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13 books to read before starting university

Discover which books our academics recommend and take the quiz to find out which one you should try first.

Academics from the School of English and Languages share their top titles to try before starting university, and explain why they’re a good choice not only for prospective students, but for everyone keen to add something new to their bookshelf.

“Rather than just a list of classic titles, our book recommendations cover a variety of topics that will broaden your horizons and make you think," said Paul Vlitos, Lecturer in Creative Writing.

“Reading works like the ones on our list encourages us to think more deeply about the world - and about our own place in it.”

Find the right book for you

Take our quiz to see which of our recommendations you might like best and then explore the full list of titles below.


Top books for students

1. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Professor Greville Corbett, Distinguished Professor of Linguistics, said: “You should read this book for its sharp and funny writing. It’s a model of how to make non-fiction clear and enjoyable.

2. Dawn by Octavia Butler

Dr Donna McCormack, Lecturer in English Literature, said: "This novel will introduce students to essential parts of university life, including critically examining ideas around race, gender and sexuality. It also brings an important aspect of thinking about the relationship between our bodies and technologies. 

3. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Professor Marion Wynne-Davies, Professor of English Literature, said: “This Pulitzer Prize winning novel by should be read by everyone, not just those preparing to go to university, because it has a compelling and intriguing story, as well as powerful characters.

“This book is especially inspiring for that moment when we begin to think about the future - what interests us most, what we want to study, our relationships, our sexuality and, most importantly, what is important to us."

4. A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft

Dr Beth Palmer, Lecturer in English, said: “This pioneering work of feminist philosophy, first published in 1792, is worth reading not just for its historical importance – it called for the equal education of women and denounced society’s treatment of women as ornaments and as objects – but for its urgency, passionate intelligence and powerful clarity. It remains as thrilling (and as relevant) today as the day it was written.” 

5. Brick Lane by Monica Ali

Paul Vlitos, Lecturer in Creative Writing, said: “This first novel by Surrey’s Distinguished Writer in Residence 2016 is as witty as it is moving. In understated, engaging prose the novel unforgettably carries us through twenty years in the lives of  its characters – Nazneen, a young woman from rural Bangladesh coming to terms with life in Britain, Chanu, her bumptious, sometimes infuriating husband, her lover Karim and the community amongst whom they live.

“Giving us London life from an angle which for many readers will be unfamiliar, this is one of the genuine great British novels of the 21st century.”

Reading offers a window on the world and its history - not only the facts and figures but also how it felt to be alive at a certain time or feels to be in a certain place.

Dr Paul Vlitos, Lecturer in Creative Writing

6. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx

Dr Neema Parvini, Lecturer in English Literature, said: “A degree teaches you different ways of thinking, and Marx was thinking very ‘differently’ from many of his contemporaries when he wrote this call to arms for the proletariat. Few thinkers have been as influential to contemporary literary and political theory.”

7. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Dr Stephen Mooney, Lecturer in Creative Writing, said: “The quintessential road novel, this book captures the excitement, energy and transgressive feel of the birth of youth culture in 1950s America. It is a journey of youth, discovery and awakening. This is one of the key texts to come from the Beat Writers movement.”

8. Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed by Jim Al-Khalili

Dr Paul Vlitos, Lecturer in Creative Writing, said: “This recent work by the renowned Surrey Professor of Public Engagement in Science and Professor of Physics provides a grippingly readable account of quantum theory, its history and its implications. Genuinely mind-blowing stuff."

9. Baudelaire in English by Sean Bonney

Dr Stephen Mooney, Lecturer in Creative Writing, said: “Bonney's investigation of contemporary East London crashes into Baudelaire's bohemian innovative writing to produce extraordinary textual and visual poetry. This is contemporary poetry at its most exciting.”

10. Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

Dr Beth Palmer, Lecturer in English, said: “Well known form her TV appearances, her columns and her blog, Mary Beard is by some distance Britain’s best known classicist. In this engaging, thought-provoking, often hilarious collection of essays she not only brings the classical world to life, she deftly points out the contemporary relevance and legacies of that world.”

Reading encourages us to consider different perspectives on the world, to try on different worldviews and to imagine ourselves in other people's shoes. 

Dr Paul Vlitos, Lecturer in Creative Writing

11. Making Sex by Thomas Laqueur

Dr Donna McCormack, Lecturer in English Literature, said: “This text is a great introduction to the idea that sex has changed over time. I was amazed that history could be written like this. It's accessible and yet mind-blowing.

“I'd recommend all Thomas Laqueur's books for showing how good academic writing can be relatable to how we live in the world.”

12. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Dr Stephen Mooney, Lecturer in Creative Writing, said: “A novel which pits the human against the expanse of the natural world, addressing such topics as obsession, the nature of society and community, and the different ways in which human beings engage with one another. It also includes copious detail on whales and whaling too!”

13. The Complete Works of Shakespeare

Dr Neema Parvini said: “Inarguably England’s most famous writer, Shakespeare is part of the fabric of the English language.”

Learn more about the Surrey student experience and discover our degrees in the field of English literature and creative writing

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