10 Brain-Expanding Books for the College-Bound Teen

It’s a big step: living on your own for the first time and being responsible for your schedule, friendships, health, and money. Let’s face it, there are dozens of ways you can screw up, be a superstar, or both. Perhaps one of the books on this list will offer some guidance—a glimpse of what to expect, types of people to avoid—and prime your mind for the flood of knowledge headed your way.

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
Jim Dixon, Professor of Medieval History, is bored with the daily grind of trying to hang onto his job. One more stupid mistake and his career could be over. Does he even care? More importantly, will he ever land a date with his nemesis’ girlfriend? Have some sympathy for your professors. Their lives, much like this novel, could just be a comedy of errors.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt
If you fall into a well-read, well-bred, elite circle of friends at your cozy private university, just make sure you don’t, you know, (SPOILER ALERT!) accidentally commit murder and use your Classical Studies dogmas as a justification for it. But do enjoy this psychological thriller about a group of smart kids who do just that!

Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon
Future tortured writers will appreciate the frustrations of Grady Tripp and Terry Crabtree. In college, they were two “wonder boys” destined to become bestselling authors. A few decades later, we see that they never got famous. In fact, they’re barely keeping their lives in check. What happens when these two are faced with a wily new student, a contemporary wonder boy? It might just send Tripp and Crabtree over the edge for good. Take pity on the stalled writers you’ll meet at college. Dreams die hard.

I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe
Poor, sheltered Charlotte. She leaves her quaint North Carolina home, arrives at a historic university, and immediately feels the pressure to check her innocence at the door. The elite, privileged, hard-partying co-eds she now calls friends never stop pushing the envelope. Eventually, Charlotte faces a challenge typical of college freshman: Will she let her new friends drag her down with them, or will she stop trying so gosh-darn hard to be something she’s not?

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
Dorm life, loneliness, drunken parties, and romance make a heady concoction for the college-bound, but this new life can also be bittersweet for many freshmen who leave their first, true loves back at home. Toru has to balance his real feelings for a troubled girl he once committed himself to with his desire for the sexy, vibrant woman standing in front of him. How he manages to move on is both expected and unsettling. Let’s hope other dejected lovers out there have an easier time of it.

The Human Stain, Philip Roth
Watch out—college campuses are perfect petri dishes for gossip, scandal, and destroyed reputations. When a well-respected professor, Coleman Silk, is felled by an outright false allegation of racism, the resulting investigation uncovers the truth. But it’s too late; his PC-happy campus has moved on, leaving Silk with a broken family and more than a few open wounds.

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, Alexandra Robbins
If you’re looking for an excuse to turn down the sisterhood, Pledged will send you running into the arms of your school’s freaks and geeks. Robbins spent a year with a typical sorority and got a front-row seat to all the abusive shenanigans. See why otherwise intelligent young women (and men—fraternity row is a part of this story) seem to lose themselves when they take part in Greek life.

Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon
When you go from your parents’ home to the safe openness of a campus, the next logical step toward independence is a good, old-fashioned road trip. A page-turner of an ethnography if there ever was one, Heat-Moon’s journey across the country will be the envy of any college kid. Conversations with bartenders, farmers, hookers, hitchhikers, and students paint a rich picture of the back roads of America.

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Once you’re in the university system, you might start to have some deep thoughts on what it means to be a cog in the wheel of capitalism. Does graduating and getting an entry-level corporate job fill you with despair? Are you wondering yet what it’s all for? Well, Huxley did too, and his vision of a comically engineered future will speak to you. Oh, and re-read this one after you graduate, too.

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
I envy anyone—but especially young adults—who gets to read Leaves for the very first time, especially “Song of Myself.” All the high-soaring emotions of youth are captured, celebrated, and shared here: sexuality, being a unique individual, feeling connected to humanity in a brand new way…great material for young grownups heading out on their own.

Which book do you think best captures the college experience?

  • Rebecca Sullivan

    As a Smith alumna, I have to vote for J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement.

  • DMC

    Hugh Kennedy’s Everything Looks Impressive

  • KK

    Shame on Barnes & Noble for considering the biased, unresearched garbage that is ‘Pledged’ to be worthy of promoting in any way. While I am certainly not unbiased either thanks to my proud affiliation with a Greek organization, I can say that I have never experienced anything like what is printed in that book, nor have any of my sisters (in my chapter or others). Ms. Robbins’ audacity in printing the secret ritual of certain organizations in her book is astounding and hurtful to members of those organizations.

    Firstly, I can’t imagine that most of what occurs in ‘Pledged’ is honest, because there are repercussions for such events at all schools with Greek life, and at the national level. And secondly, but more importantly, what is presented in ‘Pledged’ is not real sisterhood. Real sisterhood is about loving and supporting your sisters, and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be half the woman I am today without them. Sisters are tied together not by hazing, but by the dear rituals that Ms. Robbins has so callously outed, their love for each other, and their love for their organization. What other women can say that their best friends are also their sisters? I can.

    Anybody who remains undecided about the Greek system should give it a chance before they dive into that waste of paper that Barnes & Noble and Ms. Dukes have somehow decided is ‘essential.’ For shame.

  • http://greymattersart.tumblr.com/ GreyMattersArt

    Bleak House by Charles Dickens. There’s not exactly a “college experience,” but the unrealistic expectations of Richard concerning his education and expected inheritance is a good picture of the false expectations many of us had entering college. Richard dabbles in multiple educational experiences in a variety of fields without seriously applying himself because he believes he will inherit a bunch of cash from a never-ending legal case. Eventually he pursues a legal career in order to pursue the case with his own efforts. The stress and anxiety of applying his education for a purely monetary outcome has serious consequences.

    Plus, Bleak House is one of the best Dickens and mystery novels out there!

  • Name

    Check out “To All the C Students…” David Letterman. Available on B&N as Nook Book

  • Bob Becker

    “The Sterile Cuckoo” by John Nichols

  • Corey

    “1984” by George Orwell

  • Lillian04

    Christopher Hitchens “Letters to a Young Contrarian”.