Books to Read Before College – Prime Your Mind!
You may have already read some of the books on the list. Others you may have heard of, but not read. Others you may not have heard of at all. I encourage you to seek out and read some of the ones you haven’t yet read. This will help you prepare your mind for your future studies. It will also ensure that you don’t miss out on reading fabulous books during the time in your life when they are most likely to have a positive and profound impact.
What I mean by this is that some books are best read when you’re in your teens. Others are best read when you’re in your 20s and 30s. Others are best read during middle age. Still others are best read during your retirement years. And the most magical books of all are best read at each of those times . . . and will have different meanings and wisdoms to impart as you grow older and change . . . even though their words remain exactly the same.
I Read Lots of Books in My High School English Classes. Isn’t That Enough Preparation for College?
No matter how rigorous your high school education was, there’s always more to learn. As a former high school English teacher, I can attest to the fact that there is not enough room in the school year curriculum to introduce students to every book that they would benefit from reading before leaving for college. And, as a former high school and university student, I can attest to the fact that if I had not challenged myself to read diverse, rigorous books on my own, I would have had a harder time keeping up with the pace of the college courses I took.
Simply put, there’s no substitute for personal study. Reading books on your own will prime your mind for what’s ahead—and will do so in ways you could never have imagined beforehand.
University coursework will introduce you to new, exciting, and bold ideas. It will prepare you to meet the challenges of a profession. And it will set you up to be a lifelong learner and thinker. But reading at the undergraduate level can be a challenging endeavor. That’s why it’s important to make sure you have the foundational reading chops needed to take on complex texts, before you walk through that beautiful archway on campus. Plus—I can’t fail to mention—reading is fun! And reading books that make you think is both exhilarating and life enhancing.
Can’t I Choose Books Randomly or Serendipitously? Why Should I Consult Lists of Books to Read Before College?
To see the greatest benefit, instead of choosing books randomly or serendipitously, choose from curated lists of books to read before college. That way, you can learn which books are recommended by people who have read lots and lots of them. Choosing books to read before college at random, or through serendipitous bookstore and library finds, will occasionally lead you to interesting, exciting, and mind-priming texts. More often, however, they will be duds.
Reading books takes time. If you’re going to spend 5, 10, 15, or 20 hours getting cozy with a book, you might as well ensure that it’s worthy of your time.
Once you have consulted a book list intended for high school juniors, seniors, and graduates (like the one below!), select a few titles to read, get your hands on them, and read them . . . during those downtimes when you’re not filling out college applications, touring university campuses, working to save up for tuition and expenses, shopping for dorm room essentials, attending graduation parties, filling out endless university forms, messaging your future classmates . . . and alternating madly between nervousness and excitement!
Liza’s List of Books to Read Before College
The titles of these suggested books to read before college are listed in chronological order by date published. I don’t intend for you to read them in the order listed. I also don’t intend for you to read all of them. Choose a few that you haven’t yet read and that sound interesting to you. Then keep at them, and don’t give up when the going gets tough!
Not all of these titles are full-length books. That’s good for you, because plays, short stories, speeches, and novellas tend to be shorter reads than novels and nonfiction books. Select a few of these, and you’ll have time to read a greater variety of authors before leaving for college.
I also want to note that this list is U.S. oriented. Though it includes works by authors from around the globe, the list as a whole is designed for a student planning to enroll in an American university; since I am an American myself, that is my frame of reference. It is my hope that bloggers from other countries have shared, or will share, their own curated lists of books to read before college, oriented toward students planning to attend college in their regions of the world.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (c. 1600)
If you’ve already read Romeo and Juliet, take on another Shakespeare play. Try Othello, As You Like It, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Julius Caesar. Since the language is so old as to be nearly foreign, it helps to read an edition with footnotes that explain unfamiliar words and phrases. Another good option is the “No Fear Shakespeare” series, which prints the original language alongside a modern translation. Read the original first. Then check your understanding with the translation.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
The book is astronomically better than any screen depiction you’ve seen. Remarkably, this story came into existence because, while Shelley was hanging around some literary friends, one of them suggested that they all write ghost stories. A few days later, Shelley came up with her terrifying idea and started writing. Unlike most ghost stories, this tale is scary in not just a creepy way, but also an existential way. And remember—Frankenstein is the name of the scientist, not the monster.
“Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving (1819)
This is the classic short story—that’s actually pretty long—about a man who falls asleep for 20 years and misses a key event in American history. Print out the story, available online here, and read it on paper for best comprehension. However, don’t stray too far from your electronic device, because you’ll need it to look up all the old-fashioned words. Or: be old-fashioned yourself and use a printed dictionary. But, whatever you do, don’t fall asleep while reading!
“The American Scholar” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1837)
Access the full text of this speech here. I recommend printing it out, as Emerson’s long sentences can be difficult to ingest on a screen. Emerson delivered this speech to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College, in Massachusetts, in 1837. At that time, the United States was still a young country, and still very much culturally tied to Britain. This essay is about coming into yourself, both as a country and as an individual. This “coming into yourself” is something that all of us are obliged to do when passing from childhood into adulthood.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1837-1839)
I feel uncertain about which Dickens novel to recommend to you. I recommend that you read a Dickens novel, but feel free to choose any of them. Great Expectations has a lot of interesting twists and turns, but it’s also, perhaps, overly verbose; but one could say this of most Dickens works. If you have already read Great Expectations or simply wish to start elsewhere, you might try Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Hard Times, or A Tale of Two Cities.
“Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathanial Hawthorne (1844)
This short story is available here. Print it out and read it on paper; Hawthorne’s long sentences and abstruse language make for difficult reading, so I don’t recommend tackling this one on a screen. You may have encountered The Scarlet Letter and found it too complex for comprehension. That’s all right; but don’t give up on Hawthorne. Give this short story a try. It’s creepy and intriguing. If you sit with it a while, you just might start to like it.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
You may have encountered snippets of this book in a high school English class, but it’s worth reading cover to cover. This nonfiction book consists of Thoreau’s philosophical and practical musings while living alone in the woods.
Poems by Emily Dickinson (written c. 1860s; published much later)
There’s no need to read all of them, unless you want to, but do read some of them. Dickinson writes about life and death—the eternal stuff of poetry—but in such a light and lovely and idiosyncratic way. . . . It’s astonishing stuff. Try to figure her out, and dance with her as you can.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
This controversial novel is eminently worth reading . . . with a few caveats:
- It’s a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which is not as masterful a work, but is an entertaining read. It’s possible to understand most of Huck Finn without reading Tom Sawyer, but it’s better to start at the beginning.
- Huck Finn is a novel about the pre-Civil War era that was written in the post-Civil War era. It must be thought about and understood in that nineteenth-century context.
- The n-word appears in the book not just once, which would have been repugnant enough, but 219 times. If that’s 219 times too many for you, seek out one of the editions of Huck Finn that substitute a less-offensive (or even silly!) word for the n-word.
- The ending of the book is awful: an actual travesty in light of what came before. This is an opinion held not just by me, but also many literary critics, including the great Ernest Hemingway. Check out Hemingway’s famous quote on Huckleberry Finn, along with his advice on when to stop reading, in the “Literary analysis” section of this Wikipedia page.
The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1910)
Most critics do not consider this French novel a literary masterpiece. However, it tells such a captivating story, and is so particularly appealing to people in their teenage years, that I couldn’t help including it on this list of books to read before college.
“A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka (1922)
This short story is strange, sad, and affecting. Kafka, who was from Prague, was particularly interested in the plight of the artist and the misfit. It’s available online here. As always, I recommending printing it out because reading complicated texts on a screen can inhibit full comprehension.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (1937)
This short and powerful read will make you think. It is set in California during the Great Depression: when it was hard for people to find work, and everyone was longing for a better life. Also check out the adorably wonderful poem “To a Mouse,” by Robert Burns, which inspired the novel’s title.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
This beautiful and heartfelt novel describes the joys, struggles, and loves of an African-American woman in Florida. Hurston was not only a writer, but also an anthropologist who lived in and studied a variety of cultures around the world. She works into her fiction her deep experience and insights into culture and humanity.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937, 1954-1955)
The Hobbit is a short book. The Lord of the Rings, which continues and greatly expands upon the story begun in The Hobbit, is a very long book that was split into a trilogy by Tolkien’s publisher. This story is the quintessential high fantasy classic.
Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
Wright does not shy away from topics considered taboo in our society. Subjects tackled in this page-turner include sex, violence, race and racism, and socioeconomic status. The story is powerful, frank, disturbing, and—depending on your prior experiences—eye opening. The novel is about a young African-American man in Chicago who makes unfortunate decisions and generally struggles to get by.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943)
This strange little French novella was both written and illustrated by the author. It appears to be a children’s book, but its meanings are multilayered and philosophical, even bewildering.
Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell (1945, 1949)
I couldn’t choose just one or the other of these novels for this list of books to read before college. Sorry, you’ll need to read them both! It’s mandatory. Required reading. You can’t go to college without these under the ol’ braincap. The deans might bar the gates and not let you in!
Joking aside, these two Orwell novels are important to read because they delve into how society is organized and what this means for the lives of ordinary citizens. Both novels take on the the weighty topic of totalitarianism—a mode of government that claims absolute power and restricts individual freedom—but in different ways. Animal Farm seems to be a simple tale about farm animals, but it’s really a powerful allegory that reveals truths about humanity and societies. 1984 brought us a number of scary terms that have entered into everyday usage, such as Big Brother, thought police, doublethink, and, of course, Orwellian. The year 1984 seemed far in the future when 1984 was published (LOL), but the book still resonates today. It describes the horrors of being entrapped by an oppressive government.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)
Anne Frank started writing diary entries just after her 13th birthday, in June 1942. She and her family, who were Jewish, were living in Amsterdam when the Nazis took occupation of the Netherlands. The family went into hiding about one month after Frank started her diary. They remained in hiding for two years, during which time she kept writing. The family was discovered and sent to concentration camps when Frank was 15, and she died there, in 1945. Her father, Otto Frank, was the only one of her family to survive. Upon returning to Amsterdam, he learned that Anne’s diary had been saved by a close friend. The diary entries are remarkable for their use of language and depth of thought and feeling, not just because they chronicle a horrific moment in world history.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
Salinger’s use of language is astonishing and impeccable. There’s nothing like it. Also incredible is the fact that Salinger convinced his publisher to print his books with minimalist covers that lack blurbs and other marketing gimmicks. Even today, Salinger’s book covers are printed without ornament; this allows for a uniquely pristine reading experience. If you’ve already read The Catcher in the Rye (or even if you haven’t!), check out Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
This is a short novel that’s full of symbolism . . . along with beauty, tragedy, and a boundless love of life, despite and because of its ups and downs.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
This astonishing novel presents a microcosm of the world war that had recently been raging (WWII was fought 1939-1945). In the novel, a group of British boys, having survived an airplane crash, are stranded on a desert island. How will they survive? How will they govern themselves? And what does a story about young boys marooned on a desert island have to do with World War II?
Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya (1954)
A woman chronicles her hard life in India during a time of great change. Western ideas, people, and institutions suddenly enter Eastern people’s lives, disrupting village traditions and causing extreme hardship. This novel is a fascinating window into life circumstances that may be very different from your own.
Night by Elie Wiesel (1958)
Wiesel was a Jewish 15-year-old living in Transylvania when the Nazis deported him and his family to the Auschwitz concentration camp. He lived to tell the horrific tale, though some of his family members did not. Night is a slim work of art (my copy is just over 100 pages) that provides a concise and readable account of one boy’s tragic experiences during the Holocaust.
“The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” by Alan Silltoe (1959)
This powerful short story is about the struggle to be an individual in the face of authority. It’s part of a short story collection with the same title, but I mean to include only the title story in this list of books to read before college.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)
Enter a scary and restrictive psychiatric hospital and meet unforgettable characters. According to Wikipedia, this is “one of America’s most challenged and banned novels.” That sounds to me like an invitation to read it . . . to find out what’s in there. What exactly don’t the authorities want us to know about?
The Chosen by Chaim Potak (1967)
In this riveting page-turner, two boys form an unlikely friendship. While both boys are Jewish, one belongs to a more relaxed, modern synagogue, while the other belongs to a more strict, orthodox synagogue. Their friendship and family relationships are tested as they navigate their present and futures.
“The Handsomest Drowned Man In The World” by Gabriel García Márquez (1968)
García Márquez was a Nobel Prize-winning author from Colombia who wrote in Spanish. This unique and strange short story, available in English translation here, is an example of a literary tradition known as magical realism. In magical realism, certain aspects of the story are magical, but these fantastical elements occur in an otherwise realistic setting. As always, I recommend printing out the story instead of reading it on a screen.
Grendel by John Gardner (1971)
Gardner took a rather coarse and extremely ancient story and turned it into something modern and beautiful. The epic poem Beowulf is so old that it makes Shakespeare’s language look modern. While Shakespeare’s English is, for the most part, understandable by modern English readers, Old English is not. In the ancient poem, a hero named Beowulf fights a monster named Grendel, and then some other stuff happens. Gardner rewrote the story from the perspective of the monster Grendel. Perhaps I should not have recommended this novel to you, because now I’m going to tell you to read Beowulf first (in translation) before reading Grendel. I’m not sure I want to wish that upon you. However, if you’re feeling ambitious, give it a try. Or—but I didn’t tell you to do this!—cheat and read the Summary section of the Wikipedia article.
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1974)
This astonishing novel is a retelling of one of the biggest and most consequential battles of the American Civil War: Gettysburg. Shaara does not choose sides, but instead impartially narrates the spine-chilling true story from two opposing perspectives, the armies of the North and the South. You will feel like you are there beside the generals as they make the difficult and weighty decisions that will determine the course of the battle and, ultimately, the war.
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (1977)
The language in this novel is beautifully wrought. It’s like a crystal, beautiful and fragile. Both the book’s author and its protagonist have a mixed ancestry with a strong Native American heritage. This is a powerful and dangerous world to enter: and, please, do enter.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (1979)
In this unique blending of the fantasy/sci-fi and historical genres, an African-American woman travels back and forth in time between the present and an antebellum slave plantation. This page-turner dramatizes the horrors of slavery and contrasts the present and past.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
This incredibly sad and moving novel is a joy to read. Walker dramatizes the tragic lives of African-American women living in the rural South. She writes honestly and beautifully about difficult topics such as abuse and trauma, poverty and hardship, sexuality and homosexuality, courage and dignity. The novel takes place in both North America and Africa. This page-turner won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction and has been beloved around the world since its publication.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)
This science fiction novel has one of the most surprising and dramatic endings I have ever encountered. Don’t—I repeat, don’t—read or listen to anything about this book’s plot before reading it in its entirety. Avoid those spoilers! Reading the novel in its entirety won’t be a problem, though, because it’s a fun and fascinating book, much of which takes place in outer space.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)
This novel is about teenagers and best enjoyed during your teenage years. It deals candidly with issues faced by many modern high school students, including those surrounding sexuality and homosexuality, peer pressure, drugs, self-esteem, mental health, and abuse. I include it on this list of books to read before college because it’s a quick read that focuses on your age group and keeps it real.
Drowning in Fire by Craig Womack (2001)
This lovely and poignant novel depicts the struggles and successes of a young man living in Oklahoma who is outside of the mainstream in two ways: he is gay and Native American. Womack is a professor of Native American literature who is of Creek-Cherokee ancestry. Incidentally, in addition to his fiction, his scholarly criticism is also quite good.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (2003)
This delightful mystery is narrated by a British teenager who loves maths and seems to be on the autism spectrum. The reader gets to experience life through the teen’s eyes and to join him in trying to understand some perplexing circumstances.
Daring Greatly and Rising Strong by Brene Brown (2012, 2015)
You’re an adult—or almost one. Life is tough, especially when first taking on the responsibility of navigating it on your own. Brown is a professor who conducts research on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. Her books translate her research into easy-to-understand tips for being brave and recovering from the setbacks that life inevitably throws at us. These are skills that can be learned. Since you can learn them at any age . . . you might as well learn them young!
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016)
A Japanese woman senses—and has sensed since childhood—that she is different from other people. She has trouble understanding why people behave the way they do. She feels that she needs to choose between acting like herself and acting as others expect her to. When circumstances allow her to finally be the person others expect her to be, she has to choose whether to gratify them—or herself. This short, simple, and stunning novel forces the reader to think about societal expectations versus the prerogative of individuals to be themselves.
Deep Work and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (2016, 2019)
You’re going off to college to study; but you live in a distracted society full of smartphones, noisy notifications, and flashing lights. How can you structure your time for optimal results? Deep Work explains the difference between deep work and shallow work, why you need both types of work in your day, and how to carve out time for both. Digital Minimalism explains how to use modern technology in ways that benefit you, not the big corporations that reap a profit when you spend too much time on their sites.