My list is not intended to represent Harold Bloom-worthy canonicity.
Instead, as a university English lecturer who teaches about 100 students each semester, I have focused my list on a few things important to me.
Reflected in my list below is my belief that mental and emotional strengthening is very important for students who are starting college and living away from home for the first time.
1. Understand how to navigate difficulties in your life through the lense of a psychiatrist who survived a Nazi concentration camp: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. With the exceptions of certain fraternity rituals and enrollment at The Citadel, nothing you go through in college will be as bad as a concentration camp.
2. Fine-tune your writing and listening skills, and be prepared to argue winningly in everything from your research paper to a dorm-room bull session: Thank You For Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion by Jay Heinrichs. This is a funny and easy way to learn about rhetoric, an essential art in college, whether getting A’s or getting, you know, that special someone.
3. Learn how to be decent, honorable, and sociable, yet live above the fray of everyone’s drama — and your own: The Essential Marcus Aurelius, introduced and translated by Jacob Needleman and John P. Piazza. This is a set of short sayings that helps reason play a healthy role in your mind and emotions, and it has stood the test of time.
4. Get a solid grip on several essential topics: Collected Essays by George Orwell. “Politics and the English Language” will give you powerful insight into both writing well and listening closely to politicians and salespeople — it’s like a short course in critical thinking. “The Art of Donald McGill” is an excellent bit of art writing. I dare say “England Your England” will help you see what’s peculiar about your own nation and culture, even if you’ve never been outside of them. “Shooting an Elephant” remains an outstanding example of “creative nonfiction” or “literary nonfiction,” especially in the tradition of the personal essay.
5. No, it’s not all relative: The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. This densely written book might be a challenge for many of this fall’s freshmen, but slow, thoughtful engagement with this book will help you filter some of the free-range bullshit found on any college campus.
You can buy any and all of these books right here. Best wishes!