Books to read before university

Scholars choose ‘essential’ texts to introduce sixth-formers to the academy

April 14, 2016
Books arranged on table in shape of heart
Source: Getty

“Our undergraduates – and postgraduate students as well – seem mainly not to be avid readers,” says Jo Brewis, professor of organisation and consumption at the University of Leicester. As a result, she accepts that “recommending whole books would be rather daunting” for them, and she tends not to do so.

Tales of students’ aversion to the traditional contents of university libraries are becoming commonplace among academics, with the internet typically fingered as the culprit.

“Incoming undergraduates have had their attention habits fashioned in a totally different world than that of those who are teaching them,” reflects Tamson Pietsch, fellow in history at the University of Sydney. “This can lead to a clash of expectations and also of abilities on both sides of the equation. In many ways, incoming students absorb information quickly, they understand the power of images, and are adept at moving between different types of sources and platforms. They are perhaps less used to concentrating for long periods of time and working through the nuances of an argument developed over the course of many pages.”

Indeed, the flood of information with which they are deluged in the digital era means that even academics are reputedly reading fewer whole books than they used to. Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, was sufficiently keen to remind himself that “not everything can be argued in 800 to 1,000 words”, so he made “a recent new year’s resolution to read less on the internet and more [in] books”.

The reason, he says, is that books permit a deep and sophisticated development of ideas. “Students often come from school feeling they understand the concept of ‘energy’ or ‘the atom’,” he explains. But “these were struggled over fiercely before they gained wider acceptance. Even concepts that seem grounded can be undermined and superseded. It is tempting to think that the 20th century was such a great age of science that we are now just fiddling at the edges. A historical approach can help students realise that there is still room for them to make a contribution.”

Len Fisher, visiting fellow in physics at the University of Bristol, also regrets the increasing move towards seeking information on the internet, since books “drive and encourage readers to think for themselves in a way that just looking up answers does not” and “allow for serendipity – spotting that unexpected, fascinating titbit as you turn the pages or glance at the next book on the shelf”. Students also have a lot to learn from “books that show why scientists ask the questions that they do, rather than mere explanations of the answers – not just ‘history and philosophy of science’ type books, but biographies, books about big questions and intimate histories”. The point, he says, is to bring ideas to life by associating them with the lives and personalities of the people who first had them. As well as physicist Richard Feynman’s memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman, he also recommends James Watson’s The Double Helix as another prime example.

Brewis herself would like to see students reading more because “it would enable them to make more considered arguments in their coursework or examinations, and to demonstrate to us as assessors that they have considered the debates and controversies in the literature and arrived at reasoned conclusions on that basis”. She also believes that reading a book on a topic ostensibly unrelated to that of the degree can bring a valuable external perspective to bear on assumptions that otherwise typically go unquestioned: “We always want our students to reflect on the status quo, on what we take for granted and on what the alternatives might be,” she says.

In principle, Jenny Pickerill, professor in environmental geography at the University of Sheffield, would also “encourage any student to read well beyond the set readings”. She believes that they should take on “anything that excites or challenges them”, noting that “some of the books I have found most thought-provoking and that have shaped my research are biographies or journalistic non-fiction”. Yet when she does recommend full-length books, “students struggle with them, saying the language or concepts are too hard. I recently had a student suggest an alternative book for a module I am teaching which they found easier to engage with. It was a good book, but it was not really academic enough and I am still unsure if that matters or whether I should be recommending more readable books. There is currently a disjuncture between the types of reading we want students to engage with and the types students feel able or willing to do.”

For Pietsch, it remains important that universities “facilitate forms of engagement with ideas and arguments that are deeper and slower than those usually available online”. And she believes that academics can help to make this happen by teaching students that “reading a book from front to back cover is not necessarily the best way to use it. Things like the index, introduction and conclusion, as well as skim and strategic reading, help to make a long book that might at first seem insurmountable [become] very useful. And let’s face it, this is how academics read too.”

One thought we had at Times Higher Education was that it might also be fruitful to start students early. What if heads of first year were to set incoming students a book to read before they even arrive on campus, as an introduction to university study? Of course, to inspire a bibliophilia that lasts until graduation day and beyond, the book would have to be particularly engaging, as well as instructive. So we asked a range of academics to contribute one recommendation each to a list that is also being published this week in our sister publication, TES, read by schoolteachers.

Although we stressed that the choice shouldn’t be too specialist, we otherwise left the criteria pretty vague. It could be a book that would “help potential students hone their critical thinking, prepare them for independent learning, understand the basics of scientific (or social scientific) method or even negotiate the social and sexual minefield that lies ahead”. Contributors were free to select “an inspiration or a warning, a classic of popular science writing, a polemic, a satire, a novel or a biography”.

In the event, we were delighted to receive suggestions in all of these categories, ranging from Ludwig Wittgenstein to P. G. Wodehouse. Scholars are keen to warn students about everything from their own cognitive biases and the continuing obstacles faced by women to the often savage nature of intellectual progress and the battles within universities between the in-crowd and the out-crowd. Others want to inspire students to engage politically, to question authority and the views they grew up with, or simply to relish “the excitement of ideas and the possibility of life and sexuality”. It is hard to believe that there isn’t something in there for even the most bibliophobic of 18-year-olds.

Essential books to read before university

Illustration from Le Père Goriot, 1835

Honoré de Balzac
Old Goriot (1835)

Although written in the early 19th century, the novel’s hero, Eugène de Rastignac, remains the model for first-year university students. Leaving his provincial backwater to study law in bustling Paris, he soon drops his texts and teachers for babes and balls. Not to worry, though: Eugène’s true education will come from life, not lectures. Will he break society’s harsh laws or be broken by them? Ah, you will need to read the novel to find the answer – as well as to find yourself.

Robert Zaretsky
Professor of history at the University of Houston

Richard Feynman
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character (1985)

The reluctant Nobel laureate conveys the sheer ebullience and joy of discovering new understanding and new ways of looking at the world. He also conveys personal messages for those setting out on their own journey to university and beyond. Think for yourself. Believe in yourself. Above all, remember that “you have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish”. Follow Feynman’s advice and you could end up accomplishing more than you can possibly dream of.

Len Fisher
Visiting fellow in physics, University of Bristol

Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us (2010)

An important part of university education is being trained to question your pre-existing views of things. This book illustrates the traps we can all fall into and how we need to learn to think and question, rather than just accumulate facts.

Dorothy Bishop
Professor of developmental neuroscience, University of Oxford

Donna Tartt
The Secret History (1992)

Not only is this one of the most gripping thrillers I have ever read, it also offers something of a cautionary tale about both the in-crowd and the out-crowd at university. Set in a liberal arts college in Vermont, it pulls no punches whatsoever about campus life.

Jo Brewis
Professor of organisation and consumption, University of Leicester

Malcolm Bradbury
The History Man (1975)

The novel’s central character, Howard Kirk, is a professor of sociology and a radical hero – but he’s also a bully, a lech and a fake. He’s a truly vile man. Alas, it’s not history.

Philip Cowley
Professor of politics, Queen Mary University of London

Matthew Cobb
Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code (2015)

A bloody good read that is a million miles from the sterile narratives of the average textbook. It paints a vivid picture of the personalities involved in cracking the genetic code, and takes the reader up and down the inevitable blind alleys of failed experiments and failed theories along the way. Showing how real science spills across disciplinary boundaries, it will help biology and biochemistry students break out of traditional modes of thinking about how science discovers the world.

Stephen Curry
Professor of structural biology, Imperial College London

Carl Rogers
On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy (1961)

What Rogers is after is what he calls “the fully-functioning person”, and “the process of the good life – not a life for the faint-hearted”.

Alex Danchev
Professor of international relations, University of St Andrews

Carolyn Steedman
Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (1986)

A riveting account of how memoir can be used to highlight the gaps and ambiguities in any description of the lives of others. Analysing the unfulfilled desires and frustrations of her mother’s life in the 1950s, Steedman probes the nature and limits of much of the theory – feminist, psychoanalytic, sociological, political and broadly psychosocial – we apply to the understanding of desire – especially desire for a better life.

Lynne Segal
Anniversary professor of psychology and gender studies, Birkbeck, University of London

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Philosophical Investigations (1953)

It is not an easy book, even for professional philosophers, but if one reads it carefully, then it is very thought-provoking. Whether or not one agrees with Wittgenstein, one is left with a much more sophisticated view of language and thought, and how they relate to the external world.

Tim Gowers
Professor in the department of pure mathematics and mathematical statistics, University of Cambridge

Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, Wind in the Willows

Kenneth Grahame
The Wind in the Willows (1908)

This has been on my bedside table for most of my life. It provides both a refuge from anxiety and valuable allegorical information about life. Different editions have had various illustrators, but I think the drawings by Arthur Rackham (published 1940) are the best.

David Bignell
Emeritus professor of zoology, Queen Mary University of London

Danielle Allen
Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (2004)

A powerful and sensitive account of the injuries of segregation, sacrifice and misrecognition. While focused on the US civil rights movement, it speaks directly to the current refugee crisis in Europe and failures to recognise the claims of others. It ends with a manifesto for community action to redress injustices. It is a manual for entry into the wider political life that should be entailed by university study.

John Holmwood
Professor in sociology, University of Nottingham

Virginia Woolf
A Room of One’s Own (1929)

A brilliantly written insight into why students may not encounter many female philosophers, scientists and artists. It demands that the reader reassess their assumptions about the role of women historically, and keep in mind the conditions required to work, create and develop as an individual. Imaginative, challenging and inspirational.

Lucy Bolton
Senior lecturer in film studies, Queen Mary University of London

David Foster Wallace
This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (2009)

Actually a speech to graduating students, its thesis is that a liberal arts education teaches us how to do the very important work of choosing what to think. This choice might seem boring or overly general, but it’s not. It involves escaping our default setting of unhappy self-centredness that, while not morally repugnant, keeps us from imagining things otherwise. At 60 pages, it is the perfect length to read on the train to university.

John Kaag
Associate professor of philosophy, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Glyn Maxwell
On Poetry (2012)

It’s witty, erudite, provocative, opinionated and, through poetry, speaks subtly and with urgency about curiosity, desire and form – “creaturely life”, as he says. What the book states at its opening is true: it is “a book for anyone”.

Anke Bernau
Senior lecturer in medieval literature and culture, University of Manchester

Marilyn French
The Women’s Room (1977)

This depicts women’s lives in 1950s America and offers a vivid reminder of how feminism can liberate women (and men) from being bullied into doing things we don’t want to do just because we are women (or men). It is grim in places and all the male characters are ghastly, but it is very readable and makes the point that, for some people, being able to study at university is something that can never be taken for granted.

Liz Schafer
Professor of drama and theatre studies, Royal Holloway, University of London

David McRaney
You Are Not So Smart: Why Your Memory is Mostly Fiction, Why You Have Too Many Friends On Facebook and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself (2012)

Universities should be all about discussion, debate and good old-fashioned argument well into the wee small hours (and beyond). But in an era of “safe spaces”, students should perhaps be encouraged to argue more about how they argue. McRaney’s book highlights the cognitive biases we all experience – even that erudite classmate who seems to be an authority on just about everything.

Philip Moriarty
Professor of physics, University of Nottingham

Bryan Appleyard
Aliens: Why They Are Here (2005)

Aliens have been with us since the Second World War. Common sense demands that we immediately dispute this short, provocative statement. But Appleyard provides countless examples of how aliens “live” among us – shaping dreams and fuelling anxieties, explaining the unexplainable and offering a way of making sense of postmodern life. For any humanities student, it is a primer in how to defamiliarise the everyday in order to see it anew – and make connections between the micro and macro.

Sharif Mowlabocus
Senior lecturer in media studies, University of Sussex

Private school students drinking alcohol, Henley Regatta, UK

Owen Jones
The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It (2014)

This is about why we live in a mature democracy yet are surrounded by massive inequality and injustice. If I had had any flicker of understanding as a student of how I was part of a window of upward social mobility that has now closed, and that I would live in a future society where education and ability matters less than inheritance and connections, I might have spent less time shopping in Miss Selfridge, voguing and campaigning against cruelty to guinea pigs.

Joanna Lewis
Assistant professor in African and imperial history, London School of Economics and Political Science

Naomi Klein
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014)

Big questions, big problems and big solutions are explored in this book. It is an invaluable preparation for university life where everything should be up for discussion, where established knowledge can be challenged and where creative solutions are generated.

Jenny Pickerill
Professor in environmental geography, University of Sheffield

Alice Dreger
Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science (2015)

This demonstrates the roles in academic endeavour of evidence, scepticism and courage, and the dire consequences of their lack. Dreger demonstrates, above all, that history is not just about the dead – although the book’s ferocity could scare students away from academic enquiry for ever!

Barry Reay
Keith Sinclair chair in history, University of Auckland

Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014)

I wish I had been able to read this before I went to university, where I was (happily) trapped inside the humanities. Approachable and provocative, it is full of surprising information about our species and reaches across the disciplines, from history and archaeology to biology and engineering.

Rachel Polonsky
Affiliated lecturer in Slavonic studies, University of Cambridge

Susan Sontag
Reborn: Early Diaries 1947-1963 (edited by David Rieff, 2008)

These diaries show Sontag uncertain, sometimes scared and yet intoxicated by ideas and the possibilities of life and sexuality. I loved them for the permission they give to take risks, chase passion and, most of all, not to know. All students starting out at university should remember that not having answers is at the heart of scholarship and learning – as long as you keep asking questions.

Tamson Pietsch
Fellow in history, University of Sydney

Patrick Leigh Fermor
A Time of Gifts (1977)

This tale of a 19-year-old and his walking tour across pre-Second World War Europe should be read by all young people because it is full of life lessons, such as the importance of being open and engaged with the people around you. My own students travel a great deal and I cannot think of a better preparation for it.

Duncan Wu
Professor of English, Georgetown University

Christopher Small
Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (1998)

“Musicking” was a neologism cooked up by music educator Christopher Small to convey his belief that music is not a thing but an activity that says “this is who we are”. The book teaches us how to observe and question everyday human behaviour and institutions, and demonstrates how to use theoretical analysis to draw wider conclusions about how meanings and values are created. It helps anyone – not just music theorists – learning to negotiate the complex relationships between the personal and the social to understand how these are mediated and formed by a cultural activity.

Nicholas Till
Professor of opera and music theatre, University of Sussex

Mary S. Lovell
A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton (1998)

This brilliant biography of a Victorian explorer and writer and his author wife is for every sixth-former that self-identifies as an outsider, vagabond, maverick or iconoclast. Its tale of long-unrequited yearning will put any difficult university affair into perspective and dare you to push boundaries, question everything and relish every opportunity for love, adventure, roving and enjoyment without caring about who you alienate on the way. With Richard being the translator of the Kama Sutra and The One Thousand and One Nights, there is plenty to satisfy the sexually curious too.

James Tooley
Professor of education policy, Newcastle University

P. G. Wodehouse,
The Blandings stories

Time spent at university will be frenetic, immersive and chaotic – if you are doing it right – so it is good to have a private world to sneak away into when things get too weird. I found mine in the novels of P. G. Wodehouse. The Blandings stories depict a golden, bucolic landscape full of penniless eccentric earls, thwarted romance, fat pigs, subtle class warfare and ultimate redemption. Few writers can match the evocative elegance of the phrase “Ice formed on the butler’s upper slopes”. Read, enjoy and seek to emulate.

John Gilbey teaches in the computer science department at Aberystwyth University

Confused man reading book

Wittgenstein? Before university?

As headteacher of a comprehensive school in Suffolk with 380 students in our sixth form, I am most proud of our track record in helping young people gain places at university. Central to their success are study habits, an ability to organise themselves, stick at tasks they initially struggle with, manage their time effectively and – crucially – learn through reading.

For many young people, like university itself, reading is a wholly alien activity. This is why we have a responsibility in schools to make reading “normal”. Thus, in our sixth-form common room we’ve piled books up on window ledges and encouraged teachers to have books messily visible in their classrooms. We want all staff to talk about books, to show how they use them and to model the centrality of reading in our lives.

Then there are book lists. This one is like one of those sprawling international buffets at hotels. Yes, there’s something for everyone, but it’s hard to see the coherence, the rationale. And, overall, there is something hilariously random about it all.

We get a nod to fiction from the personal growth worldview (Donna Tartt, Virginia Woolf) – novels perhaps to help us know ourselves. There’s the unexpectedly nostalgic The Wind in the Willows (a hasty catch-up for what we didn’t encounter in childhood?). There’s a smattering of popular science (Feynman and The Invisible Gorilla). But there’s also the woefully worthy. Wittgenstein? Before university? Come off it.

Surprises on the list include a biography of the Burtons, depressingly counterbalanced by the utterly unreadable Balzac novel (and believe me, I tried during tortuous A-level French lessons).

What does it all amount to? There seems to be a suggestion that what students need in order to be ready for university is a willingness to take on challenges and to broaden their minds, an eagerness for intellectual and social exploration and a hint of eccentricity.

What it misses, I think, is the promotion of and insistence upon a complete pleasure in reading. If I were to reimagine the list, or add to it, I might include fiction titles that have helped humans better to know ourselves and our societies (a Victorian novel, some Orwell, the Tartt, perhaps). We ought to suggest well-known and contemporary poetry as a reminder of how sometimes concentrated language helps us synthesise thoughts and feelings. There should also be some selections from the wonderful range of accessible non-fiction – popular history and sciences (such as Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World), and books joyfully exploring ideas (anything by Malcolm Gladwell).

But, above all, the delivery of such a list should be heavily qualified with the insistence that book lists are just a starting point. What students need most is people who read, talk about what they’ve read and establish the act of reading as a supremely glorious human act.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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