Books displayed on top of green grass

What to Read This Summer — 2020

An exceptional list for unusual times.

We’re guessing you’ll need a stack of good reads more than ever this summer. So in Stanford Alumni Association tradition, this spring we asked Stanford faculty and our own books editor for their recommendations for the best books to entertain, inspire and inform you during precious breaks from work, not-so-glam staycations and socially distant trips to the beach. Here’s what they shared.

Nonfiction books for pandemic times

A Paradise Built in Hell book cover

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

by Rebecca Solnit
Penguin (Non-Classics), 2010

“We often imagine that during disasters, people panic and look out only for themselves. More often, the opposite is true. By plumbing the historical records around earthquakes, bombings and hurricanes, Solnit demonstrates that disasters bring people together and inspire them to help one another. The punchline is simple and evocative: Our worst moments can bring out the best of humanity and in fact be a reminder of the kindness that resides at our core. I can’t think of a more relevant book to this moment of global shared struggle.”
Jamil Zaki, associate professor of psychology

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How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy book cover

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

by Jenny Odell, Stanford art and art history lecturer
Melville House, 2019

Odell explains humans’ perpetual desire to escape the pressures of society and its increasing obsession with productivity. “Our current situation is not unique, Odell says, and retreating in space—physically opting out of whatever we perceive to be the problem—neglects our responsibility to the very society we are so fed up with.”
Summer Batte, ’99, in STANFORD

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Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities book cover

Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities

by Andre Perry
Brookings Institution Press, 2020
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Building Community, Chinatown Style book cover

Building Community, Chinatown Style: A Half Century of Leadership in San Francisco’s Chinatown

by Gordon Chin
Friends of CCDC, 2015
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Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture, and Resistance book cover

Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture, and Resistance

by Adonia Lugo
Microcosm Publishing, 2018
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The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation book cover

The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation

by Natalie Y. Moore
Picador, 2017
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“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the long-standing disparities in our cities. These books encourage us to have more nuanced conversations by understanding the institutional mechanisms that have led us to the current situation; they also amplify the work of communities that have long been fighting for their survival and resilience in the face of structural inequality. This opportunity encourages urbanists to envision the future of cities by centering the voices of communities most directly impacted by the current economic and public health crisis.”
Deland Chan, ’07, MA ’07, director of community-engaged learning in the urban studies program and co-founder of the Stanford Human Cities Initiative

Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health book cover

Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health

by Judith Walzer Leavitt
Beacon Press, 10th Edition, 1997

“It’s the history of Mary Mallon, a poor Irish immigrant who was the first documented case in NYC of a typhoid carrier who was asymptomatic and who was then locked away in isolation for 26 years as a public health measure. The brutality of her treatment no doubt reflected the magnitude of her crime—it was predominantly wealthy, powerful New York families that she infected while working for them as a private cook. It’s all the same issues we’re facing now, namely abstract debates about individual rights versus the public suddenly becoming real, scapegoating society’s underdogs, the have-nots faring the worst during a crisis.”
Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology, of neurology and of neurosurgery

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The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History book cover

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

by John M. Barry
Penguin Books, Revised Edition, 2005

“The value of this book—besides the great detail provided by the author about the pandemic and the scientists who were trying to understand its deadly grip on Americans—is that it reveals lessons learned and mistakes made in how to deal (and how not to deal) with a devastating health crisis of enormous magnitude. Reading Barry’s book will fill your head with déjà vu thoughts as we struggle to navigate the second most deadly pandemic in world history.”
Albert Camarillo, professor of history, emeritus, and founding director, Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity

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Fiction for a staycation

The Yellow Bird Sings book cover

The Yellow Bird Sings

by Jennifer Rosner, PhD ’98
Flatiron Books, 2020

A mother and daughter flee Nazi soldiers in this WWII novel, which tells a familiar tale with fresh detail. “The use of music as a metaphor for the soul is older than any war. It, and the supporting cast of nuns, farmers’ wives and ruthless commandants soothed by forced concerts, could be trite and threadbare were it not for the breathtaking specificity of Jennifer Rosner’s language.”
Cara Wall, ’92, in STANFORD

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The Sellout book cover

The Sellout

by Paul Beatty
Picador, 2016

“A fantastic book, and first American winner of the Booker Prize. I read the book for pure enjoyment and found it to be one of the most interesting, delightful and hilarious novels I’ve ever come across. As a twofer, it is also a wickedly balanced and insightful look into modern race relations in Southern California.”
Elizabeth Cobbs, MA ’84, PhD ’88, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution

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Decoded book cover


by Mai Jia
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

“I bought this because I love spy thrillers, but this is so much more by a great Chinese writer—family saga, personal portraits and political history as it affects individuals. I am only halfway through, but I have slowed down to savor. This book is kind of like García Márquez meets le Carré. Unique.”
Glenn Carroll, MA ’77, PhD ’82, professor of management, organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business

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Long Petal of the Sea book cover

Long Petal of the Sea

by Isabel Allende
Ballantine Books, 2020

“A page-turner that explores the odyssey of refugees from Franco’s regime. It questions ideas of love, family, resistance and nationalism.”
Jennifer DeVere Brody, professor of theater and performance studies and director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity

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The Dearly Beloved book cover

The Dearly Beloved

by Cara Wall, ’92
Simon & Schuster, 2019

Two couples weather decades of change in this graceful debut novel that was 15 years in the making.

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Autobiography of a Family Photo book cover

Autobiography of a Family Photo

by Jaqueline Woodson
Dutton Books, 1995

“I have taught this book in many classes. It is a spare, poetic ‘autobiography’ of a family in Brooklyn during the 1970s. Like all of Woodson's award-winning work, this book develops (pun intended) the singular viewpoint as a means of commenting on larger, world-historical events, such as Vietnam and Watergate.”
Jennifer DeVere Brody

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Sci-fi and other escapist fantasy

The Humans book cover

The Humans

by Matt Haig
Simon & Schuster, 2014

“It is a story about an extraterrestrial being who takes the form of a mathematics professor who has just made a discovery that threatens the universe. The book reflects his experiences figuring out how to be human and trying to understand our rather crazy culture, family units, pets and social mores. Of course, as he experiences all the messiness that is humanity, he finds both beauty and joy in humans’ imperfection.”
Margaret Neale, professor of management, emerita, at the Graduate School of Business; co-director, Executive Program in Women’s Leadership; and director, Influence and Negotiation Strategies Program

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The Broken Earth Trilogy book cover

The Broken Earth Trilogy

by N.K. Jemisin
Orbit, 2018

“One of the best science fiction series I’ve read. Well-written, great characters, and she knows how to end a series.”
Mark Lemley, ’88, professor of law and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone book cover

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

by J.K. Rowling
Scholastic Press, 1998

“With parents home from work and kids home from school (i.e., nonstop family time) during the shelter-in-place order, I’ve been returning to kid-friendly reads that the whole family can enjoy together. We have been taking turns reading the chapters out loud. Especially during times of restricted travel and movement, it’s been terrific to escape into a fantastic adventure. The book also offers lots of starting points to begin conversations with our elementary-aged children about having strong emotions, how to demonstrate kindness and how to cope with unfairness.”
Sarah Heilshorn, associate professor of materials science and engineering

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Parable of the Sower book cover

Parable of the Sower

by Octavia E. Butler
Grand Central Publishing, Reprint Edition, 2019

“This book speaks to the power of the empathetic collectives in a time of extreme deprivation. Although originally published in 1993, it is prophetic. It provides a wonderful allegory of Northern California.”
Jennifer DeVere Brody

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Nonfiction to inform and uplift

The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief book cover

The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

by Jan Richardson
Wanton Gospeller Press, 2016

“COVID-19 has upended all our lives. No matter who we are or what our circumstances, we have each experienced loss. These blessings offer us sacred space to grieve and inspire us to find hope and healing even in the most difficult of days. The blessings come in short poetic doses that can be read in the in-between moments of your day.”
The Rev. Dr. Tiffany Steinwert, Dean for Religious Life

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I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness book cover

I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness

by Austin Channing Brown
Convergent Books, 2018

“I find Brown’s unflinching honesty into the ways in which well-intentioned white people perpetuate racism extremely powerful. Her ability to be vulnerable and prophetic offers an opportunity for both reflection and action.”
The Rev. Dr. Tiffany Steinwert

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Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World book cover

Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World

by Pema Chödrön
Shambhala, 2019

“It is true that there is life and love and joy even in what seems the most dire of days. Chodron offers simple teachings drawn from stories and tradition, coupled with practices to guide us through to the other side.”
The Rev. Dr. Tiffany Steinwert

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The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World book cover

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World

by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams, 89
Avery, 2016

Two holy men came together to ponder the question of how we can overcome the grief and loss that are an inevitable part of life, and find joy.

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Survival Lessons book cover

Survival Lessons

by Alice Hoffman, MA ’75
Algonquin Books, 2013

Novelist Alice Hoffman’s first nonfiction title was written after a cancer diagnosis, “to remind myself of the beauty of life, something that’s all too easy to overlook during the crisis of illness or loss.”

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Books for history lovers

The Search for Modern China book cover

The Search for Modern China

by Jonathan D. Spence
W.W. Norton, Revised Edition, 2013

“Written with a master storyteller’s art, it weaves several centuries of political, cultural, religious and artistic development into a comprehensive tapestry that is enormously helpful for understanding the phenomenal complexity of present-day China.”
David Kennedy, ’63, professor of history, emeritus, and former director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West

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Disney's Land book cover

Disney’s Land

by Richard Snow
Scribner, 2019

“This is a history of how Walt Disney built Disneyland, describing his extraordinary vision and the risks involved, the many mistakes he made and skeptics he encountered. This is a great story of entrepreneurial innovation and organization building, and is an interesting antidote to the current belief that we here in Silicon Valley invented innovation.”
Glenn Carroll

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Books on science and the natural world

Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search forMeaning in an Evolving Universe book cover

Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe

by Brian Greene
Knopf, 2020

“I have long been a fan of Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist at Columbia with an uncommon knack for making arcane scientific topics accessible to the lay reader. Until the End of Time may be his most ambitious (and, truth to tell, challenging) effort yet. It explores big questions about the nature of time, matter, antimatter, the physical bases and origins of life, and—the biggest question of them all, in my view—the emergence and character of consciousness.”
David Kennedy

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The Autonomous Revolution: Reclaiming the Future We’ve Sold to Machines book cover

The Autonomous Revolution: Reclaiming the Future We’ve Sold to Machines

by William H. Davidow, PhD ’61, and Michael S. Malone
Berrett-Kohler, 2020

“Full disclosure: I wrote the foreword. I agreed to do so because I found this to be a consistently provocative read by two authors steeped in Silicon Valley culture but not ensorcelled by its often extravagant techno-optimistic promises. Riffing on the physical properties of ‘phase change,’ Davidow and Malone probe the future of work and related issues including artificial intelligence, productivity, privacy, social capital and comity, and governance.”
David Kennedy

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Other Stanford reading lists

Reading Through the Pandemic: A Stanford business scholar discusses the literature that can sustain us in a crisis. Read here >

On the Shelf, from the Cantor Arts Center and the Anderson Collection. Read here >

Resources and readings to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Read here >

Charity Ferreira is a contributing editor at Stanford.

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.