September is National Literacy month—and these books are higher-ed ‘musts’

books-literacy-college September is National Literacy Month, and just like many other areas of education, the term ‘literacy’ is in flux, incorporating new definitions that both traditional curriculum as well as more progressive courses in higher education have a responsibility to nurture in students.

Though your first thought may turn to digital literacy and the skills associated with online research [and you wouldn’t be wrong!], as social media platforms and the internet shatter geographic boundaries, literacy is also changing to mean having a well-informed perspective on a multitude of topics—a perspective that includes those from diverse cultures as well as traditional Western ideologies.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m an English major coming from a private liberal arts college, so waxing poetic on literacy in the 21st century could take all day. But while digital and technology literacy is essential…there are still books that do a darn good job of helping today’s student become literate; literate in the sense of not only being able to carry on a conversation about global politics, but become knowledgeable enough of society, economics, cultures, and changing world paradigms to perhaps make better life choices.

And making more well-informed life choices—be that through choosing the right career pathway, analyzing student loans, or becoming a more responsible citizen—well, isn’t that what higher education is all about?

So without further ado, and with the preface that these 10 books are A) ones that I personally read in college that blew my hair back; and B) are completely subjective, here are the books I believe every student should read in college.

(Next page: 10 books to read in college)

[Listed in alphabetical order]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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6. Monster, Sanyika Shakur

Also known by his former street moniker ‘Monster,’ the author of this autobiography is a former member of an L.A. gang. Monster describes how Shakur was drawn into gang life, his experiences as a gangster both on the street and in prisons, and eventually his transformation into a black nationalist. Opening up discussions on race relations in the U.S., as well as providing a unique view of gang life not known by many, Monster provides a sobering perspective on many critical issues involving inner-city minorities, and de-glamourizes the notion of a ‘gangster.’

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7.  “The Odyssey,” Homer.

I’ll be honest, when I was told I had to read an epic Greek poem I might have groaned aloud in class; but really, what could be more relevant to a college student than themes of homesickness, changing of personal identity through obstacles part of a journey, and finding meaning in seemingly tedious life events that come to define destiny?

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8. “The Republic,” Plato.

Written by Plato around 380 BC, this “Socratic dialogue” should really be called “Re-shaping college students’ philosophies 101.” Discussing the meaning of justice, the order and character of the city-state, and the “just man,” Plato’s work is regarded one of the most thought-provoking philosophic dialogues on politics, the creation of society, and citizenship…all topics relevant to the developing minds of college students.

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9.  The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.

An Israeli poet, Amichai is considered by many, both in Israel and internationally, as Israel’s greatest modern poet. He was also one of the first to write in colloquial Hebrew and was awarded the 1957 Shlonsky Prize, the 1969 Brenner Prize, 1976 Bialik Prize, and 1982 Israel Prize. He also won international poetry prizes: 1994 – Malraux Prize: International Book Fair (France), 1995 – Macedonia`s Golden Wreath Award: International Poetry Festival, and more. Though the short poems with modern-day metaphors may initially entice students to read his works, it’s the rich cultural background (that can open up discussions not only about history, but current politics), that will keep them coming back for more.

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10. The Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys.

Almost everyone has read Jane Eyre, but most haven’t read the “prequel” to Jane Eyre written by Rhys. A postcolonial novel, the story is told from the perspective of Rochester’s “lunatic” wife, who, as it turns out, may not be so crazy after all. A white Creole heiress from the Caribbean, Antoinette Cosway is caught in a patriarchal society in which she belongs neither to the white Europeans nor the black Jamaicans. The novel deals with themes of racial inequality, displacement and assimilation—global issues every college student should at least be aware of. Plus, it’s always fun to have a classic novel turned on its head.


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