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.

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 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

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.

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. 

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.

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. 

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.)

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.  

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. 

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 crap 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.

Dubliners by James Joyce
Recommended by Seth Stevenson, contributor

The fall of my freshman year of college, a dormmate’s father came for a visit and decided to chat a little with his son’s friends. He asked me what my favorite piece of writing was. I answered James Joyce’s “The Dead,” from the 1914 short story collection Dubliners. The man’s smile dropped, and he turned gravely serious. “You’re too young to read ‘The Dead,’ ” he warned me, brow knitted in genuine concern. I take his point. It is a heaping serving of despair—perhaps more than a college frosh needs. Yet I still feel that every incipient adult could benefit from an evening spent at the Morkan sisters’ annual dinner and dance. Joyce eerily evokes the emotional distance that can haunt relationships, the melancholy of recalling a long-ago love, the deep sadness that floats in on snowflakes. (Oh, by the way, it’s the best-written prose in the history of the English language.) 

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.

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 endless epithets of 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 from the experience 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 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.”

Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Recommended by Katherine Goldstein, innovations editor

Journalist Ehrenreich gives a detailed and moving first-person account of her experience of working a number of minimum-wage jobs and eloquently describes the challenges of making ends meet as a cleaning woman, a Wal-Mart sales clerk, and a waitress among other professions. At 18, I was certainly aware that economic inequality existed and that I’d been brought up with many privileges and advantages, but this book gave me concrete and meaningful insight into how economically unfair America is. It inspired a tremendous sense of empathy in me, which is a good sentiment to take with you to college.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Recommended by L.V. Anderson, assistant editor

According to painstakingly collected anecdotal evidence, everyone will either become a vegetarian, take a break from being a vegetarian, date a vegetarian, and/or attempt to come up with a convoluted philosophical argument against vegetarianism while in college. You may as well get a head start to figure out which camp(s) you’ll fall into. And Foer’s book is surprisingly readable and nonannoying—his humane, accessible treatment of the topic will serve as a gentle primer on the moral and cultural stakes of eating meat (or not).

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Recommended by Julia Turner, deputy editor

To be honest, I don’t think reading any book would be as useful as following this piece of advice: Go have a job for two years and then go to college. There are many students who would appreciate a college education much more if they didn’t take studenthood for granted as the default setting of youth and the university campus its default environment. In lieu of that, students should maybe read Mrs. Dalloway? Virginia Woolf’s book about a society hostess preparing for a party is really a book about looking beyond the seeming parameters of one’s own life. There might be a lesson there for young students. Plus it suggests that your college-age romantic choices will have lifelong repercussions—which will add drama to that orientation ice cream social.  

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. 

“What Is Education For?” by David Orr, later incorporated into Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect
Recommended by Jeff Friedrich, Slate Plus editor

An essay cum sermon I read in a freshman environmental studies course. It’s a short, inspiring, and beautiful argument for humility and reflection about the goals of education.  

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
Recommended by Matthew Yglesias, Moneybox columnist

In my real life I mostly read nonfiction, but college students are going to get plenty of that in class. And even though everyone I know has read more fiction than I have, lots of people haven’t read Mikhail Lermontov’s short novel A Hero of Our Time, so I want to foist it on as many of America’s young people as possible. After all, who can’t relate to the experience of being a Russian military officer assigned to occupation duty in the early 19th-century Caucasus region?* The themes, of course, are universal: boredom, alienation, and the youthful pingponging between idealism and cynicism. As a fat and happy college freshperson, it has both nothing and everything to do with your life. A beautifully written reminder that people have (with some justice!) been dumping on the Young People These Days for quite a long time now.  

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 The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark. 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.

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.”

Stoner by John Williams and Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
Recommended by Justin Peters, Crime blogger

Lucky Jim is wildly funny. Stoner is contemplative and sad. Both, I think, might help college freshmen better understand and relate to the men and women who will be teaching their classes—and help them understand that the professors, too, are often just making it up as they go along.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
Recommended by Miriam Krule, copy editor

So you’re about to start college. Congratulations! The world is your oyster. Go explore. Take that class on the history of pro wrestling and how it explains the economy or science for Harry Potter enthusiasts. It’ll all work out when you graduate, right? Probably, but you should still read Michael Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a coming-of-age story about the wayward Art Bechstein looking for a summer adventure after college graduation, the last summer of his youth. No way, you’ll think to yourself. This isn’t me. I’ll have my life figured out. Sure you will. But just in case, this way, come senior spring, when you’re alternating between graduation euphoria and unemployment panic, you’ll already have a copy.

Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth
Recommended by Mark Joseph Stern, contributor

My first year of college, I came very close to losing faith in fiction altogether. The books I was assigned in my lower-level English classes followed the same mold: overly precious, shallowly eloquent explorations of the human spirit, usually delivered in some misty-eyed first-person lilt. I hated it. Then I came across Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. Here was a mean, angry, vile book, stuffed with bizarre sex and obscene grotesqueries, overflowing with morbid vitriol, and utterly brilliant from start to finish. Roth succeeds where all those self-conscious mopes fail, taking a book about death and destruction and turning it into a celebration of life and creation, all without compromising its bitter candor. In the world of Sabbath’s Theater, fucking isn’t just fun—it’s a noble battle against death. More than one college freshman, I suspect, could relate.

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 people can do in groups and the terrible things people can do all by themselves.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Recommended by Dahlia Lithwick, contributor

I know it’s cliché as hell. I also know you’re supposed to wait till some sloe-eyes lover gives it to you. But it’s the book that changed my whole circuitry freshman year.

Correction, Sept. 6, 2013: The recommendation for A Hero of Our Time originally misspelled Caucasus.(Return.)