Each year, University President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 announces the annual pre-read, which incoming first-years read prior to matriculation. The pre-read is an introduction to Princeton’s intellectual environment and contains themes intended to provoke reflection and conversation among students. This year's book for the Class of 2027 is Maria Ressa ’86’s “How to Stand Up to a Dictator.”
We asked our columnists about the books that they would assign for Princeton’s next pre-read.
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas
By Eleanor Clemans-Cope, Associate Opinion Editor
As a Princeton student, you’ve probably been told that your smarts, education, and ambition can help you make the world a better place. You often hear slogans like “Want to change the world? Start a business” and hear companies’ insistence that through consulting, you can improve lives. These are slogans that promise not only social impact, but also immense personal wealth in the field of consulting. But what if this work actually perpetuates and strengthens the systems of inequality and poverty that you hoped to change?
If you’re one of the many Princeton students considering a career in consulting, or if you’re just seeking to understand the motivations of the world’s most powerful organizations, “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” is a must-read. Written by Anand Giridharadas, this book offers a searing critique of the role of elites and corporations in contemporary society. He exposes corporate social responsibility and billionaire philanthropy as a way for elites to “help out” while preserving their position and avoiding fundamental changes to the systems that made them so rich and others so poor. As Giridharadas says, “This book is an attempt to understand the connection between… elites’ social concern and predation, between the extraordinary helping and the extraordinary hoarding, between the milking — and perhaps abetting — of an unjust status quo and the attempts by the milkers to repair a small part of it.”
Associate Opinion Editor Eleanor Clemans-Cope (she/her) is a first-year from Rockville, Md. She can be reached on Twitter at @eleanorjcc or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite by William Deresiewicz
By Thomas Buckley, Contributing Columnist
Princeton students are lost. In “Excellent Sheep,” William Deresiewicz argues that elite schools like Princeton leave students rudderless, without the capacity to wrestle with big questions such as “What makes a meaningful life?” or to self-reflect well enough to break from the mindless pursuit of prestige. Elite schools overwhelmingly select for those able to function within the constricting demands of the college admissions rat race: students who score highly and neurotically fear failure. Princeton and the elite professional system use this fear to drive students towards pursuing traditionally prestigious careers such as consulting or banking.
As admitted students of the Class of 2027, you have, almost by definition, experienced little but success. You are thus conditioned to view striving for anything less than perfection as a waste of your considerable talent. The cost of falling short can seem like an existential threat. However, merely striving for perfection without considering what you’re striving for does not make a meaningful or especially worthwhile life. At its best, Princeton is an opportunity to step back from the world and consider how you want to make your mark. Before you arrive, think about what (besides a degree and a lucrative job offer) you hope to get from your four years here. Perhaps with reflection, we can avoid becoming merely excellent sheep.
Contributing Columnist Thomas Buckley can be reached at email@example.com.
Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
By Prince Takano, Columnist
If I could assign the Princeton pre-read, I would recommend C.S. Lewis’s “Out of the Silent Planet.” It is a science fiction novel that tells the story of Dr. Elwin Ransom, a philologist (someone who studies languages) who is kidnapped by two unscrupulous men and taken to Mars, also known as Malacandra. Once on Mars, Ransom discovers a world of intelligent, alien beings and must navigate their culture and society to try to prevent his captors from causing harm to Earth. The novel combines elements of science, theology, and philosophy, and raises important questions about humanity's relationship to the natural world, the ethics of colonization and imperialism, and the nature of good and evil. By engaging with these themes, students can develop their moral reasoning and reflect on their own values and beliefs. This novel would encourage incoming Princeton students to think about what morality and moral obligation mean for them in the context of the university’s motto, “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”
Prince Takano is a junior from Los Angeles majoring in politics. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Babel: An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang
By Lucia Wetherill, Community Opinion Editor
While Princeton pre-reads are often non-fiction, I’d like to assign a work of fiction: R.F. Kuang’s “Babel: An Arcane History.” Set in 19th-century Oxford University’s Royal Institute of Translation (nicknamed “Babel”), the book explores the study of language and translation — more specifically, the British Empire’s ability to harness the magic of translation through enchanted silver bars, and the use of this magic to strengthen and expand the empire. Robin Swift is brought from China as a boy, trained in languages, and eventually enrolled at Babel. Quickly realizing his own role in furthering British colonialism, Robin struggles to navigate the politics and dangers of student rebellion, and faces the inevitable question: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?
The book weaves themes of colonialism, complicity, privilege, and resistance into a stunning historical fantasy. As students of a powerful institution like Princeton, it’s worth asking: What systems of power and oppression do we — even unintentionally — contribute to?
Community Opinion Editor Lucia Wetherill is a sophomore from Newtown, PA. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The Imperative of Integration by Elizabeth Anderson
By Emilly Santos, Contributing Columnist
Given the growing polarization within American politics and contrasting opinions about racial inequality in the United States, social integration — the process by which separate societal groups become unified through various processes — is more important than ever. The diversification of workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, police forces, among other aspects of society, is imperative to the goal of approaching a more equitable and just reality. Measures that aid social integration in colleges and higher-education institutions, including but not limited to affirmative action measures, are being challenged, raising the question of whether diverse student bodies and institutional measures aimed at remedying historical inequalities are necessary.
Elizabeth Anderson’s “The Imperative of Integration” discusses the importance of social and racial integration in various realms of global society, focusing on the United States in discussions of specific examples. Anderson suggests that desegregation measures, including affirmative action, are not enough to repair the extensive damage caused to racialized minorities and other disadvantaged groups. Anderson instead gives concrete examples of how racial integration can be achieved in our current society, and explains how this would “build a better democracy.” This book is a valuable read for any Princetonian, especially given the University's status as a global institution. The book provides a valuable perspective into the role of social and racial integration in making intellectual pursuit more thorough, well-rounded, and based on the pursuit of fairness.
Emilly Santos is a sophomore from London, England. Emilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram @emillllysantoss.
The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama
By Vincent Jiang, Contributing Columnist
I would assign Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992) as the Princeton pre-read. His powerful argument that liberal democracy will remain as the world ideology for the foreseeable future, over any of its alternatives, has spurred endless debates since its publication and would surely provoke more lively intellectual discussion among incoming first-year students. Following China’s rise in relative power and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many were quick to declare that Fukuyama’s thesis was overturned, but the weaknesses exposed in those authoritarian states over the past year have only strengthened his argument. Conversations in the opening days of Princeton about the advance of democracy, civil and human rights, and freedoms of expression abroad would set the tone for the next four years and inspire students to better embody the University’s informal motto, “in the nation's service and the service of humanity.”
Vincent Jiang is a sophomore from Long Valley, N.J. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter at @vincent_vjiang.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
By Julianna Lee, Columnist
I suggest “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance as the Princeton pre-read. “Hillbilly Elegy” is Vance's memoir as he recounts the story of growing up in Appalachia in a dysfunctional household in a post-industrial city left behind by industry and the government. Vance beats a lot of odds to make it to Ohio State and to Yale Law School, and he is clear, compassionate, and brutally honest in his assessment of the history and culture of his region and of American society. The book explores themes including the meaning of family, the role of government and welfare, and of upward mobility.
It is easy, coming to an elite Ivy-League institution like Princeton, to overlook or disparage this region of America. I hope that reading this book will be an eye-opening experience for many as they encounter a section of America that is often dealt with negatively by mainstream media, to understand their perspective, and think critically about how their concerns could translate to effective policy making. Beyond Appalachia, however, this book prompts questions relevant to every conscious citizen. What are the successes and failures of our system of government? How important is family, religion, and culture in a child's upbringing? What are the costs and benefits of upward mobility? How can we be more compassionate, charitable, and hopeful in a world that may often seem as if it is beyond repair?
Julianna Lee is a sophomore and prospective politics major from Demarest, N.J. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How To Blow Up A Pipeline by Andreas Malm
By Alex Norbrook, Contributing Columnist
Don’t let the title of Malm’s book give you the wrong impression: I’m not suggesting that the Class of 2027 should grab pitchforks, torches, and dynamite and sprint toward the nearest oil pipeline. But the book’s provocative message questions our beliefs about advocacy in a valuable, if sometimes uncomfortable, way.
Malm challenges the now-entrenched belief that nonviolent civil disobedience in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the only way to make change. He calls on the reader not to limit the horizon of protest to “climate pacifism” and nonviolence — in fact, he argues that nonviolent protest won’t bring about the drastic action required to prevent catastrophic climate change. Instead, he suggests we up the ante by considering strategies like sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure and argues for this change of tactic by citing a long history of violent struggle for justice including the destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure in South Africa and Nigeria.
Malm’s argument ultimately falls short — as an organizing tactic, violence is risky and hard to control; it often fails and causes backlash that worsens the situation. But his book still provokes a much-needed conversation that breaks out of traditional discussions about protest tactics and opens up a space to rethink what we deem acceptable when fighting for change.
Contributing columnist Alex Norbrook (he/him) is a first-year from Baltimore, Md. He can be reached at email@example.com.