UC Berkeley 2017 Summer Reading List What Can We Change in a Single Generation?

Fiat Lux: “Let there be light”

Welcome to you--incoming Cal freshmen and transfer students, and avid readers everywhere!

As UC Berkeley marks its sesquicentennial (that’s a fancy way of saying “150th birthday”), we’ve taken the university’s motto, Fiat Lux (“Let there be light”), as inspiration for this year’s UC Berkeley Summer Reading List for New Students.

Every year, we ask Cal faculty, staff, and students to recommend some great books for the incoming classes to read. On this year’s list, you’ll find a splendid array of fiction, memoir, journalism, history, and engaging research to choose from that offer journeys of discovery and inspiration; narratives of personal transformation and insight; moments of humor and deep humanity; and stories of dark, difficult times in personal or societal history where people found their way to “light” of different kinds.

Fear not, those of you who might be worried that these readings constitute summer homework. The list is offered simply for you to explore at your leisure, and to welcome you to the community of scholars, thinkers, and readers you’ll soon be joining here at Cal. (You can see past suggestions from reading lists dating back to 1985, and find your way to most of these suggestions in one of Cal’s many libraries once you arrive on campus.)

So read on, and let there be light...and inspiration, discovery, and hope.

College Writing Programs

First Year Coordinator
UC Berkeley Library


Cover art for The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

This year’s selection for On the Same Page, our campus-wide book-in-common program, is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. This remarkable novel is at once a classic and all too contemporary in its themes and concerns. It reminds us that humankind’s darkest moments (past, present, or future) inspire the most courageous acts of resistance. Read The Handmaid’s Tale over the summer, attend Atwood’s keynote event on campus on August 23, and prepare to be inspired to create the light you want to see in the world.

Director of Academic Planning
College of Letters & Science

Cover art for My Twentieth Century Evening

My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs

Kazuo Ishiguro

In his 2017 Nobel Lecture in Literature, My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs, Kazuo Ishiguro recounts his childhood when he moved in 1960 with his parents from Japan to England, where they were the only Japanese family in the town where they settled. Looking back, he is amazed that although it was less than 20 years after the end of WWII, the English community accepted them with “openness and instinctive generosity.” His identity is shaped by this openness as he ventures into his writing, where he surprisingly starts to emotionally construct his own idea of Japan.

This emotional construct, he comes to realize, is due to the importance of relationships — relationships that “move us, amuse us, anger us, surprise us” — and due to finding meaning in the “small, scruffy moments” that seemingly allow writers to be vulnerable in experiencing the unknown and the elusive and in finding meaningful exchanges through human encounters.

His hope is for us not to be complacent, but to embrace diversity, to include many voices and be open to new ideas — to listen. What starts out as his appeal to literature and writers is also an appeal to combat “dangerously increasing division,” reminding us of his first encounter in England, of openness and generosity.

College Writing Programs

Cover art for Stealing Buddha's Dinner

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

Bich Minh Nguyen

One of the first images Nguyen relates in her memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, is of her being mesmerized by the daughter of her host family, Heather Heidenga, reaching into a canister of Pringles and shoving a handful into her mouth.

This “American” memory is the start to the story of her family’s immigration from Vietnam to Michigan in 1975 and her desire to fit into her white suburban community. Instead of her grandmother’s traditional Vietnamese dishes, or her Mexican-American stepmother’s lack of interest in cooking, she longs for Toll House cookies made by Jennifer Vander Wal’s mother, or Mrs. Jansen’s blueberry muffins, made with Jiffy mix. Her imagination carries her into her books she is so fond of reading, eating salt pork (or bacon in her case) just like Laura in Little House on the Prairie, or connecting with Ramona Quimby, who also had to eat boring snacks and resented her blond, pretty neighbor.

Through this coming of age story, we can relate to Nguyen’s struggle with being an outsider. But through her memories, it is her uniqueness that ultimately defines her identity, and her voice is found in this otherness that we all too often try to avoid.

College Writing Programs

Cover art for The Idiot

The Idiot

Elif Batuman

This novel follows Selin throughout her freshman year at Harvard University, eventually leading to the summer after that pivotal year, in which she travels to Europe to participate in a English-language teaching program. Selin is a student of language and literature, and while there’s a strong literary bent to the book, it taps into so much more. It’s about crushes and roommates and first love and misunderstandings and emailing and being 18 and weird. It’s about first beers and walking around in the mornings with someone new, and all the small things that sometimes outweigh the big ones.

The book isn’t so much about a single moment of discovery, but rather the series of discoveries that make up everyday life as a young adult. These range from the mundane to the profound, and can be painfully relatable. Selin navigates a world familiar to most university students, in the strange liminal space of becoming who you’re supposed to be. It’s funny and nostalgic and totally engrossing.

Class of 2019
History major

Electric Lit Logo

“46 Books by Women of Color to Read in 2018”

R.O. Kwon

Electric Literature, Dec. 26, 2017

At the end of last year, the novelist R.O. Kwon put together this excellent list of books by women of color that were slated to be published in 2018. It includes all sorts of writers I regularly try to draw inspiration and perspective from. In her headnote that precedes the list, Kwon urges us: “Let’s read more broadly; let’s try inhabiting one another’s wildly varied, entirely human points of view.”

Undocumented Students Program

Cover art for Daytripper


Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon

This graphic novel details the many ways in which the protagonist dies. Each chapter ends with his death and the next chapter begins at a different point in his life and ends in his death. The ultimate result is a moving and powerful examination of what it means to live each day to the fullest, and how to find hope, love, and passion in both the best and worst of circumstances.

Director of Case Management
Division of Student Affairs

Cover art for Born a Crime

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Trevor Noah

In the age of South African apartheid, Trevor Noah’s mom is the heroine who is able to raise a smart, funny, and thoughtful human being who, as an adult, has gone on to fight racism with dignity and humor. Noah’s mother, through all of their many trying times, was the light and inspiration who allowed Trevor the ability to learn from their hardships. Through the confines of racism and violence, this is a tale of how survival can happen with love, humor, and dignity. At the end of it all, there continues to be light, inspiration, discovery and hope in our humanity!

Curriculum Coordinator/Enrollment Manager
Department of Sociology

Cover art for All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr

In his novel, Doerr artfully weaves together the stories of blind French girl and a precocious Nazi boy who meet in St. Malo, France as the town is being bombed by the Allies shortly after D-Day. The book reminds us how courage, imagination, and resourcefulness can enable us to transcend our limitations.

Adjunct Professor of Economics and Statistics
Co-Director, Consortium for Data Analytics in Risk

Cover art for Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

Susannah Cahalan

At the age of 24, Susannah Cahalan was coming into her own: living in New York City, in a serious relationship, and beginning her career as a journalist for a major newspaper. Just as things felt like they were coming together, everything fell apart when she woke up in the hospital, confused and unsure of who she was. There is a level of vulnerability in this book that is unwavering and brave as Cahalan recalls the month that she fought to convince doctors, loved ones, and herself that she was not lost.

Digital Imaging Specialist, Imaging Services
University of California Libraries

Cover art for Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I.

David Grann

Woody Guthrie sang that in his native Oklahoma, “Some will rob you with a six-gun, And some with a fountain pen.” This Western history reveals the full truth of this for the first time, and adds the point that for Native Americans fraud was sealed with multiple murders of the young and the old. Grann, a magazine journalist, has had an epic year with human catastrophes of a century ago. His book on explorers in the Amazon became the film, The Lost City of Z, and his visit to Antarctica, “The White Darkness,” was featured in The New Yorker in early 2018. The dusty oil patch in Oklahoma, it turns out, had healthier weather but many more tragedies. They will make you gasp as you become the explorer.

Professor of Journalism & University Librarian emeritus

Cover art for Euphoria


Lily King

This 2014 novel is based in part on the life of the famed/notorious anthropologist Margaret Mead. Set in New Guinea in the 1930s, this narrative full of danger and desire is propelled forward by the thrill — and the risks — of seeking out new knowledge. A reviewer wrote in the New York Times, “King’s signal achievement may be to have created satisfying drama out of a quest for interpretive insight.”

Associate Director
Berkeley Connect

Cover art for Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science

Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science

Philippe Squarzoni

Squarzoni’s graphic memoir recounts his experience in coming to understand the immensity of our changing climate. While he was finishing a previous book about politics, he realized he didn’t know much about climate change, and thus he started to investigate. That investigation led him to a whole new book, one he felt he had to write. Not only does the book inform readers of these enormous changes, it also illustrates how it is we come to understand new and life-altering ideas. One of my students said after reading Squarzoni’s memoir that she felt “changed.” Squarzoni provides no easy answers, but he does open our eyes to some of the most pressing concerns of our day.

College Writing Programs

Cover art for Barkskins


Annie Proulx

The book I’ve been most moved by in this past year or so is Annie Proulx’s massive novel, Barkskins.

Though it’s very long, I count it as inspirational in many ways. She inspires the reader to think about the research (the love of historical archival work and stories of the past, the enjoyment of discovery, a fascination with the lives of other people) involved in writing this kind of historical novel. She also leaves us with something like an obsession with trees, branches and leaves, and massive tree trunks and a longing for woods and forests. Though it’s partly a story of the ecological devastation of the forests of North America, it’s also a story of hope that we today will do some healing. It is also an honest and delicate exploration of relations between European settlers and Native American groups.

International & Area Studies

Cover art for The Hacking of the American Mind

The Hacking of the American Mind

Robert Lustig

Five years ago, UCSF pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert H. Lustig came out swinging with Fat Chance, a well-argued if polemical exposé of how the processed sugar industry has come to dominate food production (and consumption) with disastrous effects. Now he’s back with the even more compelling The Hacking of the American Mind.

Lustig’s thesis is that not one but several industries consciously develop products designed to foment addictive behavior, showing convincingly that the brain-signaling pathways implicated in substance addictions (drugs, alcohol) are the same as those implicated in behavioral addictions (addiction to social media, for example). He lays out in plain language how the dopamine stimulus mechanism works, how it can be abused to the point of permanent damage, how the serotonin production system mediates these reactions, and how some of the very same addictive behaviors actually thwart the behaviors that would promote serotonin production and a healthy balance between the two.

His wide-ranging assault touches on processed food, substance abuse, and most significantly for modern audiences, the profound new role of “attention addiction” — being unable to tear your attention away from social media.

As in Fat Chance, Lustig writes in an informal, direct, highly-readable, no-BS voice that makes it sound like he is in a classroom addressing a small group of students.

(For more a more extended commentary on the book, see Professor Fox’s blog post.)

Professor, Computer Science Division
Faculty Advisor, UC Berkeley MOOC Lab
UC Berkeley Campus Equity Advisor

Cover art for The Plover

The Plover

Brian Doyle

The Plover is a novel about a sailing trip but also so much more. Relationships, tolerances, personal challenges, hope for recovery, multiculturalism, emotions across the board, unlikely friendships, forgiveness, understanding of malicious activity . . . and the inflection and infusion of the wildlife that shares our planet, even in the middle of the ocean.

A reaction from another reader: “I love his slantwise way of looking at the world. He sees the threads that connect everything, and he chooses a seemingly random thread to explore a little fragment of interconnectedness, as though all paths are equally meaningful. Then he is off on another thread. One has the feeling he could spin a whole story from any fragment, and one wishes to hear them all.”

Professor in Residence Emerita
Molecular and Cell Biology

Cover art for Reality is Not What it Seems

Reality is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity

Carlo Rovelli

This new book is fascinating, well-written, and, believe or not, a page turner. It is about the paradigm shifts that led to our current revolutionary moment in physics. The book provides an engaging, accessible history and explanations of an unbelievable story of innovation.

Carlo Rovelli is a ground breaker in Grand Unified Theory and a bestselling author with his previous book, Seven Brief Lessons in Physics.

Haas School of Business

Cover art for Protestants Abroad

Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America

David Hollinger

Prof. Hollinger has had a distinguished career here at UCB bringing a nuanced understanding to the history of American multiculturalism, and in this new book he shows how Protestant zeal to spread the evangelical message often had the reverse effect of bringing the wider world’s perspectives back to American communities from abroad.

Nanoscale Science & Engineering Graduate Group
UC Berkeley Nanosciences & Nanoengineering Institute

Cover art for Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Cathy O’Neil

After earning a PhD in math, a tenure-track teaching position at Barnard and, eventually, a lucrative gig as a Wall Street “quant,” Cathy O’Neil believed in the gospel of Big Data. The 2008 financial crisis changed all that. “The privileged,” O'Neil realized, “are processed more by people, the masses by machines.”

In a world gaga over Big Data, her book illustrates how Big Data in fields such as education, the criminal justice system, the workplace, as well as the insurance and advertising industries increases inequality and undermines democracy. In the workplace, for instance, efficiency (which can be measured in numbers) is valued over quality (which cannot). Similarly, in the area of criminal justice, arrests are easily measured while the trust built by community policing — not so much. In her own professional experience on Wall Street, O'Neil witnessed a blind faith in numbers and “a false sense of security leading to widespread use of imperfect models, self-serving definitions of success, and growing feedback loops. Those who objected are regarded as nostalgic Luddites.”

But all is not lost. The final chapter offers inspiring examples of how Big Data can be used to improve society: how a mathematical model can be used, for instance, to predict victims of child abuse; that model then provides information to humans who can step in to provide resources and tools to help these families avoid a cycle of abuse.

Social Sciences Division

Cover art for Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself

Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself

Kristin Neff

Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff is a book of shining light, inspiration, and hope that I wish had been available when I began my college career. In her last year of graduate study in the doctoral program in psychology at UC Berkeley, Neff began attending Buddhist meditation meetings to deal with major stress. A central concept of Buddhist thought that she learned from the meditation group, self-compassion, resonated deeply for her. Her weekly Buddhist sessions were “a lifesaver,” influencing her to the point where self-compassion became the primary focus of her research and, later, her university teaching. She is now an Associate Professor of Human Development and Culture in the Educational Psychology Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

Here is an example of one of the pearls of wisdom from Self-Compassion that is relevant to anyone about to embark on, or deeply within, their academic careers: “Because our culture demands that we perceive ourselves as ‘special and above average,’ we routinely engage in an egoistic process of social comparison with others. When we’re deeply invested in seeing ourselves positively, we tend to feel threatened if others do better than we do.” She counters this tendency by saying, “Like it or not, the main way we learn is by falling flat on our face, just as we did when we first learned to walk...If we were perfect and had all the answers, we’d never get to ask questions, and we wouldn't be able to discover anything new.” I wish I had understood that when I was 18.

Infinitely readable, Self-Compassion is a book to return to again and again for guidance and wisdom.

Curriculum Planner
College Writing Programs

Cover art for Summer Lightning

Summer Lightning

P.G. Wodehouse

It’s not just P.G. Wodehouse’s hilarious wordplay shot through the story that makes Summer Lightning such a treat, but equally the marvelously crazy, kind of sweet, and always and ever idiosyncratic British world you get to enter when you pick up one of his books. But a warning: Don’t read this on public transportation because too much laughing might startle one’s fellow passengers.

For a curious modern reader, Wodehouse’s books brim with tempting allusions from the literature and popular culture of the Edwardian era, the 1910s, the Jazz Age, and all the literature an English schoolboy of the time would have had to read. Take for instance Lord Emsworth’s niece Millicent Threepwood in Summer Lightning. She is a classic Wodehouse heroine — feisty, pretty, sometimes terrifyingly capable, but absolutely volatile and a little insane (those last two traits — like every other Wodehouse character).

Nor will Summer Lightning disappoint Wodehouse fans as a class, because it has its wonderful share of 1. broken engagements, 2. purloined items, 3. butlers. Last, just by the way, see the Wikipedia article on the Empress of Blandings, the book’s pig. Especially read the parenthetical words under the pig’s picture; they seem to have been written by a true Wodehouse aficionado.

Librarianb UC Berkeley