What to Read Before College (A mid-century reading list)

What to read before collegeWHAT TO READ BEFORE COLLEGE

The Library Association of Portland produced a neat little hand-out in the pre-WWII era, encouraging young men and women to be well-read in standard works before entering college. (It’s undated, but two topical books from 1936–and lack of any WWII-related books would make me guess 1936-1938.)

The list shows two things: the timelessness of certain classics, as well as how literary & educational tastes evolve over time. .

For example, by the late 1930s, Ernest Hemingway was very well-known, yet he’s not on this list. At the time, he may have been too controversial of an author to recommend to young men and women, but to my mind his absence is the biggest surprise.

This is a little too early for John Steinbeck to be on there, and F. Scott Fitzgerald was still underappreciated at this time, despite the current assumption that The Great Gatsby (1926, at least a decade before this list) was one of the most important novels to be written in the 20th century! A few other authors that I’m surprised aren’t on there include Henry James (would have been more popular then than now), Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein–it’s not surprising that Bram Stoker’s Dracula didn’t make the list because it would still have been considered pulp fiction, but Shelley has enjoyed better footing), Virginia Woolf (too progressive, I assume) and Lawrence Sterne.

On a short list like this, there have to be tough calls, of course, and some people just won’t make it. I like the fact that women are decently represented (at least for this era), and that there are two books of African American interest. They’ve also tried to get a decent international representation here, with American, English, French, Swedish, Russian, Norwegian, Spanish, Polish, Japanese, and Argentine authors; and a few more cultures are included through biography and history titles. I’m a little surprised that Plutarch is the only ancient Greek author on here; and perhaps the 1930s was not quite yet the time to include important works from non-Western ancient cultures.

It’s also interesting how long the “Biographies” section is, at least in comparison to current reading trends. Science and history get just a smattering of books under “Miscellaneous,” poetry is not included yet there is a healthy selection of plays, and philosophy is only touched upon by Duran’t excellent Story of Philosophy.

Without further ado, here’s the complete list.


Austen. Pride & Prejudice
Balzac. Eugenie Grandet
Blackmore. Lorna Doone
Bronte. Jane Eyre
Bronte. Wuthering Heights
Bunyan. Pilgrim’s Progres
Cervantes. Don Quixote
Clemens. Prince and the Pauper
Cooper. Last of the Mohicans
Dickens. David Copperfield
Dumas. Count of Monte Cristo
Eliot. Mill on the Floss
Ford. Janice Meredith
France. Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard
Gaskell. Cranford
Goldsmith. Vicar of Wakefield
Hardy. Return of the Native
Hawthorne. Scarlet Letter
Hudson. Green Mansions
Hughes. Tom Brown’s School Days
Hugo. Les Miserables
Irving. Tales from the Alhambra
Jackson. Ramona
Kingsley. Westward Ho!
Lytton. Last Days of Pompeii
Malory. Morte d’Arthur
Melville. Moby Dick
Poe. Tales
Reade. Cloister and the Hearth
Scott. Ivanhoe
Sienkiewicz. Quo Vadis
Stevenson. Kidnapped
Stockton. Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine
Thackeray. Vanity Fair
Tolstoi. Anna Karenina
Verne. Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea
Yonge. Dove in the Eagle’s Nest


Atherton. Conqueror
Barrie. Little Minister
Bennett. Clayhanger
Boyd. Drums
Buchan. Prester John
Buck. Good Earth
Byrne. Messer Marco Polo
Cather. My Antonia
Churchill. World Crisis
Conrad. Lord Jim
Doyle. Sherlock Holmes Stories
Ferber. Cimarron
Fisher. Bent Twig
Galsworthy. Forsyte Saga
Guiraldes. Don Segundo Sombra
Hemon. Maria Chapdelaine
James. Smoky
Kipling. Kim
Lagerlof. Ring of the Lowenskolds
London. Call of the Wild
Masefield. Jim Davis
Morley. Parnassus on Wheels
Nordhoff & Hall. Mutiny on the Bounty
Norris. The Pit
Roberts. Arundel
Rolvaag. Giants in the Earth
Saint-Exupery. Night Flight
Stephens. Crock of Gold
Tarkington. Monsieur Beaucaire
Walpole. Fortitude
Webb. Precious Bane
Wells. War of the Worlds
Wharton. Ethan Frome
Wilder. Bridge of San Luis Rey
Willsie. On to Oregon


Addams. Twenty Years at Hull House
Anthony. Marie Antoinette
Antin. Promised Land
Barrie. Margaret Ogilvie
Boswell. Everybody’s Boswell
Brittain. Testament of Youth
Curie. Madame Curie
Dana. Two Years before the Mast
Eaton. Daughter of the Seine
Franklin. Autobiography
Garland. Son of the Middle Border
Gray. Young Walter Scott
Hudson. Far Away and Long Ago
Lagerlof. Marbacka
Lamb. Genghis Khan
Ludwig. Napoleon
Maurois. Ariel
Meigs. Invincible Louisa
Muir. Story of My Boyhood and Youth
Palmer. Life of Alice Freeman Palmer
Pepys. Everybody’s Pepys
Plutarch. Everybody’s Plutarch
Pupin. From Immigrant to Inventor
Riis. Making of an American
Roosevelt. Letters to His Children
Rourke. Audubon
Sandburg. Abraham Lincoln, the Prairie Years
Scudder. George Washington
Steffens. Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens
Strachey. Queen Victoria
Sugimoto. Daughter of the Samurai
Vallery-Radot. Life of Pasteur
Washington. Up from Slavery


Anderson. Elizabeth, the Queen
Balderston. Berkeley Square
Barrie. Plays
Besier. Barretts of Wimpole Street
Dunsany. Night at an Inn
Galsworthy. Plays
Goldsmith. She Stoops to Conquer
Millay. King’s Henchman
Shakespeare. Plays
Sheridan. School for Scandal
Rostand. Cyrano de Bergerac


Auslander & Hill. Winged Horse Anthology
Baker. When the Stars Come Out.
Banning. Letters to Susan
Bullen. Cruise of the Cachalot
Clemens. Innocents Abroad
Downey. Kingdom of the Mind
Durant. Story of Philosophy
Huberman. Man’s Worldly Goods
Lamb. The Crusades
Maeterlinck. Life of the Bee
Parsons. Stream of History
Seeger. Pageant of Chinese Civilization
Villiers. Cruise of the Conrad