and chance, and we all in the end go to our "long home." Till then, freshmen, "let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth."


Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Recommended by Katherine Goldstein, innovations editor

Journalist Ehrenreich gives a detailed and moving first-person account of her experience of working a number of minimum-wage jobs and eloquently describes the challenges of making ends meet as a cleaning woman, a Wal-Mart sales clerk, and a waitress among other professions. At 18, I was certainly aware that economic inequality existed and that I’d been brought up with many privileges and advantages, but this book gave me concrete and meaningful insight into how economically unfair America is. It inspired a tremendous sense of empathy in me, which is a good sentiment to take with you to college.


Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Recommended by L.V. Anderson, assistant editor

According to painstakingly collected anecdotal evidence, everyone will either become a vegetarian, take a break from being a vegetarian, date a vegetarian, and/or attempt to come up with a convoluted philosophical argument against vegetarianism while in college. You may as well get a head start to figure out which camp(s) you’ll fall into. And Foer’s book is surprisingly readable and nonannoying—his humane, accessible treatment of the topic will serve as a gentle primer on the moral and cultural stakes of eating meat (or not).


Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Recommended by Julia Turner, deputy editor

To be honest, I don’t think reading any book would be as useful as following this piece of advice: Go have a job for two years and then go to college. There are many students who would appreciate a college education much more if they didn’t take studenthood for granted as the default setting of youth and the university campus its default environment. In lieu of that, students should maybe read Mrs. Dalloway? Virginia Woolf’s book about a society hostess preparing for a party is really a book about looking beyond the seeming parameters of one’s own life. There might be a lesson there for young students. Plus it suggests that your college-age romantic choices will have lifelong repercussions—which will add drama to that orientation ice cream social.  


Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Recommended by Rebecca Onion, Vault editor

The first book in Robinson's Mars Trilogy, Red Mars is full of ambitious philosophical contemplations. (Is utopia possible? What is the relationship between science and culture? How does history shape the future? How much should humans manipulate nature?) These questions make for a good complement to the kinds of revelations first-year humanities courses should provoke. But, more importantly, it's just a great story. In my first few panicked years of college, the idea of "reading for pleasure" was laughable. In graduate school I learned that the charge I got from picking up an engrossing novel completely unrelated to my research would give me energy to carry on with the difficult stuff. So I'd encourage a college freshman to keep reading for fun—and Red Mars is escapism of the most worthy kind.