The Best 2020 Reads for College Students

by Genevieve Carlton

Updated August 23, 2022 • 6 min read is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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It's been a year like no other, thanks to a global pandemic. College students have had to adapt to closed dorms, COVID-19 tests, and educational upheaval.

Whether students are stuck at home or unable to go home, these 2020 gift ideas for bookworms will bring some much-needed cheer to the holiday season.

Whether you're shopping for fiction or nonfiction, escapist fantasy, or an education memoir, our list of the best books to buy students in 2020 has you covered. And if you know a student who's looking for the best books on racial justice or the fight for gender equality, we've got that, too.

Of course, our list of the best books to read in 2020 wouldn't be complete without a must-have guide to bread making. Here's our take on the books to buy college students this holiday season.

Top Books for College Students

Ninth House

by Leigh Bardugo

A high school dropout and the only survivor after a multiple homicide, Alex Stern isn't like the other freshmen at Yale. But Alex has a special ability — she can see ghosts — and that makes her valuable to Yale's Ninth House, which oversees the university's magic-practicing secret societies.

In "Ninth House," Leigh Bardugo — best known for the "Shadow and Bone" and "Six of Crows" series (coming to Netflix soon) — explores the gritty world of secret societies, dark magic, and privilege in the first book of a planned series. Stephen King calls it "the best fantasy novel I've read in years."

Stamped from the Beginning

by Ibram X. Kendi

How did racist ideas take root in America? In this book, historian Ibram X. Kendi goes back to the colonial era to trace anti-Black ideas through the centuries. As Kendi argues, "From their arrival around 1619, African people had illegally resisted legal slavery. They had thus been stamped from the beginning as criminals."

For centuries, beneficiaries of white supremacy created racist ideas to rationalize inequality and discrimination. "Stamped from the Beginning" looks at the creation and popularization of racist ideas, showing how anti-Black thinking became woven into the fabric of society. College students who want a deeper look at America's legacy on race will find Kendi's work illuminating.

Flour Water Salt Yeast

by Ken Forkish

For the college student stuck at home who wants to try something new, there's nothing more 2020 than baking bread. Ken Forkish, Portland's beloved artisanal baker, makes baking accessible in "Flour Water Salt Yeast."

With this book, total beginners can explore Neapolitan-style pizza dough, while serious bakers can experiment with creating their own starters. It even offers tips on how to design a bread-baking schedule around unusual schedules — perfect for the late-night baker. Along the way, readers will learn the techniques to create custom doughs, levain starters, and the perfect crusty loaf, making "Flour Water Salt Yeast" one of the best books to gift this year.


by Tara Westover

What if college was the first time you stepped into a classroom? That was the reality for Tara Westover, the youngest child in a Mormon survivalist family, when she arrived at Brigham Young University as a 17-year-old. As a child, Westover learned to read from her older brother. She bought her own ACT books to study for college entrance exams, seeing higher education as the only way to escape her abusive childhood.

After a non-traditional education, Westover eventually earned a doctorate. This gripping memoir is perfect for college students; as "Educated" concludes, "An education is not so much about making a living as making a person."

Such a Fun Age

by Kiley Reid

After a white security guard accuses Emira, a Black babysitter, of kidnapping three-year-old Briar, Emira has to deal with the fallout from her woke boyfriend and Briar's mom, a feminist blogger who cares more about her image as an ally than what Emira wants.

Emira doesn't want to be the face of a movement. "I don't need you to be mad that it happened," she explains. "I need you to be mad that it just like...happens." Kiley Reid's debut novel "Such a Fun Age", long-listed for the 2020 Booker prize, explores the clash between race and privilege in a gripping page-turner.

Solutions and Other Problems

Allie Brosh

For burned-out college students, there's nothing better than Allie Brosh, the author of "Hyperbole and a Half." Her new book blends hilarious stories from Brosh's childhood with insightful pieces on grief and depression. And, of course, she illustrates everything with her signature comic art.

"Solutions and Other Problems" is the perfect balance between humor and seriousness. Is there anything more 2020 than an essay on the mysterious horse poop appearing throughout the Brosh house, followed by chapters on loss and feeling powerless? As Brosh says, "That's the scary thing about decisions: you don't know what they are when you're making them."

The Verso Book of Feminism: Revolutionary Words from Four Millennia of Rebellion

ed. Jessie Kindig

For thousands of years, women have spoken out against society's restrictions. They fought against limitations on women's lives in manifestos, poetry, and song. "The Verso Book of Feminism" captures voices of defiance over 4,000 years of history, from Tang Dynasty poets to Caribbean women resisting European explorers, suffragists demanding the vote and generations fighting for independence and equal protection under the law.

As the Venetian author Lucrezia Marinella put it in 1601, "If women, as I hope, wake themselves from the lengthy slumber by which they are oppressed, then these ungrateful and overbearing men would learn humility."

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

by V.E. Schwab

Fans of fantasy and science fiction have probably heard of V.E. Schwab, author of the "Shades of Magic" and "Villains" series. Schwab's newest book, "The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue," is perfect for lovers of sprawling epics and Faustian bargains.

In 1714, Adeline LaRue gains immortality, but it comes at a steep price: Addie will be forgotten by everyone she meets. For 300 years, Addie wanders the globe as a ghost, wondering if she will ever leave a mark. But everything changes when Addie meets a young man in a bookshop and he remembers her name.

You Should See Me in a Crown

by Leah Johnson

Liz Lighty needs a scholarship to escape the small town of Campbell, Indiana. But Liz worries that she's too Black and too poor to earn the prom queen crown, which comes with a hefty scholarship. And is Campbell really ready for a gay prom queen?

In this 2020 young adult novel "You Should See Me in a Crown", author Leah Johnson explores what it means to stand out and why fitting in isn't always the right answer. As Liz realizes, "Campbell is never going to make a space for me to fit. I'm going to have to demand it."

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know

by Malcolm Gladwell

Are sitcoms teaching us the wrong lessons about how to talk to strangers? How did Bernie Madoff fool so many people? And what happens when things go wrong on college campuses? In "Talking to Strangers," Malcolm Gladwell asks why our first impressions can lead us down dangerous paths. By examining how we talk to strangers, Gladwell looks at the misunderstandings and conflicts that shape our lives.

Gladwell makes some missteps of his own — like oversimplifying the Brock Turner case as "a case about alcohol" — but his book will still give college students a lot to talk about.

Portrait of Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at

Header Image Credit: SolStock | Getty Images

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