30 Essential Books Everyone Should Read Before College

The ultimate reading list.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Books Everyone Should Read before College

While college professors are responsible for encouraging your academic development and performance, literature will always be an indispensable source of knowledge. After all, your college years are the best time to embrace new perspectives, pursue your passions and hone in your grasp of various subjects.

So, whether you’re a proud bookworm or a casual reader, there are several books you could add to your literary arsenal as you prepare to start the first chapter of university life.

Regardless if you’re still trying to choose universities or considering taking some time off after graduation, these stories are wonderful sources of inspiration for college students in the months leading up to their academic journey.

To help you in that journey, drop your college textbooks and look at the top 30 list of books to read before college.

1. The Catcher in the Rye

A renowned coming-of-age novel, JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is an ultimate classic for good reason. After getting expelled from a prestigious prep school, Holden Caulfield takes the streets of New York City. The narrator ponders on ordinary and extraordinary subjects regarding life, and his honest views on the world can bring a sense of intense familiarity and identification for many readers.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird tends to imprint itself on its readers. This story is told through the eyes of Scout, a young tomboy living in the deep South. As her father takes on the colossal task of defending an unjustly accused Black man, Scout’s narrative of the events formulate into an important commentary on justice, race, social class and adolescence.

3. The Handmaid’s Tale

Dystopian novels tend to become a point of reference for modern political moments; you may have come across several articles that compare The Handmaid’s Tale to events concerning women’s rights. This is a novel that has been praised for its prophetic and dark insights and is the perfect read to sharpen your critical thinking skills as a young adult.

4. 1984

If you plan on reading one dystopian novel before heading to college, let that be 1984. George Orwell’s dystopia world has time and time again been compared to contemporary, global events. One of the most recent instances was COVID-19 and how social distancing echoed 1984’s realm.

5. The Bluest Eye

This story (and any of Toni Morrison’s novels, for that matter) is a quintessential read for any young individual. The Bluest Eye divulges into an important dialog regarding “ideal” beauty and the way it is portrayed by society — often fair-skinned and blue-eyed. As the young Black protagonist becomes fixated with these ideals, the narrative masterfully captivates notions of internalized and institutionalized racism still prevalent today.

6. One Hundred Years of Solitude

Going away to college can often mean learning to live on your own. Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude seems quite a fitting read. Exploring solitude and its effects on individual lives, the book tells a multigenerational story of an isolated town located in the Colombian rainforest.

7. On the Road

Jack Kerouac’s prose is often the subject of debate, and this is a book you’ll either love or hate. Regardless, On the Road has influenced countless books, movies and people ever since its publication. The book’s non-conforming take on the social tapestry of America captivates a spirit of adventure and the essence of fearless youth that many have identified with over the years.

8. Their Eyes Were Watching God

This timeless literary masterpiece belongs to the top of your to-read list. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of a young woman’s pursuit for selfhood and independence. Set in the early 1930s, the story offers an honest portrayal of the African American community at the time, capturing the societal barriers and obstacles the characters have to overcome.

9. This Side of Paradise

No bookcase is complete without at least one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s works. His debut novel This Side of Paradise is a stunning coming-of-age story about an egotistical and ambitious Princeton University student. Written when the author was just 23 years old, the book is a semi-autobiographical portrait of a young man.

10. Emma

Did you really think you could get away without at least one Jane Austen book recommendation? While picking which novel to feature was a tough call, Emma, hands down earned a spot on this literary list. After all, this book has it all: bold writing, a riveting plot and intelligent characters, brought to you by a writer who was far ahead of her time.

11. The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic has been praised time and time again about its accounts of the Great Depression in America. While the subject matter might not be the most joyous, The Grapes of Wrath is an important literary work of our time.

12. Lord of the Flies

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies follows a group of schoolboys deserted on an island after a plane crash. This might sound as a fun adventure at first, but the book takes a shocking turn, exploring human nature in a scenario where civilization loses all meaning. While it was critical of its time, Lord of the Flies remains a relevant and startling read today.

13. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami’s writing can only be described as a marvelous fusion of language and emotion. As you read about the colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and the mysteries of a long lost friendship, the layers and perspectives that Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage offers will provide you with deep lessons about life that we all should learn.

14. The Bell Jar

No book list is really complete without Sylvia Plath’s one and only completed novel. Originally published under her alias Victoria Lucas, The Bell Jar trenches in the darkest corners of the main character's psyche. While the book explores a young woman’s battle with mental illness, it sustains a witty and even humorous tone. Arguably, its authenticity and raw language have earned it a place among the top American classics.

15. Normal People

Sally Rooney’s award-winning novel Normal People explores the complexities of popularity, first love, class and friendship through the story of Connell and Marianne, whose lives are inexplicably intertwined during their high school and university years. As a young adult transitioning from the high school realm to the wondrous university world, this could be the perfect read for you.

16. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will teach you a very vital lesson: make the most of what you got, regardless of circumstances. This is a timeless and whimsical science fiction novel; even if this genre isn’t your usual cup of tea, this could soon change your mind.

17. A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf’s extended essay poses a series of witty and critical questions to its readers. A Room of One’s Own concerns itself with female creativity and the limitations posed to it by society. Witty and critical of its time, this is an essential book for any creative young mind.

18. The Little Prince

It’s easy to disregard The Little Prince as a children’s fable, but there are lessons to be learned, regardless your age. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s story about a little prince who travels to Earth speaks to every adult’s inner child sharing meaningful symbolisms and wise teachings.

19. Catch-22

Catch-22 is both an all-time classic and a favorite for many. Although the plot takes place in a World War II setting, its characters remain timelessly relevant and equally hilarious, while the book’s satirical language and non-conforming style make it a definite must-read.

20. Tuesdays with Morrie

As you journey through your university years, you’ll likely come across a series of mentors, teachers and individuals. Tuesdays with Morrie shares important perspectives, valuable lessons and insights about life and all its implications, offered by the author’s own college mentor Morrie Schwartz.

21. Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut’s novels are known to flirt with the boundaries of fiction and reality. Slaughterhouse-Five captures the life of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who is doomed to relive different moments over and over again as he narrates experiences from the past, present and future. Despite the controversy surrounding this novel, the story will resonate with you well after you’re done reading.

22. A Brief History of Time

Stephen Hawking dedicated his life studying the cosmos and the very beginning of the universe. A Brief History of Time approaches unfathomable subjects like space and time, and makes them comprehensive for the average reader. Regardless what you plan to study at university, you can still learn a little something from one of the world’s greatest minds.

23. The Opposite of Loneliness

The Opposite of Loneliness is a posthumous collection of essays and stories by a young Yale graduate. The writing is full of enthusiasm, ambition and endless wonderings about the world seen through a young woman’s eyes. For someone who is about to start their college journey, this collection will certainly hit home.

24. On Beauty

Set in a university town, On Beauty tells the story of an interracial family, exploring various multicultural aspects. The book is critical of today’s realities and solidifies Zadie Smith’s status as a literary genius. From love to race and academia to art and politics, this is a book that touches upon a myriad of important matters of our time.

25. The House on Mango Street

It’s hard not to love The House on Mango Street and all its lively characters. Told through a series of vignettes by a young Latina girl growing up in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood, this is an awe-inspiring coming-of-age novel.

26. Brave New World

English author Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a dystopian sci-fi classic. Devoted to exploring issues relating to governance and control, the book warns of the dangers of allowing governments too much authority over technological innovation and the lives of its citizens.

27. Fahrenheit 451

Written in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 is a work by American novelist Ray Bradbury that explores the theme of censorship. The book’s protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman whose job entails burning books for the government. While Montag initially does his job without a second thought, he eventually becomes disillusioned and begins questioning everything he knows.

28. Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart is the debut novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. The work played a significant role in the literary renaissance which occurred in Nigeria in the 1960s. A classic work that explores the theme of white colonial activity in Africa, Things Fall Apart chronicles the effects of missionary activity and colonial government on the Igbo people of Nigeria.

29. Animal Farm

A commentary on Stalinist Russia, the work tells the story of a group of mistreated farm animals who rebel against their human rulers to form a more egalitarian society. Within little time, however, the revolution is subverted by (you guessed it) the pigs, and an even worse government is established in place of the original one.

30.  Invisible Man

Considered one of the great pieces of African American literature, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man’s protagonist is confronted with the problem of invisibility of identity. It is, ultimately, a commentary on what it meant to be Black in the 20th-Century United States.

Final thoughts

When it comes to reading, we often opt for stories that are familiar and relevant to ourselves. But books are portals to new, exciting and different perspectives that allow us to consider things from different points of view.

As you get ready to head to college or start considering different college degrees, be sure to add a diverse selection of books at the top of your reading list, as they will only leave you all the wiser.

Can you recommend any other great must-read books? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Originally published on May 2, 2020. Updated by Aaron Niles.