10 books to read for pleasure while studying for your degree


There are many unexpected consequences of becoming a student. For me, it was feeling an uncontrollable urge to dress head to toe in clothing featuring my university logo and making the surprising yet satisfying discovery that pasta, a tin of tuna and a squeeze of mayonnaise makes an edible meal (thanks, Uncle Nick).

As a Literature student, one thing that I certainly didn’t expect was that I wouldn’t pick up a book to read for pleasure for the entirety of my degree.

Student life has successfully mounted a three-pronged attack on reading for pleasure:

  1. Any time spent reading for pleasure is time that could be spent reading around your subject, and therefore must be eliminated.
  2. My eyes are so tired from reading literary criticism that I can barely keep them open enough to cross the road safely, never mind to carry on reading when I get home (bizarrely, the same does not apply to Netflix – different eye muscles?).
  3. Time spent reading is time that I am not spending socialising with my fellow students, meaning I will definitely be scratched off the invite list to any future parties, make no friends and probably die alone, with a broad but fundamentally unhappy mind.

Although with hindsight I can see that the above may have been a slight overreaction from my younger self, the fact remains that, with all the reading already required just to survive through your degree, it takes a fairly supreme amount of motivation to add a few more books to your ‘to read’ list for pure pleasure.

But passing on reading for pleasure as a student is a missed opportunity, both to emerge from your studies as a more well-rounded human and for the pure escapism from the stress of student life for an hour or two.

That’s why I’ve put together a list of books that are perfect for reading alongside study. They’re entertaining and thought-provoking, without requiring the same level of brainpower that you need to wade through a textbook. Enjoy!

1. Black Leopard, Red Wolf – Marlon James

Read it: When you’ve outgrown Harry Potter

Admittedly, if you’re like me, the above may never happen, but the first book in James’s modern fantasy trilogy is set to be a spellbinding hit, in a mystical world likened to those created by Angela Carter and Tolkien. Set in a ‘dangerous, hallucinatory, ancient Africa’, Black Leopard, Red Wolf explores the limits of truth, power and ambition.

2. Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney

Read it: When you can’t be bothered to read

Beware of opening this book if you have to be anywhere in the next three hours: it is addictive. The premise is cosy and familiar – two friends hanging out at university – but the unexpected storyline will have you hooked. This book is singularly unputdownable.

3. Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

Read it: On the commute

Perhaps most famous for his 2013 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid has an uncanny knack of dealing with some pretty heavy themes, in this case civil war and displacement, all in a light, easy-going style. The story of Nadia and Saeed is a pleasure to read – when I finished the book, I couldn’t believe it was over so soon.

4. In Our Mad and Furious City – Guy Gunaratne

Read it: When in London

One way to ensure you finish the books you’ve started is to read them all in one go, which is almost impossible to avoid with this one. Set over two days in the capital, this whirlwind of a story follows a group of teenagers trying to find their way in an ever-more chaotic city.

5. We Should all be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Read it: To be able to join the debate

Wait until you graduate to read this one and you risk spending the next several years hopelessly out of the loop. Adapted from the hugely successful Tedx talk of the same name, this book provides an updated, inclusive definition of what it means to be a feminist.

6. In Persuasion Nation – George Saunders

Read it: When you haven’t got long

If the idea of reading a full-on novel is somewhat daunting as you peruse your university reading list, a collection of short stories is a good place to start when reading for pleasure. Don’t let that trick you into thinking this is an easy ride, though – the darkly humorous tales will leave you seriously questioning modern-day morality.

7. Tiny Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed

Read it: When you need a friend

This is the book my mother pressed into my hands as she waved me off to university, presumably with the hope that Strayed’s infinite wisdom would be a helpful substitute in her absence. Adapted from the Dear Sugar column, this book brings together in no-frills fashion some of Strayed’s most unforgettable advice.

8. The Runaways – Fatima Bhutto

Read it: To be moved

This compelling novel tells the story of three young people leading vastly different lives, who each come to make the same terrible decision. If you think you understand the motives of young people today, this book will make you think again. (The author’s also a SOASian – class of 2005!) 

9. Grit – Angela Duckworth

Read it: When you need motivation

Part psychology report, part self-help book, Duckworth’s message in Grit is simple: how successful you are in life is determined a little bit by talent, but a lot by mindset and how hard you work. Sounds like common sense, but if you’ve ever caught yourself envying the ‘natural’ talents of your peers, it’s worth giving this a read. And if you’re not sure whether it’s worth your while, you can do the fun ‘grit test’ online first.

10. Rich and Pretty – Rumaan Alam

Read it: When you want to indulge

It may not be improving your mind, but chick lit is a guilty pleasure that lets you switch off from the world quicker than a classic. This tale of two friends who’ve drifted apart is worth a read when navigating new and old friendships at university.


What did I miss?

Got a book that’s perfect for a read between lectures? Read one of the above and loved (or hated) it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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