Best College and University Common Reads for 2020-2021

I was in college in the mid to late 80’s, and looking at this photo is eerily familiar. I think I had the wedge/ankle strap shoes (or some very similar), and check out the vintage Nike’s! Boston College Library Digital Collection

I was in college in the mid to late 80’s, and looking at this photo is eerily familiar. I think I had the wedge/ankle strap shoes (or some very similar), and check out the vintage Nike’s! Boston College Library Digital Collection

If you are looking for something good to read, why not check out what American colleges and universities are reading this year?

You may have heard of “Common Reads” before: School and community libraries often sponsor them. Universities do too, and Penguin Books runs a list of them every year.

Many of the books that are Common Reads for 20-21 were also frequently selected for 19-20. If they ran in this post from The Lois Level last year, they weren’t repeated this year.

Of course, every book chosen by every university has its merits. These are options that appear frequently and/or I find appealing as an experienced reader looong past my university years!

After being stuck at home for so long and honestly, given the events of 2020, books that help me understand the world are especially appealing, so I’ve featured a lot of them!

I hope you have as much fun reading this list as I had creating it.

The beauty of this type of list is that all the books should be easy to find at your local library.


Note: The Lois Level is an Amazon.com affiliate. Clicking through images helps keep us going.

  1. Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

    This is the most frequently appearing book on this year’s list that I didn’t include in the post last year, so if you read one book, go for this one.

    I don’t know how often people realize how similar the situation in South Africa is to the United States when it comes to the relationships between black and white people except, if anything, the sanctions in South Africa were stricter and they lasted longer.

    As a mixed race child, Trevor Noah literally had to be hidden because his existence would prove that his parents had an illegal relationship as a mixed race couple. Yup, that’s right.

    There is a Young Readers Edition of Born a Crime that’s good for kids about 12 and up. They are also good for adults who want a quicker read.

2. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man, as far as I am concerned, is THE go to classic novel ab.out the Black American male experience. There are many good ones, of course, but this is an important one.

A big “thumbs up” the universities that went with a classic rather than trendy choice.

3. Frankenstein annotated for scientists, engineers, and creators of all kinds, by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein is considered the first science fiction story. It was written by a teenage girl, who wrote it as part of a competition with some of the most eminent writers in England, at the time. After winning the contest, her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, took it upon himself to help her “improve” it, so if you have read this book, likely you read this version.

Now, the original 1818 version that Mary Shelley wrote is back in circulation.

If all that weren’t enough, we can now read it with annotations connecting Shelley’s vision from 1818 to 2020 (just because I like the poetic balance of the numbers).

A truly inspired selection for a college read!!

FREE download of the original 1818 edition of Frankenstein from Project Gutenberg (no annotations).

4. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This novel is about a FICTIONAL member of the Russian Imperial family who is placed under house arrest in a fancy hotel. From there, he watches Soviet society emerge.

I haven’t read A Gentleman in Moscow, but I read Rules of Civility, also by Towles, in 2011 and gave it 4/5 stars, which is good for me! He has another book coming out in October, 2021 called The Lincoln Highway, about three boys making their way after spending time in a juvenile prison in the 1950’s.

I understand that the beginning of A Gentleman in Moscow is quite slow, but don’t give up. It’s worth the wait.

5. Dominicana, by Angie Cruz

I wrote about Dominicana, which I love, last summer. After having lived outside of my own country for years, I could identify with the process of acclimating to a new country as a resident, and this really rang true to me.

6. Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Klein

Orphan Train is a very good novel for its genre, which I call “Book Club Target Chick Lit” historical fiction. It’s the kind of book that makes you feel like you’re reading something intelligent although actually you would be better off reading either really good fiction or really good nonfiction.

There are some issues. The setting in Maine is too contrived and an obvious ploy to bring the Penobscot Nation into the story. A setting in Minnesota or even Illinois would have worked better, and um, they have Native nations in Minnesota. The STATE IS CALLED MINNESOTA, which is clearly a Native word, and Illinois is too.

I would have been ok with the Maine setting if the Penobscot nation had come into the plot in any significant way, but alas, I was left hanging. This is the kind of book that has a great first 2/3rds, but the writer gives up when she figures the reviewer would stop reading.

Whenever I am tempted to stop reading a book and start writing, I don’t give into it for that exact reason.

So if you have so many issues with the book, you ask, why is it here?

It’s on this list because it’s an easy, accessible read, and as I said, it’s very good for its genre.

I would be disappointed if my university chose it as a campus read. And a bit embarrassed.

6. The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clementine Wamariya

I had never actually heard of this book before seeing as the selection for numerous universities this year. I’m really interested in learning more about Africa and understanding the different regions; I’ve only been to Egypt and Morocco.

8. Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel

This is another one that is on my TBR list because it’s an excellent idea for all of us to have a greater understanding of Islam. From my time abroad, I know that Christianity and Islam actually have more commonalities than we do differences. My friends in Jordan sometimes wondered how I took to their culture so easily, and the truth is that living in a moderate Islam country wasn’t that different from living in the Southern U.S.: people know their third cousins, there are regular family gatherings, there isn’t that much alcohol, and there is a ton of food to make up for it!

9. Rising out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

Have you ever wondered what goes on in the minds of militant racists (and by that I mean the Ku Klux Klan)? This book shares the other side of the story.

10. Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream by Joshua Davis

This is another one I haven’t read, but I’m sure the teenagers have quite a story to tell. The film is currently available on Amazon Prime.