I could list the many things that inspired me to be a writer. However, no experience or memory could measure up to the act of reading.
Reading has remained one of the most important hobbies in my life — from my early days reading Magic Tree House, The Lord of The Rings, Divergent and the Harry Potter series to my recent endeavors in feminist theory and poetry. I was attached to my books. I brought them nearly everywhere, and I even tried to write my own a few times.
When I entered high school, I was thoroughly disappointed in my English classes. White male authors dominated the reading lists and although many books I read in those early years had a major impact on me, I made a promise to expand that list in college.
College is the perfect time to explore different genres of novels and nonfiction books, and I recommend others take that opportunity as well.
My simple promise to myself to read more grew into a spreadsheet: I tracked which books I read, who the author was, where they were from and what century the book was written in.
Here are some of the books that had the biggest impact on me.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
This book has been on my shelf since before I started my academic journey at the University of Maryland.
The crease in the binding and the discolored pages show how many times I’ve read it, over and over again, since freshman year. It’s become a tradition for me to reread Maya Angelou’s words every summer.
Angelou’s language and writing style bring the autobiography to life. The story serves as a personal memoir highlighting the racism, sexism and the personal challenges she faced growing up as a Black girl in Arkansas, circa the 1930s.
As Angelou takes us through the different eras of her young life, the language changes ever so slightly and you feel as if you’re going through her formative years alongside her.
I personally deem chapters 23 through 26 the most important. Angelou recalls graduating from 8th grade and her brother, Bailey, has a close encounter with racial violence. In these chapters, we’re also introduced to Angelou’s mother — who was somewhat of an anomaly — as she and her brother were raised by their grandmother, Momma.
Seeing your parents as humans for the first time is an experience most young adults can relate to and melding this experience with the societal importance of the rest of the story helps readers connect with the narrator even further.
This crucial piece of literature deserves a place on every high school reading list. But if you weren’t given the opportunity to read her words at that time, college is the perfect time to dig in.
The House on Mango Street – Sandra Cisneros
This novel was born from a series of vignettes written from the perspective of Esperanza, a young Mexican American girl who moved to a segregated area of Chicago.
The book starts out with an ambiguous air — readers don’t even know the name of the main character. But as we get to know Esperanza, the reader is pulled further and further into her life. Given that it’s only about a 100-page book, it’s hard not to finish the story in one sitting.
Like Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, we not only see the discrimination Esperanza faces but also the struggles many young women face. The book takes place while the narrator is 12 years old and going through physical, emotional and sexual changes. She escapes her abusive world through writing.
The theme of “home” and the many things that word can mean is present throughout the entire story. Esperanza is trying to escape her current home for most of the story, so this can be a real tear-jerker for college students. Yet, like most good stories, this one dives into multiple universal truths that I’d argue are crucial for everyone to understand as they navigate their own lives and experiences.
All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
I bought this book last summer in a small bookstore in New England and promptly sat down between the shelves to start reading. The novel was trending on “booktok” — TikTok’s community of avid readers and their book recommendations — so I had to see what all the fuss was about.
The story, set in Germany and France in the 1940s puts a fictional spin on WWII and the Holocaust. At first unnerving, knowing that half the book centered a white German boy who eventually becomes a Nazi, I quickly understood exactly what author Anthony Doerr was doing.
The book revealed truth about the human experience in a way that avoided romanticizing or belittling the tragedy of the Holocaust, even though this story is fiction.
With half the book being from the perspective of a French girl who is blind, I never thought I could connect with either of the main characters. But the true power of a story shows when it brings tears to your eyes, and this one got me in several different chapters.
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
On the topic of books that stay with you, The Kite Runner was one I couldn’t put down. Although I did first read this in high school, I thought about it so often I had to read it again.
The story is unsettling to say the least, being that it takes place in Afghanistan in the 1970s. Amir, the narrator, recalls the events leading up to his fleeing of the country after the conflict breaks out in 1978.
Seeing the vibrant city of Kabul dissolve through the eyes of a young boy is hard enough. However, similarly to Angelou’s autobiography, readers get to see glimpses of connection to the characters. Amir constantly tries to live up to his father’s expectations and fails time and time again, recognizing that he is more interested in poetry and reading than sports and is more emotional than was acceptable for a young man at the time.
Accepting that you differ from your parent’s expectations of you is a lesson I think is important for readers, especially young adults, to understand as they enter university and choose their life path.
The Four Agreements – Don Miguel Ruiz
This self-help book is based on Toltec wisdom and was gifted to me in my freshman year of college. Warning: it will make you rethink everything you know.
I struggled with this book for four years, marking up the indents with notes. I reflected — with my jaw hanging open — while trying to understand that everything about the way modern society is built, is a trap. I realized how little value I put on myself in past relationships and how crucial my own joy was.
Though I struggled with some of the religious motifs, 90 percent of the book completely changed my mindset and led me to unbelievable realizations about the way I wanted to live my life.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind – William Kamkwamba
If you’re an engineering major, read this book. Now a Netflix film, the book and movie are about 13-year-old William Kamkwamba who lives on a farm in Malawi. After a major flood hit Malawi in 2000 causing widespread famine, Kamkwamba made it his mission to build an electric windmill for his village by reading physics books and going to the scrapyard during school hours.
The book is based on a true story about the author’s experience. Distrustful governments and a natural disaster forced Kamkwamba’s family, along with thousands of others, into starvation.
However, despite not being able to afford school anymore, Kamkwamba was an engineer and a brilliant one at that. Though I cannot relate to understanding the inner workings of a radio or physics equations, books have a special way of hooking you into stories about characters you have nothing in common with and befriending them by the end.
I didn’t know it was possible to connect with a woman from the 19th century better than I connect with my own peers until I read Poems of Emily Dickinson this year. As I have many times before, I set myself up on a computer at McKeldin Library and searched for all the books on my wishlist I couldn’t afford on a college budget.
During sophomore year, I found myself in the section housing books on journalism. In my junior year I bounced between natural history — mostly to find Jane Goodall’s writings — and feminist theory. This year, it was poetry.
Emily Dickinson never married. She died unaware her poems would become as famous as they are. She wrote simply for the sake of writing. Through her poems about hope, love and nature I felt as though she was speaking directly to me. From writer to writer I connected with her. I understood her, even though I kept a dictionary handy to help decode the old English.
I could go on and on The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Diary of Anne Frank, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and you should really read The Vindication of The Rights of Women if you get a chance.
I have a long way to go, and my reading journey will not end when I receive my diploma.
Reading opens your mind to new ideas, it allows you to travel from the comfort of your own home, go on a journey and understand a stranger’s perspective. It’s not for everyone — but if you have even the smallest inclination to open a book I recommend you do it while thousands are at your disposal during your college years.