Before I had any idea what the word “love” meant, I loved books. I loved words. I loved the way a book could make me reconsider and reevaluate the world I live in and the people I interact with. I loved the way a book could quicken my heart with its words, bring tears streaming down my cheeks while I, sniffling, turned the next page, and leave me lying awake at night long after I set the book down by my nightstand, with so many thoughts churning in my head.
I still love the way books affect me, though college has shifted my pleasure reading time into a more academic one. Still, many of the books I have read for my classes were just as enjoyable and mind-changing as any of the ones I read before college. I could tell you the books that signaled great changes in my life: How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell, The Giver by Lois Lowry, When All the World is Old by John Rybicki, and now, in college, Louise Glück’s Averno. Each of these books taught me something about challenge, the world, love and loss, and identity, things which I am still mulling over today.
If you’ve been wanting to find some books that can get you thinking or feeling new things, check out the books that changed everything for these college students.
1. The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
“The Series of Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket forever changed my life. It sounds dumb, but the series is such an introspective and thoughtful series for children that exhibits heavy themes that are important for children to know and for adults to engage with as well. The series is what began my love for reading in the fourth grade and that’s why it changed my life! I truly think I am a better/smarter student because I started at an early age with this series.” – Matthew, Louisiana State University ‘20
I remember reading this series as a kid as well, and I was always fascinated with the mystery of the Baudelaire children’s family history. For a dark but humorous and complex mystery, The Series of Unfortunate Events series is the one to get you thinking about people’s motivations for doing what they do, while also giving you some down time from reading all those academic textbooks for classes.
2. Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt
“The book Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt really helped change my perspective on certain aspects of my life. It helped me realize that I could break out of the norms of the life I was born into and do more. From reading this book, I found that change is inevitable in life. It is just something that you may have to be thrown into sometimes and hope that you swim instead of sink.” – Sarah, Clemson University ‘18
College is such a big change in our lives, it can be scary, intimidating, and daunting to try and tackle alone. But reading about change as a positive thing is helpful during this time in our lives, and it’s comforting to find identification with the fact that life itself is just one change after another.
3. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
“Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand has made me really step back and look at the way governments act and how society reacts to today’s newfound income inequality. It’s made me realize that some people want complete autonomy in everything they do and they don’t believe in sacrificing themselves for anything lesser than its value. Others believe that no one should be left on the streets or be denied “basic human rights.” This book has made me question where I stand on issues like government, capitalism versus socialism, altruism, and society’s perception of what is right and valuable to myself or to others.” – Anna, Presbyterian College ‘18
With all the recent political and social drama happening in our increasingly global world, college gives us a space to explore where we stand on such important and influential issues. Books like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged can especially give us even more perspectives to consider when making such decisions on personal values.
4. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
“Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I love that Scarlett will go to any lengths necessary to protect herself and those she loves. I find her strength and perseverance inspirational after everything she had to go through.” – Laurel, Presbyterian College ‘17
For the pick-me-up you need when life and college get tough, Gone With the Wind offers that strong female protagonist who, even when her world is becoming unrecognizable, fights to keep her integrity and changes with the times, showing her as a role model for persevering through difficult challenges.
5. The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity by William P. Young
“The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity by William P. Young changed my life because it gave me a different outlook on how to have a personal relationship with God. It showed me how to have faith when life throws storms my my way. Also, I read it when I was having a hard time in my life and it restored my happiness.” – Jessie, Midlands Technical College ‘19
Some of us college students find comfort not just in the strength of a strong character, but also strength in a certain faith. While The Shack offers a Christian perspective on the relationship one develops with God, it remains a book that at its core stresses the value and meaning of love even when it seems that love is gone.
6. Bluets by Maggie Nelson
“Bluets by Maggie Nelson changed my life. Not only did I read it at a time in which I related to it acutely, but it also pointed me in the direction of the form I’m most interested in studying (lyric essays), and inspired me to write one of my own. Bluets changed the way I thought about form, loss, and the experience of pain.” – Jozie, College of Charleston ‘17
A collection of short lyric essays that read like poems, Bluets explores “personal suffering and the limitations of vision and love, as refracted by the color blue.” For anyone seeking solace and emotional expression through words, especially if you are trying to find some sense of meaning for what lies in the future, this book is one to consider.
7. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
“I graduated a year and a half ago and recently read East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I found it to have a certain profoundness to it, a treatise on human nature. I think what I loved so much about it is that in it Steinbeck examines, without fear, some of the most common human flaws (and virtues) that we see around us or in ourselves. It is not a fantastical story that could never have happened; it sounds an awful lot like a story that was real, that happened to a family in California many years ago. I think the main thing I got out of it was that humanity is beautiful. Terrible sometimes, but beautiful. We have the power to choose between good and evil; we are terrible because we choose evil, and we are beautiful because we choose. And all because “thou mayest.” – Isaac, California State University-Chico ‘15
I recently finished reading East of Eden myself and found some of the most haunting and inspirational and thought-provoking moments and sentences written in that book that I had to take my time thinking about it, because there was so much to unravel. It’s a beautiful book that I highly recommend to anyone who wants a story about a family and what it means to love and be loved.
I’m adding many of these books to my summer reading list, because soon I’ll be out in the “real world” having to look for a job, and books can be both escapes from and guides to this bustling, creative, uncertain but exciting world we live in. There is always something to be said of humanity in every book we read. Especially in college, when we’re trying to figure out who we are and why we do what we do, reading books can give us that much more insight into who we can be and what we can do in the world.