UC Berkeley 2016 Non-Required Summer Reading: The first time I...

A Collection of Firsts

Welcome to you, incoming Golden Bears!

You’re about to arrive for your first day of classes at Berkeley. Perhaps it will be your first time away from home. Maybe you’re the first one in your family to go to college. Whatever your background and experience, you’re sure to have plenty of “firsts” during your time here. In that spirit, we send along this year’s edition of the UC Berkeley Summer Reading List for New Students, which includes some fantastic reading recommendations, centered on the theme of “Firsts,” that have been selected for you by Berkeley faculty, staff, and your fellow students.

This eclectic list of non-required readings is offered as a gift each year to incoming students; we encourage you to share it with your peers. (Click here to see past years’ lists.) Whether you dip into one of these as you make preparations to leave for Berkeley or track them down in Cal’s vast library collections once you arrive, we’re sure you’ll find something here to pique your interest so that you can experience that “first” that remains evergreen: the pleasure of a being a reader enjoying a new book

First Year Coordinator
UC Berkeley Library

College Writing Programs


Cover art for Just Mercy

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Bryan Stevenson
New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014

Among the first things UC Berkeley will send the incoming class of 2020 is this book that will form the centerpiece of this fall’s On the Same Page program.

Passion, commitment, justice, brutality, the defense of the condemned. In Just Mercy, Brian Stevenson--he's been called America's Nelson Mandela, America's Atticus Finch--sears the reader in his telling of his fight as a young lawyer for social justice on behalf of the poor and the disadvantaged. Just Mercy grips you like the best of novels, bringing you into the lives of the most desperate of people caught in systems of imperfect justice. Stevenson makes us despair that just mercy is beyond our reach, but fills us with glimmers of hope that it is also always within our grasp. Just Mercy is about human suffering and guilt, about the morality of punishment, about poverty and the law, and about the possibilities for heroic action in an imperfect world.

East Asian Languages and Cultures

Cover art for The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic

Jessica Hopper
New York: Featherproof Books, 2015

This book is an excellent compilation of album reviews, artist profiles, and pop culture critiques from Hopper’s years as a music journalist and rock/punk/music aficionado. It’s a great introduction to music criticism that goes beyond star-rated blurbs, and it’s extremely entertaining, following Hopper to festivals and underground clubs and mosh pits alike. Hopper’s writing is both sharp and clearly conveys her passion about her chosen medium, which makes for a great read even if you aren’t necessarily familiar with the subjects (like I was). It’s also super relevant in its “firstness,” as rock criticism is still largely a boy’s club, which becomes a topic that runs throughout her pieces. Overall, a really insightful and interesting read.

Class of 2019
Intended History/Political Science double major

Cover art for The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin
New York: Walker, 1994

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s award-winning classic science fiction novel of first contact on the planet Winter, it is always Year One. Le Guin, daughter of Alfred Kroeber, UCB’s first professor of anthropology, immerses her readers unapologetically in the complex world of Winter so that our experience is akin to that of the First Envoy: a human from Earth named Genly Ai, dropped into the middle of the action to make his way alone, surrounded by alien mystery and danger as he struggles to build a relationship with the enigmatic Estraven, native of Winter.

Le Guin’s writing is poetic and evocative, and as the story shifts among points of view, understanding layers itself atop further mysteries. Estraven puzzles over Genly Ai; personal history reflects cultural lore; gender and politics commingle. And when Genly and Estraven huddle together in a tiny tent atop an enormous ice floe before making their final dash for freedom—we, too, are swept away to a new world in joy and heartbreak.

College Writing Programs

Cover art for My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante (Translated by Ann Goldstein)
New York: Europa Editions, 2012

This novel by the Italian author Elena Ferrante (a pen name; no one knows her true identity) is the first of her four Neapolitan Novels: readers who enjoy it will have three more they can look forward to reading. It is about a first and formative friendship between two girls (and later women)--a rare subject in literature. The protagonist, Elena, is the first girl in her working-class family to complete her education and go on to college and a professional career. Her relationship with her “brilliant friend” Lila, who remains rooted in the poor, violent neighborhood in Naples where they grew up, is complicated--they are both kind and cruel to each other, supportive and jealous, affectionate and antagonistic. Each novel in the series is a gripping page-turner that also provides a guided tour of Italy’s political and social evolution since the 1950s.

Associate Director
Berkeley Connect

Cover art for The Little Prince

The Little Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
San Diego, Harcourt, 2000

I liked The Little Prince because it is about people and their interaction. Coming to Berkeley, a new place, for college, I felt very lost. I knew I had more close friends than I could ask for, yet a part of me always felt lonely. In college, when the busy-ness catches up, you either withdraw into your own day-to-day life and become isolated, or you become a part of student organizations, who are like friends that you are entitled to. I feel like many college students don’t know how to make a connection to a single person who isn’t related to their life through clubs or classes, or how to make the bond last. The Little Prince is about first friends, first adventure, first love, first discoveries, and many other firsts.

Undeclared, Class of 2019

Cover art for The Sirens of Titan

The Sirens of Titan

Kurt Vonnegut
New York: Dell Pub. Co., 1984

The Sirens of Titan is a good “firsts” novel because it’s a very sci-fi adventure. It also explores many deeper concepts. Also, it is written by Kurt Vonnegut, so its ideas aren’t so far out for Berkeley students to grasp. It is about firsts in ideas and purposes in life.

Undeclared, Class of 2019

Cover art for First Confession

First Confession

Montserrat Fontes
New York: Norton, 1992

First Confession is about a Mexican girl and boy who live a privileged life in a small town that intersects with the impoverished world by the Rio Grande river. They experience many firsts, including first lost of innocence, first experience of evil, first mistreatment, first empathy felt towards others, first sin, first confessions, first tragedy, and more.

Undeclared, Class of 2019

Cover art for Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia

School of Public Health

Cover art for The Sparrow

The Sparrow

Mary Doria Russell
New York: Ballantine Books, 2004

This literary science fiction novel is about the first humans to travel to an alien planet. And who are the first humans to do so? Jesuits. Parallel with Jesuit missions of the past, these interplanetary colonizers face cultural clashes that make them question their purpose. Likewise, the reader is forced to question the colonial past and the potential of future alien contact.

Library Stacks Supervisor
Access Services Division

Cover art for The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

Walter Isaacson
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014

Before Page, Brin, Jobs, and Gates, there were many others whose innovations helped to shape our highly technologized world. Isaacson takes us on a 150-plus-year trip through new computational concepts and ways to apply them through physical devices where nobody can really claim center stage because it’s a collective contribution that has made it all possible.

You can tell that I liked the book :-)

Programmer Analyst
UC Berkeley Library

Cover art for Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places

Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places

John R. Stilgoe
New York: Walker and Co., 1998

This is a great, fascinating book for inspiring creativity and wonder about the world around us. I’ve used it with first-year art students in order to start to raise questions about why things are they way they are. It’s a great introduction to things like the postal system; the effects of environmental design and the way we interact with it; and questions like “Why do eggs come in packages of 12?” (Answer: So you can split them in half twice and share them with your neighbors. Same with acres.) Read it to learn how to start discovering the world around you through looking and observation, and become your own explorer.

Digital Projects Manager, Photographer
UC Berkeley Library

Cover art for The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Richard Rhodes
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012

A remarkable history of the discovery of nuclear fission, which shows how discovery becomes technology, and how technology is interconnected with society, culture, politics, personalities, and (in this case) war.

Associate Teaching Professor
Vice Chair for Undergraduate Programs, Bioengineering

Cover art for Alan Turing: The Enigma

Alan Turing: The Enigma

Andrew Hodges
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983

How one man's interest in abstract mathematics combined with his experience breaking encryption during World War II brought us from calculators--machines designed to solve only a particular problem--to computers--machines designed to be programmed to solve many problems. It’s agonizing to consider how many more “firsts” Turing might have given the world if its prejudices hadn’t robbed us of him.

Associate Teaching Professor
Vice Chair for Undergraduate Programs, Bioengineering

Cover art of Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution

Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution

Wendy Brown
New York: Zone Books, 2015

Why is this book a “first”? I have an idea that it will be the first coherent statement most incoming students have ever been presented with that will give them an idea of what has happened and continues to happen at “their” university, and to wider “democratic” society. The author, Wendy Brown, is a professor in UC Berkeley’s Political Science Department. (Professor Brown was also recently named a 2016 recipient of Cal’s Distinguished Teaching Award.)

Lecturer Emerita
Celtic Studies

Cover art for School Days (Chemin d'école)

School Days (Chemin d'école)

Patrick Chamoiseau
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997

So many firsts appear in this autobiographical work: the author’s first year at school on the island of Martinique, and his first encounters with the French language, with educational institutions, and with the multicultural identity that the boy ultimately comes to embrace through Creole language and his African roots.

French Department

Cover art for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Sijie
London: Vintage, 2002

A semi-autobiographical novel by Chinese-born author Dai Sijie who also made its movie adaptation in 2002. It tells the story of two teenagers who are sent to the mountains to get re-educated during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and of the adventures resulting from their first encounter with the Western culture through a forbidden book that they come across: a short story, “Ursula,” by Honoré de Balzac.

French Department

Cover art for Essential Keats:  Selected by Philip Levine

Essential Keats: Selected by Philip Levine

John Keats
New York: Ecco Press, 1987

John Keats was what you would call a punk--constantly getting into fights with other kids--until a schoolmaster lent him a copy of Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queen. After being exposed to this work John Keats had to be forcibly evicted from the school’s library.

Philip Levine writes a good introduction to this edition where he gives a brief account of Keats’s short life. It will be reassuring to young poets to learn that John Keats’s work wasn’t universally accepted when he wrote it. He received harsh criticism, sometimes outright rejection, from some of his contemporaries whose names have since been forgotten except by scholars specializing in 19th century English literature.

This selection contains many jewels, one of which is “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” Overall, the poetry of John Keats is relevant for any young person whose youth allows them to experience the world with a freshness that has yet to be weathered and eroded by age. His best work is incredibly sensual; resonating deeply for a sensitive reader. Keats was gifted and his magnificent odes, written when he knew he would die within a year, are heartbreakingly beautiful, enduring wonders.

Curriculum Planner
College Writing Programs

Cover art for Blindsight


Peter Watts
New York: Tor, 2006

Peter Watts, a former marine-mammal biology researcher, writes an engaging story of first contact between humans and an alien intelligence. (Available for free here.)

Library Systems Office

Cover art for Class: A Guide Through The American Status System

Class: A Guide Through The American Status System

Paul Fussell
New York: Summit Books, 1983

This is the first book I read concerning class right here in the United States. We like to believe that the USA is a classless society; Paul Fussell brilliantly exposes that naïve myth. With humorous examples, he discusses all the levels: from people on the street, to proles, to the middle class, and right on up to the upper class. A captivating primer on how to tell who’s who (and who isn’t) not solely by money but, according to Fussell, by behavior, dress, and the most obvious: speech. Highly recommended not only as a social statement but also as a humorous guide to how life really works in our country.

Library Assistant III/Receiving Specialist
[Spanish / Italian / French / Portuguese / Catalan Collections]
Ordering & Monographs Receiving Unit

Cover art for Madame de Pompadour

Madame de Pompadour

Nancy Mitford
London: Hamilton, 1968

This biography tells the story of King Louis XV’s first bourgeoise mistress, Madame d’Etioles, née Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson. The book is a lovely, history-filled character study of this unique 18th century Frenchwoman. At age nine, the future Madame de Pompadour was nicknamed Reinette by her family after a fortune-teller predicted she would “reign over the heart of a king.” She grew up becoming accomplished in useful, interesting, and elegant ways, with good taste and much charm.

Mitford richly and amusingly recounts how Madame de Pompadour was able to get introduced to the King even though she was a bourgeoise; how they loved each other; how the Queen was able to tolerate her; how she negotiated the feelings and machinations of the court and detractors; and how her dream ended. There is too much fascinating description and storytelling to do the book justice in a short paragraph; suffice to say that this is absolutely a work of literature, not just biography. (A particularly good edition of the book is the revised 1968 Harper & Row edition, with its many full-page color illustrations.)

Slavic Cataloging Librarian