6 Books That Should Be Assigned For Freshman-Year Reading

aBy Nicole Horowitz

North Carolina's Duke University made headlines not for its selection of Alison Bechdel’s auto-biographical graphic novel Fun Home as the Class of 2019’s assigned summer reading, but for a small group of student’s refusal to read the book on moral grounds.

A group of students, led by Brian Grasso, took objection to the sexual content of the novel, highlighted by its illustrative medium. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of incoming Blue Devils saw the assignment of Bechdel’s book, which is highly acclaimed in print as well as a popular Broadway musical, as a cool move on the part of Duke’s administration. Yet, the ensuing discussion on students' rights to read or not to read books that offend them was respectful and the resulting discourse intriguing.

If college is a time that is supposed to expand the horizons of the mind, can readership be demanded even when it comes to blows with morality? And if so, what other types of books could swathe young minds in the delicious controversy and discomfort brought upon by this intersection of Fun Home and Southern Christian values?
Ahead, a list of books that all college freshman should be assigned to read, controversial or not.

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Photo: Courtesy of Pantheon Books.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Okay, I’m cheating a little bit here because Persepolis was my own summer assigned reading (shoutout to N.Y.U. Class of 2015). Like Fun Home, Persepolis is both a graphic novel and a coming-of-age story.

But Persepolis trades out a discussion on sexuality for one of nationality, femininity, and personal expression in an Islamic state. Its discussion on Iran gave me a way into a political issue that previously seemed completely inaccessible, and the selection of a graphic novel expanded my definition of academic literature in all the right ways.
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Photo: Courtesy of Scholastic.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Fiercely anti-religious, but wrapped in the beautiful charade of children’s fantasy, The Golden Compass is the type of book that changes childhoods, but also one which has fallen through the cracks for many (due in part to a less-than-stellar film adaptation).

The story takes place in a world in which souls are externalized and portrayed as animals. Themes include what it means to have a soul, the connection between the self and the other, and what, if any, is the importance of family. Talk about some grade-A first-week-of-school icebreakers. Can you say #WhatsYourDaemon?

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Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 by Richard Brautigan
Though not published until 1971, this gem by oft-forgotten novelist Richard Brautigan pulses with freshness. It’s a beautiful and casual story surrounding the protagonist and his girlfriend’s quest to get her an abortion.

As much a political piece as a personal and historical one, The Abortion is definitely worth reading for its portrayal of the changing values of the time and its reliance on a writer who knows how to write. It's one of those books that you read in school or you never read at all.
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Photo: Courtesy of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Joan Didion at her youngest and feistiest, this collection of essays, originally published in 1968, should be required reading for all Americans, much less Californians, New Yorkers, and feminists.

It’s a series of history lessons made more palatable by personal narrative, the result of which is an education both broad and specific. Didion’s use of prose is masterful and the essay format lends itself to easy discussion of the book's various topics.

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Photo: Courtesy of Propyläen Verlag.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Ah, World War I, the forgotten war of unquestionable, unspeakable horror. For so long, the book was a staple among high school required reading (so much so that I could almost hear you yawning as you read this). But lately, the book has fallen a bit out of style, to the point where about 50% of the people I’ve talked to about it thought it was written by Ernest Hemingway.

The narrator, Paul, is in his late teens at the beginning of the book and I’ve never read a more honest depiction of the futility of war and society’s capacity to destroy youth with indifference. I feel it has particular resonance with those just entering their college years.
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Photo: Courtesy of Scribner.
The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
Marina Keegan was an aspiring author who graduated from Yale in 2012 and was killed in a car crash the summer after. Across the span of her short life, she penned a number of short stories and essays, many of which ended up in the posthumously published The Opposite of Loneliness, the title of which comes from an essay she wrote for the Yale Daily News in anticipation of her graduation.

Keegan’s prose is sharp and inspired beyond her years. Getting a glimpse into the world of a recent graduate may just be the enlivening and sobering experience that a kid entering college needs to really soar.

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