What First-Years Read in 2023

Many colleges choose a common reading list to build community around the free exchange of ideas and explore timely challenges from interdisciplinary perspectives. Below is a selection of first year common reading choices from the Society’s 290+ chapters. From a provocative comedy on the roles of women published in 1668 to an exploration of the total eclipse of the sun in 2024, these works showcase the topics meant to inspire the Class of 2027 at the beginning of their arts and sciences journeys.

Revisiting Campus Classics

Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle 

One of the most influential works in the history of philosophy, written around 350 BCE, Aristotle's treatise on ethics explores the nature of the good life, virtue, happiness, and the moral character of individuals.


The Convent of Pleasure by Margaret Cavendish

This provocative play published in 1668 tells the comedic story of Lady Happy, a noblewoman who chooses to reject marriage when she inherits her father’s estate and instead creates a “convent” community where women of noble birth can live free from the constraints of expected roles for 17th-century women in England.


The Analects by Confucius

Compiled by disciples of Confucius in the centuries following his death in 479 B.C.E., this collection of aphorisms and historical anecdotes embodies the basic values of the Confucian tradition: learning, morality, ritual decorum, and filial piety. 


Lines Drawn Across the Globe: Reading Richard Hakluyt's "Principal Navigations" by Mary C. Fuller

Around 1600, geographer and cleric Richard Hakluyt sought to honor England by compiling its voyages and trade beyond the boundaries of Europe.  Mary Fuller traces the history of the book's compilation and unlocks its meaning for modern readers on the history of empire and nation.


To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

A pioneering work of modernist fiction, this novel uses Virginia Woolf's unique stream-of-consciousness to explore the inner lives of her characters on a family holiday and provides a meditation on marriage, parenthood, childhood, grief, tyranny, and bitterness.

Contemporary Fiction

The Years by Annie Ernaux

Winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, The Years is a masterful example of bending time through personal narrative. Told through the lens of six decades of diaries, Ernaux manages to chronicle her family story in a profound way.


Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This emotional novel follows 28-year-old Gifty and her Ghanian-American family as she looks to science for explanations of her family’s pain. With a raw willingness to address often taboo topics like addiction and mental illness Gyasi shows the many ways we can find light in the dark.


The Book of Unkown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

Told through multiple viewpoints, the novel follows young lovers and their families as they experience life as new Americans. The narrative weaves a web of complex relationships and personalities that uplift and inspire while challenging what it means to be an American today.


How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

It’s 2030 and an ancient plague is about to reshape life for future generations. Through unique situations like parenting a talking pig and visiting a theme park for terminally ill children, this story showcases the strength of humans and explores the myriad of ways our lives tie together.


When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky by Margaret Verble 

Two Feathers is a young Cherokee horse-diver currently on loan to Glendale Park Zoo. After a disastrous show, Two and the zoo staff begin to experience strange things at the park and must solve a mysterious tale of exotic animals and lingering spirits that spans centuries.

Natural Sciences

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson (ΦBK, Harvard College)

This profile details the journey of Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues to invent a tool that allows for the editing of human genetic code. Known as CRISPR, it opened a brave new world of medical miracles and moral questions.


Sun, Moon, Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets by Tyler Nordgren

Ahead of an upcoming total eclipse of the sun in April 2024, an astronomer explains how these seemingly ‘unnatural natural phenomena’ transformed from fearsome omens in cultures across time to contemporary tourist attractions that modern physicists are using to confirm Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.


The Octopus in the Parking Garage: A Call for Climate Resilience by Rob Verchick (ΦBK, Stanford University)

Taking the reader on a journey into the field of climate resilience with an emphasis on disadvantaged communities, an environmental law professor calls for humans to mimic the smarts and adaptability of the real-life example of an octopus stranded in a Miami parking garage to tackle climate change.


The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams

Intrigued by stories of renewal in the natural world, a journalist investigates forest trails in Korea, an island in Finland, and eucalyptus groves in California to uncover new research behind nature’s positive effects on the brain.


Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive by Mark L. Winston

This broad treatment of honeybee biology and social organization, written by one of the world's leading experts on bees and pollination, reflects on the lessons that humans can learn about how to better interact with the natural world and each other.

History & Social Sciences

Streets of Gold: America's Untold Story of Immigrant Success by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan

Synthesizing more than a decade of pioneering historical research using modern data science made vivid through compelling narratives, noted economists present new evidence about the past and present of the American Dream and explore why many current policy proposals are misguided.


The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow

An anthropologist and an archaeologist provide a deep dive across 30,000 years of history to challenge long held ideas about the origins of complex human societies, urban settlements, nation-states, and social inequality with implications for today.


Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush

A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, a former journalist and scholar provides a lyrical meditation on climate change featuring first-person accounts from coastal residents telling their own stories about ravaged communities.


How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future by Maria Ressa

A Filipino journalist who won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize describes a riveting inside view of what it’s like to be a dissident fighting authoritarianism and maps a network of disinformation around the globe in her ongoing fight against the technology enabling authoritarianism.


The Coming Good Society: Why New Realities Demand New Rights by William F. Schulz and Sushma Raman (ΦBK, Oberlin College)

Two authors with decades of experience promoting human rights explore new realms of knowledge and technology to address frontiers of rights today and the debates surrounding them, including whether rights should be extended to entities beyond humans themselves.


Easy Beauty by Chloé​ Cooper Jones 

Chloé Cooper Jones’s memoir recounts her experience moving through the world with a rare congenital condition called sacral agenesis.  An unexpected journey into motherhood acts as a catalyst for her to reclaim spaces she’s traditionally been denied around the world. Jones’s story envelopes readers with flawless honesty and a new lens through which to view beauty.


Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive by Stephanie Land

At 28, Stephanie Land’s dream of going to university and becoming a writer is cut short when she becomes pregnant and turns to housekeeping to provide for her daughter. Written with a profound honesty about her experiences, Land illustrates what it is like to live in poverty in America and the complexities of pursuing more.


Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor by Anna Qu

This debut memoir begins when Anna Qu calls child services on her parents to break free from the child labor she was forced to provide. Twenty years later, a report by the Office of Children and Family Services missing key details kickstarts her search for answers about her own experience and the broader experiences of American immigrants.


Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History by Lea Ypi

This funny yet profound memoir reflects on the paradoxes of freedom through Lea Ypi’s recollections of coming of age at the collapse of communist Albania in December 1990 and its transition from Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship to a presumably freer, capitalist, and more democratic nation.


Solito: A Memoir by Javier Zamora

At nine years old, Javier Zamora began his “trip” to the United States – a trip that took him three thousand miles away from his home in El Salvador to be reunited with his parents. Through a gripping narrative, Zamora brings his fellow migrants and their journey to life.

Navigating Campus Life

I Never Thought of it That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times by Mónica Guzmán

How can we come together when we are so far apart? This book provides tools and insights to help readers know how to come together with those they oppose and discover how easy it is to learn from others’ perspectives.


Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work by Dave Isay

This collection of stories and conversations gives readers an inside look at the lives of people doing work they love. From the barrios of Texas to the South Side of Chicago, Dave Isay presents tales of the ways we can find and keep our passions.


The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams

In April 2015, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu got together for a week to explore alongside each other how we can find joy in the face of despair. This book takes readers along these spiritual giants as they use stories, wisdom, and science to develop a foundation for lasting happiness.


How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion by David McRaney

In this book, David McRaney seeks to discover not only how we change minds, but why we believe what we do. Through compassion and curiosity, McRaney explores reasoning, groupthink, and what it takes to really change minds, whether they’re others or our own.


How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur (ΦBK, Harvard College)

Drawing from more than 2,400 years of global thinking, this book uses wit and insight to focus on everything from easy ethical questions to complex moral issues.  Author Michael Schur (creator of The Good Place and Parks and Recreation) aims to help readers sound cool at parties and become better people.