You’ve been accepted, and you’re off to college in the Fall. Congratulations! Before you go, try some preparatory reading. There are big issues that everyone will encounter in college, whatever their major. And there are short, classic books that address these issues. They’re easily borrowed or downloadable, or cheap to buy. Some aren’t easy reading; you may need a dictionary. You may not finish one or another, but you’ve got some idea.

(The rest of us may want to check up on these books, too. I’ve just re-read them: yes, they’re worth it.)

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (convenient Bantam pocket edition with intro by Pauline Maier highly recommended) is the basis of our government, whether some of us know it or not. We all should.

Marx’s Communist Manifesto (countless editions) is very readable. Has any other pamphlet influenced billions of people?

J S Mill’s On The Subjection of Women: how half of humanity can be a downtrodden minority, and how things should be.

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: how a smaller minority have been treated in the United States, and what they’ve thought about it.

Sigmund Freud: Five Lectures on Psycho-analysis. Currently unfashionable, and much criticized, his ideas permeate our culture and language: “sublimation”, “Freudian slip”, “id and ego”…

A good week’s reading. (Spoiler alert: there’s a lot of reading in college.) In the following week, specialize. Read a classic in your field of primary interest; it’s amazing how seldom such books are assigned or read later on, yet how often they are cited and discussed.

Darwin’s Origin of Species is the obvious choice for a biologist, and for many other students as well (for better and worse it influenced social sciences, literature, etc., etc.)

Going into economics, or business? Like Origin, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is a bulky tome, and dry in places, but surprisingly lively in others. Learning how to skim and skip can be a good thing, if not overdone.

For an historian, I’m tempted to suggest Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. A bit long at 2,500 pages, but the footnotes are great. Happy reading, and enjoy college.

David R Jones reads for a living, but that’s a pleasure.


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