Books Every College-Bound Student Should Read


World, they’re coming — IKEA flexible drawer organizers in hand, shrink-wrapped mattress pads warming their cars’ front seat, and a grotesque amount of SpaghettiOs packed for late-night munchies. As we speak, a new crop of high school graduates are preparing for college. We remember that time well: somehow, in only a few weeks, our bedroom became a stockpile of college “necessities” brought round by well-meaning relatives, neighbors, and family friends. While we didn’t use the towel organizer our uncle swore would be life-saving, we found that a good book, not assigned by a professor, could be a life saver. Inspired by GOOD’s post on books to give college graduates, we’ve compiled our own checklist of books every college-bound student should read before leaving home for the first time. Check out our picks after the jump and be sure to add to our list in the comments.

Betting on the Muse by Charles Bukowski

Any one of Bukowski’s poetry collections would make for the perfect congratulatory gift, especially when the recipient is high-school-aged — the poet and author is known for brash, fearless writing and taboo subjects. Betting on the Muse, a posthumous collection, exhibits Bukowski’s range — some of the pieces are riotous, others darkly misanthropic, yet all are painfully honest. What made us choose this one in particular is “The Laughing Heart,” a poem that is quiet, inspirational, and unusually celebratory for Bukowski. It contains a lesson that everyone should learn: “your life is your life./ know it while you have it./you are marvelous/the gods wait to delight/in you.”

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

Salinger’s appearance on this list should come as no surprise — his writing best depicts adolescent alienation and longing. While a high-school graduate would undoubtedly be familiar with Holden Caulfield and his hatred of phonies, graduation merits introduction to the Glasses. Composed of a short story and a novella, Franny and Zooey introduces us to the two youngest members of the Glass family as they try to survive in a seemingly inauthentic world. In those dark, late-night, “what-am-I-doing-here?” moments that are an inevitable part of any college experience, Franny and Zooey’s rhapsodizing on egotism and the importance of education will provide much-needed comfort and camaraderie.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Sure, everyone is in love with Jennifer Egan’s newest novel — including the administers of the Pulitzer Prize — but the accolades are well-deserved. A Visit from the Goon Squad is a deeply humane and graceful story that links together multiple narratives to portray the pain of getting older and growing up. The lost teenagers in Goon Squad, filled with longing and hope, are sure to remind a high school graduate of herself. Egan’s novel is darkly funny, slightly romantic, poignant, and satirical, the type of book that provides welcomed relief from cramming.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Toru Okada, the protagonist of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is painfully passive. Hopelessly adrift, he wanders through a life that is slowly receding from him. As the characters that populate his world begin to disappear, Toru becomes involved in a series of fantastical events that occur in a seemingly innocuous well. In their most vulnerable moments, when they lack both ambition and guidance, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle will provide graduates some much-needed solitude and a fantasy to get lost in.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Most high-school graduates still need some guidance, and Rainer Maria Rilke is here to provide it. In Letters to a Young Poet, the brilliant European writer shares life lessons in the form of ten emotional and philosophical letters. Despite the title, Letters to a Young Poet is not just for those graduates who find themselves contemplating a creative writing major — Rilke challenges readers to go into themselves and find their destiny, whatever it may be. With grace and wisdom, he inspires the young student to face the difficulties in life without compromising herself.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

When in college, one can’t escape The Odyssey. Homer’s epic poem will be brought up when reading James Joyce’s Ulysses; it will make an appearance in discussions of Ezra Pound’s The Cantos; it will even come up in film classes with Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris or the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? on the syllabus. Sure, The Odyssey is fundamental to the Western canon, but let’s be honest — it’s not an easy read. Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey is a re-imagining of Homer’s classic tale, addressing pivotal moments of the poem but skewing their outcomes. Mason’s witty and soulful novel will help make Homer’s original Odyssey more accessible.

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey

Unless you’re what David Foster Wallace would call a “SNOOT,” grammar isn’t fun. Unfortunately for the high-school graduate who doesn’t know when to use the present perfect or how to correctly punctuate an appositive, college rewards skilled writers. Thus, we suggest rising freshmen get their hands on a copy of Kitty Burns Florey’s Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, an illustrated personal history that offers a common-sense approach to learning correct grammar. Charming, funny, and surprisingly easy to read, Florey’s book can turn even the most unrepentant comma splicer into a lover of language.

I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and J.M Ken Niimura

Bittersweet, witty, and fantastical, Joe Kelly’s I Kill Giants is a powerful piece of storytelling. The comic’s protagonist is Barbara Thorson, a sassy and antisocial fifth grader who is training to become a deadly giant killer. Constantly persecuted at school and struggling with a tragic home life, Barbara demonstrates strength and resilience that will inspire even the most cynical graduate. Beautifully illustrated and full of heart, I Kill Giants is the book students will read when they feel isolated, misunderstood, or overwhelmed — it’s the book they will turn to when even reading seems like an insurmountable task.