As part of an ongoing assault on leisure, many American universities assign summer reading to incoming freshmen who have yet to set foot in a college classroom. Dartmouth, for example, sent Charles Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus to the class of 2014 "to engage new students in a shared academic experience." Stanford mailed out three titles: Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains, Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and Joyce Carol Oates' short story "The Undesirable Table." The University of North Carolina, meanwhile, picked a book with three authors: Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption,by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Tomeo.
While we have no doubt that these are worthy picks, they also seem rather dutiful: Injustice and undesirable furniture aren't so great for the beach. So we thought we'd offer incoming freshmen an alternative list, one better suited to helping 18-year-olds navigate university life. Herewith, a bit of homework—but pleasurable homework, we promise—courtesy of Slate.
How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right the First Time, by John J. Palmer
Don't waste your college years drinking Natty Light! Spend your summer becoming a master brewer while you have time on your hands and a garage that belongs to your parents. You'll be the envy of your hallway, and you can use your excellent beer to barter for other stuff you might need. Also, read Ulysses. This book will invariably be assigned to you at some point in college, and you can instead use that free time to make a nice saison. Bring the saison to office hours with your professors. They will look kindly on you and give you an A.—Recommended by Michael Agger, senior editor
Within the Context of No Context,by George W.S. Trow Know that feeling when you walk out of an awful movie angry and exhausted and embarrassed to belong to the culture that spawned it? So does George W.S. Trow, and he captures that feeling in a 1981 book/essay called Within the Context of No Context. It's a quiet diatribe against television, which he calls "the force of no-history," and its effect on our souls. But it's a lot more, too. Trow touches on celebrity, the "con" of advertising, the emptiness of People magazine (real gossip is more subversive, he argues), and the way media substitutes "pseudo-intimacy" for love. Trow is especially horrified by our quest for—and attainment of—permanent childhood: " 'adulthood' has been defined as 'a position of control in the world of childhood.' … Ambitious Americans, sensing this, have preferred to remain adolescents, year after year." (College students, take note.) It makes me wonder what Trow, who died in 2006, would make of the Twitter-ified world. Would he celebrate its connectivity or bemoan it as another step toward total, fetuslike isolation?—Recommended by Christopher Beam, political reporter
Confessions of Felix Crull, Confidence Man: The Early Years, by Thomas Mann
First off: Thomas Mann's Confessions of Felix Krull is shorter than his other books … have you taken a look at The Magic Mountain? Sheesh, that's a big book! I know I never got through it. What's more, Felix Krull, Mann's first-person account of a charming confidence man—a faker of the first degree—is really fun to read: I daresay beachy. Still, it's a great touchstone for late night conversations about human nature. (Aren't we all just playing roles any way? Are good fiction writers just a breed of con artists?) When I read it, years ago, I started by smugly asking who could fall for such an obvious schemer; but the character has stuck with me for years, and if I lived in his world, I suspect he'd have my number, too. Particularly recommended for those who feel they've spent their high-school years crafting a persona that they wouldn't mind shedding.—Recommended by Sara Dickerman, contributor
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith My parents, who aren't big gift-givers, bought me Zadie Smith's novel White Teeth when I graduated from high school. They chose it mostly because it was new and popular and because they thought I would like it, not because they believed it had any particular poignancy for a teenager in transition. Looking back, however, it is an excellent pick for an 18-year-old who's off to college. When Smith's book came out in 2000, it was described by the New York Times as a "riotous multicultural drama," and as a writer, she has great empathy for the wide swath of characters depicted. From a wannabe Islamic radical to a half-Jamaican dentist, the people who populate White Teeth will encourage you to keep an open mind to your fellow freshmen.—Recommended by Jessica Grose, associate editor and managing editor of DoubleX
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S. Kuhn
I bought a copy of Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at a garage sale when I was 15 or 16 and read the book that summer, mostly outdoors in the sun. It changed the way I think. Kuhn looks closely at the history of Western science and argues that it isn't a steady, cumulative climb toward true understanding of the way things work. Instead, scientists build self-consistent systems of thought that are "true" only to the extent they let work move forward in an intellectual community—they set a framework of received wisdom and an agenda for research. Eventually, anomalies accumulate, a system fails, and a new model replaces it.
Almost everything about the book's context was lost on my 16-year-old self. But the idea that intellectual systems are tools that can be put on and taken off, like pairs of glasses, came through loud and thrillingly. If college is about being exposed to many modes of thought and learning to navigate among them, Kuhn made higher education legible for me. And not just me: At some point during my freshman year, I loaned my garage-sale copy to my roommate. He's yet to return it. Maybe that's the ultimate endorsement.
—Recommended by Nathan Heller, copy editor