Have you ever wondered how US universities help incoming freshmen 1) prepare for their first college class, 2) connect with their classmates, and 3) understand their school’s identity? Many universities, including Ivy League schools, use books to do this, and more!
Common Reads (a.k.a. “Summer Readings,” “Pre-Readings,” or “First Readings”) are texts that universities expect a class of incoming freshmen to read before their first year of study. These may include poems, short stories, novels, nonfiction books, scientific studies, court cases, and historical reports.
Common Reads are assigned after high school graduation, in July or August. Students are expected to read and study independently for 1–2 months. At orientation (before school starts), they are urged to discuss the Common Read with their new classmates. In the fall, professors of all disciplines integrate material from the Common Read into their courses.
Most institutions will assign a new Common Read every year. However, it is very advantageous to read Common Reads from previous years (or other universities) as well. Common Reads reveal what a university values most—creativity, legacy, activism, innovation, or research.
The books listed below are five books you should read before your first year of university. They were selected from previous Common Read lists at Brown, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, Yale.
The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck (1939) ISBN:0143039431
Our first Common Read comes from Cornell University in upstate New York. The only work of fiction on this list, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), tells the story of the Joad family. The Joads, tenant farmers in Oklahoma, lose everything amidst the twin economic and environmental disasters of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The Joads flee Oklahoma for an easier life in California but soon discover that life in California brings troubles of its own. A classic of American literature and a testament to the fundamental interdependence of all people, The Grapes of Wrath can be a challenging read! Be ready for heavy doses of eye dialect, historical digressions, and lofty biblical allusions. This book will be a great tool to push yourself to improve your reading skills before university.
The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time
by Jonathan Weiner (1995) ISBN:067973337X
A Common Read from Brown University in Rhode Island, The Beak of the Finch (1995), takes the reader to the minuscule volcanic island of Daphne Major in the Galápagos Islands. Here, various finch species named for Charles Darwin eke out an existence free of human interference. Over the course of decades, researchers documented the first verifiable proof of evolution in action. Readers are invited to contemplate the history of life on Earth, the insights which led Darwin to develop his startling thesis, and the origin of species as observed through minute changes to the beak of a finch. Somehow both dense nonfiction and a riveting page-turner, The Beak of the Finch is a must-read for aspiring students in both the sciences and humanities.
It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens
by Danah Boyd (2015) ISBN:0300199007
Yale University has previously assigned It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (2015), a fascinating and well-documented glimpse of how the Internet, smartphones, and social media transformed the social interactions of teens in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Although the “teens” in this book are now in their twenties or early thirties, this book stands out as a crucial portrait of how technology can mediate and transform our closest interactions. For students interested in tech, psychology, and sociology, in particular, It’s Complicated will make for both a fascinating read and an excellent model for the research you conduct in college and beyond.
Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures
by Caleb Everett (2019) ISBN:0674237811
Harvard University continues the nonfiction trend with Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures (2019). The book asks a difficult question: Do numbers and the concept of counting occur naturally in the human mind? Based on firsthand experience with indigenous Amazonian tribes, the author establishes that not all human cultures count or even use numbers beyond 1 and 2. This anthropological perspective utilizes material evidence of early societies and extensive documentation of neurobiological research into the neural foundations of numeracy in our species. Although this book can be dense, the fundamental questions are fascinating and the methods used to investigate them are ingenious. Readers walk away with a transformed understanding of the human mind. For all students interested in anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, and mathematics, Harvard’s Common Read will help you build a firm foundation of knowledge about cutting-edge research.
Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility
by Jennifer M. Morton (2021) ISBN:0691216932
To conclude our tour of these five Ivy-League Common Reads, we examine Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility (2021) from Princeton University. A big part of the university experience in the United States is the opportunity to interact with a diverse group of peers. Moving Up without Losing Your Way helps frame the additional emotional and cultural toll that students from disadvantaged, minority and immigrant communities face when taking on the burdens and opportunities provided by a college education. For all students who want to fully and empathetically interact with their classmates, this book will provide excellent context and insight.
All five of these books are available to YGC students in the YGC collection. We invite you to visit our campus in Yoyogi to meet with our advisors and instructors to learn more about studying abroad. We look forward to meeting you soon!