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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“What Is Education For?” by David Orr, later incorporated into Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect
Recommended by Jeff Friedrich, Slate Plus editor

An essay cum sermon I read in a freshman environmental studies course. It's a short, inspiring, and beautiful argument for humility and reflection about the goals of education.  


A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
Recommended by Matthew Yglesias, Moneybox columnist

In my real life I mostly read nonfiction, but college students are going to get plenty of that in class. And even though everyone I know has read more fiction than I have, lots of people haven't read Mikhail Lermontov's short novel A Hero of Our Time, so I want to foist it on as many of America's young people as possible. After all, who can't relate to the experience of being a Russian military officer assigned to occupation duty in the early 19th-century Caucasus region?* The themes, of course, are universal: boredom, alienation, and the youthful pingponging between idealism and cynicism. As a fat and happy college freshperson, it has both nothing and everything to do with your life. A beautifully written reminder that people have (with some justice!) been dumping on the Young People These Days for quite a long time now.  


The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
Recommended by Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy blogger

If there were one book I wish everyone would read, it's Carl Sagan's masterpiece The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark. It's not a slap on the knuckles of anti-science promulgators—well, it is, but it's much more. It's a love poem for reality, a beautifully written and thoughtful paean to science as a way of making sure we don't fool ourselves. He describes why people tend to believe things despite a lack of evidence and what kind of damage this does to society. But while Sagan laments all this, Demon-Haunted World also is a wonderfully uplifting story on the beauty and wonder of science and our place in the universe. If more people were familiar with this book and its message, I suspect a lot of the problems in the world would be at least somewhat easier to manage.


Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery
Recommended by Torie Bosch, Future Tense editor

An incoming freshman faces at least four years of heavy reading, so I recommend giving her (and yes, it will probably be her) the comforting gift of the third book in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. Anne of the Island follows our Titian heroine's adventures in college, where she wrestles with the universal student struggles of homesickness, relationships, financial challenges, and schoolwork. It is funny and poignant, and there’s even the occasional reference to drunkenness. Talk of beaux and chloroforming cats is outdated, sure, but Anne’s eternal optimism remains magically uncloying. Toward the end of the book, when asked to reflect on her college career, Anne shares a lesson that any student should graduate with: “I really have learned to look upon each little hindrance as a jest and each great one as a foreshadowing of victory.”



Stoner by John Williams and Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
Recommended by Justin Peters, Crime blogger

Lucky Jim is wildly funny. Stoner is contemplative and sad. Both, I think, might help college freshmen better understand and relate to the men and women who will be teaching their classes—and help them understand that the professors, too, are often just making it up as they go along.


The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
Recommended by Miriam Krule, copy editor

So you’re about to start college. Congratulations! The world is your oyster. Go explore. Take that class on the history of pro wrestling and how it explains the economy or science for Harry Potter enthusiasts. It’ll all work out when you graduate, right? Probably, but you should still read Michael Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a coming-of-age story about the wayward Art Bechstein looking for a summer adventure after college graduation, the last summer of his youth. No way, you’ll think to yourself. This isn’t me. I’ll have my life figured out. Sure you will. But just in case, this way, come senior spring, when you’re alternating between graduation euphoria and unemployment panic, you’ll already have a copy.


Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth
Recommended by Mark Joseph Stern, contributor

My first year of college, I came very close to losing faith in fiction altogether. The books I was assigned in my lower-level English classes followed the same mold: overly precious, shallowly eloquent explorations of the human spirit, usually delivered in some misty-eyed first-person lilt. I hated it. Then I came across Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. Here was a mean, angry, vile book, stuffed with bizarre sex and obscene grotesqueries, overflowing with morbid vitriol, and utterly brilliant from start to finish. Roth succeeds where all those self-conscious mopes fail, taking a book about death and destruction and turning it into a celebration of life and creation, all without compromising its bitter candor. In the world of Sabbath’s Theater, fucking isn’t just fun—it’s a noble battle against death. More than one college freshman, I suspect, could relate.


We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Recommended by Willa Paskin, television critic

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a short novel—150 pages—that will unsettle you for a long, long time. Merricat Blackwood is the unforgettable, oddball 18-year-old and unreliable narrator in extremis who matter of factly explains in the novel’s first paragraph that her entire family is dead. The book slowly reveals just what happened to the family and the largely agoraphobic lifestyle Merricat and her surviving relatives have been enjoying ever since. There are themes in this book—the awfulness beneath sympathetic surfaces, the horrors lurking in small towns—that you’ll recognize from Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery,” but Castle is stranger still. Merricat is the creepy, complicated, spacey, resourceful relative of Holden Caulfield: a collegiate-level head case, not a junior high-school one. She’s exactly as old as—though hopefully a lot more maladjusted than—most freshmen, and her story is a timely reminder of both the terrible things people can do in groups and the terrible things people can do all by themselves.


Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Recommended by Dahlia Lithwick, contributor

I know it’s cliché as hell. I also know you’re supposed to wait till some sloe-eyes lover gives it to you. But it’s the book that changed my whole circuitry freshman year.


Correction, Sept. 6, 2013: The recommendation for A Hero of Our Time originally misspelled Caucasus.(Return.)