As an English major, I’ve read a lot of books in my time at Drake. Good thing, too. It would certainly reflect poorly on the University if I had not. But some of the best things I’ve read actually haven’t been related to my major at all. When I glance at my bookshelf, what stands out are the books I never would have picked out myself, the ones I never knew I wanted to read. In fact, my favorite college books are the perfect representation of what a liberal arts education is supposed to be about. They span disciplines, subject matter, and time, and have challenged the way I think. Each individual will undoubtedly have their own collection of influential books, but here’s my personal list of the best books I’ve read in college:
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Mix some Pakistani politics with a cool literary structure, and you get a really fun, fascinating read. I read Hamid’s work in a class about Middle Eastern politics and literature as we tackled the origins of religious extremism. I know it may not sound like a good time, but this novel and this class gave me a new, more enlightened perspective on US foreign policy. Also, Kate Hudson, starred in the movie adaptation, but don’t that that bias you; it actually is a good book.
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
Ok, so I’m not going to lie to you. Little Dorrit is no beach read. In fact, it’s easy to understand the misery of Victorian London while trudging through an 800+ page novel. But reading Dorrit in my Charles Dickens class taught me the value of completing a literary task and how to become engaged in a truly epic, complex tale. Plus, I developed an outstanding cockney accent, guv’nah.
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger
When I began my Phenomenology and Existentialism class, I couldn’t even spell Heidegger, much less tell you about his philosophical musings. And while my spelling is still not great, my existential understanding has definitely improved. There’s no doubt that old Martin makes for a tough read and a bit of a downer. But his thoughts on the how the context of our lives is artificially constructed have been some of the most influential in my academic career.
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Confession time: I love Jane Austen. In fact, I have since I was a kid. And while I reveled in the wit and satire of most of her works, the dark undertones of Mansfield Park always troubled me. While taking a j-term class on Austen and landscape last year, I got to fully explore the novel’s use of land, British Empire, and slavery. And what I learned is that all literature, even lovely Jane Austen, is full of complications and contradictions. That’s what makes it fun.
The Elements of Style by E.B. White and William Strunk Jr.
For a short book, The Elements of Style certainly packs a punch. It details the principles all good writers should live by and common mistakes to avoid. I actually read it as part of a journalism class, but I think about it anytime I’m writing. As someone who tends to be a little wordy, White and Strunk serve as a reminder to me that often the best writing is the most concise. In their spirit, I’ll leave it at that.