It’s back to school time! And I have mixed feelings about it. Because, on the one hand, I’m really glad I don’t have to sit in class anymore and I can read whatever I want (kind of). But sometimes, I just really miss school. So, today, I thought I’d share some book recommendations based on your favorite school subjects! And if you’re wondering what mine is, it’s a tie between history and English (I have degrees in both). So pick your favorite subject, pick a book, and get reading!
English is definitely one of my favorite subjects – I do have a masters degree in it – so this was definitely a difficult category to pick just a few books. But, in the end, I went with the absolute basics: Beowulf and Shakespeare.
Beowulf (bonus points for the Tolkien translation). This is the oldest surviving piece of English literature, and I love it. It’s the classic hero story (complete with monster). It might make you want to sit in a hall and drink mead, but it’s totally worth it.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare. No English literature education is complete without Shakespeare. Really you can pick almost any one of his plays (just not Romeo and Juliet please), but his tragedies are the best. If you want to see which are my favorites – yes, I’ve read them all – check out my complete ranking of all Shakespeare’s plays.
Also check out: Anything by Jane Austen, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, the Brontë sisters, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Eliot, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Shelley… okay I’ll stop. But you have a lot to choose from.
My undergrad degree is in history (European history with a minor in American studies in case anyone is curious) so I spent four years studying history pretty in depth. There are a lot of great history and historical fiction books out there, but here are a few I think more people should pick up:
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. I know you’ve probably already heard about this one (because of Lin-Manuel Miranda). And obviously it’s mostly about Hamilton. But I also learned A LOT about American history from this book. Specifically, why our government was set up the way it was (Hint: it’s so corrupt people can’t take control. Which didn’t quite work out two-hundred years later.) If you’re American, I think this is an important read because not only will you understand the context of the musical a little more (which is obviously important), you’ll be more cognizant of how our government works (and why).
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. If you’re looking for more European history, I would definitely recommend this one. I loved it so much. Catherine was a total badass, and I’m so glad I learned more about her. She had a hand in a lot of European politics and was also just a pretty great ruler (who happened to own some very NSFW furniture – seriously, Google it).
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I think this is a great book to learn a little bit about African and African American history. Obviously, it’s not a comprehensive book (Africa’s a very large continent with a lot of different countries), but it will give you a taste of what life was like over the course of a hundred years or so, both for Africans in Africa, and those who ended up in America (against their will).
Also check out: pretty much any book by Alison Weir (the Six Tudor Queens series is awesome), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Contrary to what you might expect from someone with degrees in history and English, I was pretty great at biology. And I still love reading about it. Nature is pretty cool once you get to know it better, and these books definitely prove that:
Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright. If you want to know how a third of Europe died in like a year – or how people thought exploding frogs (not kidding) were a great cure for the Bubonic plague, this is the book for you. You’ll learn about a lot of different plagues, and their various treatments (most of which are just people panicking and doing really bizarre things). And Jennifer Wright makes it really, really funny (because that’s the best way to learn).
The Plight of the Living Dead by Matt Simon. Nature is weird. Really, truly bizarre. And no book will make that clearer than this one. Because if you want to learn about kamikaze worms, dancing snails, and wasps that perform neurosurgery on cockroaches (seriously), read this book. Also, because I need someone to share my obsession with cockroach wasps.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. If plagues and insects aren’t your thing (and even if they are), I highly recommend this book all about plants. It’s science-y and wonderful, and I loved it.
Also check out: The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
I am not great at physics. I never actually studied it (I stopped at biology and chemistry, physics has too much math for me). But that doesn’t mean I don’t find it interesting. As evidenced by the fact that I occasionally try to learn more about it. Even if I don’t fully understand it.
The Martian by Andy Weir. I’m one of the people who LOVED how science-heavy this book is. And one of the highlights is the fact that Andy Weir literally built a computer program to make sure the physics of the rockets in this book were accurate. And even NASA said he got it right, so you know it’s good.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s like A Brief History of Time but WAY easier to read. Trust me, I’ve read both. If you’re curious about everything from how atomic bombs work to what exactly dark matter is, you should definitely read this.
Also check out: Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson (I kind of sort of understand the theory of relativity after reading this. Kind of.)
I mean, geography is pretty essential to studying history (you should probably know where the countries you’re learning about are in the world). I don’t read a lot of actual geography books, but there are a few books I can think of that are definitely heavy on the geography.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte. I know this seems like it belongs more in the science or history category (it could definitely fit into either), but hear me out. Yes, you learn a lot about dinosaurs (and they’re awesome, so you should definitely read this). But you also learn a ton about world geography and how it came to be the way it is now. Bet you didn’t know Pangaea was once ruled by super salamanders. Or that the Earth basically bled lava when the continents split. It’s geography, but fun! And with dinosaurs.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. To be fair, this book is mostly about a cathedral (don’t let that deter you, it’s awesome, I promise). But there is A LOT of wandering around Europe. Which will just want to make you look at map for a few hours (until the characters make you cry). And if that doesn’t convince you, just know this is one of my favorite books.
I’ll be honest. I kind of hate math. My brain is not designed for math, I am a literature/history person. But I have read some books that feature a lot of math, including the most famous piece of mathematical-based fiction, Flatland (I was curious, okay?).
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott. Full disclosure, I kind of hate math, so I had a hard time coming up with a recommendation here. But I have read Flatland, and think you should definitely check it out if you like math. (And don’t worry, the “romance” part is just Abbott’s love of numbers.)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. In addition to being kind of a creep, Carroll was also a mathematician (literature fun fact!). So there are actually a lot of mathematical and logic concepts hidden in Alice, even though it’s fantasy (which kind of makes it even cooler, if you think about it).
Also check out: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (there is a brand-new audiobook read by Rainn Wilson – aka Dwight from The Office – so there’s no better time than now to read this one)
Time for some translated books! I’ll keep this short, because I couldn’t narrow down this category. So pick a language you’d like to learn, and get to it!
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Russian). I do love Russian literature (and history) and, so far, this is one of my favorites. And yes, I have read War and Peace. If you want to read Tolstoy, go with this one. Trust me.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (German). I actually really enjoyed this, and I am very excited to visit the Kafka museum in Prague next year! If you like weird things (and I mean really weird), read Kafka.
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Chinese). This is such a brilliant sci-fi book. And it’s translated by Ken Liu, who is a SFF author himself (I do have a few of his books). The sequel wasn’t my favorite – it didn’t have the thing I loved most about this one – but I really, really liked this one.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (Swedish). I love, love, loved this book. I even loved the Swedish movie adaptation. I read this a while back, and it still gives me warm and fuzzy feelings thinking about it.
The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (French). This is a graphic novel about a girl coming of age doing the Islamic Revolution. And it’s brilliant.
The Reason I Jump by Naogi Higashida (Japanese). This is a wonderful memoir by a boy with autism, all about how he sees the world and how he wants to be treated. I read this a while ago, and I loved it. I really thing everyone should read it.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Spanish). I might not have taken Spanish (I took French in high school), but I obviously had to include one book. And no, I haven’t read any Gabriel García Márquez (yet).
Also check out: A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa (Korean), The Alchemist by Paolo Coehlo (Portuguese), The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Chinese), and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby (French)
If there is one thing I regret about my education, it’s that I never took an art history class (I did show up to my formal logic class early sometimes so I could listen in on the art history class next door, though). I have always been fascinated by art, and will visit museums to see as much art as I can. But there really is nothing like learning the history behind the art, and my favorite way to do that is read.
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. I’ve always been intrigued by da Vinci. And after reading this, I’m kind of obsessed. He really was a genius. And it was really inspiring to see just how curious he was about the world around him. He was a big part of the renaissance art scene, and it was fun learning about that, too. (Even if I kind of dislike Michelangelo now – he was da Vinci’s rival and kind of an ass.)
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. If you want fiction about a painting, look no further than Oscar Wilde’s classic. You should definitely experience Wilde at least once, and this is definitely the way to do it.
Also check out: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (which I haven’t read yet, but will be starting very soon)
I think it’s really important to know what is going on in the world, whether it’s good or bad. Because if it sucks, we should try and do something about it. And I’ve discovered I love reading books about current events, because they go more in depth than a newspaper article, and I get a better grasp on the topic. Also, social studies is pretty fun.
Factfulness by Hans Rosling. This is all about how the world doesn’t suck as much as we think it does. If you’re like me, and your view of the world isn’t all that great (we all watch the news), this book will probably make you feel a little better. I mean, we don’t live in a utopia, but the world isn’t quite as bad as we seem to think it is.
The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates. This is all about how empowering women empowers everyone, which is awesome. In it, Gates recounts so many of her personal experiences seeing how simple things can make a huge impact on the lives of women around the world, and, in turn, everyone. I highly recommend it.
Also check out: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Missoula: Rape and Justice in a College Town by John Krakauer, What Happened by Hillary Clinton, and We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I hope you liked this post! Thank you for reading it to the end (I wasn’t expecting it to be this long, either). Let me know in the comments – what was (or is) your favorite subject in school?
Do you have any recommendations that would fit into these categories? Because there are definitely a books I haven’t read that I think might be perfect for this list!