Text saying 'Summer Sampler Selections From First-Year Courses' over an image of people on the beach.

The First Thing New Students Will Read

Well, not really. However, as an incoming Cal freshman or transfer student, you may be wondering what's in store for you when classes start in the fall. We've got a little preview here, and a welcome to Cal, with the 2015 edition of the UC Berkeley Summer Reading List for New Students.

Is this required reading? Absolutely not. Do we hope you'll find something on this list that appeals to you? Absolutely yes. This year's list—“Summer Sampler: Selections from First-Year Courses”—offers a potluck of great suggestions from a few of our many faculty who teach these courses. If you don't get to one of these readings this summer, you'll be able to find them at one of Cal's many libraries when you arrive.

For a look at the many engaging suggestions on previous years' lists, we encourage you to visit the Reading List archive. And, of course, we encourage you to read: avidly, widely, and wildly.

Welcome to Berkeley!

First Year Coordinator
UC Berkeley Library

College Writing Programs


Cover art for Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Katherine Boo
New York: Random House, 2012

Reading Katherine Boo's Pulitzer Prize winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers leaves one's mind and heart shaken and changed. Her thick and intense description of people striving to survive a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport in India reads like a gripping novel that is all too real in its tale of poverty and depredation, of human frailty and strength. On every page you'll find the makings of a tragedy but also glimmers of possibilities for surviving tragedy. And on every page you'll learn from Boo's unsentimental empathy and insight how to think with respect about the hard and complex condition of life under terrible stress. You'll leave the book equipped with her deep insights into how people survive alongside one another in an era and place of tumultuous change. And you'll leave amazed at the writer's commitment to getting the story right by living within it and rendering it in pitch perfect prose.

This book has been chosen for the On the Same Page program for 2015, which means that each new student will receive a copy over the summer to read in preparation for the author's visit and other program activities in the fall.

East Asian Languages and Cultures

Cover art for Welcome to Braggsville

Welcome to Braggsville

T. Geronimo Johnson
New York: William Morrow, 2015

In this, his second novel, PEN/Faulkner finalist and former UC Berkeley instructor T. Geronimo Johnson follows Daron Davenport and his three friends and fellow Cal students as they travel to Daron's hometown of Braggsville, Georgia to stage a protest over a local Civil War reenactment—a protest that goes wrong in devastating ways. Woven with Greek tragedy and thick with pop culture, at once a fiercely funny satire and a moving social commentary on how it's never simple when we talk about race and class in Bezerkeley and across the country, Welcome to Braggsville is a startling and powerful tour de force.

College Writing Programs

Cover art for Hrafnkel's Saga

Hrafnkel's Saga

anonymous Icelander
Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971

Hrafnkel's Saga is the medieval story of a chieftain in Viking-age Iceland who bullies all comers until he meets his match...in a lawyer. Watch for the twist at the end. Great character study and introduction to the world of the sagas in short format.

Our department teaches introductory courses in Scandinavian culture (literature, film, art), and we welcome freshmen to join us in Scandinavian 60 (focusing on early Scandinavia -- aka Vikings) and Scandinavian 75 (modern Scandinavia).

See also the entry for Jar City


Cover art for Jar City

Jar City

Arnaldur Indridason
New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2005

Jar City is a detective thriller set in contemporary Iceland. The sale of the Icelandic people's genetic information to a for-profit research company caused a controversy about the ethics surrounding privacy and health. Indridason's first mystery novel poses the question: What would happen if a criminal abused his access to that database?

Our department teaches introductory courses in Scandinavian culture (literature, film, art), and we welcome freshmen to join us in Scandinavian 60 (focusing on early Scandinavia -- aka Vikings) and Scandinavian 75 (modern Scandinavia).

See also the entry for Hrafnkel's Saga.


PLOS Medicine cover image

"Why Most Published Research Findings Are False"

John P.A. Ioaniddis
PLoS Med, August 30, 2005

This paper scares the hell out of me every time I read it! Many have suggested that the ways in which we perform and choose to publish scientific research are less than optimal. Ioannidis explores precisely what sorts of studies we ought to be suspicious of, and why, clearly and rigorously. We live in a culture that inundates us with discoveries, and this paper will help you to decide which of those discoveries are likely to be “real,” and likely to last the test of time.

Lecturer, Head of Undergraduate Advising

Cover art for The Beauty Bias: the Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law

The Beauty Bias: the Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law

Deborah Rhode
New York: Oxford University Press, 2010

My student, Tien Nguyen, says: “What I like about the book The Beauty Bias by Deborah Rhode is the way Rhode covers all the social issues related to beauty and appearance in American culture. It explains the threat of widespread lookism in our society. The writing is easy to read and it is helpful to use as a reference or source for research.” I couldn't agree more with Nguyen. Indeed, Deborah Rhode provides a salient study of why looks matter and she does it in the most engaging way, blending great scholarship with keen personal observations. Truly, a must read for those who know that beauty is more than skin deep and wish to further understand how its politics prevails in every aspect of our society, including the justice system.

College Writing Programs

Cover art for Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine
Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014

In my opinion, Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric was the most important book of poetry published last year, and probably in the past several years—it is at once an accessible and complex and challenging engagement with contemporary racism.

PhD Candidate
Department of English

Image of journal cover from 1991

“Statistical Models and Shoe Leather"

David A. Freedman
Sociological Methodology, volume 21, 1991

One of the things we in Statistics try to do in our lower division courses is instill in our students a healthy level of skepticism about applications of statistical methodology. A reading that does a particularly good job of getting across the pitfalls inherent in many uses of simple statistical techniques as well as providing some success stories (such as John Snow's classical 1855 epidemiological investigation into the causes of cholera outbreaks with its wonderful story about the removal of the handle of the Broad St pump) is this article by my late Statistics colleague David A. Freedman.

(To get an idea of David Freedman's incredibly broad range of interests, I encourage you to read his Wikipedia page.)

Professor of Statistics and Mathematics

Cover art for Garbology

Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash

Edward Humes
New York: Avery, 2013

Did you know that the average American will produce 102 tons of garbage in a lifetime? In addition to such information Garbology, by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Edward Humes, contains stories of people such as Mike Speiser, aka Big Mike, who, with his 60-ton BOMAG Compactor, sculpts the 1,365-acre Puente Hills landfill into the largest active waste disposal site in the country. Humes helps us picture its size this way: “if Puente Hills were an elephant burial ground, its tonnage would represent about 15 million deceased pachyderms.” Written in a lively style, Humes conveys the complex history of garbage disposal as it developed into the highly profitable business it has become. More than a book, Garbology is a project. On Garbology's Facebook page you can find updates on how various communities manage and reduce their garbage as well as ideas about how to reduce the amount of garbage you produce.

College Writing Programs

Cover art for French Lessons

French Lessons

Alice Kaplan
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993

My reading and composition students have loved Kaplan's book almost universally. It works very well especially for ELL students: it's highly readable and it speaks a lot about the language learning experience.

PhD Candidate
Romance Languages and Literatures

Cover art for Jane Eyre: An Autobiography

Jane Eyre: An Autobiography

Charlotte Brontë
New York: Oxford University Press, 2000

Brontë's most famous novel was once required reading in high school, but now I find that only a handful of incoming students have read it, so I've started assigning it in my Reading & Composition courses. At once a window on British Victorian culture and a transcultural coming-of-age story, it combines all the best elements of mystery and romance with a more subtle commentary on how to establish one's own independence and identity in a world fraught with challenges to both. It also provides a jumping-off point for thinking about the exploitation and suffering that took place in Britain's colonies, especially for women, and particularly when read together with Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea.

Department of English

Cover art for Love and Longing in Bombay

Love and Longing in Bombay

Vikram Chandra
Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1997

I love this book as a reader and as a teacher. A series of four thematically linked short stories, the book provides a glimpse into bits of life in India that most of us are not familiar with. But more important, really, than the “new worlds” nature of the book, the themes of how we love or what we want out of love are wonderfully expressed. The writing is often very beautiful and the characters breathe life: a Sikh detective trying to solve a murder; a software engineer trying to fix a bug; and the Bombay ladies-who-lunch and plot against each other, to name a few.

This is my go-to book when I teach the second half of the Reading and Composition Requirement. Vikram Chandra is a professor in our English Department.

College Writing Programs

Cover art for The Ghost Map

The Ghost Map

Steven Johnson
New York: Riverhead Books, 2006

John Snow has been called “The father of geographic information systems (GIS)”, “The father of public health”, “The father of environmental engineering”, and “The father of epidemiology.” Read this fascinating book about his approach to understanding the real cause for cholera in London in the 19th century, and how he won political battles to protect the public's health. This is an excellent book for students at all levels including those with no background in biology or public health.

School of Public Health

Cover art of The Story of Stuff

The Story of Stuff

Annie Leonard
New York: Free Press, 2010

In my course, Reading and Composition in Energy, Society, and Environmental Design, I assigned Leonard's book and the students really enjoyed reading and discussing it. Leonard, a former Greenpeace activist and now the organization's executive director, writes in an accessible journalistic/narrative style and uses data to make strong argumentative points about the life cycle of objects, their production, issues of sustainability, and consumerism.

Department of Architecture

Cover art for The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert
New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014

Are we going the way of the dinosaurs? Selected as one of The New York Times Best Books of the Year for 2014, Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History explores this question by bringing science to life with engaging personal stories and interviews and cool biological facts. Kolbert makes very distant history fascinatingly relevant and real. Not only does Kolbert compel readers with the urgency of our situation, she also tells a story of how ideas, specifically the ideas of extinction and evolution, are born—a story of how knowledge itself, in all its messiness, is created.

College Writing Programs