Summer Reading List features books that changed young people’s lives

By Gretchen Kell, Public Affairs

11 July 2001 | In the late 1950s, high school senior Susan Matisoff, planning a college major in chemistry, became captivated in a ramshackle Manhattan bookstore by an anthology of Japanese literature.

She bought the used book by Donald Keene. It changed her life.

Matisoff joined a student exchange program in Japan and, as a college sophomore, she switched her major from chemistry to Japanese. As a graduate student, she wound up with Keene as a teacher.

“You never know what a book may do to you,” said Matisoff, now a Berkeley professor of East Asian languages and cultures.

When compilers of UC Berkeley’s annual, unofficial summer reading list solicited suggestions this spring, they asked select members of the campus community what books changed their lives when they were about to begin college. Matisoff submitted Keene’s two-volume “The Anthology of Japanese Literature.”

The 10 other books on this year’s list — designed for incoming fall freshmen to read before arriving at Berkeley — are examples of the power of books to influence a young person’s future.

Included on the diverse list is a book of haiku, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, Gertrude Stein’s autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, an exposé by Rachel Carson about DDT’s effect on the environment and a Charles Dickens tale.

The list will be given to students at orientation sessions for fall freshmen. It’s “made up of books that shaped the lives of people when they were your age; some of them actually changed the course of their lives, the others opened up new worlds,” Steve Tollefson writes to students in a letter introducing the list.

Tollefson, faculty development coordinator for the Office of Student Life/Educational Development and a lecturer in College Writing Programs, co-produced the reading list with Gary Handman, acting head of the Teaching Library at Moffitt Library.

Paul Licht, professor of integrative biology and dean of the College of Letters & Science, recommended “Silent Spring.”

“I was 24 when I read this, but I would have read it when I was 18 if it had been published. I was just developing a career as a biologist, and in my personal life I was very concerned about the environment,” he said. “Rachel Carson’s exposé of what DDT and other chemicals were doing to nature shocked us, scared us and galvanized a generation into a new kind of environmental activism.”

Jean Smith, a staff member in Public Affairs, recommended Dickens’ “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.”

“I was alone at college, hopelessly confused by organic chemistry and realizing that I was not going to make it to vet school,” she said. “I read this book and…knew I was destined to be an English lit major, and that is what I became.”

Richard Lyons, a business professor, added James Clavell’s “Shogun” to the list. He read it when he was about 18, and he said it provided him with his “first glimpse into the culture, history, passions and fears of a people that I knew very little about at the time….I ultimately decided on an academic career applying social sciences internationally.”

For Julianne Monroe, a student affairs officer and an assistant to the chair of the Astronomy Department, a brush with Gertrude Stein as she read “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” provided food for thought as she prepared to leave home.

The fact that Stein “had taken complete charge of what she would be and do was just what I was curious about as I was about to leave home for college,” she said.

Tollefson said the book list is designed to remind incoming students that Berkeley is a vital, intellectual community that generates fascinating and important ideas. The suggested books — or others that students might find on their own this summer — also might generate such greatness.

“All of us,” said Tollefson, “should have a book that changed our lives when we were just beginning college.”

1. “Haiku Harvest: Japanese Haiku Series IV,” translation by Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn
2. “House Made of Dawn” by N. Scott Momaday
3. “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby” by Charles Dickens
4. “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” by John Fowles
5. “Shogun” by James Clavell
6. “Cry, the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton
7. “Martha Quest” (The Children of Violence, Book 1) and “A Proper Marriage” (The Children of Violence, Book 2) by Doris Lessing
8. “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson
9. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
10. “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” by Gertrude Stein
11. “The Anthology of Japanese Literature” by Donald Keene


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