Most college textbooks aren’t worth their extortionate price tags, but some professors know where the good stuff is at and require great reading. The excellent textbook is as rare as it is powerful as a learning tool.
Here are the ones you want to pick up (second hand if possible).
1. The Book: “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Cradle in the Dark”
The Author: Carl Sagan
Why You Want to Read it: This Sagan classic, a mainstay of the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s “Special Topics in Political Science,” is the legendary scientist’s plea for scientific literacy. The book is devoted to debunking the pseudoscience crowding the scientific world, explaining everything from UFOs to crop circles, to religious apparitions to Atlantis.
2. The Book: “The Guide to Getting it On”
The Author: Paul Joannides
Why You Want to Read it: It’s hard to come by a human sexuality textbook that doesn’t turn you off sex entirely. This one’s more of an instruction manual, which takes pride in its down-to-earth, humorous approach to discussing the minutiae — think sexting approaches and weirdly erotic physical exams. It’s authoritative in the sense that it feels complete and honest, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
3. The Book: “In The American Grain”
The Author: William Carlos Williams
Why You Want to Read it: Poet and physician William Carlos Williams penned his unconventional, highly literary take on American identity in 1925 and it went unnoticed for years before being adopted by academics looking to stimulate class discussions on national identity. Williams begins with Columbus and, in his careful, poetic prose, retells the history of America through heroes like George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Abe Lincoln in a way that’s not quite historical and not quite poetic. This is the rare book that is more informative for containing fewer facts.
4. The Book: “Every Frame a Rembrandt”
The Author: Andrew Laszlo
Why You Want to Read it: Written by the cinematographer responsible for The Warriors and Southern Comfort, this film-class staple relies less than you might expect on stills to make a visual point. Laszlo is detail-oriented, but his book isn’t heavy on numbers, the way many cinematography texts are. Laszlo ditches stats in favor of anecdotes, on, say, how a Rambo scene got loaded with thematic tension.
5. The Book: “¡Ven Conmigo!”
The Author: Nancy A. Humbach and Oscar Ozete
Why You Want to Read it: All editions of this amazing Spanish-language series will help you habla Español. You just have to go cover to cover.
6. The Book: “Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Containing and Preventing Biological Threats”
The Author: Jeffrey Ryan and Jan Glarum
Why You Want to Read it: Unlike Sagan’s sprawling, prosaic takedown of pseudoscience, this bioterrorism primer is unabashedly a textbook and politically neutral. Still, the scary feasibility of everything it describes — anthrax, botulism, and agro-terrorism — makes it an calmly reasoned call to arms. The book isn’t written to frighten anyone, but knowledge and fear sometimes walk hand in hand.
7. The Book: “The Feynman Lectures on Physics”
The Author: Richard P. Feynman
Why You Want to Read it: Nobel Laureate Richard P. Feynman’s gave a series of physics lectures to Caltech undergrads between 1961 and 1963 that were so clearly described that they earned him the nickname “The Great Explainer.” Now a staple of physics programs, Feynman’s lectures lend much-needed clarity to topics ranging from basic electromagnetism and relativity to the vagaries of quantum mechanics.
8. The Book: “The Norton Anthology of American Literature
The Author: Curated by a rogue’s gallery of literary historians
Why You Want to Read it: There’s a reason this text is the backbone of lit courses all over the country. Of course, it’s got old favorites like T.S. Eliot, Thomas Pynchon, and John Cheever covered. But in condensing over 200 years of American writing — even terrifying sermons, like Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, penned in 1741 — there’s enough in there to keep even the biggest lit nerds thinking deep thoughts well after graduation.
9. The Book: “The Puritans in America”
The Author: Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco
Why You Want to Read it: Taking a different approach to American history than William Carlos Williams, this anthology of Puritan primary documents, tells the American story in the words of the exiled Brits themselves.
10. The Book: “Theatre/Theory/Theatre”
The Author: Daniel Gerould
Why You Want to Read it: This collection of critical essays from theatre’s most influential thinkers looks far back into the history of the stage, including texts from Aristotle and Horace as well as works by Yeats and Brecht. The introductions he writes for each author, where he pulls out fan facts and cutting quotes, are the best part. “My spiritual being has received in its uterus a tremendous ejaculation by Friedrich Nietzsche,” Gerould quotes essayist August Strindberg as saying. “That’s my man.”