Top 10 Books to Read Before Starting University | Top Universities

Top 10 Books to Read Before Starting University

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Laura Tucker

Updated Mar 06, 2021



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Here’s my painstakingly selected list of the top 10 books to read before starting university, for anyone (not already embroiled in the epic Game of Thrones series) wanting to spend their spare time wisely this summer.

Although I’ve tried to avoid the most obvious choices, all the novels in this list of top 10 books to read before starting university are classics in their own ways. The novels I have chosen, from Vonnegut to Kafka, are wide-ranging and encompass a number of viewpoints and insights from different cultures and modern times. Most importantly, all the novels listed below offer inquisitive views and probing questions regarding the worlds surrounding their characters, offering prospective students a chance to broaden their worldviews, ready for the plunge into the deep end of university life.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

There’s never a wrong time to read Vonnegut, but as a prospective student beginning to question the world, your timing couldn’t be more perfect. A relatively short novel, Cat’s Cradle is a story about religion, the arms race, science and politics all crafted into a highly satirical novel that will seriously make you skeptical about the modern world. Cat’s Cradle follows Dr Felix Hoenikker, who is not only one of the founders of the atomic bomb but also the creator of ‘ice-nine’, a chemical capable of freezing the entire planet. First published in 1963, the novel remains hugely relevant due to its direct look at the threat of nuclear weapons and the fact that it will make you consider the world in a different light. Students everywhere, political or not, can learn a lot from this cult classic, including how to laugh in the face of fear and the true meaning of irony.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Adapted into the great film starring Jack Nicholson, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the tale of the incarceration of Randle Patrick McMurphy, a brawling, loud-mouthed, yet ultimately likeable man who believes he has been wrongly institutionalized onto an Oregon mental ward in the 1960s. In historical context, the novel was written at a time when America was in the midst of the civil rights movement, a time when big changes were happening that affected the way human psychology and psychiatry were viewed. The novel is about more than just the perception and treatment of madness, however; it also ponders human empathy, the power of authority and daring to defy the norm; all good preparation for any degree course that requires an inquisitive and questioning mind.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Arguably one of the finest writers to come out of Colombia, perhaps even the whole of Latin America, Gabriel García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude presents the tragic yet uplifting story of the Buendía family in the fictitious Colombian town of Macondo. Published in 1967 and tracking the path of seven generations as they experience war, miracles, deaths and magic, Márquez’s novel, part fantasy and part realism, looks at how history repeats itself by compressing centuries of cause and effect into one family’s unique story. An historical novel as well as a political one, One Hundred Years of Solitude will teach any prospective student about how different cultures are shaped and how fact and fiction are very closely entwined. 

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins

Labeled a “hippie novel” by many, Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a story which covers themes of free love, political and social rebellion, animal rights, drug use and religion, spanning from the 1950s to the 1970s. We follow the story of Sissy Hankshaw, a woman born with the gift of huge thumbs, who hitchhikes through her coming-of-age journey via a homosexual tycoon, a lesbian cowgirl named Bonanza Jellybean and an escapee from a Japanese internment camp. Just as the hippie movement did, Robbins poses underlying questions about human existence and what it is to be free in society. And although often sexually explicit and sometimes farcical, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is perfect for any student wanting to break the mold.


Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Now adapted into the hugely successful blockbuster film directed by Ang Lee, Life of Pi is the story of ‘Pi’, an Indian boy who winds up stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, alone except for a zebra, a hyena, a chimpanzee and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. While the very concept is preposterous, Martel’s wondrously crafted, purposeful prose somehow makes the tale hard not to believe. Overtly, Life of Pi is about staying alive against all odds, but more implicitly it also tackles themes of solitude, religion and faith, as well as the relativity of truth. Any student who enjoys realism yet hates dull, slow-moving prose will love Life of Pi.


Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a novella as absurd as it is powerful, centered on the character of Gregor Samsa, who has been transformed into a giant insect-like creature in his sleep. Kafka, known for his strange insights into the tragedy and horror of the modern world, manages to create a novel which is both comic and disturbing, while highlighting modern feelings of inadequacy and isolation in contemporary society. Considered one of the most influential works of the 20th century, Metamorphosis will change the way you see both yourself and the people around you, and also help you to get your head around the idea of existentialism.


1984 by George Orwell

Published in 1949, 1984 is a dystopian novel about a future society which lives under total government surveillance, where citizens are persecuted for any independent thought or action. The story follows Winston Smith, an ordinary man working for the Ministry of Truth, who begins to rebel inwardly against the party in a search for truth, freedom and love. Another one of the 20th century’s greatest literary legacies, 1984, which brought about the concepts of ‘room 101’, ‘doublethink’ and ‘big brother’, is a disturbing read but also a very eye-opening one. For those of you already well-versed in Orwell, you may want to take a look at Orwell’s A Selection of Essays, which offers political writing at its creative best.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Written between 1928 and 1940 but remaining unpublished until 1967, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is one of the most scathingly satirical novels to come out of Stalin’s Soviet Union. A fantastical novel as much as a political one, the story is set in Soviet Moscow, where God is dead and the devil reigns. As the city descends into chaos and destruction, the Master, and his love Margarita, attempt to stop their city from crumbling amidst a narrative of carnivalesque tyrants, demons and even a talking cat. Best read in historical context to the repressions of the Soviet era, The Master and Margarita plays with the notions of good and evil, guilt and innocence, as well as a number of other binaries, allowing Bulgakov to satirize and pull apart the societal issues his nation had been facing at the time of writing. Although hefty, The Master and Margarita makes this list of top 10 books to read before starting university not only for its literary brilliance, but also its sheer political gumption.

The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

Martin Amis’s first novel The Rachel Papers tells the self-involved tale of Charles Highway, a 20-year-old university student, as he prepares for his entrance exams into Oxford University and attempts to win the love of Rachel, a girl he meets at a party. As egotistical as he is intellectual, Charles is an example of a character both hateable and relatable to many prospective students of the same age. What The Rachel Papers explores, through the neurotic and calculated yet equally sincere character of Charles, is how narcissistic the pursuits of love and knowledge can become. Students should read this novel because it is a truthful, unabashed and funny account of how easy it is to be too self-involved and overeducated in adolescence.


On Beauty by Zadie Smith

The most recently published title in this list of top 10 books to read before starting university, On Beauty is the story of a mixed race British/American family living in a fictitious university town in the US. The book addresses themes of race, nationality, cultural disparity and the clash of liberalism and conservatism. In keeping with the title, beauty is also a key theme and Smith, who is currently a lecturer at NYU, uses her novel to explore the nature of beauty with humor and deep insight. On Beauty is relevant for students not only because it covers 21st century issues, but also because it does so in a straight-talking, profane and accessible way.

What would go on your list of top 10 books to read before starting university? Share your recommendations in the comments below.    

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