Op-ed: 10 books to read in college to celebrate literacy

[Listed in alphabetical order]


1. The Awakening, Kate Chopin.

Set in the south at the end of the 19th century, the plot centers on a woman’s struggle to reconcile her then-unorthodox views on femininity and motherhood with the prevailing social attitudes. This novel is considered one of the earliest American novels focused on women’s issues, and it has been widely recognized as a landmark work of early feminism.

Complex woman’s rights issues are everywhere today—in American politics, third-world countries, and even the workplace. Incredibly enough, the extreme pressures women still face today are some of the cited causes as to why women leave their STEM-related PhD tracks in droves. Understanding where modern feminist issues took root in history, and examining whether or not standards have changed in today’s society, are critical issues to examine, especially for undergrads.


2. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

Why is an editor of innovation news listing Shakespeare as a must-read for 21st-century literacy? Because Shakespeare’s works are timeless, incorporating themes especially relevant today; such as understanding identity and personal growth [“Twelfth Night,” “Hamlet”] and racial undertones and their effect on societal norms [“The Merchant of Venice,” “Othello”]. Shakespeare’s themes and plot development are also used widely in movies, plays, and other pop culture references around the world.


3. Dante’s Inferno.

Let’s face it: Dante’s levels of hell are just cool as, well, hell. But besides just stimulating the imagination, Dante’s Inferno is a religious historian’s dream, revealing the many cultural beliefs at the time of what constitutes sin, as well as Dante’s own revelations into his life. For college students, re-analyzing what ‘ethics’ means in today’s world, how one shapes personal morals, and how one figuratively navigates through the moral tests in life, are fundamental in personal development and dictating future actions in everything from the workplace to academic cheating.


4. The Illustrated A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking.

My college required students to take a ‘Quantitive Reasoning’ credit as the only STEM-related requirement in four years. Blazing away on my English major and sociology minor, I often wished there was an “Intro to Astronomy” for those simply curious, rather than a third-year course on Astronomy as part of another major.  “Read the Illustrated Brief History of Time,” said my dad, an engineer who read Hawking’s original non-illustrated version as part of his own college education.

I can’t say that the inner workings of the universe, or at least the most current understandings of it, are day-to-day relevant for the average student, but I can say that it comes in extremely handy when analyzing movies like Gravity, and being able to describe to a friend why the government believes it’s worthy to spend millions on a future mission to Europa. And, you know, understanding basic physics can’t really hurt—going back to that whole literacy thing.


5. The McDonaldization of Society, George Ritzer.

Based on the work of Max Weber, Ritzer’s work is an analysis of the impact of social structural change on human interaction and identity, specifically focusing on the concept of rationalization: “a far reaching process whereby traditional modes of thinking were being replaced by an ends/means analysis concerned with efficiency and formalized social control,” Wikipedia describes. According to Ritzer, the later part of the 20th Century structures itself like a fast-food restaurant.

Students curious to know more about entrepreneurship, the way most corporate industries are run, and how highly-researched practices implemented by businesses like McDonald’s are incorporated into other seemingly non-related parts of society, should read Ritzer’s work.

(Next page: Books 6-10)