As the academic year winds to a close, faculty and administrators across the University are preparing for three months in which they might catch up on work, travel and — perhaps most relaxing — read. The Daily sat down with several prominent professors and administrators to discuss their summer reading lists and their near-unanimous interest in one Stanford-affiliated work in particular.
President John Hennessy
Whether during the school year or over the summer, Hennessy likes to work on a rotating queue of books.
“I always work on three books at once: normally one fiction, one nonfiction, and then one on my iPod — usually fiction,” he said.
Hennessy has just started three books that will carry him at least part of the way into the summer. His fiction choice is The Orphan Master’s Son, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Professor of English Adam Johnson that Hennessy has found “fascinating” so far. Hennessy is currently listening to Adam Bede by George Eliot on his iPod, and he’s also started Peter the Great: His Life and World, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Robert K. Massie that Hennessy undertook in order to prepare him for a trip to St. Petersburg in July.
“If I’m traveling, I always try to read something about the history of an area or the biography of a person who was influential in the area,” he said. “I found that it really gives you a much better background of the place.”
Hennessy framed his tastes in fiction as a little more “mix and match.”
“It varies back and forth between classics and more modern things,” he said. “But I’ll read more modern things either by authors I’ve enjoyed, or that get strong reviews. So I read the New York Times Book Review, and I read the New York Review of Books, and if I see something that’s really interesting then I’ll put it on my wish-list and it’ll work its way up there.”
Summer, according to Hennessy, is a time suitable for more fiction.
“I’ll read something lighter in the summer often because it’s…well, I deserve it,” he said. “It’s summer vacation!”
Hennessy put forward two works revolving around mystery as his suggestions for students.
“If people like Dickens, try Wilkie Collins—try The Woman in White. It’s just a wonderful, exciting book,” he said. “If you want to read something fact-stranger-than-fiction…[try] The Devil in the White City [by Erik Larson]. It’s the true story of Chicago World’s Fair and a big murder mystery surrounding that…it’s a fascinating story.”
Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam
In addition to reading the Three Books assigned to the incoming freshman class, Elam reads a book with his wife each summer.
“My wife and I usually like to find a book that we can read to each other, so it has to be a book that has dialogue and…that’s somewhat fun in the process,” he said.
This summer’s book will probably be The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Carter, an author whose work they have read in this format before.
“Summer, for me, is a time to read novels,” Elam said. “Most of the reading I do during the year is nonfiction.”
This summer, he hopes to pick up The Orphan Master’s Son, a novel that he was pleased to see honored earlier this year, and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “I’ll look for writers — [they] may be writers of color, [they] may not be — that can transport me to a different place away, but also I like people that can work in a social commentary even as they tell a good narrative story,” he said.
Even as Elam peruses more pleasure reading in the summer, however, he never strays too far from his interests as an academic.
“The idea of social commentary mixed with art…in some was, it’s [an] escape, but in other ways it’s what I’m interested in as a scholar anyway — how art and activism, art and politics, art and social change [and] how they can work together, and [be reflected in] novels that can really make you think about social issues,” he said.
Elam suggested a book included in the Three Books selection a few years ago — Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell — for undergraduates’ summer reading.
“He takes some of the research from people here like [Dean of the Graduate School of Education] Claude Steele and also [Professor of Psychology] Carol Dweck, and he puts it in a different form, but he thinks about the things that are critical to us in academia, or to students at Stanford who are so successful,” Elam said. “He thinks about that success and how it comes into being — what makes it? How does privilege figure in it? How does practice figure in it? How do you expand, in a sense, in intelligence? So I’d say that’s a good start.”
Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences Richard Saller
Saller has a few pleasure reads planned for this summer, including at least one with a Stanford connection.
“Richard Powers is a phenomenal novelist who we’ve just recruited here,” Saller explained, noting that he plans to read Powers’ novel Generosity: An Enhancement in the coming months. “It’s a kind of science futuristic book about a geneticist who is able to locate a gene for happiness, and so this strikes me [as] a really interesting kind of idea about genetic manipulation and its limits.”
Also on Saller’s list is Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, a book he plans to read to prepare for leading an alumni travel trip to the Dalmatian Coast in June.
“I have a broad range of taste, and so there are times when I read things that are really page turners for entertainment,” Saller said. “It kind of depends on what happens to come to my attention and since we have an extraordinary creative writing program here, I get good suggestions from them.”
Saller has also enrolled in a class on social psychology offered by Coursera in the hopes of getting the student experience of online teaching.
“That will involve some reading,” Saller noted, “though I’m not sure exactly what yet.”
Saller singled out a work praised by both Hennessy and Elam as his suggestion for students.
“The Orphan Master’s Son is a terrific novel. I was pleased to see that it was picked out for the Pulizer Prize as well, confirming my sense of just how good it was,” Saller said. “It’s really a kind of wild, imaginative story about North Korea.”
Professor of English Tobias Wolff M.A. ’78
“I don’t make a distinction much between summer reading and the reading I do the rest of the time,” Wolff said. “If I had the kind of job where I could only read in the summer, you know, that would be different, but I can read all the year round, so summer reading doesn’t mean anything to me. I try to read good books all the time.”
Wolff’s reading list might include anything from poetry — including Stag’s Leap, a Pulitzer Prize-wining book of poetry by Sharon Olds — to history, like William Prescott’s The Conquest of Mexico. His list also features Wild, a nonfiction book by Cheryl Strayed, and Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flame Throwers.
“To tell you the truth, everything I read, I read for pleasure. And also, I don’t enjoy stupid books,” Wolff said. “I don’t enjoy badly written books. I find myself editing them in my head all the time, so the kind of books I read feed my interests and also feed my art in that they themselves set a standard of writing, and storytelling…that whether I’m conscious of it or not, feeds into my own art.”
Wolff said that he often picks up new books based on recommendations.
“Word of mouth is pretty important to me. If I hear a couple people say, ‘hey, you really have to read this book,’ I’ll generally look it up,” he said, noting that he will often peruse both reviews and book jackets. “Just because a book is well reviewed doesn’t always make me want to read it, but it’s something about the description of the book that intrigues me.”
Professor of English Eavan Boland
“I think the summer lets you look at things that you’d like to read closely,” Boland, director of Stanford’s Creative Writing Program, said. “So I often keep for the summer things that I would really like to take time over.”
For Boland, that’s almost always poetry. She plans to take up Now All Roads Lead to France, a book by an English author Matthew Hollis, once school lets out.
“It’s about the meeting of poets in London in the First World War, especially Robert Frost when he meets Edward Thomas, and it’s a very exceptional book in its way of trying to make an atmosphere real again, and show what small bookstores they met in, what they were thinking,” Boland said. “So that’s a really, really exceptional book. It’s very rare to get a very literary writer who can write about poetry, but also can write about the history of the time.”
Boland also recently completed an introduction for the collected poems of Denise Levertov, a poet she hopes to return to this summer.
“I’m just going…to sit down and read all her work because she’s an incredibly interesting poet,” she said. “I have read many of her poems over the years, but there is something very different about looking at a poet when all their work is done. It’s like going to an art gallery and seeing a retrospective of a painter — something changes when you see all their paintings together, and something really changes when you see all the collected poems of a poet.”
Boland described the summer as an ideal time to catch up on things set aside during the chaos of the school year.
“I think in the summer I would read just really for pleasure, but the books would always connect with what I’m interested in,” she said. “I’m not a particularly light reader.”
Boland suggested that exploratory students turn to former Stegner Fellow Justin Torres’ We the Animals.
“It’s about growing up with his brothers in a family where his father was Puerto Rican, his mother was American, and the study of the different cultures in the house, the different allegiances in the house, the dependence of the brothers on each other,” she said. “It’s just a really beautiful book. And it’s written about…an age group they’re not too far away from — [his] teenage years.”