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.

As the academic year begins and fresh frosh settle into their dorm lofts and seminar desks, parents, relatives, and friends might be worrying: What are our freshmen reading? Perhaps your freshman goes to a college that urges every matriculating student to read Toni Morrison or Colum McCann or Judd Winick, but what about everyone else? They can’t just be reading the Chive and sexts all day. We asked Slate staffers what books they would give a college freshman on his or her first day of classes—what books they think might help make sense of the new world of university (and beyond) for those away from home for the first time. Read our list, pick a book, and send it to the freshman in your life.

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How to Be a Person: The Stranger’s Guide to College, Sex, Intoxicants, Tacos, and Life Itself by Lindy West, Dan Savage, Christopher Frizzelle, Bethany Jean Clement, and the staff of the Stranger
Recommended by Laura Helmuth, science and health editor

Don’t pay any attention to what my colleagues say. This is the book to give any college freshman. It’s full of funny, practical, opinionated, smart advice about everything college students are too embarrassed to ask about or don’t even know that they should ask about. How to get along with a roommate. How to get a date. How to break up. How to deal with a hangover. How to throw a party. How to come out of the closet. How to manage your finances. Plus lots of juicy sex advice from Dan Savage. Reading this book sure beats learning all about life through trial and error and lots of mortification like the rest of us did.

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Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas
Recommended by David Plotz, editor

Common Ground—epic, thrilling, boisterous—tells the story of three families living through the Boston school integration crisis of the 1970s. Lukas portrays poor Irish-Americans, poor African-Americans, and prosperous yuppies with tremendous subtlety and sympathy. The book tells you almost everything you need to know about race in America, class conflict, white flight, gentrification, newspapers, the Catholic Church, and grassroots organizing. Why should college kids read it? It is one of the best books ever written about the variety of the American experience. If college is about learning to understand the Other, there is no better introduction than Common Ground

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Python in a Day by Richard Wagstaff
Recommended by Chris Kirk, interactives editor

Take a break from soul-searching and learn to code. It won't make you lifelong friends (unless you get really good at artificial intelligence), but a small investment will save you weeks of crunching numbers at a tedious summer internship, make you a wicked problem-solver, and put a highly marketable skill in your bag in case that anthropology major doesn't work out.

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Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Recommended by Lowen Liu, copy chief

I would be better off now had I become first acquainted earlier than I did with the singular complaint of one Alex Portnoy. The comic novel has mellowed after all these years into a lightly stirring, tightly constructed, very funny coming-of-age story (with special appearances by masturbation on a bus, masturbation with a piece of liver, and a botched hand job that ends with stray ejaculate in the eye), instead of the ribald circus-maker it was for a generation. The sex is frank even by today’s standards but no longer shocking, and thus can be appreciated as faithfully messy, solipsistic, ecstatic, essential—a good lesson at teenage’s end. At 15, you skim the book for scandal; at 35, you strain to recall what it was like to have such a stake. But at 18 or 19, boy, you feel its scream in your bones. It is exactly the rude, self-conscious, hysterical welcome to proto-adulthood everyone needs. 

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Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition
Recommended by Troy Patterson, writer-at-large

I know, I know, your software's spell-check function fulfills all your orthographical needs, and online dictionaries solve your lexicological problems. But hear me out: You are probably (no matter how good your AP score or how not-bad your term paper on The Old Man and the Sea) just barely fluent in English, and developing an intimate relationship with an unabridged dictionary will help get you over the goal line more quickly. Being an old fogey I am not sure whether old fogies still yammer every day about how hard copies of reference texts are superior to their digital counterpart. Maybe they've thrown in the towel? Not I. Opening Webster's Unabridged you enter a grand hall. The technology of ink and paper invites you to linger profitably on the definition of the word you were looking for. Even better, it forces you to submit yourself to the serendipity of stumbling upon a mot that is just perfect for some other part of your academic life or a diagram (such as the "square of opposition") that accidentally changes the way you think about thinking about the world. Likewise, random encounters with the volume's many handsome illustrations will clue you into the correct names for all the architectural and design features of your campus, from the squinches on the chapel to the bun feet on the chairs of the disciplinary committee. Random House Webster's Unabridged offers a self-directed course in Whatchamacallitology. Also, it works OK as an ironing board.

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Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould
Recommended by Rachael Larimore, managing editor

Gould was best known as an evolutionary biologist, but he was a gifted writer and speaker who could hold forth knowledgeably on any number of topics, as evidenced by his many collections of essays. He could describe complicated scientific theories in ways that nonscience majors could grasp, and he never condescended. As a college freshman, you will meet people from every background and discipline. Be ready to learn from them. And if you have anything to teach them, do so with grace and good humor. 

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The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
Recommended by Katy Waldman, assistant editor

Not only because knowing the story is academically useful, but because reading (and loving) The Odyssey is a rite of passage sort of akin to going off to college, or even to setting sail across the Mediterranean. The Fagles translation delivers an immortal set of myths wrapped in exquisite, moving language: all bright-eyed goddesses, high halls, and bodies tumbling in the dust. In short, this 3,000-year-old poem will teach you what literature can do. (And if the scene with Argos the dog—which incidentally explains everything you will ever need to know about friendship—doesn’t reduce you to a quivery blob of grief, you are not human.)

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Emily Post’s Etiquette by Peggy Post, Anna Post, Lizzie Post, and Daniel Post Senning
Recommended by Emily Yoffe, Dear Prudence columnist

This is the comprehensive and updated great-grandmother of advice books. All college students are going to find themselves in strange and baffling new circumstances, and Etiquette will help prepare you. If you're invited to a dinner at the college president's home, you'll know which forks to use and when. The book will give you confidence about workplace manners when you have internships and summer jobs, tell you how to express condolences, and inform you whom to tip and how much. These aren't just a bunch of silly little rules. Behaving graciously is valuable in its own right, and doing so could be the extra something that makes you stand out from the crowd.  

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Runaway by Alice Munro
Recommended by Sharan Shetty, intern

College freshmen do not seek stories about middle-aged Canadian women. College freshmen do not share problems with middle-aged Canadian women. College freshmen are not provincial girls who elope to Toronto, wallow in stale marriages to flawed men, and succumb to deep reservations about motherhood. But college freshmen need to read Alice Munro, starting with her 2004 collection, Runaway. Munro’s work is full of empathy and innovation, despite it boiling down to telling one story (see above) over and over and over again. Most importantly, she writes for and about people, only people, that's it. No ruminations on pop culture or politics, no digressions into obscure narrative ruts, no verbose descriptive tics. Only the characters, their thoughts, and the feeling you get every time you hit the last page of a story—like you've just glimpsed the mind of a stranger and in doing so have gained a friend. 

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