On this page, you will find information about Summer Reading for new and returning Commonwealth students. Traditionally, we begin each school by breaking into small groups to discuss a book or books that the whole community has read. This year, each group will discuss a different book, representing a range of topics and genres, chosen by the faculty member leading the conversation. Please select one book from the “Summer Reading Discussion Groups” list and come to school prepared to share your observations!
Summer break can be a wonderful time to catch up on your reading—to discover new genres or authors, to re-read old favorites, or to finally tackle a literary classic. We encourage you to explore the titles on the attached lists, which include recommendations from the librarian, your teachers, and your classmates. If you liked a book in one of your courses last year, you might want to try another by the same author this summer. When you return to school in the fall, your advisor will be interested to hear what you have read and your responses.
I have provided links to online ordering options for titles listed below; most will also be available at your local bookshop or library. You can also download PDF versions of these lists here:
- Summer Reading Discussion Groups
- Required Summer Reading for Courses
- Books Recommended for Students Entering 9th and 10th Grades
- Books Recommended for Students Entering 11th and 12th Grades
Thomas Goetz, The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis: This account of Robert Koch's success in discovering the bacterium that causes tuberculosis, and failure in identifying a cure, offers a vivid portrayal of 19th-century science. To find out how Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, fits into the story, read the book! (Ms. Budding & Ms. Burke)
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go: “As children Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special—and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together. Suspenseful, moving, beautifully atmospheric, Never Let Me Go is modern classic.” – Publisher description (Ms. Tyson)
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed: What would it be like, in practice, to have a society built on principles, not laws, where the only rule might be no roller skating in the halls? In what she called her “ambiguous utopia,” Ursula K. LeGuin explores the inherent inescapable tension between individuals and communities, between freedom and responsibility... in space. (Ms. Glenn Haber & Ms. Johnson)
Penelope Lively, The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories: Known for her wry, understated prose, Penelope Lively won the Booker Prize for her novel Moon Tiger in 1987. A number of themes animate her novels and short stories, among them the power of memory, the relationship between the past and the present, the tension between public and private personas, and what keeps people together and tears them apart. A review in The Guardian describes her distinctive tone as “not elegiac but something far sharper, and she does not twinkle: Lively is not that kind of grandmother. She is funny.” You can sample her style in this 2016 collection of short stories, published when Lively was 83—which opens with a story in which the narrator is a bird living in Pompeii (“Occasionally they ate us, but more often they didn’t”) just before Vesuvius blows, witnessing the excesses of the humans around him—only to settle in to stories about people in England, living lives, telling stories, and reflecting on the past and the future. One question to think about: Why open with that story? (Ms. Dale)
Emeran Mayer, The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health: Have you ever walked into a room and wondered why it doesn't “feel right?” Or you don't like someone but you don’t have a specific reason why? These reactions are your gut communicating with your brain, and often, our “guts react faster than our minds.” Learn from the executive director of the Oppenheimer Center for Stress and Resilience, Dr. Emeran Mayer, how this connection can impact “food sensitivities and allergies, digestive disorders, obesity, depression, anxiety and fatigue.” (Ms. Tarnoff & Mr. Barsi)
Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art: How do comics and graphic novels “work?” In this comic book about comic books, Scott McCloud dissects the form of “sequential art” by analyzing visual storytelling, the artistic process, and the philosophy of language. Accessible and insightful for both readers and non-readers of comics. (Mr. Holub-Moorman)
Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist: Dorimare, with its well-heeled capital at Lud-in-the-Mist (read: London), is a model mercantile kingdom: sensible, efficient, respectable, and prosperous. The only problem is that there have been increasing reports of the use of fairy fruit, a banned substance from the once-revered, now-despised kingdom of Fairyland beyond the Debatable Hills. What makes fairy fruit so dangerous is that it produces strange and frightening thoughts in those who partake of it, and its effects seem to be permanent. When this outbreak touches his own family, Nathaniel Chanticleer, mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, is forced to take action … Hailed as a masterpiece of the fantasy genre (and reprinted as such), this 1926 novel is actually a work of modernism by a British poet and novelist who influenced T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf (friends of hers), and was herself influenced by the renowned classicist and “Cambridge Ritualist” Jane Ellen Harrison, with whom she lived for 15 years. Written in a densely textured, lyrical style reminiscent of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Lud-in-the-Mist is a profound, witty, whimsical celebration of the irrational, subconscious drives that can disrupt (and enrich) even the most ordered lives with the promise of ecstasy. (Mr. Conolly)
Georges Perec, Life: A User's Manual: Picture a Parisian apartment building; now imagine the front of it ripped away to reveal the rooms (and their inhabitants) within. Perec's fantastical 1978 novel takes us through a single moment in the life of a fictitious address, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier; moving from room to room, we're treated to a kaleidoscopic series of stories, some tragic, some comic, some simply bizarre: a sort of modern-day 1001 Nights. The lives of the building's residents are unfolded for us in an intricate and beautifully composed set of narratives: elaborate tales of war, revenge, competitive bicycling, crossword-puzzle composition, and an eccentric millionaire obsessed with jigsaw puzzles. One of the 20th century's great books—the English translation is wonderful, but advanced and adventurous French students might want to try it in the original language! (Mr. Kerner)
Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence: Take one mysterious stranger, a beautiful woman with magical powers. Add the spiritual and sensual court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, Vlad the Impaler (the original Dracula), the Florence of Machiavelli, the New World of Amerigo Vespucci. Blend together with Rushdie's audacious language, and you have the labyrinth of storytelling that is this novel. This is a great choice for students entering Medieval World History or U.S. History...not to mention History of India. Beyond that, it's just a terrific yarn. (Ms. Grant)
Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff: “Millions of words have poured forth about man’s trip to the moon, but until now few people have had a sense of the most engrossing side of the adventure; namely, what went on in the minds of the astronauts themselves— in space, on the moon, and even during certain odysseys on earth. It is this, the inner life of the astronauts, that Tom Wolfe describes with his almost uncanny empathetic powers, that made The Right Stuff a classic.” – Publisher description (Mr. Wharton)
Tobias Wolff, Old School: A book for readers and those who find school both difficult and irresistible. The narrator is a boy in a boarding school in the early 1960s, an outsider who works hard to hide that status. The plot turns on books, in more complicated ways than meet the eye. (Ms. Brewster)
Courses for 9s & 10s
CITY OF BOSTON: Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families by J. Anthony Lukas (ISBN: 9780394746166) is a fantastic but depressing book that looks at the effect of attempts to desegregate Boston's schools in the 1970s. It was not written for high school freshmen, so I recommend starting early and not worrying if you find it difficult: give it a try and get what you can out of it. The recommended sections are chapters 1-4; 8-9; pp. 167-174; chapters 12; 14-17; chapter 18 up to p. 338; chapters 21-23; 25-27; 29. Feel free to read a copy from the library; you'll get a photocopy of any sections we'll ask you to discuss more fully.
ANCIENT HISTORY: Homer, The Essential Iliad, edited and translated by Stanley Lombardo (ISBN: 0872205428). (Please, no Kindle or used copies of the book as students are expected to mark up their own copies).
MEDIEVAL WORLD HISTORY: Students taking Medieval World History next year are asked to read one of the following:
1. The Arabian Nights (ISBN: 9780393331660). The classic medieval Islamic work, constructed as a labyrinth of story within story, The Arabian Nights draws on tales from many eastern lands, and provides material in turn for the literature of medieval Europe. First volume of the Husain Haddawy translation.
2. Dante, The Inferno (ISBN: 0374524521). A poetic journey through the many levels of Hell, The Inferno (first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy) presents an encyclopedic vision of medieval European culture. The poet Robert Pinsky chose to translate this work because he believes it to be “the best book ever written about the sadness of evil.” Robert Pinsky translation.
3. Lao-Tse, Tao Te Ching (ISBN: 9780872202320). The central text of Taoist philosophy, attributed to the possibly mythical Lao Tzu, this collection of terse poems exemplifies the deceptively simple ideas that lead to Taoist enlightenment. Translation by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo.
4. D.T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (ISBN: 0582264758). An oral history, told by the griot Mamadou Kouyate, of the life of a thirteenth-century African king who united the twelve kingdoms of Mali into one of the most powerful empires of Medieval Africa.
BIBLE-AS-HISTORY/BIBLE-AS-BIBLE: In the beginning, there was summer reading. The teacher required that all Bible scholars familiarize themselves with the stories of the Book of Genesis, and they did it, and she saw that it was good. She also recommended that they read the version they will be reading in the Fall (note subtle Bible humor there): Genesis, translated by Robert Alter (ISBN: 9780393316704). Reading the Book of Genesis means a) reading; b) making annotations about things that strike you as interesting, and c) making a list of the different stories, and d) and making a list of themes well discuss in the first weeks of the course. The Book of Genesis is short, but Alter's version is long because of the copious and extremely useful notes. Don't ignore them. Do keep that list you make handy. We’ll need it come September.
Courses for 11s & 12s
READINGS IN ETHICS: All seniors are encouraged to read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (ISBN: 0679732764). Seniors will re-read parts and discuss the book through the first quarter.
UNITED STATES HISTORY: Please read William Cronon's “ethno-ecological” history of New England: Changes of the Land (ISBN: 978-0809016341), but taking paper notes on copy from the library is just fine). This profound and revolutionary book explores how Native Americans transformed the environment before contact with Europeans—and how the changing economy of the 17th century led to an ecological transformation. Your teachers will email you a series of extra-credit reading questions to help you read actively, looking for the author’s argument amidst the detail (a skill we’ll try to practice in the coming year!) This book looks drier than it actually is—and reading actively may help you uncover the quite radical claims hidden within.
MODERN EUROPEAN HISTORY: Students enrolled in Modern European History must read James R. Gaines, For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions (ISBN: 9780393061383). I hope that this absorbing joint biography will serve as a bridge between US History and MEH.
WORLD SINCE 1945: Students taking World Since 1945 are required to read Ian Buruma, Year Zero: A History of 1945.
Brendan Driscoll writing the Booklist review states: “In 1945, the war ended, but a new world began. Taken and destroyed cities were transformed; the liberated celebrated; scores were settled; people starved; justice was and was not meted out; soldiers and refugees came home; suffering ended, or continued, or began anew. An eclectic scholar who has written on religion, democracy, and war, Buruma presents a panoramic view of a global transformation and emphasizes common themes: exultation, hunger, revenge, homecoming, renewed confidence. Though there was great cause for pessimism, many of the institutions established in the immediate postwar period—the United Nations, the modern European welfare state, the international criminal-justice system—reflected profound optimism that remains unmatched. Buruma’s facility with Asian history lends this selection a particularly internationalized perspective. But it is the story of his father—a Dutch man who returned home in 1945 after being forced into factory labor by the Nazis—that sews the various pieces together and provides a moving personal touch.”
The book is available in paperback from Amazon (ISBN: 978-0143125976). Ms. Budding will email students enrolled in the class with details of the reading assignment.
RUSSIAN THOUGHT & LITERATURE: Students are encouraged to read Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky (Vintage Classics, 2008) (ISBN: 9781400079988). If students can't get through the whole book, they are encouraged to get at least up to Volume 2, Part 1, Chapter 9 (about p. 328) in order to avoid spoilers in class when we read excerpts of the novel. A required short story will be shared with enrolled students later in the summer.
STATISTICS: Students taking the full credit option of Statistics are required to read The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, Politics and in Life by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot (ISBN: 9781592404230).
ECONOMICS: Students are required to read Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan (ISBN: 9780393337648). Naked Economics is an informal introduction to the principles of economics.
Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: When 14-year-old Junior transfers from the reservation school to a wealthy, predominantly white private school, he grapples with questions of community and Indian identity. This semi-autobiographical illustrated novel is sometimes tragic and nearly always funny.
Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies: In the Dominican Republic of the 1960s, the four Mirabal sisters each becomes active in the resistance against the Trujillo dictatorship. Based on real people and events (and inspired by the author’s childhood in the Dominican Republic) this is an unforgettable historical drama.
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine”—and yet she becomes one in the funniest of Jane Austen’s books, a sly sendup of the conventions of the gothic novel.
Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: A “swash-buckling thrill of a book” (Newsweek). The reader is immersed in the world of 1930s New York and in the Golden Age of comic books, as cousins Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay team up to spin superheroic tales.
John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things: A story of growing up and of the difference between fantasy and reality for readers who were raised on fairy tales.
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy: This is a mystery story that contains within it an introduction to the major periods, intellectual trends, and thinkers of the European tradition. The story, which begins when a fifteen-year-old girl receives an anonymous note that asks "Who are you?" and "Where does the world come from?" cleverly reflects and plays upon the questions raised in the philosophical sections of the book, and is especially recommended as a review or follow-up to the Greco-Roman beginnings studied in Ancient History.
Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, Good Omens: Certainly the funniest book every written about the Apocalypse (and probably one of the funniest books every written, period).
Myla Goldberg, Bee Season: A novel about a gifted and unconventional family, told through the eyes of 9-year-old Spelling Bee champ Eliza Naumann.
Brian Hall, The Saskiad: Saskia is a well-read and funny twelve-year-old who lives with her organic-farmer mother and various half-siblings on a decaying hippy commune, until she runs off with her long-lost father. Her voice is at once American know-it-all slang and timelessly epic-heroic. (Hence the pun on The Iliad in the title.) How life looks and feels to a smart, irreverent and imaginative girl on the brink of adulthood.
Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle: Shirley Jackson is a master of building dread. If you are hooked by this story of the unsettling sisters of Blackwood House, try The Haunting of Hill House or a collection of Jackson’s short stories next.
Gish Jen, Mona in the Promised Land: When the Chinese-American Chang family relocate to the affluent, predominately Jewish New York suburb of Scarshill, teenage Mona decides she wants to reinvent herself: "American means being whatever you want, and I happened to pick being Jewish." A wickedly funny coming of age story.
Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Alternately funny, violent, and heartbreaking. Randall McMurphy gets himself committed to a mental institution to avoid prison. Quickly, though, he crosses the dominating, infantilizing Nurse Ratched, and they begin an escalating series of battles for control of the world and of McMurphy's mind. Seen through the eyes of a mute Indian, whose story of liberation this finally becomes.
Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice: This book provides an energetic update to the Sherlock Holmes canon. It follows the great detective at the end of his career as he takes on a new protégée—eccentric, intelligent teenager Mary Russell. Fans of John Watson may be a bit dismayed by his portrayal in this book series, but most mystery lovers will find a lot to enjoy.
Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon: Arthur Koestler was a Hungarian Communist who, after breaking with the Party, spent much of the rest of his life trying to explain how it attracted, held on to and destroyed its most loyal members. Darkness at Noon is his fictional recreation of an Old Bolshevik whose own loyalty to the Party is used to destroy him: he confesses to crimes he never committed. The definitive study of the Stalinist purges and show trials of the 1930s.
Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here: Frequently humorous in its depiction of how American fascism, presided over by "Buzz" Windrip and his legions of armed "Minute Men," comes to Fort Beulah, Vermont in the 1930s; nonetheless, a deadly serious critique of America between the wars.
Yann Martel, The Life of Pi: Piscine “Pi” Patel—raised by a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India—is shipwrecked for nearly a year with a 450-pound Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. This is both an exciting survival story and a reflection on faith and identity (with a tiger).
Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander: O'Brian's novels tell the story of a British naval captain and his ship's doctor (in reality a secret agent) during the Napoleonic Wars. Far more than conventional historical fiction: a lot of action, quirky conversation, and psychological insight—all in very elegant, very readable prose. (If you like this one, there are 17 more in the series!)
George Orwell, Animal Farm: Ostensibly a simple story of farm animals trying to run the farm themselves, this is also a stark representation of Stalinist brutality, which poses questions about the essential corruptibility of power. It caused a sensation when it was first published nearly seventy-five years ago.
Ann Patchett, Run: Set in Cambridge, MA, Run is a story about how tight-knit multiracial family readjusts upon becoming acquainted with once-hidden relatives.
Karolina Pavlova, A Double Life: The earth-shattering insights into the human condition we find in the great works of 19th-century Russian literature are distorted in that that tradition is so male-dominated. This is precisely what makes Pavlova's 1848 masterpiece so vital. A tour de force of experimental form, the novel is a devastating study of the chasm between a woman's inner dream life (represented in verse) and the soul-crushing role she, as a woman in a patriarchal society, is forced to assume in her waking life by the other women around her and by her own sense of propriety.
Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front: The author was a German veteran of World War I. The book describes the horrors of World War One and the postwar suffering of the men returning to Germany after the war.
Mary Renault, The King Must Die: Mary Renault’s historical fiction set in Ancient Greece are classics of the genre. This one retells the life and adventures of the mythological hero Theseus. If you got hooked on the time period in Ancient History, give Renault’s books a try!
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea: Rhys, herself a Creole (in Caribbean usage, a white West Indian), wrote this short, intense novel in outrage at Charlotte Bronte's portrayal of Bertha in Jane Eyre. Rhys re-imagines Bertha (now called by her lovely middle name Antoinette) as a vulnerable and romantic young woman largely shaped by her island's painful history - by what happened to her family, and between black people and white people, as a consequence of slavery. You do not need to have read Jane Eyre to enjoy the novel's vivid evocation of an exotic and sensuous culture, as seen alternately through the eyes of those who belong there and those who visit and recoil.
Fran Ross, Oreo: The New York Times review calls this book “a rollicking little masterpiece…truly one of the most delightful, hilarious, intelligent novels I’ve stumbled across in recent years, a wholly original work written in a wonderful mashed-up language that mixes high academic prose, black slang and Yiddish to great effect. I must have laughed out loud a hundred times, and it’s a short book, just over 200 pages, which averages out to one booming gut-laugh every other page.”
Mary Dora Russell, The Sparrow: This book combines science fiction with philosophy and religion as it recounts the story of humankind’s first doomed encounter with alien life.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe: A moving story about the friendship that develops in the summer of 1987 between two very different gay Mexican-American teenagers (one who is open about his sexuality, the other of whom is still struggling with his identity), and about all different kinds of love.
Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: A classic coming of age novel about the hopes and dreams of an impoverished Irish-American family living in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn.
Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle: A zany, darkly funny satire of the arms race, science, religion, and the end of the world.
T. H. White, The Once and Future King: This epic masterpiece of Arthurian legends is at times tragic, at times comic, and always engrossing. Although this story is set in England’s mythical past, it was written between 1938 and 1958, and concerns about the rise of fascism, the fall of empire, and modernization permeate the novel—and make it feel still relevant today.
Jacqueline Woodson, The House You Pass on the Way: Mixed-race Staggerlee has always felt different—even more so as she begins to develop feelings for a female friend. Then her bold cousin Trout comes to visit and gives Staggerlee a new perspective on herself and on her future life. Jacqueline Woodson crafts beautiful stories.
Short Stories, Poetry, & Plays
Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles: “The men of Earth came to Mars…They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims. There was a reason for each man. They were leaving bad wives or bad towns; they were coming to find something or leave something or get something, to dig up something or bury something or leave something alone. They were coming with small dreams or large dreams or none at all. But a government finger pointed from four-color posters in many towns: THERE’S WORK FOR YOU IN THE SKY: SEE MARS! and the men shuffled forward, only a few at first, a double-score, for most men felt the great illness in them even before the rocket fired into space. And this disease was called The Loneliness.” This classic collection of short stories about the colonization of Mars is moving and well-written.
Rita Dove, Thomas and Beulah (1986): Dove traces her grandparents through a series of poems. The voice of each takes half of the book, moving back and forth between Thomas and his mandolin on the river to Beulah watching the sweeping “crow’s wing” of the Civil Rights Movement on television.
Chris Duffy, Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics: This book pairs comics artists with World War I poets to create a unique, artistic anthology that explores the realities of war, of loss, and of coming home.
Athol Fugard, Master Harold...and the Boys: The scene: St. George's Park Tea Room, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The time: around 1982. The characters: Sam and Willie, black South Africans who work in the tea room, and Hally ("Master Harold"), a white South African high-school student whose mother owns the cafe. The action: a painful attempt to define love, loyalty and identity. Valley Song, a play by South Africa's master playwright which looks hopefully and wistfully at the new, post-apartheid South Africa and is a wonderful complement to his earlier Master Harold.
V. S. Naipaul, Miguel Street: A series of brief life studies, each about a resident of Miguel Street in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, where Naipaul grew up. These people live and talk with a strong street-wise vitality, even as their stubborn oddities carry them to obscure, distinctive ends.
Octavio Paz, Early Poems 1935-1955: Selected early poems from this Nobel Prize-winning Mexican poet, translated by such distinguished poets as William Carlos Williams and Denise Levertov.
Edgar Allan Poe, Stories: One of the most influential 19th-century American writers, inventor of the detective story, master of the tale of horror and suspense, Poe is not an author to read when you are alone at night!
Tom Stoppard, Arcadia: Following the Coverly family over two centuries, this play mixes together architecture, Romanticism, chaos theory, and the pursuit of historical “truth” in ways both comic and beautiful.
John Lewis, March: Books 1-3: A riveting account of the Jim Crow South and the early Civil Rights movement through the eyes John Lewis, former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and current congressman from Georgia.
Jim Ottaviani, The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded: Ottaviani specializes in graphic novel biographies of scientists, and this one about Alan Turing—a forefather of computing and code-cracking hero of World War II, later persecuted by his government for being gay—digs deeper than the recent film of the same title.
Marjane Sartrapi, Persepolis: This two-part graphic novel memoir paints a vivid picture of life in Iran in the 1980s as the Islamic Revolution brought on rapid social changes. Sartrapi’s child’s-eye view of the Revolution is affecting, sometimes funny, and often relatable.
David Small, Stitches: A Memoir: When teenage David goes in for a routine surgery, he awakens to be told that he had cancer and a vocal cord has been removed, leaving him virtually mute. This surreal graphic memoir follows the aftermath of this surgery, including David’s complicated relationship with his parents (including his physician father, who continues to make medical decisions on his behalf) and the escape he finds in art.
Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese: Interweaving stories of Chinese mythology and Asian-American identity come together in unexpected ways in this excellent graphic novel. For those with an interest in history, Yang’s Boxers & Saints, a two-part graphic novel about the 1899 Boxer Rebellion, is also highly recommended.
Memoir & Autobiography
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Singsand A Song Flung Up to Heaven: The first book is volume one of Maya Angelou's autobiography, the account of her traumatic childhood in Stamps, Arkansas and St. Louis, Missouri. The second is volume six of her autobiography, covering her participation in the Civil Rights movement working with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier: Beah provides a riveting but often disturbing account of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone before his eventual escape to the United States at age 17.
Richard Blancos, The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood: As Barack Obama’s second inaugural poet, Richard Blancos “ticked many boxes” as: first openly gay poet, first Latino poet, first immigrant poet, and youngest inaugural poet. This funny and heart-breaking memoir tells the story of his Cuban family finding their place in America, and Blancos’ own feelings of being different.
Claude Brown, Manchild in the Promised Land: A detailed firsthand account by a member of the Malcolm X generation of everything that could go wrong in a young man's life growing up in Harlem, New York. Raw, direct, warm-blooded, reflective.
Frank Conroy, Stop-Time: This autobiography, a few years back, had a cult following among Commonwealth students. It is a powerful book, both bleak and funny. Conroy examines, with unsparing honesty, his own character and how he "slipped into the state of being in trouble," as well as the crazy, sometimes brutal adults in his life. It leaves a reader with a vivid sense of raw experience, but also with a kind of wonder at the writer's ability to survive by his wits and his strength of soul.
Annie Dillard, An American Childhood: Instead of trying to find in her own youth some grand scheme of development, Dillard gives a series of trenchant retrospections in which oddities are pursued with fearless intensity and the indestructible self is looked on as a marvel.
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl: Anne Frank's diary, which she kept between the ages of 13 and 15, captures in fresh, tart language the day-to-day joys, discoveries and pains of an ardent and observant girl. At the same time, it matter-of-factly (and therefore even more poignantly) captures the fear, hunger, tedium and confinement felt by the eight Jews (including Anne, her sister, and her parents) who fled the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands by hiding in the "Secret Annex" in the back of an Amsterdam warehouse. They were discovered in August 1944, and all but Anne's father eventually died in the camps just weeks before the Allied victory. Get the new "Definitive" edition, which restores material deemed too sensitive for original publication.
Hope Jahren, Lab Girl: Jahren, a geobiologist who studies trees and other plants, writes a memoir that captures the joy and wonder of discovering the natural world.
Elie Wiesel, Night: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.” Wiesel, who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald and went on to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for his post-war activism, writes of his experiences in the camps with profound humanity.
M.T. Anderson, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad: The Siege of Leningrad was a devastating chapter in Russian history; Anderson looks at it through the lens of a performance by composer Dmitri Shostakovich that brought global attention and some rays of hope to the beleaguered city.
Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: This collection of essays and lectures is a marvelous introduction to Richard Feynman, a theoretical physicist with a unique knack for making science engaging and accessible. Six Easy Pieces or Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (the first of Feynman’s memoirs) would make a great next read for student’s who get hooked on his quirky writing.
Barbara Findlen, Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation: A powerful collection of essays written by young women. The authors are generally in their 20’s. Contains a wide variety of topics, from race relations, faith, sexuality, to body image issues.
Stephen J. Gould, The Panda's Thumb: A selection of essays on evolution. Gould's strength is in his ability to find large truths in the particulars, even the minutiae, of an organism or event. Especially recommended after taking Biology.
Jon Hersey, Hiroshima: This short work is a classic of journalism; it brings the bombing of Hiroshima to life through the eyes of the ordinary Japanese people who were its victims. The entire text is now available online from The New Yorker, where it was originally published as a standalone issue in 1946.
Paul Hoffman, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: This biography examines the life of a modern mathematician. Along with the entire life of Paul Erdos, related through the eyes of his many admirers and friends, it contains much information on the habits of mathematicians: their humor, commitment, fears, and failings. The book also touches upon some of the most fun and interesting fields of mathematics.
Susan Kuklin, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out: Six transgender and gender-nonconforming teens tell their stories in their own words in a series of interviews with author and photographer Susan Kuklin, sharing both the joys and the challenges of becoming their authentic selves.
Konrad Lorenz, King Solomon's Ring: A wonderful book about animals and their habits; a most felicitous combination of keen scientific accuracy and affectionately humorous narrative.
Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness: Another excellent book for animal lovers, this one exploring the remarkable intelligence of octopuses. Montgomery is a Massachusetts native and did her observation at the Boston Aquarium.
Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century: A more tongue-in-cheek (though still scholarly) approach to Medieval European history than you’re likely to encounter in Medieval World History. Mortimer writes in the style of a travel guide, painting a vivid sensory picture of daily life in the 14th century that makes the past feel alive and fresh.
Peggy Orenstein, Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap: After reading a study showing that girls’ self-esteem plummeted as they entered adolescence, Peggy Orenstein conducted her own investigation in two diverse middle schools in California. This fascinating book reveals the inner lives of the girls she interviewed, exploring the pressures they face from friends, teachers, and parents as they move into high school.
Lawrence S. Ritter, The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It: Ballplayers in the first half-century of the game were a rough-cut and colorful lot. The zestful, outright way they played, lived, and talked in those days comes across with great freshness in this book - a tremendous relief from the crass money-making that now dominates the game and the times we live in.
Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers: Mary Roach doesn’t shy away from the funny, weird, or gross in her science writing. This book dives deep into what becomes of bodies donated to science; other of her books take a close look at the digestive system (Gulp), life in outer space (Packing for Mars), and the afterlife (Spook).
Susan Schama, The Face of Britain: A History of a Nation Through Its Portraits: An intriguing and often touching look at the stories behind some of the portraits in Britain's National Portrait Gallery, as well as what makes these particular portraits special.
Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Skloot, a science journalist, uncovers the hidden story of the African-American woman whose uniquely hardy and productive cell line (HeLa) is famous in the medical world for helping advance treatments for cancer, AIDS, polio, and other devastating illnesses, but whose contributions were unknown to her family, who lived in obscurity and poverty. A moving story of family, scientific discovery, and of the troubling intersections between race and science.
Kory Stamper, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries: A funny, geeky look at the day-to-day life of working on a dictionary, by one of Merriam-Webster's lexicographers.
Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe: A short, non-mathematical account of the birth of the universe, by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.
Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat: A witty history of eating, from prehistory to the contemporary kitchen.
Nadeem Aslam, The Golden Legend: A searing but beautiful novel about religious intolerance. The Washington Post calls it “A powerful and timely comment on the precarious state of religious minorities in Pakistan, and…an honest mirror to the Pakistani state and society.”
Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace: A novel built around the true story of a 15-year-old murderess (or perhaps not) in 1840s Canada. Told in several voices, each chapter is named for a patchwork quilt design. The reader sees (meticulously researched) 19th-century jails, lunatic asylums, servants' lives, medical practitioners, unself-examining social hierarchies, along with a panoply of fully-drawn characters. It's long, but it's a great read.
Jane Austen, Emma: A more descriptive title would be “The Education of Emma Woodhouse,” for it is a novel about a clever and very self-satisfied young woman's discovery of her own selfishness. Set in Regency England, populated by a number of endearing fools, and narrated with the acerbic bite that skewers pomposity and piety.
Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters: A Comedy: A bitingly satirical novel about art. The London Review of Books says of Bernhard’s writing: “All this goes to show just how different Bernhard’s novels are from the run of novels. They are sculptures of opinion, rather than contraptions assembled from character interactions. Each book is a curved, seamless rant.”
Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives: A wild ride through a fictionalized version of the 1970s literary world of Latin America, as told in part through the diaries of a teenage initiate into the militant Visceral Realists movement. Bolaño was one of the greats in contemporary Spanish-language fiction.
T.C. Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain: A tragicomedy about two worlds colliding—literally, in this case, as a car collision brings an undocumented Mexican couple and a well-off American family into each other’s orbits. An excellent read for Spanish students and those interested in issues of immigration and identity.
Lois McMaster Bujold, The Warrior's Apprentice: This book introduces the irascible Miles Vorkosigan who, having been rejected from his planet’s military due to his physical disabilities, accidentally forms his own private militia. The sixteen books in Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga follow the space adventures of Miles, his (amazing) parents, and his assorted family and friends through decades and across planets and genres.
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita: Written during Stalin’s regime, this book was not published until the 1960s, many years after the author’s death. It is both a fantastical story of religion and magic that crosses time and space as it travels between 1930s Moscow and ancient Jerusalem and a cutting satire of Soviet society. Be sure to read a modern edition that restores previously censored material and provides footnotes to contextualize the story.
Octavia Butler, Kindred: Dana Franklin, a young African-American woman living in 1970s California, finds herself being repeatedly called back through time—to a slave plantation in the antebellum South. Butler is known for her science fiction, but this fantastical story about race, history, and slavery’s terrible legacy may be her best work.
A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book: This book follows the interweaving lives of several families in early 20th-century England; they live in a world of artists, writers, and free-thinkers, a world disrupted by World War I. The starting point of this story was Byatt’s conclusion (looking at the troubled family lives of authors like E. Nesbit, J.M. Barrie, and Kenneth Grahame) that “writing children’s books isn’t good for the writers’ own children.”
Albert Camus, The Plague: The residents of a large town in French Algeria are cut off from the rest of the world when a nasty strain of bubonic plague hits their town, decimating their population. A beautiful meditation on mortality, and on humankind's constant quest to find connection and meaning in an isolating and unforgiving world. Deeply moving.
Kate Chopin, The Awakening: In late 19th century Louisiana, free-spirited Edna Pontellier finds herself more and more at odds with her society’s image of femininity and motherhood.
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: The year is 1806, the Napoleonic Wars are underway, and no magic has been done in England since the Middle Ages—until the two men in the title decide the time is right to bring magic back from the realm of theory and scholarship and to put it into practice. This sprawling fantasy offers a sly pastiche of 19th century writers like Dickens and Austen, with a healthy dose of warfare, social critique, madness, and fairy lore.
Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend: A vivid, moving portrayal of female friendship in post-war Italy. This is the first book in the much-loved Neopolitan Quartet.
E.M. Forster, A Passage to India: This ambiguous modernist novel explores the tensions between the colonizers and the colonized in the years just before the end of British rule in India. While very much of its time, Forster’s book tackles race, gender, and sexuality in a way atypical to the era and it remains a moving and thought-provoking read.
Kaitlyn Greenidge, We Love You, Charlie Freeman: Greenidge, a Commonwealth alum, tells the story of the four members of the Freeman family, who leave their home in diverse Dorchester for the Tonybee Institute for Ape Research in the all-white Berkshires. There they will be the subjects of a scientific study as they learn how to live with a fifth family member—a chimpanzee named Charlie. This unusual premise becomes a framework for exploring the troubling intersections of science and race in our nation’s past.
Sinclair Lewis, Main Street: The story of Carol Kennicott, née Milford, the new bride of Dr. Will Kennicott, physician and leading citizen of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Fresh out of Blodgett College in Minneapolis, Carol travels home with her husband, hoping to satisfy her reformist zeal. Unfortunately, the good citizens of Gopher Prairie do not want to be reformed.
Jens Peter Jacobsen, Niels Lyhne: This is the book the poet Rainer Maria Rilke recommended to the 19-year old Franz Kappus in his Letters to a Young Poet. It is the story of an artistic soul’s apparently unsuccessful attempt to find meaning in his increasingly tiresome life. It exercised enormous influence on the modernist movement.
Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: The lives of six people in a small village in Chechnya intersect in this beautiful, tragic novel about connection in the face of the senselessness of war. An excellent novel to read to learn more about a sometimes-overlooked chapter in recent history (the two Chechen Wars lasted from 1994-1996 and 1999-2009 and the Chechen-Russian conflict is ongoing).
Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude: A constantly surprising, endlessly inventive novel following the history of the Buendia family and the imaginary South American town of Macondo. In the end it becomes a metaphorical history of the world.
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore: The stories of Kafka Tamura, a runaway seeking to be “the toughest 15-year-old in the world,” and Satoru Nakata, the elderly survivor of an incident during World War II in which sixteen schoolchildren mysteriously vanished (an incident which took away Nakata’s memory but left him with the ability to talk to cats), interweave in this dreamy magical realist novel.
Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman: After committing a botched robbery and terrible murder, the narrator of O’Brien’s comic gem finds himself down the rabbit hole with three very peculiar police officers.
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things: In lyrical prose, Roy tells the story of fraternal twins in India whose lives are shaped by social and historical forces beyond their control and by the “Love Laws” that govern “who should be loved, and how. And how much.” This is a beautiful, challenging, unusual book.
George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo" Saunders crafts a unique historical ghost story about love and loss. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln has just suffered a more personal blow—the death of his 11-year-old son. Young Willie finds himself in the bardo, in Tibetan tradition a purgatory where the fate of his soul will be decided.
Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow: It’s after the Revolution, a man of the leisure class is sentenced to spend his years in a hotel room in Moscow. His encounters and thoughts are fascinating.
Weike Wang, Chemistry: A Novel: Propelled by the drive for perfection, the unnamed protagonist of Chemistry discovers that—competitive PhD program and marriage proposal from her ideal man notwithstanding—she has no idea what she wants. Wang, a former PhD student in Chemistry at Harvard, has an insider’s understanding of the pressures of academia.
Sarah Waters, Affinity: In the wake of family tragedy, upper-class Margaret Prior seeks meaning in her life by volunteering in a women’s prison. She meets and soon finds herself in the thrall of the fascinating Selina Dawes, a spirit medium—but is Selina all she seems to be? Waters writes delicious historical fiction, and this Victorian thriller is no exception.
Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies: Characters like Edward Throbbing, Mr. Outrage, and Miss Runcible do terrible things to one another in a medium of frothy chatter and invincible high-society—English caprice. It's a very funny book. It's like a kite that, nearly weightless, leaves cuts on your hand.
Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: A semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman raised in a devoutly Pentecostal family in England who faces conflict between her faith and her desires when her lesbianism is revealed to the community. The author paints a specific portrait of a particular setting and experience, but her exploration of growing up, first love, and complicated family relationships is universal.
Short Stories, Plays, & Poetry
Isabel Allende, Stories of Eva Luna: A collection of short fiction concerning the relations between men and women, parents and children, real people and ghosts, richly spiced with sex, religion, and a delightfully magical kind of realism.
Lydia Davis, Break It Down: Stories: “He’s sitting there staring at a piece of paper in front of him. He’s trying to break it down. He says,
I’m breaking it all down.”
Written in a spare, precise style, the 34 short stories in this collection are surprising and complex.
Anna Deaveare Smith, Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992: If you were at Commonwealth last year, you saw Deaveare Smith’s most recent one-woman show and know how powerful her work is. These two plays draw on interviews and statements by real people to explore the Crown Heights riots of 1991 and the Rodney King riots of 1992—moments when an act of racialized violence sparked an outpouring of emotion and anger. These plays are 25 years old, but remain relevant in the age of Ferguson.
Seamus Heaney, Selected Poems: Arguably Ireland's greatest living poet, Heaney's subjects of the poems range, from the 10,000-year-old execution of a young adulteress, to a boy folding sheets with his mother, to a conversation with the ghost of James Joyce. His masterful translation of Beowulf is well worth a read too!
Tony Kushner, A Bright Room Called Day: An earlier work by the master behind Angels in America. The Chicago Tribune review of this play describes it as “unabashedly political, thought-provoking, a little scary, and frequently a good deal of theatrical fun.” It follows a group of Leftist artists and intellectuals in the 1930s Weimar Republic, who are shaken by the rapidity with which their lives and country change when Hitler comes to power. The play also (somewhat controversially) digs into then-contemporaneous Reagan-era politics, insisting that audiences engage with the present as well as the more comfortably distant past; in the production notes, Kushner writes that the present-day scenes should be updated in performance to reflect “whatever evildoing is prevalent at the time of the production.”
James Merrill, The Book of Ephraim: This long-form poem by James Merrill, the younger brother of Commonwealth’s founder, explores the afterlife in an unorthodox way, drawing from Merrill’s sessions with a Ouija board. Originally published as part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Divine Comedies, an annotated standalone version of the poem has been published this year.
Ottessa Moshfegh, Homesick for Another World: Moshfegh (another Commonwealth author) delivers an unsparing short story collection about hopeless people yearning for something they cannot name. Dark, intense, and (sometimes) funny.
Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried: This linked series of what could be read as individual stories forces the reader—through almost surreal scenes, recounted in the most precise language—to ponder what it felt like to be a soldier in Vietnam (as the author was). And at every step of the way, O'Brien wrestles with the age-old question: what is truth? what is fiction?
Flannery O'Connor, Everything that Rises Must Converge: A short collection of her best stories. (If you get hooked, go out and get the full Collected Stories.) Look up the word “grotesque”—in all its facets—in the dictionary. If it applies to any American writer, it does most of all to Flannery O'Connor, whose characters—misfits, cripples, hapless creatures, lost souls—discover the truth about the world in the course of surprising, often shocking misadventures. And she is funny.
Emily Wilson, translator, The Odyssey: This new translation of the Odyssey is the first published in English to be written by a woman. Wilson’s version of the poem is lyrical and contemporary, challenging our traditional ways of reading Homer. If you read the Odyssey in 9th grade and would like a new perspective, give this one a try! (For another fresh take on the Odyssey, try Madeline Miller’s novel Circe, which came out earlier this year.)
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic: Bechdel's classic memoir about growing up in a funeral parlor traces her complicated relationship with her father—who, like her, was gay.
Ellen Forney, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: After getting diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 30, cartoonist Ellen Forney fears that her illness and her creativity might be tied together, and that treating one might destroy the other. This is a funny, touching, and unflinchingly honest look at an artist’s search for balance in her life and work.
John Lewis, March: Books 1-3: A riveting account of the Jim Crow South and the early Civil Rights movement through the eyes John Lewis, former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and current congressman from Georgia.
Marjane Sartrapi, Persepolis: This two-part graphic novel memoir paints a vivid picture of life in Iran in the 1980s as the Islamic Revolution brought on rapid social changes. Sartrapi’s child’s-eye view of the Revolution is affecting, sometimes funny, and often relatable.
Art Spiegelman, Maus: Moving deftly between timelines—the author interviewing his estranged father in 1978, and that father’s experiences in Nazi Germany—Maus tells an unforgettable story of family, history, and the horror of the Holocaust echoing through generations. With its bold art and trenchant subject matter, this book expanded our idea of what comics could be.
Memoirs & Autobiographies
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me: Written as a letter to his teenage son, Between the World and Me movingly and thoughtfully reflects on the experience of being black and on the “racist violence that has been woven into American culture.”
Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader: Each essay in this slim volume, which mixes literary criticism and memoir as the author reflects on life as a voracious bookworm, is a gem. Whether discussing true commitment (the day she finally merged her book collection with her husband’s) or her fascination with doomed polar expeditions (she has sixty-four books on the subject), Fadiman writes with wit and intelligence.
Roxane Gay, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body: In Hunger, Gay—a novelist, essayist, and, recently, comic book writer—shares her trenchant reflections on sexual violence and its ripple-out effects on her life, including her continued struggle with body image and weight.
Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face: In elegant, unblinking prose, without a trace of self-pity, Grealy tells the wrenching story of growing up “different” and “disfigured” by major jaw surgery for cancer at the age of five. The pain, fear, and isolation of her cancer treatments and of the more than thirty reconstructive procedures which followed, the confusion and anger at being ostracized by her peers, the perverse pleasures of highlighting her uniqueness, will strike startlingly familiar chords in anyone who has ever felt ugly or inadequate—that is, in anyone.
Suki Kim, Without You, There is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite: Suki Kim, a U.S.-based journalist from Seoul, went undercover for six months as a teacher at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. She witnessed daily life in a country that few outsiders are ever allowed to visit as she worked with the sheltered teenagers who will one day belong to North Korea’s elite. This book provides a fascinating glimpse into a society where paranoia, surveillance, and misinformation are daily facts of life.
Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: A 17-day motorcycle road trip with his teenage son, Chris, becomes a philosophical journey in which Pirsig reflects on questions of Truth and Quality and finds unexpected paths to inner peace.
William L. Shirer, Berlin Diary: A vivid day-to-day account of Hitler's rise to power.
Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: Insider gossip about Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Apollinaire, Hemingway, Stein, et al.; shrewd remarks about Art and Life; Paris when it was the place to be for new departures in just about everything (1907-32).
Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle: A classic memoir of growing up as one of America’s rural poor, The Glass Castle centers around Walls’ relationship with her captivating, creative, chaotic alcoholic father.
Karen Abbott, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War: There is no shortage of good books about the Civil War, but this one takes a unique approach, looking at women on both sides of the conflict who engage in risky and often scandalous behavior for their causes—one disguises herself as a Union soldier, another seduces prominent Northern politicians and passes information to the South.
Hilton Als, White Girls: Hilton Als, a cultural critic for The New Yorker, turns his keen eye on “white girls”—in his construction, an idea which encompasses figures as diverse as silent film star Louise Brooks and king of pop Michael Jackson. His essays also take an autobiographical turn, as in an essay that explores his category-defying relationship with another man of color whom he refers to as SL (Sir or Lady). Als’ take on contemporary culture is relevatory.
Roger Angell, Late Innings: If you like baseball, you must read Angell. His articles in The New Yorker covered the unfolding drama of passing seasons, pausing to reflect on the enduring beauty of the game itself. He is the philosopher king of sportswriters, the one man to whom ballplayers seem willing to speak with real intelligence about why this pursuit engages them heart and soul.
Petr Beckmann, A History of Pi: Excellent history of the number Pi wound together with an examination of how, historically, knowledge and academics have been treated and why. A fun and trivia-packed journey as well as a politically motivated one.
Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity: This Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of reporting shines a light on the lives of families in Annawadi, a slum on the outskirts of Mumbai’s luxury tourist areas.
T. J. Clark, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing: Writing about two paintings that he returned to again and again in the Getty Museum—Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake and Landscape with a Calm—Clark explores the captivating qualities of art. A great read for students of Art History.
Laura Cumming, The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th-Century Bookseller's Obsession With a Lost Masterpiece: Part art history, part detective novel, Cumming's book tells the story of a nineteenth-century bookseller convinced he has located a long-missing Velázquez masterpiece.
William de Buys, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest: This gives a very thorough and engaging account of the history and future of water in the Southwest. It may deter you from moving there but will also help you understand some of the complexity of climate change.
Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City: What is the true cost of the War on Crime? Goffman spent six years in a Philadelphia neighborhood, observing the day-to-day impact of the criminal justice system on its residents—young people caught up in the drug trade, Black men targeted by police, “clean” residents working hard to get by.
Michael Herr, Dispatches: A correspondent in Viet Nam, Herr tells the GIs' story in their own language and tells it in all its horror—not as it was gussied up for the American newspapers. It cost Herr 10 years and a breakdown to write the book.
Roland Huntford, The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole: An exciting and detailed account of the early 20th-century race between the Norwegians and the British to be the first to reach the South Pole and the complex men who led each expedition—Roald Amundsen, a daring, experienced explorer, and Robert Scott, a Naval officer whose tragic death made him a beloved hero in England. This book was explosive when it was published, upturning the conventional sentimentalized narrative about the Scott expedition and seeking to restore credit to Amundsen for his accomplishments.
Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor: Mayhew set out to discover how the vast new urban underclass of 19th-century London made its living, thought, and talked. He found hundreds of highly evolved groups, each with its own specialized skill, character, lore, customs, slang. Dip into this immense work, based largely on interviews, and see what Malthus and Marx might have missed about the sewer-scavengers, sellers of monkeys, pickpockets, swindlers, flea-circus men, etc., etc.
Heinz Pagels, The Cosmic Code: An introduction to the history and ideas of quantum mechanics, with discussions of the philosophical implications of the uncertainty principle, wave-particle duality and the many-worlds model of reality.
Tom Reiss, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo: Born the son of a slave in Haiti, Alexandre Dumas’ father rose through the ranks of the military and reached social heights usually unattainable for people of color in 18th-century France. His swashbuckling adventures inspired many of the feats in The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.
Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: Sacks presents a dozen or so short portraits of people with bizarre neurological conditions: a sailor with no ability to make new memories, who meets Sacks as if for the first time every day; a man who temporarily attains the olfactory discrimination of a bloodhound after a drug overdose; and the title character. Sacks' goal is not to explain the underlying pathology —virtually none of these conditions is understood well —but to explore the extraordinary range of traumatic changes in the self to which the self nonetheless adapts and which it incorporates.
Harrison Salisbury, The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad: Hitler's invasion of Russia got as far as Leningrad. This is the story of the German attack and siege of the city; of what breaks down and what endures under starvation, Russian cold, grinding warfare. Grim reading, but a revelation of what people could find worth fighting for.
Claude M. Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do: Steele, a social psychologist, recounts his decades of research into stereotype thread—the powerful ways that stereotypes can affect our performance at work and school and the small but equally powerful steps we can take to counteract those effects.
Virginia Woolf, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays: Woolf's novels stretched that form past its limits, and her talk could dazzle even the most brilliant guests. The searching restlessness of her mind could yield torments of self-doubt, but also gives these essays great reflective range, depth, and imaginative force. For an idea of what “the life of the mind” might be, this is a hard book to beat.