What incoming college students are reading this summer
The summer between graduating from high school and heading off to college can be a great time to relax with a good book before students start their next chapter. In fact, some colleges ask incoming students to do exactly that, assigning the same book across the entire university or within individual majors. Often known as common reading programs, the assigned texts are regularly used in freshman-level classes and offer students a chance to come together to discuss a book they’ve all read. While some colleges mandate this reading, others merely provide suggestions for students. Looking for a good book? Check out these selections from university reading programs. Although colleges don’t always state why a book is required or recommended reading, many are New York Times bestsellers and many deal with issues of race, social justice and social progress.
Born a Crime
“Born a Crime” is the memoir of comedian Trevor Noah, who recounts his experiences being born to a white father and a Black mother in apartheid South Africa when — as the title suggests — such racial mixing was illegal in the country. The book documents Noah’s relationship with his mother and his early years in South Africa, where he was hidden for much of his childhood prior to the fall of the apartheid government. “Born a Crime” is the assigned common reading experience book for first-year students at Northern Illinois University from 2021-2023, as well as students entering the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor.
“Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants” is a collection of essays by Robin Wall Kimmerer that explores the theme of relationships within nature, coupling the author’s scientific understanding as a botanist with her outlook as an indigenous woman. The New York Times bestseller is part of the common reading experience for incoming students at schools such as New York University, where the entire university community is invited to participate, and the University of Oregon.
“Educated” by Tara Westover is another New York Times bestselling memoir on this list that revisits the author’s difficult upbringing. Her story begins in the remote mountains of Idaho, where she was homeschooled amid a turbulent and abusive family life before heading off to college and ascending the ranks of academia. Much of the book is centered on her difficult teenage years and young adult life as she struggles to navigate an unfamiliar world beyond rural Idaho. “Educated” is part of freshman reading programs at schools such as the University of South Carolina.
“Exit West,” a novel by Mohsin Hamid, is set against the backdrop of an unnamed city in a country in conflict. As love blooms for main characters Saeed and Nadia in a culture that restricts men and women being in public together, the country is swept into chaos by militant extremists. What follows is the story of a romance challenged by the perils of war as Saeed and Nadia seek to escape the city, becoming refugees. Sexual identity and religion are also among the themes explored in this decade-hopping book. “Exit West” has been assigned to incoming students at schools such as Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and Smith College in Massachusetts.
How to Be an Antiracist
A New York Times bestseller, “How to Be an Antiracist” is a manual by Ibram X. Kendi — director and founder of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University — to help readers explore their own actions and ideas around race and to make an effort to actively combat racism. Kendi zeroes in on racial inequities in U.S. society, how policies have maintained that status quo and the ideas used to justify such policies. “How to Be an Antiracist” has been assigned at schools such as Skidmore College in New York and has been a popular selection at other schools in the last year.
“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” is a New York Times bestselling memoir by Bryan Stevenson that focuses on his work as a lawyer for disadvantaged clients. It includes a retelling of his efforts to help Walter McMillian, a man sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit. Stevenson also writes about his experiences with other disadvantaged clients and his legal advocacy work. The book, which was adapted to a film released in 2019 starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, is part of the summer reading program at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
Such a Fun Age
A New York Times bestseller, “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid explores the aftermath of an incident when a young Black woman, Emira, is accosted by a security guard at a high-end neighborhood grocery store one night as she is babysitting a white toddler. Following the incident, the child’s mother hopes to set things right and become closer to Emira, prompting an exploration of transactional relationships, racism and implicit biases. “Such a Fun Age” is the common read for incoming students at Duke University in North Carolina.
The debut novel of Native American author Tommy Orange, “There There” tells the story of the modern indigenous experience. Set largely in Oakland, California, “There There” jumps back and forth between characters and decades to share the individual challenges and triumphs of urban Native Americans as the book heads toward a violent climax at a heavily attended powwow. A popular choice for common reading experiences recently, “There There” is the assigned text this year at California State University–San Marcos.
They Called Us Enemy
George Takei of “Star Trek” fame may be best known as an actor, but in “They Called Us Enemy,” the story he’s telling is his own. In a New York Times bestselling graphic memoir, Takei — with the help of co-writers and illustrators — reflects on his childhood experience of being in an internment camp with other Japanese Americans during World War II following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. But Takei’s journey doesn’t stop there. He reflects on that experience as he grows older, becomes an advocate for Japanese Americans and watches as the U.S. grapples with the fallout of the internment. “They Called Us Enemy” is the chosen text for California State University–Fullerton.
Faith, science, religion and love are heavy themes in “Transcendent Kingdom,” a novel by Yaa Gyasi about a Ghanaian immigrant family that copes with addiction, loss and family challenges. The main character, Gifty, is a Ph.D. student in neuroscience looking to apply a scientific understanding to the suffering of her family as she struggles through conflicts with her faith amid personal and familial grief. “Transcendent Kingdom” has been chosen for common reading programs at Davidson College in North Carolina and Northeastern University in Massachusetts.
Summer reads for incoming college students
— “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah
— “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer
— “Educated” by Tara Westover
— “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid
— “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi
— “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson
— “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid
— “There There” by Tommy Orange
— “They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei
— “Transcendent Kingdom” by Yaa Gyasi
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