Your college will undoubtedly make recommendations of its own, but as it is a rare student who reads every volume on a reading list, let alone buys them, it is worth considering what is essential. Some books are indispensable and will be referred to continually throughout the course, thus representing good value for money.
What is absolutely vital is a good Spanish-English dictionary, one of the larger versions for preference. Pocket dictionaries are fine for quick reference but don’t have the breadth, or the depth, of fuller versions. The “Harrap Concise Spanish Dictionary” is fine, although it is actually a Spanish-English dictionary and not that concise.
These tools will be in constant use at your desk, so it is worth spending some time finding out how they actually work. Harrap, for example, clearly marks “false friends,” those words that look familiar to the English speaker but have completely different meanings. For example, it might well be embarrassing to use the word embarazada if you have no wish to refer to pregnancy.
Harrap also marks all the words they consider to be the most used in the language, clearly useful to those with less than a firm grasp of Spanish. A well-structured dictionary, this one, which might just become a true friend with everyday use.
Most serious students of Spanish are painfully aware of the need to get to grips with grammar and verb forms. Consequently, a decent grammar is a must have. The smaller pocket versions can be of more use here and should cover most of a student’s needs. Light and portable (they slip easily into a purse or pocket), they can be dipped into at odd moments. Obscure points of grammar do become understandable over time. Frequent reference to these handy volumes is probably less painful, and more productive, than long hours struggling incomprehensibly at a desk.
Similarly, a decent book of verbs and verb forms is absolutely necessary. Difficult to read and digest at one sitting but without the action words conversation will be dull and lifeless, if not impossible. Again, find the version that most suits you. “501 Spanish Verbs” is useful although the explanatory notes are better when carefully read and read and read again.
As language skills improve, a straight Spanish dictionary could prove useful. No matter how good the Spanish-English version you chose it can’t cover everything. Building vocabulary directly from the Spanish can be immensely satisfying as well as being a useful translation exercise in itself.
Finally, why not consider a volume of poetry? Usually written to be read aloud, verse often helps learners to acquire something of the rhythms and cadences of a language and good poets transmit something of their culture. Besides, poems are often mercifully short.
Whichever books you chose, especially reference books, remember they will get a lot of use. Hardbacks might prove to be a better long term investment.
Harrap Concise Spanish Dictionary ISBN 0 245 60695 3
501 Spanish Verbs by Christopher Kendris, PH.D. and Theodore Kendris, PH.D. ISBN-13: 978-0-7641-2428-0