Illuminating Communities

Dear New Cal Students,

Welcome readers! The following list is intended for anyone interested in a great selection of recommended readings, but it’s especially for those of you who will be coming to UC Berkeley as new students in the Fall of 2022.

Each year, Cal’s community of faculty, staff, and students offer the incoming first-year and transfer classes a few suggestions of compelling readings centered around a shared theme. This year’s theme: Illuminating Communities. On the list below, you’ll find a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction, personal histories and natural histories, and persuasive and reflective pieces that examine a myriad of communities from our past and present and invite us to see them anew or to hear their stories for the first time. We hope you’ll find something on this list that appeals to you, and encourage you to seek out the book(s) in Berkeley’s extensive library collections. (Also, check out this link to a recording of a Cal Performances event related to one of our suggested books below. The video is free to stream through August 31.)

Whether you’re an insider or outsider to a given community, what you’ll find on this list are stories that entertain and provoke, and readings that can enlarge our understanding, knowledge, and empathy. These things are especially important now as we emerge from the shadows of the pandemic having been reminded of the many ways in which we, and our myriad communities, are interconnected.

Michael Larkin (he/him)
College Writing Programs

Tim Dilworth (he/him)
First-Year Coordinator
UC Berkeley Library

Alison Wannamaker
Graphic Designer
UC Berkeley Library

Book cover for Interior Chinatown

Interior Chinatown

Charles Yu

In this genre-bending book, all the world’s a stage, and all the people merely players. Some have named, starring roles. Others are limited to non-speaking background roles such as Ethnic Recurring, Generic Asian Man Number Three, and Delivery Guy. Such are the roles available to our protagonist, Willis Wu, whose highest aspiration is to become Kung Fu Guy. By the end of the book, Willis comes to recognize the invisible, historical forces circumscribing his world, and struggles with what it would mean to break free and go off-script—and invites us to do the same. One of our student reviewers for the 2022 On the Same Page program praised Interior Chinatown for its “unique and compelling examination of Asian-American identity and media representation.” Another student reviewer described the book as “storytelling like I have never seen or read before.” Exploring an American history of immigration, marginalization, assimilation, racism, and mass media, Interior Chinatown asks, "Who gets to be an American? What does an American look like?”

Director of Curricular Engagement Initiatives
College of Letters & Science

Book cover for Gordo: Stories

Gordo: Stories

Jaime Cortez

Gordo is a collection of short stories which intimately describe the world of a migrant workers camp near Watsonville, California in the 1970s. Through his memorable cast of characters, Cortez explores the complexities of growing up Mexican American in California with humor and with a deep sincerity. The book confronts the difficulties of simultaneously belonging and not belonging in this country, a relatable experience that radiates far beyond Watsonville, California.

Digital Archivist
The Bancroft Library

Book cover for All About Love

All About Love: New Visions

bell hooks

All About Love offers radical new ways to think about love by showing its interconnectedness in our private and public lives. In eleven concise chapters, hooks explains how our everyday notions of what it means to give and receive love often fail us, and how these ideals are established in early childhood. She offers a rethinking of self-love (without narcissism) that will bring peace and compassion to our personal and professional lives, and asserts the place of love to end struggles between individuals, in communities, and among societies. Moving from the cultural to the intimate, hooks notes the ties between love and loss and challenges the prevailing notion that romantic love is the most important love of all.

Associate Professor, Evolutionary Physiology
Department of Integrative Biology

Book cover for How Starbucks Saved My Life

How Starbucks Saved My Life

Michael Gates Gill

Don't be fooled by its joking title. How Starbucks Changed My Life is an engaging memoir from Michael Gates Gill, the son of famed New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, who grew up in a mansion of 30-plus rooms, and who encountered many of the glamourous people and literati of his time in his youth: e.g., Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Jackie Kennedy. He eventually became an artistic director at the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency. He had a good career there until it was deemed that, in his mid-60’s, he was too old and was fired. Divorced, diagnosed with a brain tumor, he ended up living in an attic apartment, desperate for employment that offered health insurance. By pure coincidence, he was hired at a Starbucks located in a “bad” part of town.

He progressed from cleaning the bathroom to becoming a barista, along the way learning to respect, and befriend, youth from a lower-income social strata that he normally would have crossed the street to avoid during his time as an advertising executive. One of these young people was a fierce-looking ex-gang member who protected Gill one night when he was threatened by a customer who refused to leave at closing and pulled out a knife. After working at Starbucks, Gill would conclude that he preferred the company of the staff there to the corporate executives he used to interact with while at J. Walter Thompson. This is a compelling, enlightening narrative about How a Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else that puts a human face, and experience, to what is essentially a scathing critique of socio-economic class differences.

Enrollment Manager
College Writing Programs

Book cover for Exit West

Exit West (electronic copy requires CalNet authentication)

Mohsin Hamid

Exit West depicts a world where magical doors exist that allow for refugees to emigrate from their war-torn countries. The novel follows a pair of refugees who fall in love and try to make their lives better by finding new opportunities after their hometown becomes overrun with violence. Apart from being a good read, the book goes along with the theme of illuminating communities by offering great insight into issues faced by refugee communities that are often overlooked by society. Exit West was definitely an eye-opener for me; if you get the chance to check it out, I hope you enjoy it!

(Note: Exit West was also the On the Same Page pick for the incoming class in Fall 2020.)

Mechanical Engineering major
Class of 2025

Book cover for The Year of Wonders

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (electronic copy requires CalNet authentication)

Geraldine Brooks

In 1665, a tailor in the village of Eyam, in England, opened a bundle of cloth from London. It had fleas, and they carried bubonic plague, and soon the villagers were dying. The village made an unusual decision—they quarantined, to prevent the spread of the disease outside their borders, and they rode out the plague in isolation from the outside world. This true story is related in wrenching and beautiful fictionalized detail by Geraldine Brooks, in her book Year of Wonders (which, incidentally, is on the American Library Association’s list of the top 100 banned books in the United States).

In the novel, we meet 18-year-old widow Anna Frith, a servant to the local church rector. Anna soon loses her two sons to the plague, and is drawn into the center of the community’s life in isolation as she cares for the sick and dying alongside the rector’s wife. The village turns in on itself, and Brooks explores the ways in which this plays out for good and evil, with sensitive and compelling detail about rural life and relationships in 17th century England. She also makes sure we root for Anna, who questions everything she has been taught to think about religion and nature, and who blossoms into a woman of strength and substance.

The parallels to today’s world and how it has faced COVID are clear, and many articles (such as this article from The Guardian) connecting Eyam’s experience to COVID can be found online. In each case, the role of community is central—to how we weather storms, and how we heal after loss.

Sociology, Demography, & Quantitative Research Librarian
Doe Library

Book cover for Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music

Alex Ross

Like music? The music of today, classical and popular, is impossible without Wagner. Like history? Philosophy? Sociology? Novels? Movies? It’s all here. The western world from the 1860s turned to Wagner in so many ways (for good and ill), and still does.

A video bonus: Cal Performances has generously provided this link to a recording of a conversation between the author, Alex Ross, and the composer John Adams, who engage in a wide-ranging discussion of Wagner and his influence on history, politics, and culture, including on a variety of literary and cinematic works such as Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Matrix, and Game of Thrones. (Recording available through August 31.)

Professor of the Graduate School
Goldman School of Public Policy

Book cover for When Brute Force Fails: How to have less crime and less punishment

Professor of the Graduate School
Goldman School of Public Policy

Book cover for Your Inner Fish: A Journey in the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

Your Inner Fish: A Journey in the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

Neil Shubin

In this book, Neil Shubin, paleontologist and professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago, examines the interconnectedness of life across billions of years. Drawing upon his discovery of the Tiktaalik—the “fish with hands”—Shubin demonstrates elegantly simple ways that humans, and other species, are connected to one another. In addition to an accessible examination of evolution, his narrative is filled with observations and anecdotes from his work in the field, offering powerful models of how to locate, identify, and analyze patterns that can improve our ability to make inferences and predictions.

College Writing Programs

Book cover for We are Dancing For You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-Age Ceremonies

We are Dancing For You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-Age Ceremonies (electronic copy requires CalNet authentication)

Cutcha Risling Baldy

Dr. Risling Baldy’s Indigenous feminist voice speaks truth to power on difficult topics: California history and genocide, anthropology, and salvage ethnography. But through these recollections, experiences, and narrative evidence the triad goals of (re)righting, (re)writing, and (re)riteing history bring hope for the future.

Lecturer & Tribal Cultural Resources Policy Fellow
Berkeley Law

Book cover for Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass (electronic copy requires CalNet authentication)

Robin Wall Kimmerer

This beautifully written (and presented) book weaves stories of how our lives intertwine with the ecosystems around us and centers an Indigenous worldview that is often discredited in academia. It brings the reader on a journey requiring you to slow down and learn from the stories nature is telling us: that reciprocity is real and necessary.

Lecturer & Tribal Cultural Resources Policy Fellow
Berkeley Law

Book cover for The Road to Wellville

The Road to Wellville

TC Boyle

In the early 1900s a group of strangers meet in the breakfast cereal capital of the USA, Battle Creek, Michigan. There they find the “San” (Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s sanitarium), where they seek optimum health and enlightenment. This satirical, quasi-historical piece of fiction takes a bite out of “wellness” communities, the idea of food as medicine, and cult-like following of diet and alternative medicine gurus, not to mention get-rich-quick schemes. It’s an American tale through and through--one that is as relevant today as it was at the beginning of the last century.

College Writing Programs

Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto: Writing Our History

Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto: Writing Our History (electronic copy requires CalNet authentication)

David G. Roskies, editor

How does one bear witness to a community being destroyed? What Emanuel Ringelblum did in Warsaw in the early 1940s was to create a community of chroniclers. Folks from various walks of life–poets, rabbis, activists, and others–were brought together under the moniker "Oyneg Shabes" (Joy of Sabbath), and urged to write of the “ordinary” lives in the Warsaw ghetto, quite literally as the Nazis were attempting to exterminate Jewish communities across Europe. Life then was hardly “ordinary” but many daily events (horrific as they were) were captured in these essays; the manuscripts were then placed into metal milk cans, which miraculously were preserved until unearthed after the war. Nearly all of the essayists perished in the Shoah (Holocaust). This book provides a window into life in the Warsaw ghetto and includes jokes, drawings, stories, poems, and essays about tailors, children, teachers, smugglers…a general cross-section of society there. What makes this book so gripping is the immediacy of the essays. Ringleblum encouraged the essayists to write in the here and now: what is happening at this very moment. The hope was, and is, that hearing of the plight of Warsaw's Jewish residents would help us all to prevent future atrocities; a task, I’m afraid, that has not been successful.

Public Health Librarian/Optometry Liaison
Bioscience, Natural Resources, & Public Health Library

Book cover for Harlem Shuffle

Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead

In Harlem Shuffle, Colston Whitehead’s protagonist, Ray Carney, takes readers through often intersecting communities in Harlem, in the late 50s-early 60s: into bars, laundromats, bakeries, and social clubs, through front doors and back doors, “doorways [that] were entrances into different cities—no, different entrances into one vast, secret city.” Carney owns a neighborhood furniture store, strives to move his family to a tonier apartment, and lives mostly on the straight and narrow, save a side gig as a fence. However, Carney’s world is upended when his cousin makes him an unwitting accessory in a jewel heist and lands him smack in the middle of trouble, entwined in a web of thieves, crooked cops, and mobsters. Increasingly, Carney sees fewer distinctions between the “straight” and “criminal” worlds.

Whitehead subverts the crime novel genre, blurring notions of “legal” and “illegal,” “just” and “unjust.” We root for Carney as he tries to save himself and his cousin and realize his ambitions. Along the way, Whitehead draws a map through Carney’s beloved Harlem—its history, characters, contradictions, triumphs, and enduring spirit.

Curriculum Coordinator
Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence, CE3

Book cover for Minor Feelings

Minor Feelings (electronic copy requires CalNet authentication)

Cathy Park Hong

Like many poets turned essayists, Kathy Park Hong’s attention to language at the granular level makes her writing especially barbed in its critiques of American racism, and rich in observational detail. Her essay collection Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning leads readers through layers of the “minor feelings” of the title, and helps readers to understand the complicated position Asian Americans occupy in a society that so often tokenizes or fails to understand the diversity of Asian American experience and identity. By engaging readers in thinking about the concept of shame and how it works, Hong also becomes a voice helping to liberate a community from feeling that same sense of shame.

College Writing Programs

Book cover The Nutmegs Curse

The Nutmeg's Curse

Amitav Ghosh

In this deeply researched and beautifully written book, Amitav Ghosh convincingly argues that our current planetary climate crisis is the predictable outcome of centuries of Western, resource-driven colonialism, along with the concomitant marginalization and sometimes extermination of Indigenous cultures. This geopolitical world order – which early on focused on the commodification of nutmeg and other spices, followed by tea, sugarcane, opium, and finally fossil fuels – continues to this day. Our current crises – of climate, community, and spirit – can be seen as the result of a mechanistic view of the Earth, one where nature exists primarily as a resource for humans to exploit, rather than as a living force filled with agency and meaning. The book ends on a hopeful note of bringing attention to the re-enlivening of nature, a way of thinking about the geosphere and biosphere that takes seriously the world views of the Indigenous cultures that have suffered tremendously in the course of this history. My favorite book of 2021.

Teaching Professor of Neurobiology and Psychology
Department of Molecular and Cell Biology

Book cover for The Great Bay

The Great Bay

Dale Pendell

The Great Bay, a novel by Dale Pendell (1947-2018), opens with humanity on the threshold of collapse of the planetary anthropogenic infrastructure based on technology and fossil fuel. A global pandemic driven by a microbe with very high contagion and very high mortality has dramatically reduced the world’s population. The pandemic is over after the first few pages and the remainder of the book explores the aftermath – and what an extraordinary exploration it is. The geographic feature that gives the book its title, the Great Bay, formed over several centuries of melting polar ice, rising sea levels, and heavy rain. It is what will certainly happen in central California when sea level rises even a relatively small amount – a large inland bay will form, connected to the Pacific Ocean by way of the Sacramento River, present-day San Francisco Bay, and the Golden Gate. This Great Bay forms a geographic centerpiece and anchor for the stories of community that take place in that region, although the stories have universal significance. In the course of thousands of years, as human civilization reconstitutes after its precipitous collapse, it does so in smaller communities and without a focus on technology. Such a focus might not even be possible, given that the relatively easily accessible mineral resources we have enjoyed for centuries would have been exhausted. Thus, different aspects of the human psyche are cultivated, and what might be called spiritual or shamanic connections with reality are developed to a high level. Less technology, more shamanism, a resulting different metaphysical frame on the nature of mind, all contribute to a vastly different course for civilization, and a vastly different take on reality.

Teaching Professor of Neurobiology and Psychology
Department of Molecular and Cell Biology

Book cover for The Whole Earth Catalog

The Whole Earth Catalog

Stewart Brand, editor

The Whole Earth Catalog is a publication full of marvels that reveals a time in the world when a generation was seeking and creating all the implements for living. While it was being published, it was about how to live and make a new world on planet Earth – with a vision that arose from the alternative ideologies and DIY zeitgeist of the 1960’s in California and elsewhere. The catalog called itself a “tool for living.” Its goal was to open up all the esoteric, folk, or professional knowledge in the world so everyone could learn how to create whole, sustainable lives.

It is a catalog in the sense that it has products, contact information, and vendors and publications small and large, but it’s maybe really a dream for everyday people seeking to learn how to do everything from living off the land to hunting mushrooms; to building dome houses; to handling emergency childbirth; to buying a space clock; to how to open communication with other intelligent life in the universe; or where to find cheap government surplus pickup trucks. It had mailing addresses for absolutely everything, like where to send away for earth for building houses; where to order a copy of The Très Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry, or a copy of Man's Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, etc., etc., etc. It also contained insets of short essays (by Ken Kesey, for one), and funky illustrations (by R. Crumb, for one) written by idiosyncratic people about the new kind of living. The catalog’s products and illustrations are magical for people chasing a world of love and food and machinery and freedom and…everything. Quoted purpose of the Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Slavic, E. European, and Central Asian Catalog & Metadata Librarian

Book cover for Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders

Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders

L. David Marquet

WHY--We live in a world filled with anger and grievance over conflicting notions about the relationship between individuals and communities. That relationship is defined by notions of liberty, a word that is not a synonym for freedom, for liberty requires duties. But “liberty” is not the same in time. In classical antiquity, fascism, and post-communist autocracies, the individual is subordinate to a community, so liberty reflects the collective’s freedom from impurity or attack. In modern times, commerce supersedes violence as a way of allocating goods, so liberty is defined by the actions and desires of individuals. Give too much leave to individuals, and you get nihilism and fragmentation. Give too much leave to community, and you get stultification and totalitarianism. Thus, we must learn to live within a dialectical tension. And you will need to understand its contradictions so as to cut its Gordian knots. To that end, two readings on theory and one on practice.

YIN--A liberal comparison of ancient versus modern liberty: Benjamin Constant’s 15-page essay titled “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns” (1819).

YANG--A deeply conservative version of the same: Leo Strauss’ 49-page essay titled “The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy” (1959.) (electronic copy requires CalNet authentication)

BANG--A book about how a commander on a nuclear submarine changed a top-down martinet culture into a community of leaders: L. David Marquet’s 274-page book titled Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders (2013).

Professional Faculty
Haas School of Business