As part of an ongoing assault on leisure, many American universities assign summer reading to incoming freshmen who have yet to set foot in a college classroom. Dartmouth, for example, sent Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus to the class of 2014 “to engage new students in a shared academic experience.” Stanford mailed out three titles: Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “The Undesirable Table.” The University of North Carolina, meanwhile, picked a book with three authors: Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption,by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Tomeo.
While we have no doubt that these are worthy picks, they also seem rather dutiful: Injustice and undesirable furniture aren’t so great for the beach. So we thought we’d offer incoming freshmen an alternative list, one better suited to helping 18-year-olds navigate university life. Herewith, a bit of homework—but pleasurable homework, we promise—courtesy of Slate.
How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right the First Time, by John J. Palmer
Don’t waste your college years drinking Natty Light! Spend your summer becoming a master brewer while you have time on your hands and a garage that belongs to your parents. You’ll be the envy of your hallway, and you can use your excellent beer to barter for other stuff you might need. Also, read Ulysses. This book will invariably be assigned to you at some point in college, and you can instead use that free time to make a nice saison. Bring the saison to office hours with your professors. They will look kindly on you and give you an A.—Recommended by Michael Agger, senior editor
Within the Context of No Context,by George W.S. Trow Know that feeling when you walk out of an awful movie angry and exhausted and embarrassed to belong to the culture that spawned it? So does George W.S. Trow, and he captures that feeling in a 1981 book/essay called Within the Context of No Context. It’s a quiet diatribe against television, which he calls “the force of no-history,” and its effect on our souls. But it’s a lot more, too. Trow touches on celebrity, the “con” of advertising, the emptiness of People magazine (real gossip is more subversive, he argues), and the way media substitutes “pseudo-intimacy” for love. Trow is especially horrified by our quest for—and attainment of—permanent childhood: ” ‘adulthood’ has been defined as ‘a position of control in the world of childhood.’ … Ambitious Americans, sensing this, have preferred to remain adolescents, year after year.” (College students, take note.) It makes me wonder what Trow, who died in 2006, would make of the Twitter-ified world. Would he celebrate its connectivity or bemoan it as another step toward total, fetuslike isolation?—Recommended by Christopher Beam, political reporter
Confessions of Felix Crull, Confidence Man: The Early Years, by Thomas Mann
First off: Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull is shorter than his other books … have you taken a look at The Magic Mountain? Sheesh, that’s a big book! I know I never got through it. What’s more, Felix Krull, Mann’s first-person account of a charming confidence man—a faker of the first degree—is really fun to read: I daresay beachy. Still, it’s a great touchstone for late night conversations about human nature. (Aren’t we all just playing roles any way? Are good fiction writers just a breed of con artists?) When I read it, years ago, I started by smugly asking who could fall for such an obvious schemer; but the character has stuck with me for years, and if I lived in his world, I suspect he’d have my number, too. Particularly recommended for those who feel they’ve spent their high-school years crafting a persona that they wouldn’t mind shedding.—Recommended by Sara Dickerman, contributor
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith My parents, who aren’t big gift-givers, bought me Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth when I graduated from high school. They chose it mostly because it was new and popular and because they thought I would like it, not because they believed it had any particular poignancy for a teenager in transition. Looking back, however, it is an excellent pick for an 18-year-old who’s off to college. When Smith’s book came out in 2000, it was described by the New York Times as a “riotous multicultural drama,” and as a writer, she has great empathy for the wide swath of characters depicted. From a wannabe Islamic radical to a half-Jamaican dentist, the people who populate White Teeth will encourage you to keep an open mind to your fellow freshmen.—Recommended by Jessica Grose, associate editor and managing editor of DoubleX
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S. Kuhn
I bought a copy of Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at a garage sale when I was 15 or 16 and read the book that summer, mostly outdoors in the sun. It changed the way I think. Kuhn looks closely at the history of Western science and argues that it isn’t a steady, cumulative climb toward true understanding of the way things work. Instead, scientists build self-consistent systems of thought that are “true” only to the extent they let work move forward in an intellectual community—they set a framework of received wisdom and an agenda for research. Eventually, anomalies accumulate, a system fails, and a new model replaces it.
Almost everything about the book’s context was lost on my 16-year-old self. But the idea that intellectual systems are tools that can be put on and taken off, like pairs of glasses, came through loud and thrillingly. If college is about being exposed to many modes of thought and learning to navigate among them, Kuhn made higher education legible for me. And not just me: At some point during my freshman year, I loaned my garage-sale copy to my roommate. He’s yet to return it. Maybe that’s the ultimate endorsement.
—Recommended by Nathan Heller, copy editor
Blindness, by José Saramago I would assign Blindness by the recently deceased Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, although not as a model of punctuation: Saramago rarely used periods, never used quotation marks, and in this novel (and others) dispensed with names for his characters. Sounds like a run-on, abstract bore? To discover that daunting formal constraints can give rise to a novel that is just the opposite—a suspenseful, astonishingly vivid fable—is a good way to launch a career of college reading. Don’t prejudge; seek out surprises. Saramago’s plot, too, should appeal to freshmen, for whom unpredictable twists and turns, miseries and opportunities, terrors and epiphanies lie ahead. In Blindness, a sudden epidemic of blindness uproots the citizens of an entire country, who have to feel their way, alone and together, in the face of the unknown. Staying up late to debate the characters’ plight might help put freshman disorientation in some perspective.—Recommended by Ann Hulbert, books editor
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
There are three kinds of teachers: Those who teach because they actively want to, those who teach because they like long summer vacations, and those who teach because they don’t quite fit into the adult world. Muriel Spark’s (very short) The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a portrait of the third type—and thus a portrait of the kind of teacher you should avoid at all costs. Impatient with the give-and-take of peer relations, Miss Brodie harvests her classroom for kids willing to follow her like a cult leader. If, in reading the novel, you realize you’re under the influence of a Brodie, fear not: The end provides a ruthless way to stake your independence.—Recommended by Juliet Lapidos, associate editor
McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, by Joseph Mitchell
College is a time when you read about a lot of Big Ideas and learn a lot of big words. Like solipsism, for instance: the state of mind that can be an unfortunate side effect of higher education. Head this off at the pass by reading McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, a collection of observational writing by New Yorker scribe Joseph Mitchell that also happens to be wonderfully free of big words and Big Ideas (save a lurking, generous humanism). Develop your outward-turning gaze by reading his crisply turned accounts, mostly from 1930s and 1940s New York City, of beefsteak dinners, of Bowery movie ticket-sellers, of a stripper who starts her act naked and slowly puts on her clothes, of all manner of regulars and eccentrics and lowlifes rendered lovingly. And, of course, the title essay, about a sawdust-covered all-male saloon in Greenwich Village, can serve as your inspiration for occasionally choosing a watering hole over the library.
—Recommended by Noreen Malone, contributor
Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States, by George Stewart Tempting though it is to presume that the class of 2014 will be rife with pill-poppers best served by the Physicians’ Desk Reference, I will put a word in for George Stewart’s Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States. It chronicles the nomenclatural adventures of explorers, legislators, and common folk and amounts to a fizzy refresher on America’s past and her character. It proceeds in a spruce voice that’s a model for producing scholarship that doesn’t feel leaden, and it further inspires meditations on tricks of rhetoric and laws of euphony (“Twenty-eight of the [state] names fit into the pattern most beloved of the orator—a long word accented on the next-to-last syllable, such as Montana or Minnesota”). Perhaps most importantly, it is an aid to fighting tedium: You are about to have several hundred conversations touching on the matter of where your interlocutor is from, and Stewart gives you a map for navigating this chatter with a bit of style.—Recommended by Troy Patterson, television critic
The Magicians,by Lev Grossman
In Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater, a miserable but brilliant high school senior, discovers he has magical talents and gets whisked off to a secret college for wizards. It all sounds very Hogwarts-goes-to-Harvard, and while The Magicians does owe much to Rowling (and Lewis and Tolkien), its tone is decidedly more adult, its sensibility much less sunny. It’s also great preparation for the prospective freshman. Your own college experience will probably involve somewhat less transmogrification than Quentin’s, but there will be at least as much drinking and screwing around (in every sense of the phrase). The mix of genres in The Magicians can sometimes be unwieldy, but it captures the flavor of the awkward, exhilarating, confusing period you’re about to begin. And, hey—if you ever mess up in class, you can at least take comfort in the fact that, in doing so, you didn’t accidentally conjure up a hellbeast that will eat one of your classmates.—Recommended by Nina Shen Rastogi, “Green Lantern” columnist
Out of Sheer Rage, by Geoff Dyer
This is the most hilarious book on this list. I guarantee it! And I don’t even know what else is on the list. Because you can’t get any funnier than Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s comic epic, a brilliant and brainy disquisition on how he drove himself crazy trying to write a study of D.H. Lawrence. It’s the best book about not writing ever written.
It’s a cult favorite of many writers I know, and Out of Sheer Rage will be immensely valuable to any freshmen thinking of becoming a writer some day, because it renders ridiculous all your excuses for procrastination—it discredits all the eminently sane-sounding reasons that centuries of writers have devised for not writing by holding them up to ruthlessly comic scorn.
But the truly wonderful thing about this book is that as it mocks you for postponing, reading (and rereading) it gives you a wonderfully enjoyable excuse to do just that.
—Recommended by Ron Rosenbaum, “Spectator” columnist
Mencken on Mencken, by H.L. Mencken Listen, you little bastards: My editor wants me to recommend a book for you to read before mom and step-dad drop your privileged asses off at college. It’s supposed to be something useful, something that will prepare you for the rigors and psychodrama of university life. I’m here to tell you: There are no useful books unless your house has no heat but does have a fireplace. Then all books are useful. In that spirit, I can suggest a new book whose BTUs can be harnessed by either a fire or a brain that’s powerful enough to oxidize it: Mencken on Mencken, previously uncollected autobiographical works that stand right up there with his famed trilogy of Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days. H.L. Mencken writes about his youth, about being a young journalist, about politics and literature and editing, and about his travels. It’s all very sardonic.
Mencken never went to college. His father drafted him straight out of high school to work at the family’s Baltimore cigar company. Then Mencken’s father died, something Mencken later said might have been the “luck-iest” thing that ever happened to him, because it freed him to join the Baltimore Morning Herald as a reporter in 1899 at the age of 19.
Warning: Mencken’s work is as controversial today as it was in his day, so don’t let a professor, a fellow student, or a residential assistant catch you reading it. After you finish it, do yourself a favor. Burn it.
—Recommended by Jack Shafer, “Press Box” columnist
Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford Higher education, suggests Ph.D.-turned-motorcycle-mechanic Matthew Crawford, is indispensable—not because we need ever more acute minds to control our ever more complex society but, he says, because “college habituates young people to accept as the normal course of things a mismatch between form and content, official representations and reality.” That is, it trains you for the abstract life of the knowledge worker, in which the tangible value of what one actually produces is always hazy. Yet Crawford’s book, a paean to craftsmanship and working with one’s hands, may discourage a reader or two from going to college. Which might not be a bad thing. As Joseph Schumpeter put it, when the educated workforce exceeds the supply of jobs, “it may create unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type. The man who has gone through college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual labor without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.” In other words, don’t be like the Anthony Michael Hall character in The Breakfast Club: Learn how to make something.
—Recommended by Tom Vanderbilt, “Transport” columnist
The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow I don’t know you, but I’d like to give you a paperback copy of my favorite novel, The Adventures of Augie March, to read over the summer, because it contains some crucial advice about your education from here on out. The advice is that it’s entirely up to you. Saul Bellow’s hero never quite gets to college, though he’s always meaning to. But, boy, does Augie learn—from books he steals, from getting involved with different kinds of people, from his travels and travails. He is American literature’s great autodidact, teaching himself everything from Greek philosophy to street-corner scams “free-style,” as the novel’s famous first sentence has it. At college, you should try to develop Augie’s kind of passion for books, ideas, and experiences. If you’re hungry to learn the way he is, the worst teacher at the worst community college can’t stop you. If you’re not hungry to learn, Harvard can’t help you. Augie March will also get you lost enough in a crazy story to miss your stop and show you, at a sentence-by-sentence level, what a great writer can do with language. You’ll learn something about the meaning of being an American and something about growing up.—Recommended by Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of T he Slate Group
The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink This entrancing, oneiric novel spins off the ancient Jewish myth of the Golem, who plays a surprisingly small part. I recommend The Golem simply because it is an example of how strange and wonderful the world can be if you open yourself to new ideas. And like college itself, the book is a neatly contained fantasy that eventually gives way to a mundane reality of employment and debt payments.—Recommended by Chris Wilson, associate editor.Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.