The 26 books to read before going to university

What tomes could help ease students’ transition to higher education? We teamed up with our sister magazine Times Higher Education to ask academics for their top picks – and their list contains a few surprises...

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Aliens: why they are here

by Bryan Appleyard

“Aliens is a great book because it deftly deconstructs popular culture (from conspiracy theories to Star Trek) in order to interrogate the desires, fears and ideologies that are coded into such representations and discourses. For any student of the arts and humanities, Appleyard is a primer in how to explore the ‘everyday’ and defamiliarise it in order to see it anew – and make connections between the micro and macro.”

Sharif Mowlabocus, senior lecturer in media studies at the University of Sussex


A Rage to Live: a biography of Richard and Isabel Burton

by Mary S Lovell

“It’s for those who self-identify as misfits and mavericks, iconoclasts even. It’s a love story whose journey of long unrequited yearning will put any difficult university affair into perspective. It’s a story of how to lose friends and alienate people, which leaves you wishing you could engage in causes even half as dangerous and daring and not care about who you alienate on the way. Above all, the characters satisfy the book’s title: Richard and Isabel dare you to embark on your journey with a wild ‘rage to live’ – to push boundaries, to question everything and to relish every opportunity for love, adventure, roving and enjoyment. All good things for any beginning student to imbibe, I would have thought.”

James Tooley, professor of education policy at Newcastle University


A Room of One’s Own

by Virginia Woolf

“This essay is a provocative insight into the reasons why students may not encounter that many female philosophers, scientists and artists as they begin their studies at university. 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. As well as being brilliantly written, it is imaginative, challenging and inspirational.”

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


A Time of Gifts

by Patrick Leigh Fermor

“This is a slightly offbeat choice because it’s not about someone who goes to university; instead, it’s about a 19-year-old and his walking tour across pre-Second World War Europe. I think all young people should read it because it speaks so eloquently about the importance of being open and engaged with the people around you, and is full of important lessons of life.”

Duncan Wu, professor of English at Georgetown University


Galileo’s Middle Finger: heretics, activists and the search for justice in science

by Alice Dreger

“I would suggest this cleverly named book to demonstrate the power of argument and the roles of evidence, scepticism and courage in academic endeavour, and the dire consequences of the lack of such qualities.”

Barry Reay, Keith Sinclair chair in history at the University of Auckland


Landscape for a Good Woman: a story of two women

by Carolyn Steedman

“Analysing the unfulfilled desires and frustrations of her mother’s life in the 1950s enables Steedman to bring her critical historical imagination to an analysis of the nature and limits of much of the theory we bring to understanding desire, especially desires for a better life – whether feminist, psychoanalytic, sociological, political or broadly psychosocial.”

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


Life’s Greatest Secret: the race to crack the genetic code

by Matthew Cobb

“I am tempted to advise students on the threshold of university not to worry about which book to read, so long as they read some books! But if I have to choose one, I would thrust Life’s Greatest Secret into the hands of the biology and biochemistry students arriving in my department. It will help them to break out of traditional modes of thinking about how science discovers the world.”

Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London


Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening

by Christopher Small

“This is a book that teaches us how to observe and question everyday human behaviour and institutions, and that demonstrates how to use theoretical analysis to draw wider conclusions about how meanings and values are created.”

Nicholas Till, professor of opera and music theatre at the University of Sussex


Old Goriot

by Honoré de Balzac

“Though he hails from the early 19th century, the novel’s hero, Eugène de Rastignac, remains the model for first-year university students. Leaving his provincial backwater for bustling Paris to study law, 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, as he is warned, 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. (Hint: neither one nor the other.)”

Robert Zaretsky, professor of history at the University of Houston


On Becoming a Person: a therapist’s view of psychotherapy

by Carl Rogers

“First published in 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 at the University of St Andrews


On Poetry

by Glyn Maxwell

“It’s witty, erudite, provocative, opinionated and, through poetry, speaks subtly and with urgency about curiosity, desire and form – ‘creaturely life’, as Maxwell 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 at the University of Manchester


Philosophical Investigations

by Ludwig Wittgenstein

“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 at the department of pure maths and mathematical statistics at the University of Cambridge


Reborn: early diaries, 1947-1963

by Susan Sontag

“These diaries show Sontag uncertain, sometimes scared and yet intoxicated by the excitement of ideas and the possibility of life and sexuality. I loved them for the permission that they give to take risks and chase passion, and most of all for the permission that they give to not to know. All students starting out at university should remember this: that it’s OK not to have the answers, or know where you are going, or what you are doing, and that not having answers is, in fact, at the heart of scholarship and learning. As long as you keep asking questions.”

Tamson Pietsch, fellow in history at the University of Sydney


Sapiens: a brief history of humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

“I wish I had been able to read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens 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 at the University of Cambridge


Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman: adventures of a curious character

by Richard Feynman

“[I chose this] partly for the way in which the reluctant Nobel laureate conveys the sheer ebullience and joy of discovering new understanding and new ways of looking at the world, but also for the personal messages that it conveys for those setting out on their own journey to university and beyond. Think for yourself. Believe in yourself. Above all, remember that your responsibility is to yourself.”

Len Fisher, visiting fellow in physics at the University of Bristol


Talking to Strangers: anxieties of citizenship since Brown v Board of Education

by Danielle Allen

“A powerful and sensitive account of segregation, sacrifice and misrecognition that, while focused on the US and the civil rights movement there, speaks directly to the current refugee crisis in Europe. It also provides criticism of the tradition of political theory from Hobbes to Habermas, utilising African-American literature, and ending with a manifesto for community action to redress injustices. It is not so much a manual for entry into university life, but for entry into the wider political life that should be entailed by university.”

John Holmwood, professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham


The Blandings stories

by PG Wodehouse

“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 PG Wodehouse, specifically the ‘Blandings stories’, such as Pigs Have Wings.”

John Gilbey teaches in the computer science department at Aberystwyth University


The Establishment: and how they get away with it

by Owen Jones

“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 society where ability matters less than inheritance and connections, then I might have spent less time shopping in Miss Selfridge, vogueing and campaigning against cruelty to guinea pigs. Still, that experience made me who I am today… ahem.”

Joanna Lewis, assistant professor in African and imperial history at the London School of Economics


The History Man

by Malcolm Bradbury

“Howard Kirk, the central character of Malcolm Bradbury’s novel, 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 at Queen Mary University of London


The Secret History

by Donna Tartt

“It offers a cautionary tale about both the in-crowd and the out-crowd at university. It’s set in a liberal arts college in Vermont and pulls no punches whatsoever about campus life, as well as being an incredibly clever, fast-paced and entertaining murder mystery.”

Jo Brewis, professor of organisation and consumption at the University of Leicester


The Invisible Gorilla: and other ways our intuition deceives us

by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

“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 accumulating facts.”

Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford


The Wind in the Willows

by Kenneth Grahame

“This provides both a refuge from anxiety and valuable allegorical information about life. Different editions have had various illustrators, but I think that the drawings by Arthur Rackham (published in 1940) are the best, though those by Ernest Shepard (published in 1931) are more widely known.”

David Bignell, emeritus professor of zoology at Queen Mary University of London


The Women’s Room

by Marilyn French

“The Women’s Room offers a vivid slice of social history while making the point that for some people – like the heroine Mira – being able to study at university is something that can never be taken for granted.”

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


This Changes Everything: capitalism vs the climate

by Naomi Klein

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

Jenny Pickerill, professor in environmental geography at the University of Sheffield


This is Water: some thoughts, delivered on a significant occasion, about living a compassionate life

by David Foster Wallace

“It is actually a commencement speech, intended for college students who are on the edge of their professional careers. Its thesis is that a liberal arts education teaches us how to do the very important work of choosing what to think. It’s only 60 short pages – the perfect length to read on the bus or train to your next place, higher learning.”

John Kaag, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell


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

by David McRaney

“It highlights the cognitive biases that we all experience. In an era of ‘safe spaces’, where the very core of the university experience – open debate – is being challenged, we should perhaps encourage students to argue more about how they argue...”

Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the University of Nottingham


This is an article from the 15 April edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To subscribe, click here.

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