As the academic year begins, parents, relatives and friends might be worrying: What are our college freshmen reading? 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 – 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.
“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.
“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 blacks 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.”
“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 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 teen-age’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.
“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.)
“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 heck 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.
“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.
“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.”
“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 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 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 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. 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.
“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.
“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.”
“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 that people can do in groups and the terrible things that people can do all by themselves.