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Stanford humanities professors share summer reading picks


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Looking for something new to read this summer? Below is a list of suggested reading from Stanford humanities professors. The list is wide-ranging and includes both favorites and books they plan to read in the coming months.  From the beach, the park bench or the armchair, you can learn about the game of cricket or fall into a mystery about an amnesiac detective.  With topics in fiction, sound theory, anthropology, classics and the like, there’s bound to be something for everyone. Happy reading!


  • Three Strong Women by Marie N’Diaye (2012). Cecile Alduy, associate professor of French and Italian, recommends this 2009 winner of the Prix-Goncourt, calling it one of the most memorable books she has read in the past three years.  “It’s at once gut-wrenching and extremely subtle, a feast for the literary minded and for those concerned with issues of gender, immigration, and race, all in such subtle ways,” says Alduy, whose own scholarship centers on 16th-century and contemporary French literature and culture.
  • 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (2011).  Historian JP Daughton, describes Murakami’s 1100 page novel as “perfect for the beach (if you have a long vacation!)”. Daughton praises the book for its quirky humor and inventiveness: “1Q84 is considered by many to be his magnum opus; Murakami is Japan’s most popular literary export.”
  • Missing Person by Patrick Modiano (1978). Another title on Daughton’s list is Modiano’s story of Guy Roland, a private detective and amnesiac who tries to recover his past throughout the novel. Modiano was a French novelist and the 2014 Nobel Prize winner for literature. Daughton describes Modiano’s writing as “lyrical, mysterious, and unsettling.  Modiano’s books move like detective novels, where his characters search not for criminals, but for their own identities and for the meaning of their often obscured or troubling pasts.”
  • Early Warning by Jane Smiley (2015).  The second part of a fictional trilogy that recounts the story of an Iowa farm family across several generations is perched on the top of historian and archaeologist Ian Morris’ reading pile. Since Morris is a classics professor, it’s fitting that the other book on his list is The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, a new history by his Stanford colleague Josiah Ober.
  • Book of Aron by Jim Shephard (2015).  Associate Professor of English and fiction writer Adam Johnson is starting his summer with Shephard’s novel about the Holocaust written from a child’s perspective.
  • The Wayfinder by Wade Davis (2009). Another title on Adam Johnson’s list, he says this work by the anthropologist Wade Davis “is about the relevance of ancient wisdom in our modern world.” Johnson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, also has a new short-story collection coming out this August called Fortune Smiles.
  • Magnificent Beggar Land: Angola Since the Civil War by Ricardo Soares de Oliveira (2015).  Vincent Barletta, associate professor of comparative literature and Iberian and Latin American cultures, calls this non-fictional depiction of Angola a “must-read” for those interested in Africa, globalization, and democracy.  According to Barletta, “the book provides a fascinating look at one of Africa's fastest growing economies (based largely on oil and diamond exports), and the unthinkable level of corruption (local, national, regional, global) that supports both this growth and the wide (and widening) gulf between elites and the broader population.”
  • Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art by Salome Voegilin (2010). Another title on Barletta’s list, the book explores the world of sound studies, and it suggests compelling ways to pay attention to sound and its use in literary studies.  “Even for non-academics, it's a terrific and very interesting read,” he says, “the section on Geneva raves in the early 1990s alone is worth picking up this book.”
  • French Moves, The Cultural Politics of Le Hip Hop by Felicia McCarren (2013). Dance Professor Janice Ross, tells us her summer often begins with unfinished academic reading from the year.  First up is McCarren’s study of race and identity in contemporary France explored through hip hop dance. “This examination of the multicultural face of France told through dancing associated with immigration and the suburbs, is a dance historian’s version of arm-chair travel,” Ross says.
  • Dancers as Diplomats: American Choreography in Cultural Exchange by Clare Croft (2015).  Ross is eager to read this study of the role of dance and dancers in American cultural diplomacy from the early decades of the Cold War to post 9-11. Ross’ own book Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia is about Yakobson’s ballet choreography during decades of Russian totalitarian rule. It was published this spring.
  • Noel Coward:  A Biography by Philip Hoare (1995) and Coward the Playwright by John Lahr (2002). For Rush Rehm, professor of theater and performance studies, immersing himself in books about Noel Coward, the legendary playwright and actor makes perfect sense; Rehm, also the artistic director of the Stanford Repertory Theater, will be producing SRT’s 17th summer festival which is dedicated to Coward. 
  • In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman (2014).  This debut novel about the friendship of two men in West London is set against the international backdrop of war and financial crisis in 2008. It’s the first book on Religious Studies Professor Shazhad Bashir’s list. Bashir describes this ambitious novel as one that ranges widely between contemporary international politics, issues of immigrant experience on a worldwide scale, and fundamental philosophical questions about knowledge. “To me, this is the kind of work that illuminates the complexities of our world in a way that only literature can do,” says Bashir who specializes in Islamic Studies.
  • Beyond a Boundary by C.L.R. James (1963). Saikat Majumdar, novelist and assistant professor of English, recommends this non-fiction exploration about the cultural and social significance of the game of cricket by one of Trinidad’s most famous writers and intellectuals.  
  • Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf (1938). Majumdar will also be spending his summer with Woolf’s non-fiction response to questions of preventing war, educating women, and encouraging women to work professionally.  Majumdar says: “Both Beyond a Boundary and Three Guineas beautifully illustrate the figure of the intellectual as a sort of free-floating, amateur figure who intervenes in public debates on the terms of a poet, novelist or memoirist rather than through argumentative reason.” Majumdar’s own novel, The Firebird, was just published in June. Set in the theatre world of late 20th century Calcutta, the book is narrated by a young boy growing up there.
  • The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012). French Professor Dan Edelstein will be re-reading his colleague Adam Johnson’s novel set in North Korea, along with all 118 incoming residents of the Humanities House dorm. They will discuss the novel with Johnson in the fall. “It’s an incredible novel on many counts," Edelstein says, "but what I found particularly gripping was the way in which Adam manages to convey the powerful feeling of anxiety and oppression that pervades North Korean society (or so we can only imagine).” 
  • The Virtues of Abandon by Charly Coleman (2014). Edelstein also plans to read Coleman’s historical study of how very different political, religious, and philosophical currents in 18th-century France confront each other over the question of (self) ownership. “What makes this book particularly striking is the way in which the author brings together aspects of Enlightenment culture that are rarely discussed in the same work, let alone on the same page,” explains Edelstein.