While most high school students are assigned a list of books to read over the summer, undergraduates aren't required to do much at all during the summer months. Just in case you've been using the excuse of "But I don't know what to read!" to avoid any and all intellectual engagement, we here at Flyby asked some of Harvard's brightest minds for summer reading recommendations. Here's what they suggested.
Nancy M. Cline - Roy E. Larsen Librarian of Harvard College
Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, by J. Tracy Kidder '67
I would suggest Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. It is now available in an inexpensive paperback edition, perfect for slipping into a backpack or beach tote and also in digital format (and also there are copies in several Harvard libraries!)
This is not a new book. I suggest it now because it is about the work of Paul Farmer and colleagues who worked with him to found Partners in Health, an organization that has grown to have an important impact on several areas of the world. What caused me to return to this book (after first reading it a few years ago) was the earthquake in Haiti. Reading about the extraordinary challenges that Farmer and his team faced in delivering health care and building community-based programs gave considerable insight to the problems that continue to complicate the recovery of Haiti. The story is compelling. It helps one become more attentive to the diverse aspects of different countries’ economic and social conditions, to perhaps better understand why aid sometimes does not work as intended, and to appreciate the generous and proud spirit that can survive amidst poverty.
Now, I’m about to start on Kidder’s more recent book, Strength in What Remains.
Paul E. Farmer - Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School; Head of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School
Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, by Paul Hawken; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
I'd encourage anyone to read Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken. Those of us who think of ourselves as (or who have become, reluctantly) leaders of the social-justice movement could stand a reminder that we must also be humble participants in it—and that "our" movement is THE movement, that the fight for access to health care and education and justice and dignity is also the fight for a safer world and one that will sustain us. As Hawken says, "There is no question that the environmental movement is critical to our survival. Our house is literally burning, and it is only logical that environmentalists expect the social justice movement to get on the environmental bus. But it is the other way around; the only way we are going to put out the fire is to get on the social justice bus and heal our wounds, because in the end, there is only one bus."
And then for dessert, if you're so inclined—and if you share my aversion to Jane Austen—the nunchuk-laced send-up of regency England Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Niall C. D. Ferguson - Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History and Professor of Business Administration; William Ziegler Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon
Undergraduate summers are the time for serious reading. I would urge students to read as much as they can of Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, still the greatest work of historical writing in English. The combination of erudition and irony is exquisite. It is also an invaluable guide to the symptoms of imperial decline, which could come in handy in the years ahead.
Melissa Franklin - Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics
The Star Thrower, by Loren C. Eiseley
Eiseley wrote wonderful dreamy essays about science and nature which always start my mind wandering freely. He somehow combines the best of travel writing with the best of science writing. Any of his collections of essays are great, in case you can't find this one. I suggest this book... because he spends most of his time in these essays trying to bring the big picture into tiny fascinating details—perfect for the summer.
Howard E. Gardner '65 - The John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence, by Erik H. Erikson
I consider Mahatma Gandhi to be the most remarkable and most important human being of the last millennium, and so I think students should know about him—and not just from the movie about him starring Ben Kingsley. Erik Erikson was my undergraduate tutor at Harvard in the early 1960s. He was a psychoanalyst with a deep understanding of youth who had a profound influence on me and many others in my cohort. By reading Gandhi's Truth, students will secure insights into two persons well worth knowing about...
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. - Alphonse Fletcher, Jr., University Professor
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
My choice is Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. For those many undergraduates who have read it already, read it again. It is the richest novel and bears numerous re-readings. For those who haven't read it yet, get a copy, and enjoy!
Daniel Gilbert - Professor of Psychology; Harvard College Professor
Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler '92
I am a big fan of Connected by Nicholas Christakis (on our faculty) and James Fowler. It is a brilliant and engaging description of the astounding ways in which we are shaped by our social networks.
N. Gregory Mankiw - Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, by Robert M. Pirsig
It doesn't have much to do with Zen Buddhism or even motorcycle maintenance. Rather, it is a unique and deeply enjoyable novel laced with thought-provoking philosophical ruminations.
Helen Vendler - A. Kingsley Porter University Professor
A book of the Bible (almost any one that is part of the cultural deposit of stories and lyrics—Genesis, Exodus, Ruth, Job, Psalms, one of the Gospels, Revelation). Because of the separation of church and state in the United States, there is no academic subject in which the Bible is taught to [undergraduates] in elementary or high school, and many remain unacquainted with it. It would be a pity to miss these books, drawn on so extensively by literature, the visual arts, and music.
Photo courtesy of William Hoiles/Wikimedia Commons.