Books to Read Before College: A Reading List of Big Ideas for High Schoolers
September 11, 2019
Books to Read Before College: A Reading List of Big Ideas for High Schoolers
While planning for academic summer programs, organizing local service projects, practicing varsity sports, and meticulously scheduling intense extracurricular loads, many high school students overlook the value of being well-read and thoughtfully opinionated. Admissions offices expect their most compelling applicants—in whatever field or major—to be well-informed and widely read, to be able to discuss with passion and nuance all kinds of books and ideas. Alumni interviewers often ask students to talk about the most interesting things they’ve read recently. Supplementary essays in college applications ask applicants to list what they’ve chosen to read in the past year or to explain their favorite or most meaningful reading experiences. So stock up on a strong list of books to read before college in order to avoid clichés and give schools a clearer picture of topics you enjoy in and out of the classroom.
What you choose to read in your unstructured time provides a candid glimpse at your interests. How you respond critically, socially, and personally to what you choose to read is an opportunity for you to express your identity and values. So, rather than a list of classic, foundational books that all students “should read,” here’s a list of books to read before college that will get you excited and inspire impassioned responses.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When Beyoncé samples your TED Talk, as she did for Adichie in 2013 with “***Flawless,” people take notice! Even though Adichie later explained that, while she appreciated Beyoncé’s work as a social and political activist, her “type of feminism is not the same as [Adichie’s]” (de Volkskrant 2016), it ignited pop-culture discussions and inspired others to speak up.
“My own definition of a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better.”
We Should All Be Feminists is a powerful and provocative look at the gender lessons we don’t know we’re being taught and how all of us, of whatever gender, are snared by their implications. It challenges both women and men to imagine a culture free from these toxic and limiting lessons, and then it challenges us to make that happen! If you’re interested in majoring in Gender Studies in college, this is a great option when it comes to books to read before college.
Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco
Sacco is a comics journalist. Not a comic journalist, who would presumably be a journalist with a particularly keen sense of humor. A comics journalist, a relatively new breed of frontline, war-reportage journalists who tell their stories in cartoons. Footnotes in Gaza is Sacco’s telling(s) of one bloody “footnote” in 1956 set against a backdrop of conflict between Egypt and an alliance of British, French and Israeli forces punctuated by Palestinian guerrilla attacks. This “footnote” in Rafah found 111 Palestinian refugees shot dead by Israeli soldiers.
A great selection for history buffs and prospective Middle Eastern Studies majors looking for books to read before college, Footnotes is written with journalistic detail. Sacco tries to piece back together the events of the day, consulting multiple archives and interviewing historians and survivors from all parties, but the truth—whatever that may be—is ultimately elusive. Instead, Footnotes in Gaza is a juxtaposition of memories and witness accounts, all recalled more than 50 years after the event. It is both an urgent plea for empathy, mirroring a 60-year-old incident that could just as easily have happened yesterday, and a scathing autopsy of a millenia-long conflict that shows little sign of fading.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
Few works of history, popular, or otherwise over the last several decades have attempted to answer such a fundamental and elusive question: why did the civilizations of Eurasia and North Africa survive, conquer, and colonize the world? Why were/are they disproportionately powerful and innovative? What explains the hegemony of Western civilization?
Abstaining from the racist claims of genetic or cultural “superiority” levied by most previous (always Western) historians, Guns, Germs, and Steel looks for answers in a chain—a chain thousands of years long—of developments and preconditions ultimately rooted in geography, climate, and environment. It traces the long line of technologic and immunologic advances originating in the early rise of agriculture during the last Ice Age.
When considering books to read before college, you might be interested to know that criticism for Diamond’s book came mostly from two fronts: (1) specialists who took issue with the details of some of his evidence, though none has managed to offer a rebuttal to his general argument, and (2) those who—justifiably—point out Diamond’s dismissal of choice as a factor in 13,000 years of human history, instead creating the impression that a confluence of geography, social and technological evolution, and immunology made the course of history inevitable and its enactors merely agents of “fate.”
Nevertheless, Diamond set the bar for subsequent historians, anthropologists, and human geographers. Whether you subscribe entirely (or at all) to his argument, Guns, Germs, and Steel redefined the scope of the questions historians could ask and then redefined how to answer it.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
I suppose the best way to introduce this essay collection is to point out the two esteemed literary figures in its epigrams: Lorraine Hansberry, the African-American playwright of A Raisin in the Sun, and Philadelphia-based rapper Lil Uzi Vert.
This is a great option for music fans seeking books to read before college. Abdurraqib is an essayist, poet, and self-proclaimed sneaker enthusiast for our social and political moment. Each essay is a meditation on what it is like to live in America, especially what it is like to be black in America. And he does so with essays on a Carly Rae Jepsen concert, seeing Biggie’s coffin travel through Brooklyn, or watching Prince’s halftime show at the Super Bowl.
Abdurraqib’s essays are as compassionate as they are incisive. They cut, but they don’t accuse. And most of all, they’re illuminating. Abdurraqib draws his personal music tastes and his intimate observations into the public eye. He worries and rejoices through his music, but all the time, he seems haunted by musical ghosts: Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Biggie, Whitney Houston, Mother Emanuel A.M.E., Prince. But aren’t we all.
If you ever doubted the urgency, relevance, and power of popular music, you won’t after reading this. Music is a lived experience, for those who make it and those who listen to it. Music is a medium through which we experience our world. Music matters.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
The dropping of the first atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in an era, not only of the Cold War, but also of pop-culture post-apocalyptic fantasies and political reactionism. It was, to be brief, the first time the world seemed widely and acutely aware that humans now possessed the capacity to destroy the planet and all of us with it. As a piece of technology, the atomic bomb reshaped the scientific, political, and cultural world and divided history into two: what came before and what came after.
In his history of this technology, epic in both scope and length (coming in at nearly 900 pages), Rhodes explores the intersection of physics and politics, beginning in the 19th century with the discovery of nuclear fission through the launch of the Manhattan Project during the tumult of World War II and on into its Cold War aftermath.
From beginning to end, The Making of the Atomic Bomb reads more like a suspense thriller than a history book! It’s essential reading for future historians looking for books to read before college, not only for its incisive and breathtaking characterization of the last century’s most monumental historical moment but for its nail-biting storytelling. Its thoughtful and nuanced treatment of the consequences of scientific discovery, both political and personal, makes it essential reading for future scientists. For the rest of us, it’s a glimpse into why we see the world the way we do, into why we have the overwhelming feeling that the world will end. One day or another.
Of course, you don’t have to stick to particular subject areas or within the boundaries of your major when picking books to read for college. I’d recommend you read all of these books, as they are thought provoking in their particular ways of addressing different issues prevalent in the world today. Plus, once you’ve read a couple or few off this list, you won’t run short of topics to discuss in your applications - and in dinner time conversations!