This academic year, I set a goal to redefine the “freshman 15.” I’m pleased and excited to share with you the 15 books I read from my first day in my dorm to my last. They are a weight on my heart and mind I’m glad to have gained.
I started off my freshman year of college young and dumb. But don’t we all? The first book I read was On Democracy by Robert A. Dahl as an assignment for my journalism class and man, I thought it was the stuff that college was made of. My classmates complained and complained about its dryness. I thought it was the epitome of college! I soaked up its detailed governmental analysis and through accompanying lectures from my professor came to understand how reporters and writers become “watchdogs of power” and how necessary truth is in a democracy. I soaked up this learning experience because it just felt good. I was young and dumb ,and I loved that book.
My next adventure was Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by the amazing and beautiful and incredibly funny Mindy Kaling. I don’t just call people truly funny all the time, but Mindy has EARNED the title. I devoured her essays and felt myself relating them to in these new, grown-up ways. I actually read parts of the book aloud to my friend Shelby as we waited in line for a Vance Joy concert and we laughed and laughed and the sun was shining gently and people were chattering away and cars were passing and everything felt happy and warm and wonderful.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles took me into winter with the most beautiful, haunting turn. It was achingly reminiscent of Gatsby, but there was no idyllic islands or mansions for hiding, just the rawness of industrial, late 1930s New York City. It was a mesmerizing read and I spent sweet hours reading it alone at night wrapped in blankets and wondering what I was even doing and who I was. The book itself aches for the dazzle of the Roaring Twenties, but is moving into the 40s. In this way, the book echoed within me. Throughout this first year of college, I struggled with a heavy nostalgia that made my chest physically ache. I wanted the simplicity and esteem that my last years of high school gave me, but I was enamored with the newfound freedom and progression that college so wholly encapsulated. This book is for the forgotten, the wondering, and the yearning, and I felt so perfectly included. I escaped for about 350 pages and that was so valuable to me.
Yes Please made me want to be a comedian and make my living with people laughing and also deepened my love for Amy Poehler. She bared her secrets and that was so cool to me.
I tackled Blur by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel next, another reading for my journalism class. I thought it was captivating. Information and the way it’s presented were sacred to me, and I think I still really value that.
Cold Mountain was frustratingly, tragically romantic. I felt like an adult reading it and was weary of the world when I finally closed it. I wrote about it at the time.
Freedom Next Time by John Pilger was my final reading assignment for my journalism class, and I had a love-hate relationship with it. I love my country and am proud of it, but this Brit forced to me to examine what the United States has done abroad. I learned how to recognize writers’ agendas and examine the meaning of objectivity, but I also gained valuable perspective about imperialism and interference while deepening my understanding of the difference between the ideals and practicality of democracy. About this time, I also learned that my professor was widely known for pushing the mold around him and lived for controversy in his columns. I then had the opportunity to examine the class differently and explore what the readings and his lectures meant on a larger scale. My first semester was wrapping up, and I felt okay. I had been lonely a lot and Christmas break came in a daze, but everything seemed conquerable and I was starting to feel steady on my feet.
Before I left for home in December, I forced myself to push through The Sound and the Fury. I had this crinkled copy from Half Price Books that I had neglected for a while, and it was quite a journey to get through it. Looking back, I think it foreshadowing the confusion of upcoming semester. The novel was really convoluted and told a story in this odd stream-of-consciousness style. Nothing seemed to fit together and time sequencing wasn’t prioritized. This spring semester was really confusing and didn’t seem very linear. I craved organization but couldn’t seem to find it in the way I thought I needed. But similar to The Sound and the Fury, it all came together at the end and the pain made up a story. Reading the book was worth it and I grew as a reader, but like this semester, I wouldn’t go through it again.
During Christmas break, I worked at a kolache shop, getting up early and watching the sun rise. Home didn’t quite feel like home, but I was entirely comfortable and content and loved every minute of being there. I read Unbroken and loved its story of triumph and the exultation of the scrappiness of the human spirit. I never saw the movie.
I also tackled Astoria by Peter Stark, the story of “John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s lost Pacific Empire.” My grandpa gave me this book, and his recommendations are always incredible. I love the sprit of the mid- to late 19th century, especially in regards to pioneering and exploration, and this non-fiction work was a detailed, personal examination of the fur and trade empires of the Pacific Northwest, the establishment of colonies, and the finance behind it all. Stark seems omniscient in his research, and the courage and grittiness of the men is inspiring and also difficult to relate to, but it was an interesting read throughout and I loved learning about an expedition I previously knew nothing about.
I found a paperback copy of Atonement by Ian McEwan in Goodwill for a dollar. I was intrigued by how little I knew about it despite hearing it mentioned in literary circles for ages. I plunged into it as the spring semester started and it was fantastic. The way Briony thought about things as a young, voracious writer resonated with me, and the sensual details of the book from its transition to idyllic country mansion to war were compelling and heartbreaking. Its conclusion was unique, and I felt simultaneously that I had lost something and gained something from reading it.
I next finished a short little biography about Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Alan Brinkley for my history class. It was so concise, and only a small representation of the eight books I read for that class. It was the only one I felt I read wholly and continuously, so it’s the only one I included on this list. I enjoyed seeing FDR’s transition from privileged gentleman to president, and the way his leadership affected the US and the world was broad and worth learning about. It made me wonder how such a fascinating person could be summed up in less than 100 pages.
Spring break arrived and I was gasping for air. I took a lighter read, Paper Towns by John Green, to Destin on a trip. My friends asked me what the book was about and for the longest time my honest answer was “I don’t even know.” It was a deftly woven story, almost like a fairytale, with a damsel who wasn’t really in distress but wanted to be found in a weird way. I still feel confused about it, but I’m curious to see how they fashion this enigma into a movie this summer.
Bossypants was a breeze! Freaking amazing, thank you Tina Fey. My friend Bolora let me borrow this one and I actually still have it and will return it as soon as possible. I loved the cheery yellow cover and the man hands and the way Tina Fey is self-deprecatng yet so empowering. Bless you, Tina, and the voices of females in the showbiz you amplify and empower. She had me straight chuckling. By the way, have you guys seen her strip down to her Spanx on Letterman? Truly a hero to everyone everywhere, and this kind of purposeful honesty and hilarity is exactly like her writing.
In the calm before the storm of tests and projects and emotional breakdowns, I picked up my copy of I Am the Beggar of the World from my desk at home and finished it in one night. But I wish I could spend forever reading it. It is a treasure, a collection of landays, or short poems written by women in Afghanistan. These landays allow women in oppression to criticize and cry and share and rejoice in themselves and those around them, and form a powerful network of women writers, pulsating with life and intricate thoughts and sparks of wisdom and wit. The book itself is beautiful, the poems paired with commentary by collector and translator Eliza Griwold, as well as completely breathtaking photographs by Seamus Murphy. A rich blend of journalism, literature, history,and amazing women, it was everything I have ever wanted. I highly recommend.
As I sit here in my half-empty dorm room on the last Saturday night I’ll spend here in my dorm, I think about these past two semesters and my first year of college. I think about how I’m different and how I feel very drained, but more importantly, expectant for all that’s to come. I’m grateful for the books that have accompanied me; some are mentors, some are old friends, some are chatty acquaintances, some are ghosts. But they all matter. I just finished A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, which is a memoir about drug addiction that tore me apart. I’ve been hacking away at it the past few weeks, and it culminated to me sitting cross legged on my bed, eating cookies and listening to the playlist I’ve made throughout this year. I felt like I walked with James through his every thought and hurt, but I will never understand. That’s what I think I learned this school year as well. No matter how far apart or how close you are to people, you’re not them. But you can hurt with them and live with them and feel like you’re dying with them and you can laugh. But everything in life is about people – it’s about loving and hating and learning to do one more than the other. I think it’s a lot about doubt and challenges and I learned that the little segments of happiness and exhilaration have to be enough. I have learned to sing praises and feel bigger than myself and reclaim learning for the pure joy of it.
I relearned how to use words and how to cry. I don’t feel the same kind of young and dumb, but that feeling is still there and I don’t think I ever want it to go away.