The Books That Can Change and/or Ruin Your Life in College
A reading list and a cautionary tale.
Photo illustration from a Getty stock photo.
Welcome to the VICE Guide to Life, our imperfect advice on becoming an adult.
The best thing about being young is all the things you haven't learned yet. As we age our perspectives tend to congeal and harden, like Gummi bears left in a glove compartment, and the world begins to look a little less fresh, a little less exciting. Adulthood is basically a long battle against being jaded, and the sad truth is most of us lose. Being receptive to new ideas is like a superpower, and everyone from the ages of around 16 to 24 has it.
The way you use this superpower is to throw yourself into the path of as many new ideas as possible. Read books, watch documentaries, actually listen to your professors, and you'll find that the world is a much weirder and more interesting place than you realize. This time of your life is when ideas can matter to you the most, maybe too much—the right book will peel your old point of view away like a can opener, and before you know it you're an entirely different person. Sometimes these new identities are temporary and easily shed (as any libertarian-until-graduation can tell you), sometimes they stay with us, but either way we're never the same.
We'd tell you which books to read but that seems a bit patronizing. You never know what is going to strike you like a bolt of lightning, which is why you should read as much as possible. (Reading widely is also a good way to fight off being jaded.) So instead of a reading list, here's a sampling of the books that changed our lives, for better or for worse:
All of Nietzsche
You’ve probably heard that famous quote, widely misattributed to Winston Churchill: “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.” Well, if you’re not an existentialist by the time you’re 20, you’ve never taken a philosophy class at a liberal arts college. If you’re still an existentialist when you’re 40, you’re probably really, really sad.
My indoctrination into existentialist philosophy came courtesy of one of the aforementioned colleges, and mostly via the works of one very sad German man in his 40s: Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Nietzsche, who is perhaps best known for maybe having syphilis, going insane, and inspiring the Nazis, completely changed my outlook on the world. It was almost certainly for the worst. A world without objective truth in which heroic humans create their own moral imperatives sounded pretty cool when I was 20, but as I head into the second half of my 30s, Nietzsche’s ideas now cause me nothing but embarrassment, and, yes, sadness.
Relativism is a hard philosophy to kick, so I suggest you avoid getting too attached to it while you’re still young. Later you’re going to discover that not believing in anything actually kind of sucks. So skip Thus Spake Zarathustra, The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and the rest of the Nietzsche canon. If you’re in a philosophy class, do the readings, but keep in mind that taking advice on how to live from someone with a ridiculous mustache who died mad and alone is a recipe for future sadness.
–Michael Bolen, Director of Content Strategy
'RE/Search #11: Pranks!' Edited/Published by V. Vale and Andrea Juno
This is a book of interviews with the greatest weirdos that 1987 had to offer talking about pranks. For a lot of people this book is tied with the Rocky Horror Picture Show in how it presents its audience with options that they didn’t know they had before. Joe Coleman describes going to a high school reunion pretending to be someone who died and then igniting all the fireworks strapped to his body at the moment when he’s discovered. Boyd Rice tells the story of a time he worked at Taco Bell and put a 29-cent item on the menu called a “bean Qhrqwhqhr” so he could hear people try to pronounce “Qhrqwhqhr.” Situationism is explained by an anonymous former member of Point Blank. Carlo McCormick talks about the links between pranks and the avant-garde. It’s equal parts fun entertainment about people breaking society’s rules and tricking people and thought-provoking, inspiration that can cure your boredom and despair. When my friends and I discovered this book, we’d spent the majority of our lives getting bullied by our parents, schools, and classmates. This book let us know that we were free to do anything that we wanted and that “getting in trouble” is a myth. This book can also inspire people to become unrelenting assholes. Remember to use the powers that this book offers to prank up and not to prank down.
–Nick Gazin, Art Editor
'Heaven's Net Is Wide,' by Lian Hearn
My sister was obsessed with Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori books. She talked about the historical fantasy series constantly and would stalk around her room as if she was a samurai. Heaven’s Net Is Wide, the last in the five-book series, was really the only one to catch my eye at first. To be honest, my interest in the book had nothing to do with the description on the back detailing the plot about feudal Japan, royal blood, and magic, nor was it my sister’s earnest recommendation, but rather the beautiful cover.
Once I started reading, I realized that the book had this Game of Thrones-like ability to kill off all of your favorite characters without missing a beat and leave readers in total ruin. But more important than the emotional whiplash was how deeply this book immersed me in a culture that I didn’t know much about. While reading, I’d find myself needing to stop to google cultural moments that I’d never heard of. I absolutely adored the fact that readers are provided enough context to completely understand what’s going on, but not given enough background to parse together the intricacies of Asian culture. At the time, my 20-year-old self was so concerned with my own differences as a black woman living in a white world that I’d never even began to consider the beautiful, complex, and extremely different worldview that reading about another culture could provide. I will forever be grateful for the way Heaven’s Net Is Wide pushed me out of the bubble of my own world.
–Janae Price, Editorial Assistant
'Citizen: An American Lyric,' by Claudia Rankine
Citizen is unlike anything I have ever read—gripping, traumatic, gorgeously wrought. It is a mixed-form meditation on race in America told through prose, poetry, and photography. The cover is shock white, with just a black hoodie. It begins in the second person, putting you into the shoes of her subject, demonstrating how it feels to be black in America—to perennially live in the extremes of institutional invisibility and hyper-visibility—and tackles everything from daily microaggressions to police brutality to Serena Williams as an accomplished athlete and veritable force of nature. We studied it in a class called "Poetry and Poetics" where we unpacked the craft of Rankine's writing—but I have read it and reread it as a piece of cultural criticism.
It was the first time I had ever been taught to think of racism or sexism as systemic rather than individual, though I had lived experiences of both, to a lesser degree, as a half-Taiwanese woman. It put into words the forces I saw on campus and in the world around me every day, the unconscious biases I had developed against others and even myself.
–Nicole Clark, Staff Writer
'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,' by Dee Brown
There's a famous old Mitchell and Webb sketch about Nazis discovering they were evil and asking one another, "Are we the baddies?" I had a similar shock when I read this history of the United States' atrocities against Native Americans. I was just out of college and not totally naive about US history, and I had read about Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement, but seeing all of the horror laid out in front of me was remarkable. When you read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee you aren't seeing the US as a shining city on a hill, or even a flawed nation attempting to right past wrongs, you're forced to confront it as an invading force that committed genocide, broke promises, and seized land by any means necessary.
Naturally I felt outrage and disgust over the abominable treatment of indigenous people, and also guilt—the US wouldn't exist in its present form if not for the crimes committed by white settlers and the government that backed them. For some time, it was impossible for me not to think of America as evil.
For better or worse, that sense of guilt and anger faded pretty rapidly, though of course I still consider the treatment of America's indigenous people to be an ugly moral stain on the country. What really stayed with me was the idea that there are countless versions of history that can be told, and we tend to privilege the ones where our side looks the best. I think I became more skeptical after reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and that's a good thing.
–Harry Cheadle, Senior Editor
'Ender's Game,' by Orson Scott Card
I've loved science fiction since I was a toddler obsessively watching the Star Wars movies my parents recorded on our VHS player. I first read Ender's Game, the most popular book by controversial Mormon author Orson Scott Card, when I was nine years old. It handily became my favorite book outside of Harry Potter. I had no clue about Card's homophobic statements while reading his story of an Earth united by the threat of an imminent alien invasion. The characters were kids my age, wickedly smart, and they felt more real than the adult heroes in other books I loved.
I idolized the titular boy genius, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, chosen at the age of six to save the world from the mysterious Buggers. I inhaled his progress through Battle School, where the military trained future leaders that would defend the planet. As I reread the book nearly a dozen times over the years, I grew to respect how Ender's empathy was as great an asset as his intelligence. He tried to win without violence whenever possible, but when he fought, he never shied away from the cost. "In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him," Ender says at a pivotal moment in the story. "I think it's impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves."
Ender's Game taught me about the nuance of conflict. As he built the most successful practice army Battle School had ever seen, Ender proved the value of teamwork, trust, and mundane interpersonal work. His story taught me that war is always hell, even when the action sequences are hella tight. And then, when I became more aware of the author's hateful and racist screeds, Ender's Game taught me about the nuance of being fucking disgusted by the actions of an artist I connected with deeply.
–Beckett Mufson, Staff Writer
'Steppenwolf,' by Herman Hesse
Steppenwolf, the Herman Hesse novel about a washed-up intellectual's desperate craving for wisdom and a purpose in life, is in some ways a caricature of the bildungsroman, except imposed on a pretentious 40-something. The protagonist, Harry Haller, finds himself at a crossroads both generally and in his everyday life: He has a decent, normal, "bourgeois" half that takes part in normal society, boring but competent. And then he has a "wolfish" (or "wolf of the steppes") beast in him, lashing out at convention and full of passion and rage. The latter mostly manifests itself in him spending too much time at bars late at night—as you might expect, this part is also deeply depressed and vaguely inclined toward suicide.
Suffice it to say all of this appealed to me immensely when I was a third-year college student. I romanticized solitary depravity to no end at this time, and also fetishized the novel's obsession with Jungian archetypes, like a woman named Hermine who serves as Haller's anima, or a way into his own feminine side. In hindsight, the book is possibly sexist and massively narcissistic and silly, and sometimes feels like a college psych professor's ideal of fiction. But it was a useful way to explain my own hermetic and asocial college years, though in hindsight I was probably distorting Hesse's intent to suit my own lifestyle.
I still like Hesse, but am deeply ashamed that I actually likened myself to being an actual Steppenwolf as late as my 20s.
–Matt Taylor, News Editor