Your Back-to-School Reading List: 18 Books to Get Your Brain Back into Learning Mode

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As the days begin to get ever-so-slightly shorter, the nights begin to get ever-so-slightly cooler, and you find yourself trading your slushies for pumpkin spice lattes and your flip-flops for the early vague tuggings of seasonal depression, you know that it can all only mean one thing: fall is just around the corner.It also means that school, with its intellectual rigors and insane workload is also knocking. But don't panic! Even if you spent all summer reading sexy sex novels about vampire parties or whatever, there's still time before September to whip your gray matter back into shape. Below, I've assembled a back-to-back-to-school reading list that will help you get back into learning mode easily and painlessly. These smart, informative books feature narratives so gripping, facts so compelling, and stories so thrilling, you'll seamlessly make the transition from summertime beach bum into brutally astute intellectual.So take off that neon summer crop top, toss on a more serious fall crop top (maybe a tweed one with leather elbow patches?), and dig in to these smart and fun reads to help you get a jump on your work for any class.

Creative Writing: Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

Lamott's writing has the breezy, informal tone of a friend telling you about her weekend trip to Cape Cod, but don't be fooled — this classic writing guide is filled with writing advice so good, it's life changing. And Bird by Bird isn't just for writing majors. Lamott's advice on topics like how the pursuit of perfection in creative endeavors freezes us up and prevents us from creating at all, can be applied to anything from painting to science experiments.

Film Studies: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

The 1970s were a turning point for American cinema — an era the created both the modern prestige picture (The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Last Picture Show) and the blockbuster (Jaws, Star Wars, the Exorcist) as we know them today. Biskind's book can be dishy at times, but it also pulls no punches in revealing how Hollywood as we know it today was created.

Mid-20th Century Fiction: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Ellison’s 1952 novel is widely considered one of the (if not THE) greatest works of post-war American literature. By turns surreal, tragi-comic, and brutally sad, the odyssey of Ellison's never-named African-American narrator through Jim Crow-era America provides a look at humanity at its most painful.

Intro to Astronomy: Death from the Skies! By Phil Platt

Get psyched for that upcoming astronomy class by reading Platt's sharp, clever layman's guide to all the different ways — from solar flares to supernovae explosions — that the universe is trying to kill us.

Narrative Non-Fiction: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

if you've ever enjoyed a well-written celebrity profile that was more about the culture at large than the subject, you have Didion to thank. Didion, along with peers like Tom Wolfe, helped re-invent modern narrative nonfiction in the '60s; this 1968 collection represents some of her greatest works, from a withering look at the Haight-Ashbury phenomenon, to a withering look at herself, in her spine-tingling essay on the search for home, "Goodbye to All That."

Intro to Musicology: How Music Works by David Byrne

Even if you can't tell a djembe from a sousaphone, you'll get something out of this tome from erstwhile Talking Heads frontman Byrne, who blends autobiography, music theory, and mechanics to explain the role of sounds in the world around us.

Contemporary American History: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The tale of Malcolm Little’s troubled youth in the Northeast, discovery of Islam, and transformation into Malcolm X, one of the most important civil rights activists of all time, is more than just historically important — it's riveting, sharply-crafted, and a dynamic look at a turbulent era in American history.

Journalism and Ethics: The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm

If you've ever — even for a second — considered a career in journalism, Malcolm's brief book on the relationship between writer Joe McGinniss and Jeffrey McDonald, the murderer whom he befriended then betrayed while working on a true crime book about the case, should be required reading. The book not only examines questions about the ethics of interviewer-interviewee relationship — it's fast pace and sharp writing make it feel like a thriller.

Environmental Studies: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

If you're looking for a more dynamic way to explain the environmental crisis to Uncle Pete over Thanksgiving this year, pick up Wesiman's thrilling thought experiment, which details what would happen on Earth if all human being disappeared tomorrow — and in the process, helps us better understand what we're doing to the Earth right now.

The Art of the Short Story: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor’s short stories — Southern gothic tales where morality is tested and ethics are challenged — laid the groundwork for the American short story as we know it today (especially those with a dark, unexpected twist). For a taste, check out the chilling title story.

Ethical Debates in Medicine: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died young of cervical cancer. Henrietta's cancer cells — harvested without her or her family's knowledge — were the first cancer cells to survive and multiply enough for scientists to experiment on them, leading to medical breakthroughs in diseases like leukemia and polio. But Lacks herself — and the murky ethical gray areas that allowed her cells to be harvested — were mostly forgotten, until this riveting investigation was undertaken by journalist Skloot.

Early American History: 1491 by Charles C. Mann

If your American history class pretty much started with Columbus sailing the ocean blue, check out this comprehensive history of pre-Columbian America, which draws on disciplines from epidemiology to soil science to paint a vivid portrait of the advanced and complex indigenous society that long predated Western settlers.

Women’s Studies: For Her Own Good by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English

If you're mad as hell about this past years many political battles over women's healthcare, check out this volume, which catalogs 200 years worth of the sexist, ill-thought-out, and plain incorrect medical and sociological advice given to women "for their own good" (sound familiar?).

Contemporary Fiction: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

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Murakami’s deftly surreal, magical realist fiction style has its fingerprints all over much of today's most acclaimed modern lit, so reading his work will give you a better handle on the strangest stuff your contemporary lit professor throws at you. And there's no better place to start than with this astonishing three-volume novel, which follows a young woman, whose unplanned trip through an emergency exit changes the nature of reality.

Sequential Art: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Comics artist Bechdel (creator of long-running strip Dykes to Watch Out For, as well as “the Bechdel Test” for films) drew on her own troubled childhood in a funeral home, the suicide of her closeted father, and her own coming out story to create this wildly acclaimed visual memoir.

Poetry: The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde

Poet, essayist, and activist Lorde wrote about everything from cancer to civil rights, and her poetry covers it all, from brutally funny works to stunningly erotic poems, and reflections on the moments of beauty that can still be found in a difficult, sometimes terrible world.

Civil War History: The Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

This Pulitzer Prize-winning book — generally considered the essential one-volume history of the Civil War — uses fast-paced narrative to explain not just the causes, but delve deep into the drama of the Civil War.

Social Science: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Pulitzer Prize winner Boo’s heart-breaking examination of the lives of a group of people living in the Mumbai, India slum of Annawadi, draws readers close into her subjects' hopes for the future, their fears for the present, and the stresses and problems that plague and sometimes derail their lives.