Campus & Community

Top profs’ book tips

6 min read

What do Harvard professors read over the summer? Are the physicists reading poetry and the literature professors reading algebra? Are they reading at all, or do books lie spine-up on the floor, where their owners last hurled them, while fishing rods and gardening trowels and chopping boards get far more use?

We asked a few people what books they’d recommend for a Gazette summer reading list. Here are their suggestions.

K. Anthony Appiah, Professor of Afro-American Studies and of Philosophy
“I’d recommend John Reader’s Africa: The Biography of the Continent. It combines a rich account of Africa’s past, about which most people know virtually nothing, with a real sensitivity to how the natural environment – climate, rivers, ecology, disease – shapes human history. But my favorite book remains the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, whose quirky, humane style continues to be a model of elegant prose.”

Harvey G. Cox, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity
“I recommend John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. It is by far the best of the huge crop of ‘historical Jesus’ books. Crossan combines textual analysis, archaeological finds, extra-canonical sources, secular history, and the anthropology of societies like early Palestine to come up with a very readable and trustworthy account.”

Benedict H. Gross, George Vasmer Leverett Professor of Mathematics
“My recommended reading would be Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. Especially good for grad students and postdocs. It’s a very funny book. I think it gives the best treatment of the academic world I have ever read, even though it is set in postwar Oxbridge. Not much has changed. A good modern novel in this category is Straight Man, by Richard Russo.”

Thomas Forrest Kelly, Professor of Music
“At the moment I’m reading W.S. Merwin’s The Lost Upland, a series of three stories about life in rural southwest France. It’s wonderfully lyrical and describes a life not so different from what happens around me here in the backwoods of Tuscany.”

Juan Maldacena, Professor of Physics
“I recommend The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian Greene. It is a book which describes in lay terms some of the current ideas in particle physics and grand unified theories.”

Ellen Phelan, Professor of the Practice of Studio Arts in Visual and Environmental Studies
The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, by George Kubler. A slender book that offers tremendously commodious and original insights we can apply to our thinking about all visual culture.”

Daniel Schrag, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences
The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. It’s about a Sicilian prince in the 19th century at the time of the unification of Italy. Although it’s not the most active plot, it’s full of wisdom about love, politics, and people in general. It’s the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. It’s about a prince who finds himself in changing times – and tries to come to grips with the way the world has changed around him. He is forced to deal with the politics of the time, the arrival of the new middle class, his frustrations with his own family, and the demise of nobility. He realizes that he’s the last of his kind but is powerless to do anything about it. It’s a very introspective book. It also has the most spectacular description of the sensuality of good food.”

Theda Skocpol, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and of Sociology
The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics, by Robin Marantz Henig. I was first attracted by the charming, ethnographically dense way that Henig tells Mendel’s life story, the story of a boy from a farm family who struggles to get an education, sponsored by Catholic clerics who, in that part of Germany at that time, happened to favor science learning. The book uses spiritually compelling quotes about gardens and gardening throughout, and gives a real feel for Mendel’s intense attachment to his gardens. We learn about the surprising intellectual combinations that go into genius. And we learn about the ways of getting– and failing to get – attention and credit in science. A beautiful book about the meaning of lives, as well as very informative about the intellectual foundations of one of the great scientific enterprises of today.”

Howard A. Stone, Gordon McKay Professor of Chemical Engineering and Applied Mechanics
“Three books come to mind, which I recall enjoying very much. Lost Horizon, by James Hilton: it’s a beautiful story about the mythical place of Shangri-La; it’s about ideals and a little about love as well. The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand: a story about a man who wants to live life on his terms and view the world via his own thoughts rather than those told to him by others. The Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexander Dumas. A fabulous story about courage, ideals, love, and hope.”

Susan R. Suleiman, C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and Professor of Comparative Literature
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (Memoires d’une jeune fille rangée), by Simone de Beauvoir. Written when Beauvoir was already a famous writer (she had published The Mandarins and The Second Sex, among other works), this book recounts her childhood and young adulthood in France between the two world wars. It’s a wonderful evocation of the life of a young girl brought up in a bourgeois milieu, who manages to create a life independent of ‘proper’ family expectations. A good read, too.”

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Professor of History and Director of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History
“For anyone heading to Maine or only wishing they were, I recommend Women of the Dawn by Bunny McBride, a short but rich exploration of the lives of four Wabenaki women, all named ‘Molly’ by white settlers. Published by the University of Nebraska Press (known for its very strong list on American Indian history), it is lyrical and poetic but based on many years of fieldwork and scholarship by McBride and her husband, anthopologist Harald Prins. McBride has also written a full-length biography of one of these women, Molly Spotted Elk: A Penobscot in Paris (University of Oklahoma Press, 1995).”