As an English major, I’ve read some really amazing (and some really awful) novels inside and outside the classroom. Some have already faded from memory, but others have resonated in the deepest parts of my mind. They’re the types of novels that kept me awake at night; that made me cry from the poetry of the prose; that I wish I had written. I admit it took me an embarrassingly long time to compile this list, but here are the absolute best books I read during college.
The first novel I read in college was Craig Thompson’s beautiful graphic novel steeped in biblical allusions and the ache of first love. I was blown away by a genre I hadn’t really explored before.
Immediately, I fell in love with the quiet moments of the book: Craig and his brother playing in the snow, Raina talking about taking music too seriously, Craig constantly questioning his faith (something that always hits close to home).
I have a really soft spot for memoirs and Thompson’s is one of my favorites. Three years after reading it for the first time, I’m still struck by its honesty, simplicity and powerful prose.
Set in a beautiful (but sad) winter wonderland, “Blankets” — where snow is as comforting as it is cold — is a novel to wrap yourself up in, no matter the season.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”
by Rebecca Skloot
What if I told you inside almost all of us are cells from Henrietta Lack, a poor black woman who died in the 1950s? What if I told you those cells (HeLa) were stolen without her permission? What if I told you that she helped launch a multibillion dollar industry, but her descendants couldn’t afford medical insurance?
Rebecca Skloot’s nonfiction, nonlinear book weaves the personal narrative of the Lacks family and the history of medical research, especially in regards to ethics, race and class. She combines creative writing and journalism to create an accessible, beautiful and important book about a common, though ethically gray, practice within the medical industry.
It’s the type of book that will make you painfully aware of how many people have been trampled and taken advantage of in the name of science. Skloot wrote the kind of book I hope to write some day, but for now, I’m just happy to read it. Over and over again.
“The Handmaid’s Tale”
I read this novel three times throughout college and it’s without a doubt one of my favorites of all time. Margaret Atwood’s science fiction novel is about a totalitarian dystopia where women have no bodily autonomy and are essentially walking wombs — only as valuable as their child-bearing abilities. Though published in the mid ‘80s, the novel mirrors our current society and the “War on Women.” I think great writing, especially social commentary, transcends time, and that’s what this book does.
You’ll want to vomit at the ways in which misogyny manifests into brutal violence, but you’ll always want to cheer as the handmaids find the smallest ways to make their lives better — like the moment when the protagonist uses a stolen pat of butter as lotion.
Of all the things I took away from the novel, I’ll never forget the moment when the protagonist finds the words “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” etched into her closet. The meaning? Don’t let the bastards grind you down. And I can promise after reading this novel, I won’t.
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”
by Jonathan Safran Foer
I can remember the exact moment I finished this novel and how I was stunned into silence for Thanksgiving dinner. Jonathan Safran Foer’s experimental, mixed-media novel had some of the most stunning prose I’ve ever read.
The plot? Well-crafted and complex. The prose? Heartbreaking, visceral, palpable and able to take me from zero to weeping with a single line (no, really).
This novel is the reason I love reading and writing and why I believe both can help mend broken people. Foer handles the topic — Sept. 11 — with a careful hand. The tragedy is the underlying pulse of the novel, but it’s about so much more. Just read it. It’ll break your heart and then piece it back together. (Tip: Do not flip ahead in this book. It’ll spoil you and ruin the payoff).
Honorable Mentions: “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell, aka the most structurally complex novel I’ve ever read. “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides, aka the most epic (no, it’s actually a modern-day epic) novel I’ve ever ready. “Pink Elephant” by Rachel McKibbens, aka the poetry volume that left me slack jawed and weeping in my bed.
* I suppose I should note that the absolute best book I read during my college career was “A Visit From The Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan. However, I already wrote an entire review/love letter to that novel, so it seems redundant to do so again.