What one book would you have a college student read?

It’s not necessarily an easy question.

There are hundreds of guides for college students out there, some of which I’m told are very good, but who wants to look like they need an advice book when they show up on campus?

And when it comes to reading, most college students should, as Cate points out, simply start with the syllabus.  If you’re not getting that far, you’re not far enough.  Which, come to think of it, raises the question of why you’re reading Mere-O.  Let’s just move on.

What we need is a criteria, because those solve all our problems, right?  Here are four things that extracurricular reading should satisfy:

  1. It should be outside your major, so as to broaden your horizons and not appear on your syllabus.  Literature majors, you may want to read Shakespeare all the time.  Or Toni Morrison.  (No need to be a snob.)  But for this, you may have to branch out.
  2. It should make the colors of the world just a little more bright.  School can be an abstract environment, which has it’s own problems.  One way to counteract that is to spend our free time lingering over the beauty of creation.  And books can, believe it or not, help with that.
  3. It should be accessible enough that it doesn’t feel like labor, but thoughtful enough that you might come back to it.
  4. It should make your parents nervous.  Why?  Because you’re in college, and that’s what college students do.

Don’t like the criteria?  Propose your own in the comments.  That’s why God made ’em.

What book could possibly survive such a stringent standard?  (Hint:  it’s not, alas, this one.  And yes, that’s a profligate reminder that you should read it anyway.)

Sheldon VanAuken’s A Severe Mercy

The odds that it will show up in your major are small, unless you’re majoring in tragically beautiful love stories that make your heart hurt.  Which, in an academic world as fragmented as the one we currently have, one or two of you might actually be doing.  What do I know?  I’m just a writer.

Why A Severe Mercy?  The prose….oh, the prose.  You’ll never look at new cars quite the same way.  And while you had better not be getting up to fetch a cup of water in the night for anyone but your roommate, VanAuken’s will help you see that relatively minor acts of courtesy contain within them the substance of heroic self-sacrifice.

But while VanAuken has a way with words, it matches the unremitting romanticism of his aristocratic life.  Read with caution:  at points you’ll want to drop out of school, buy a yacht, and start sailing around the world.  Which means it satisfies the “nervous parents” criterion rather well, doesn’t it?

Of course, you won’t have any money (you’re in college, remember?) and probably don’t know how to sail, so the disaster will be averted.  But the longing will be there and you’ll go off and do better things for it.

As for substance, the book isn’t exactly Thomas Aquinas, but it is a step above your standard airport fiction.  You might be turned off by the fact that it’s a tragic tale of love and loss, but its elegance ensures that it is never boring and I have yet to meet a man with a soul who did not like it.

The book has some cultural significance as well.  Our boys Chesterton and Lewis laid the groundwork for what we might call “romantic Christianity,” or the contemporary appropriation of the Dantean vision of the world. Courtly love and troubadours meet Jesus, and all that. VanAuken stands firmly in that tradition, and even if he doesn’t resolve the relationship between erotic desire and our Christian faith quite as well as either of them, his poetic prose, dare I say, is the apex of the movement.

Which is about as high of praise as I could possibly give it.

But that makes me wonder:  what book would you recommend, if not this one? 


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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. I’ll offer two (both fit your criteria):

    Orthodoxy by Chesterton

    Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl by N.D. Wilson (this is a fine example of Chestertonian Calvinism)


    1. Notes is a good call. The only thing that held me back from Orthodoxy was that I thought there actually may be a class where people read him. Otherwise, I’m totally on board.


  2. I’m convinced! It’s added to my reading list (even if I’m out of college).


    1. Better late and all that! : )


  3. Using Matt’s criteria, here are three titles that would unhouse the foundations of youth:

    * Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
    * Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther
    * Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

    College involves reading – and lots of it, especially if your major is in the humanities. So, a student must be equipped to become a reader, and for that (lifelong) task I’d recommend Mortimer J. Adler and Charles VanDoren’s “How to Read a Book” and Alan Jacobs “A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love.” Students enter college having only achieved what Adler and VanDoren call elementary reading – the first level of reading. Three other levels await them: inspectional reading, analytical reading, and syntopical reading. Too often, students read all genres without discrimination. Adler and VanDoren teach the student how to read practical books, imaginative literature, history, science and mathematics, philosophy, and social science. To become an exemplary Christian reader, who is marked by reception before use, understanding before criticism, and charity over suspicion, Jacobs is an indispensable guide. Before I encountered his book, I never thought of applying the second greatest commandment to the books I read. Now I strive to love my author-neighbor as myself.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 12, 2011 at 11:58 am

      I’ve never been able to read Adler’s book. I’ve tried several times.

      And wouldn’t those three suggestions all show up in a lit class somewhere? : )



      1. Cheeky alert: Maybe you’ve never been able to read Adler’s book because you’re still stuck in the first level of elementary reading. HA! Of course I know that’s not true because your writing demonstrates otherwise. :-)

        The Adler and VanDoren books is worth your time and effort. I would make it required reading of every entering freshmen in college.

        Yes, the three books I recommended might show up in a lit class but I don’t assume everyone is a lit major. Have you read those books? They’re highly relevant to college students because they concern youthful know-it-allism, youthful romance, youthful vanity – and the need for wisdom, modesty, and charity.


        1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 12, 2011 at 3:25 pm

          Your quip about Adler is probably more true than you know.

          And I’ve read Gray, but it’s been a while. Been on a victorian kick lately, though, so maybe I’ll go back to it.



  4. Probably making its way onto a few syllabi near you very very soon, but “Hannah Coulter” by Wendell Berry is definitely going to be at once perfectly accessible and remarkably challenging (unless you’re doing a Senior Seminar in Pastoralist Agriculture or something.) It will make parents nervous because you’ll be calling them about more than just asking for money.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 12, 2011 at 3:23 pm

      Heh. Your reason for making parents nervous cracks me up.

      I’m actually in the middle of reading this right now. Definitely a moving read, even though I’m a bit suspicious the glamorized perspective on farming might be a little romanticized.



      1. You have to read a little bit of Wendell Berry’s nonfiction to appreciate the fullness of his perspective on farming (some examples are here, anything about farming that catches your eye would be good: http://brtom.typepad.com/wberry/wb-online-prose.html)… in general, usually people who read Berry’s fiction first think he is an impractical romantic, and then they read his nonfiction and realize that he one of the most realistic voices we have in contemporary American writing. That’s how it was for me, anyway.

        However, I think it’s fair to say that Berry’s view of farming is on the same level of Vanauken’s view of marital fidelity: both have had intense personal experiences with the best that it gets on earth and wish for others to appreciate that through their writing.


        1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm

          I’ve read some of his nonfiction on the body, specifically, and have really enjoyed it. I’m not a localist (or Front Porcher), but I appreciate the challenge he’s raising.

          And I think you’re right about VA/Berry. Actually, just before you wrote that I posted on my FB wall that I think Berry makes total sense as a counterproposal. In fact, I may put together an essay putting VA and Berry in dialogue. I bet no one has done that yet.



          1. …and that is why yours is one of my favorite blogs! I eagerly look forward to this hypothetical essay.

  5. This’ll be something of a non seq, I know, but was skimming through Sept’s NOR (nice piece on JH Newman) and one link led to another. Saw the letters from ’92 (I subscribed back in the 80s and early 90s) and noticed this from Vanauken, and it reminded me how much I not only enjoyed Severe, but how much I enjoyed his regular essays. NOR and Sheldon helped me get to where I was headin’. I knew I’d regret tossing those out…..sigh.

    Loving the Sinner & the Sin? http://www.newoxfordreview.org/letters.jsp?did=0992-letters

    As a Dad with two daughters in college, I guess I want them to read the ingredients for fast food, and learn to read the dudes on the make. Not necessarily in that order.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 13, 2011 at 9:14 am

      Greg, I think VA’s influence on contemporary evangelicalism is a story that’s honestly waiting to be told. I have plans someday to start the a VanAuken website and collect all the letters from him that various people have. I know of two people now who both corresponded regularly with him, and I’m sure there’s great stuff in there.



  6. Fabulous idea.

    BTW, caught the last bit of the book group last night @ our house (after yoga, of course), and sounds like EV is on their list.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 13, 2011 at 10:17 am

      That’s humbling and awesome. Also, check back tomorrow. There’s going to be an announcement that they may be interested in.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 15, 2011 at 12:41 pm

      Ohmygoodness, Stuart. Those are awesome. Thanks for passing along the link to them. I really enjoyed reading through them.


  7. just got it into my hands! thanks for the recommendation!


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 20, 2011 at 10:10 am

      Jenny, that’s fantastic!! Let me know what you think of it once you get a chance to read through it. I’d love to know if it stands up to my recommendation.


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