Required Reading: Reflections on 3.5 Years of College

A shot of Low Library (a classical-style building, image taken from the side) at Columbia University in New York City

Low Library at Columbia University

I attended my college’s commencement ceremony this week. A combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and my school’s lack of emphasis on winter grads (I officially earned my diploma back in February) means that there’s not a lot of pomp and circumstance surrounding my graduation (which is perfectly fine, if not preferable, for this introvert). But I still wanted to mark the occasion in some small ways, and it felt right to do a book-themed post on this blog, which I’ve had since my freshman year of high school (so long ago!). As a political science and sustainability student, my coursework has been a lot of reading. And while I may have resented them at the time, many of my required readings have shaped how I think and write today. So in honor of finally being done with 3.5 years of endless reading, I’ve put together a list of my favorite books from each year of college.

FRESHMAN YEAR: THE ILIAD OF HOMER

The Iliad was the first book I ever read for college, and a central text for anyone who attends Columbia. I was lucky enough to get a great professor for Lit Hum—the first-year literature class with a standardized syllabus that every student has to take—and the way he encouraged us all to analyze the Iliad made me fall in love with analyzing the deeper meaning of what I read. When I look back over the books I read before and after taking his class—and reading the Iliad—there’s a marked difference. Prior to reading this book, most of the things I read were young adult or just-for-fun type stuff. After, I started really digging deep into the things I read.

Honorable Mentions: The Odyssey of Homer, The Medea by Euripides, Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau, Confessions by St. Augustine, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Non-Academic Favorite: In The Woods by Tana French

SOPHOMORE YEAR: UTILITARIANISM BY JOHN STUART MILL

I don’t fully agree with much of Mill (for starters, he’s super racist), but Utilitarianism is perhaps the most representative book of my sophomore year; I read it not once, but twice, for two different classes within a span of weeks. It’s also fitting that I choose a work of philosophy for my sophomore year, which was overshadowed by CC (Contemporary Civilization), a required philosophy course for all second-year students. (Columbia is big on required literature courses.) Either way, Utilitarianism was one of my first introductions to the field of political philosophy, which combined CC with my major of Political Science. It got me thinking about things in new ways and it’s one of the few required books that I kept and brought back home with me after college.

Honorable Mentions: The Prince by Machiavelli, Utopia by Thomas More, Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes, Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois

Non-Academic Favorite: Here Is New York by E.B. White

JUNIOR YEAR: STREETFIGHT BY JANETTE SADIK-KHAN

Junior year is when I started to take courses on, you know, applicable fields. (No offense to Lit Hum or CC, but I don’t really think the Iliad or Utilitarianism is going to help me get a job.) Streetfight, written by a former urban planning advisor to then-Mayor of NYC Mike Bloomberg, is a super-readable introduction to the field for anyone who isn’t an urban planner. Before reading this, I had no idea how much street flow impacted the walkability of cities, what a great idea it was to create no-car spaces like Times Square (post-2008) and Flatiron Plaza, and how essential urban planners are to the everyday functioning of the city. This book did get a little propaganda-y at times, with Sadik-Khan continually extolling the great virtues of Bloomberg and his administration (for context, most New Yorkers hate all of their mayors, beginning with Rudy Giuliani and ending with current mayor Bill de Blasio), but it was still a great introduction to the field for someone who does not plan to go into urban planning.

Honorable Mentions: The Bulldozer in the Countryside by Adam Rome, The Arabs by Eugene Rogan

Non-Academic Favorite: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

SENIOR SEMESTER: THE NEW JIM CROW BY MICHELLE ALEXANDER

So I’m cheating here a little bit. I didn’t actually read any full books during my last semester of college (none of my professors assigned any because of accessibility issues during COVID-19). But I did read The New Jim Crow over the summer, a chapter of which was assigned for my African-American Studies class, and it completely changed my perspective on the criminal justice system. Even as someone who knew a fair bit about the system beforehand, Alexander’s book opened my eyes to the depth and breadth of structural discrimination in the law. Highly recommended for any college grad, pre-law student, or really anyone in society.

Honorable Mentions: “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin (short story), “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass (speech), Merchants of Doubt (film)

Non-Academic Favorite: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel (cheating a bit and reaching one semester back, but oh well!)

Well, I guess that’s a wrap on college. Any advice for a recent grad?

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