Recommended Books for College Common Reading Programs
60 Books Appropriate for Any College Common Reading Program
Edwin Abbott Abbott – FLATLAND (1884)
This short book is a mathematician’s foray into fiction with a story about twodimensional creatures—squares, triangles, and such—living on a plane. Their conceptual horizons are challenged when a three-dimensional creature, a sphere, drops in. We picked it because it is a deft analogy for us three-dimensional creatures trying to imagine our four-or-more dimensional universe, it is one of few mathematical classics completely open to math-resistant students, and it is a subtle provocation to students to open their minds to unexpected intellectual possibilities. It also contains some mild but amusing social satire.
Chinua Achebe – THINGS FALL APART (1958)
Among the first African novels written in English, Things Fall Apart depicts the Igbo of southern Nigeria during the period of initial Western colonization. The protagonist is an ambitious young man in a traditional village who gains fame through a feat of wrestling and goes on to become a powerful leader, only to see his world collapse. We picked it because it is a classic of indictment of colonialism but comes with the complicating twist that it is written in a colonial language by an author who has thoroughly absorbed a Western aesthetic sensibility, and because it puts the real questions of cultural relativism on the table.
James Agee – A DEATH IN THE FAMILY (1957)
A posthumous autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family is based on the death of his father in an automobile accident when Agee was only six. The novel richly depicts life in Knoxville, Tennessee around 1915. We picked it because of the sheer beauty of Agee’s writing and its emotional depth, its capacity to become a lasting presence in the lives of its readers, and the opportunity it affords independence-minded college students to think about the fragility of family and community and their own rootedness in the world.
KINGSLEY AMIS – LUCKY JIM (1954)
Jim Dixon is a medieval history lecturer (and first-generation college student) who does not like academia, does not like academics, and is faced with the horrible prospect of spending the rest of his life in the pompous, affected world of the university. The funniest campus novel ever written, Lucky Jim will inoculate students against the self-importance of college life
LOUIS AUCHINCLOSS – THE RECTOR OF JUSTIN (1964)
Auchincloss narrates from different points of view the life of Frank Prescott, founding headmaster of the fictional New England prep school Justin Martyr. Auchincloss brings us into the WASP world at the heart of American higher education, and shows us, in Frank Prescott’s life, how the WASPs ultimately decided to open up their aristocratic world to the broader America. At a time when much is said in ignorance about the exclusions of the old American system of education, The Rector of Justin will allow students to begin to make an informed judgment.
Augustine – CONFESSIONS (398 A.D.)
The Confessions is perhaps the very first autobiography, at least in the modern sense of someone examining the interior side of his life as well as the external events. We picked it because it shows a smart, ambitious student who thirsts for knowledge and who makes the most of his academic studies, it presents the challenge of taking ideas not just as cold objects of study but as insights that may have life-changing consequences, and it is one of the key books for understanding what is distinctive about Western civilization.
JANE AUSTIN – PERSUASION (1817)
Anne Elliott prudently ended her engagement with Frederick Wentworth at the persuasion of her friend Lady Russell; years later, she meets Wentworth again and is given another opportunity to choose love. The last and finest of Austen’s novels, Persuasion tells us that there are second chances in life and love—which students ought to know.
F. BORDEWIJK – CHARACTER: A NOVEL OF FATHER AND SON (1938)
The bastard Jacob Katadreuffe’s character is formed and malformed by the implacable austerities of his Calvinist mother and ogrish father. By his own endeavors he repays all his debts, financial and spiritual. Students who complain of indebtedness from high tuition bills will benefit from reading about a young man who devotes his life to making good the debts he has assumed.
John Bunyan – THE PILGRIM'S PROGRESS (1678)
Once the most widely read book in English besides the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress is an astonishingly successful allegory. We picked it because it is a key influence on English fiction, a tour-de-force of metaphor and analogy, and a vivid introduction to Christianity that secular students can grasp. Though accessible to children at one level, The Pilgrim’s Progress has depths of psychological and moral insight that fully justify it as a reading for college students.
PEDRO CALDERON DE LA BARCA – LIFE IS A DREAM (1635)
Segismundo, Prince of Poland, is raised as a savage in a prison, commits murder when he is brought at last to court—and is returned to his prison as he sleeps, to think that he only dreamed he left his jail. Segismundo resolves to act virtuously thenceforth, for we must be good even in our dreams. The greatest and most beautiful of the plays of Spain’s Golden Age, Calderon’s drama shows how the most profound of doubts can lead us to virtue and to grace.
Albert Camus – THE PLAGUE (1947)
The novel depicts a city in French colonial Algeria that is quarantined during an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Camus describes the divergent ways those trapped in the city cope with the situation. We picked it because it is a compelling depiction of some of the great themes of 20th-century existential philosophy: the sense of a meaningless void against which humans struggle to achieve a sense of dignity; the feelings of alienation and exile poised against human solidarity and love; and the demand for something better than personal happiness.
Willa Cather – DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP (1927)
This episodic novel, based on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, depicts the work of a devout French priest sent to reorganize the Catholic mission in New Mexico after the territory has been annexed by the United States. We picked it because Cather’s quietly expansive vision of the American landscape is an unsurpassed literary accomplishment, students can gain something vital from this account of steady purpose in the pursuit of an ideal, and the book offers a perspective on the mingling of cultures that strongly contrasts to the currently fashionable accounts of ethnic antagonism.
JOHN CHADWICK – THE DECIPHERMENT OF LINEAR B (1958)
This is the story of how Michael Ventris solved a 50-year mystery by deciphering the language of an ancient Cretan script known as Linear B. Chadwick was Ventris’s friend and close collaborator and wrote that “even when [Ventris’s] success was assured, when others heaped lavish praise on him, he remained simple and unassuming, always ready to listen, to help and to understand.” We picked this book because it is a true story of the heroism of scholarship: tenacious curiosity and earnest study bring order out of confusion; because it provides students with an example of a moment when the facts proved academic consensus wrong; and because it unlocks a door to the Hellenic world at the time of The Iliad and The Odyssey.
JOSEPH CONRAD – UNDER WESTERN EYES (1911)
This novel, set in St. Petersburg and Geneva, is Conrad’s answer to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. We chose it because the narrator observes a non-Western mindset through “Western eyes”—a skill Western students should learn; it depicts both the allure and the repugnance of terrorism (to which Conrad in his introduction to the book referred as “senseless desperation provoked by senseless tyranny”); and it shows the truth as being worth defending despite the cost.
James Fenimore Cooper – THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1826)
By the time Cooper wrote this novel, the French and Indian War was as distant a memory as World War II is today. The story is a complicated account of the sharpshooting white orphan Hawkeye, raised by Indians to protect the daughters of a British colonel from the perils of war and the unwanted attentions of a treacherous Huron warrior. We picked it because, despite its wildly implausible plot, the book captures America’s exuberant vision of itself early in our history; Cooper’s romantic sense of place and sense of nostalgia for the lost grandeur of the Native American tribes of the east can also enrich contemporary students’ understanding of their national heritage; and the book is one kind of answer to the question, “Who are we?” And the answer involves a lot more cultural and racial “hybridity” than we typically recognize in the writings of America’s first professional writers.
Charles Darwin – THE VOYAGE OF THE BEAGLE (1839)
This is Darwin’s classic account of his expedition from 1831 to 1836 around coastal South America to the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, Australia, across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius, and back to England, on which he made most of the observations that led eventually to his theory of evolution by natural selection. (The Voyage went through several editions and one of the augmented later ones might be a better choice.) We picked it because it is a dazzling display of young Darwin’s curiosity and his powers of observation of people and places as well as the natural world; because students can benefit from a robust example of careful observation and collection of facts as worthy pursuits in their own right; and because The Voyage offers a fresh point of entry into the intellectual adventure of scientific inquiry.
Charles Dickens – AMERICAN NOTES FOR GENERAL CIRCULATION (1842)
Dickens published this account of his travels just after his six-month visit to the United States. It is an unflattering portrait of a country that effusively welcomed him—far too effusively in his judgment. We picked it because Dickens’ account of American character still resonates, the book lampoons qualities in which Americans continue to take pride, and it raises important questions about celebrity, status, travel, crime, law, and a host of other themes that still preoccupy us.
Ralph Ellison – INVISIBLE MAN (1952)
This novel presents the memory of an unnamed African-American character who is currently living as a hermit in the basement of a New York City apartment building. In his youth in a small southern town he was school valedictorian and went on to college but was expelled. As he struggles to make a life for himself, he encounters a succession of people—most of whom see him not as the individual that he is but only in relation to their particular take on race—promoting various responses to white oppression: accommodation, Communism, black nationalism, and cynicism. We picked it because it is a powerful evocation of the deadening quality of ideological responses to racism, and because it depicts the struggle for individuality in circumstances that strongly reinforce the claims of group identity. These are very much living questions on most college campuses.
SHUSAKU ENDO – SILENCE (1966)
Endo’s historical novel tells the story of a Portuguese Jesuit missionary, Sebastião Rodrigues, sent to join the persecuted Christian community in seventeenthcentury Japan. Rodrigues is threatened with torture, apostasizes, but inwardly keeps his faith. We picked this novel to illustrate the effects of demanding that people give up their faith—useful both for those students enduring such demands and those students imposing them.
DESIDERIUS ERASMUS – THE PRAISE OF FOLLY (1509)
Erasmus’ satirical praise of folly lambasts corrupt churchmen and foolish pedants in equal measure. Erasmus’ Praise is witty, a good example of Renaissance erudition, and a reminder for students that folly, self-deception, and learning go hand in hand.
EVERYMAN (C. 1500)
Everyman must die. Friendship, Kindred, Goods, Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and the Five Wits all abandon him on his journey, but Good Deeds and Confession at last bring him to heaven. The play introduces students to late medieval Christian thought, but more importantly gives them a standard by which to judge the vanities of the world. It also provides a hint that education is as much to prepare them to die as it is to live.
David Hackett Fischer – WASHINGTON'S CROSSING (2004)
We wanted to include a book about George Washington and had hundreds to pick from. We chose Fischer’s account of a pivotal moment, when General Washington, faced with the imminent collapse of the whole revolution, seized the initiative by crossing the Delaware River on Christmas night and mounting a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton. We picked it because Washington is a difficult figure for today’s American students to comprehend, and Fischer succeeds admirably in showing him as a vivid human being; because the book takes us out of “the American Revolution” as an abstraction and gives us a sense of the war as a matter of real choices made under life-and-death conditions; and because it is the kind of history writing that will whet students’ appetites for more.
Benjamin Franklin – AUTOBIOGRAPHY (1791)
This unfinished autobiography, written as a letter to his son, opens a window into the life and mind of one of our nation’s most beloved founding fathers. We picked it because it captures Franklin’s unique genius as an equally accomplished scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, publisher, creative writer, aphorist, diplomat, and political thinker; because American college students should be familiar with the framers of the country, and Franklin stands out not only as the elder statesman of the Revolution but as one of the shapers of American character; and because in our new age of thrift, Franklin’s wisdom—(he coined the phrase, “Time is money,” in his “Advice to a Young Tradesman,” 1748)—bears new attention.
Nathaniel Hawthorne – THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE (1852)
This is Hawthorne’s fictionalized account of the utopian Brook Farm community in which he participated for eight months in 1841. The tale includes characters whose contemporary counterparts will soon be part of the lives of the students entering college: a charismatic hater of the free market, an advocate of “freedom” intent on imposing her own tyranny, weak-willed followers eager to find someone to tell them what to think, aesthetes, and people eager to hide their ordinary appetites behind exotic poses. We picked The Blithedale Romance because it is an effective warning against the seductions of utopianism, and because it helps us see that the longing for social justice needs to be grounded in a real understanding of human nature.
William Least Heat-Moon – BLUE HIGHWAYS (1982)
Heat-Moon heads out to see America from the vantage point of the back roads—the ones colored blue on highway maps. The book is largely built on the conversations he has with the people he meets: saloon keepers, fishermen, farmers, a prostitute, a Christian hitchhiker, a Hopi medical student and more. We chose it because it is a quietly evocative picture of America—one that has stood the test of time—and because it is a model of first-person writing in which the speaker is unobtrusive and doesn’t get in the way of what he sees and hears.
ERNEST HEMINGWAY – THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (1952)
The old fisherman Santiago struggles to catch a giant marlin. Hemingway’s fish story dramatizes man’s lone struggle with nature, and gives it a spiritual dimension. Hemingway’s maturest rendition of his recurring preoccupation with masculinity is the most compelling modern meditation upon what comprise the manly virtues.
Zora Neale Hurston – THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (1937)
This novel by African-American folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston depicts the life of a thrice-married Florida woman who kills her last husband in self-defense. Much of the dialogue is in black dialect and the book has often been criticized for trading in stereotypes. We chose it because it is an unromanticized picture of social oppression as well as of some fascinating and vanished American subcultures, and because it is a consummate work of artistry by a writer who defied the conventions of her time.
Jane Jacobs – THE LIFE AND DEATH OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES (1961)
This book started the movement for preserving old neighborhoods in America. It was written as a critique of the kind of “urban renewal” that consisted of flattening whole sections of cities and replacing them with sterile modernist structures that had no connection with actual human communities. She was especially opposed to urban expressways. But Jacobs’ book somehow transcends the policy debates that gave birth to it. We chose it because it is a model of public policy advocacy, it remains a compelling vision of the best of urban life, and it can provoke students to think more deeply about how our prosperity and our sense of community depend on our use of space.
HENRY JAMES – WHAT MAISIE KNEW (1897)
Maisie’s irresponsible, divorced parents allow their daughter to be raised among a circle of decadent friends who assume that Maisie is already corrupt. Maisie struggles to keep her innocence intact by mouthing foul words while keeping herself from knowing what they mean—and by finally arranging to remove herself from her parents so as to save herself from inevitable degradation. James’ harrowing narrative makes a psychological thriller out of the struggle to maintain one’s virtue in a world that assumes you are already depraved. We picked this book because it shows how and why innocence should be fought for, and why its casual destruction is unspeakably cruel.
Rudyard Kipling – KIM (1901)
This is a book that vividly portrays British colonial India through a homeless white orphan’s eyes. We picked it because it raises provocative questions about contemporary American views of personal identity, multiculturalism and colonialism, and because it is an extraordinarily artful tale of political intrigue. American higher education today spends considerable effort denouncing colonialism, post-colonialism, Orientalism, etc. Why not give students a chance to read a masterpiece from the writer who was one of colonialism’s greatest and most sophisticated admirers?
Arthur Koestler –DARKNESS AT NOON (1940)
In this novel, Koestler, a former Communist, depicts the world of Stalin’s show trials. The protagonist, Rubashov, is a true believer in the Communist system, but is arrested, interrogated, and struggles with the meaning of his life and loyalties as he awaits his certain execution. It is one of the classics of anti-totalitarian literature. We picked it because it powerfully portrays the awful system of oppression at the heart of the Soviet system, it is a testimony to the profound importance of individual rights and political freedom—so easily taken for granted by those who have always enjoyed them—and Koestler takes us inside the mind of someone trapped by ideology.
Sinclair Lewis –BABBITT (1922)
Babbitt is a partner in an upper Midwest real estate firm in this satiric novel. His life is devoted to social climbing until in a moment of crisis he realizes the vapidity of his materialism. At that point he plunges headlong into flouting social conventions, but eventually becomes disillusioned with the emptiness of rebellion as well. We picked this book because it is the classic indictment of American middle-class complacency, and students deserve the chance to think this through. Is American life the sum of culturally-dead self-seeking Babbitts who conform even in their non-conformity? How true is this picture?
Abraham Lincoln – SELECTED SPEECHES AND WRITINGS (1832-1865, published in this volume in 2009) (Selections)
It was the Great Emancipator who held the United States together during the Civil War. His strength of character, sharp wit, and quest for peace made him one of our nation’s greatest presidents. Of all Lincoln’s speeches, our strongest recommendations for students are these three: the speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria (October 16, 1854); the address to the Washington Temperance Society of Springfield, Illinois (February 22, 1842); and the second inaugural address (March 4, 1865). And one of the best ways to learn the power of persuasive argument is to read some of the Lincoln-Douglas debates on slavery.
FEDERICO GARCIA LORCA – HOUSE OF BERNARD ALBA (1936)
Bernarda Alba’s five daughters are trapped in their house by their tyrannical mother. They desire to escape and to live; the daughter who almost does get away commits suicide when she fails. A stark, elemental tragedy of sexual desire, honor, and sterilizing power, Lorca’s play will remind students that there are no easy solutions to the conflict of human passions.
John Stuart Mill – On Liberty (1869)
This is a short book on the limits of political power. Mill argues, most importantly, for freedom of thought and speech, and points out that partisans who suppress criticism ultimately weaken the views they are trying to protect. We picked On Liberty because the substance of the essay bears directly on contemporary higher education, where “political correctness” has limited the liberty to discuss important ideas, and because the book is a model of lucid philosophical exposition.
MOLIERE – TARTUFFE (1664)
Tartuffe pretends to be a holy man and imposes himself on the credulous Orgon; Orgon’s folly almost results in the loss of all his wealth to the grasping Tartuffe. Tartuffe condemns religious hypocrisy in the first instance, but it is a useful warning in general both against frauds who clothe themselves in ideals and against credulous and excessive enthusiasm for ideals. There are Tartuffes enough on college nowadays, and students will benefit from reading about the archetype.
MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE – AN APOLOGY FOR RAYMOND SEBOND (1580-1595)
Montaigne’s essay is the greatest single statement of Renaissance skepticism—written by a believing Catholic, who took skepticism to justify his tolerant faith. Aside from illustrating a skepticism that was not dogmatic, Montaigne founded the essay genre, and his enormous learning shows what Renaissance humanism was capable of producing. Montaigne is the heart of the Western tradition: students who start with his Apology will be better fitted to approach any part of it, from Homer and the Bible to the present moment.
REINHOLD NIEBUHR – THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT AND THE CHILDREN OF DARKNESS (1944)
Niebuhr grounds democracy on both man’s capacity to do good and on his ineradicable sinfulness. Modern political theory and modern college politics characteristically ground their activism on a facile belief in human goodness; Niebuhr encourages action in the world that squarely addresses human evil. Students will benefit from grounding their civic engagements on Niebuhr’s sober estimate of the nature of the human soul.
George Orwell – Homage to Catalonia (1938)
Orwell, a journalist, reflects on his experiences during the Spanish Civil War from December 1936 to June 1937, where he had the misfortune to enlist in a non-Stalinist Marxist militia that Soviet-controlled Communists had secretly determined to liquidate. Betrayed by people he mistook as allies, Orwell began a painful reconsideration of his views. He remained a socialist but had grown wise to the lawless nature of totalitarian regimes, and he came to loathe Stalinism. We picked this book because it represents a genuine act of personal courage, it vividly depicts the human reality of the great contest of political ideals that defined the twentieth century, and it exemplifies lucid political writing.
FRANCIS PARKMAN – THE OREGON TRAIL (1847)
A classic of frontier literature, The Oregon Trail is American historian Francis Parkman’s detailed and sometimes graphic account of life in the pre-Civil War West. He writes of buffalo hunting on the prairie, the hardships faced by westward-bound travelers, and the day-to-day lives of American Indians. Though Parkman’s personal narrative is colored by the prejudices of his time, his book remains a fascinating window into an era of American history whose influence continues to this day. We picked it because it exemplifies history written on a grand scale, an attempt to encompass a large topic and a large idea; and because Parkman conveys an unapologetic sense of the energy, courage, and sheer enterprise of America’s western pioneers.
Plato – Apology of Socrates and Crito (c. 399-387 B.C.)
These are key works of philosophy that students who sign up for a philosophy course will probably read. But they are a common inheritance that everyone should know, and they can be read easily without a teacher’s assistance. The Apology is Socrates’ self-defense when he is charged with corrupting the youth of Athens. Crito is Socrates explanation to a friend why he must obey the laws of Athens and accept the death penalty. We picked these two dialogues because together they present a profound debate about the place of the intellectual in society, the pursuit of truth, and the necessity of the law.
Plutarch – Parallel Lives (Second century A.D.) (Selections)
Plutarch pairs biographies of famous men, one Greek, one Roman, to illuminate their character. We picked it because it gives students a vibrant narrative view of ancient Greek and Roman culture, it examines what it means to be “good,” and as a commentary on leadership, it influenced the writers of The Federalist Papers.
Alexander Pope – Essay on Criticism (1711)
This is the only English verse on our list. Pope’s poem begins with a warning that incompetent criticism poses a greater danger than poor creative writing. The latter “tries our patience,” but poor judgment
offered up authoritatively can “mis-lead our Sense.” The Essay on Criticism can be read hurriedly and with no profit, but for the reader who pays attention, it is a font of good insight. We picked it because it emphasizes the need for a moral seriousness in the critical inquiries that lie ahead for the college student, it is one of those rare works that fully embodies the strictures it lays down, and it just might help some students improve their writing.
ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN – ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH (1962)
The great novel about the Soviet Gulag. Students should know what Communism inflicted upon the Russian people, and remember that the children of the Gulag guards still rule in Putin’s Russia. The novel, beyond that, tells of the survival of some human decency and compassion within one of the most brutal prisons ever devised by man. We picked this book to allow students to consider that man’s inhumanity to man is very great—but not the entire story.
William Shakespeare – Julius Caesar (c. 1599)
This play once was and should still be a standard part of the high school English curriculum, but it is not. We picked it to restore a vital literary reference point, to invite students to think about demagoguery and the willingness of people to sacrifice freedom to follow a charismatic leader, and to urge students to reflect on conflicts between personal loyalty and public duty.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE – RICHARD III (C. 1592)
This play offers one of Shakespeare’s great villains, who despite his awful deeds somehow wins a share of our sympathy. We picked it because it is English literature’s best portrayal of political manipulation and cunning self-advancement, which are qualities that students need to be on guard against in college no less than in the rest of life.
William Shakespeare – Henry V (c. 1598)
This play is about the maturation of a king and his extraordinary success on the battlefield. The St. Crispin’s Day speech is one that every student should know. We picked Henry V because it is the richest of Shakespeare’s history plays. It has profound things to say about the responsibilities of leadership.
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW – MAJOR BARBARA (1905)
Major Barbara Undershaft of the Salvation Army wishes to do well in the world, with a pure heart—and finds that her good deeds end up financed by millionaires who make their profit from drink and guns. College students will benefit from reading Shaw’s wicked commentary on the compromises young idealists must make with the world.
SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (C. 1350-1400)
Sir Gawain goes on a heroic quest to the castle of the Green Knight—and discovers that he is not as heroic as he thought he was. Fourteenth-century men were quite aware that the self-confidently virtuous could be tempted from honor and virtue, and students can learn that their much-vilified medieval forefathers had wisdom still apposite today.
WALLACE STEGNER – ANGLE OF REPOSE (1971)
Stegner’s novel tells of the American frontier, Victorian culture in America, and the struggle to make both life and art from the harsh materials of the American West—and Stegner’s use of the actual letters of Mary Hallock Foote within his novel can introduce students to the idea that literary appropriation of documentary materials is often truer to the novelist’s vision than to history. This is also an environmentalist novel as it should be done—not mawkish hagiography of nature, but an exact study of how the characters’ actions and souls are shaped by the land of the West.
Robert Louis Stevenson – A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa (1892)
The author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other popular works moved to Samoa in 1890 in search of a place to recover his health. This book is his account of the colonial struggle to possess the island, as the United States, Germany, and Britain squabbled with each other and a hopelessly outgunned Samoan king. Stevenson is on the side of the Samoans. The New York Times hailed the book on its first publication as “an entertaining and brilliant piece of narrative.” We picked it because it is a superbly written work that makes an otherwise forgotten episode in colonial history into a lens for the vanities of politics and power, and because it is a good benchmark for students to think about American military ventures in faraway places.
Mark Twain – Life on the Mississippi (1883)
Twain is remembering his life before the Civil War as an apprentice steamboat pilot. The book is as broad and digressive as the river itself, but we have a charming companion to keep it interesting. We picked it because (a) Twain is one of the great native talents of American literature and Life on the Mississippi shows him in a genial mood, (b) the book opens a window on a distinctly American combination of technical expertise, intellectual aspiration, and ironic observation.
Voltaire – Candide (1759)
This eighteenth-century satire of a young man under the spell of a philosophy that glibly treats the order of the world as “all for the best,” would seem to be superfluous counsel in an age where students are more likely to be surrounded by dire warnings that things are bad and about to get much worse. But as a story of progressive (and sometime hilarious) disillusionment, Candide still has something to teach. We picked it because it is a timeless warning not to mistake beautiful theories for fact.
Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men (1946)
Warren’s novel about the rise of a populist politician in the South presents the interplay of cynical calculation and idealistic yearning in American life. Based loosely on the life and death of Louisiana governor and senator Huey P. Long, the book is a classic portrayal of one of the weaknesses of our system of governance. We picked it because it presents political corruption but is ultimately a counsel against viewing politics as mere manipulation, it is a rich and vivid depiction of the insider’s view of political life, and it provides students an occasion to come to terms with their own temptation to think of governance as a raw, anything-goes game.
James D. Watson – The Double Helix (1968)
Watson’s first-person account of the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA continues to provoke controversy, especially over Watson’s cursory treatment of Rosalind Franklin, whose x-ray diffraction images of DNA were crucial to the hypothesis that he and his colleague Francis Crick developed. Nonetheless, the book is a classic insider account of one of the great scientific breakthroughs of the last century. We picked it because it is a vivid portrayal of how scientific reasoning, personal ambition, and individual character come together in actual research, and because students need to know about some of the foundational discoveries that underlie contemporary medicine and technology.
WALT WHITMAN – LEAVES OF GRASS (1855-1892)
Whitman’s poem is self-indulgent, sprawling, bizarre, radical, indecently sensual, the inspiration for one hundred fifty years of bad poetry, and the greatest love letter ever written to America and her people. Every American should know this eccentric masterpiece, which identifies America with every softheaded, openhearted ideal in the world. There is no better prophylactic to the anti-American cynicism that too many students will encounter in college.
OSCAR WILDE – THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (1895)
This is the funniest play ever written and about nothing at all. Students should know that we also read good books in order to laugh, and that a good education and sheer joy go hand in hand. They should also know that civic engagement isn’t everything, that you should always eat your guests’ cucumber sandwiches, and that it is important to spend some time not being earnest.
Tom Wolfe – The Right Stuff (1979)
This book examines the lives of test pilots and astronauts, and chronicles the early years of the U.S. manned space program. We picked it because Wolfe’s sympathetic engagement with the pilots brings to life the human side of this hugely complex scientific and technical accomplishment, the book exemplifies the rhetorical power of the “new journalism” when it was truly new, and it offers a compelling portrait of courage and self-reliance.
In compiling our list, we had several considerations:
1. We sought diversity—the intellectual kind.
2. We sought books that are neither too long or too short. “Too long” means a book that would defeat even the able, well-intentioned, and determined pre-freshman reader. No War and Peace here. In a few cases we’ve recommended long books but specified that the college should assign selections. “Too short” means a book or essay that would invite the pre-freshman to treat the assignment as a triviality, even though it isn’t. No Kennedy’s “Ask not” inaugural address.
3. We sought books that are not normally taught in high school. The Scarlet Letter is out for that reason.
4. We sought texts that are just a bit over students’ heads, but not so far that they are beyond reach. We excluded many works of classical antiquity on this basis. Sophocles is best read with the guidance of an instructor. Nietzsche invites wild misreadings from those who lack the philosophical context.
5. We sought works that are not contemptuous of humanity or dyed in profound cynicism. Some such books belong in the college curriculum but we judge them a poor welcome mat to the pre-freshmen who ought to have a somewhat more positive introduction to why colleges exist and why they are devoting time and money to the enterprise. No Samuel Beckett or H. L. Mencken here.
6. In fiction, we sought works that exemplify elegance of language and a degree of complexity, along with moral seriousness.
7. In nonfiction we looked for works that exemplify important ideas, lucidly argued, and writers who take their rhetorical task seriously.
8. We sought to accommodate colleges that approach common reading assignments at different levels of difficulty. To that end, we divide our list into two parts. The first is a list of 60 books all of which are appropriate in level of difficulty and length to any college freshman. The second is a list of 20 books that would be much more ambitious choices either because of length (The Guns of August) or intrinsic difficulty (The Confidence-Man.) Our goal is to offer constructive help.
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