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UC Berkeley unveils its first Berkeley Book List for readers everywhere

– This holiday season, 15 University of California, Berkeley, professors are giving intellectually curious readers everywhere a special gift - a list of their favorite books in a variety of fields of knowledge including paleontology, mathematics, contemporary British fiction and archaeology.

These 88 recommended books, most of them designed for readers at the college level and above, comprise the campus's first Berkeley Book List, to be published annually the first week of December. Among this year's contributors are historian and Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl, well-known geologist Walter Alvarez and astrophysicist George Smoot.

The list, unveiled today (Friday, Dec. 5) at http://books.berkeley.edu as part of the UC Berkeley NewsCenter, is designed to "extend the academic reach and influence of the university and its faculty," said Ralph Hexter, executive dean of the UC Berkeley College of Letters & Science and dean of arts and humanities.

In addition to recommending titles, the distinguished scholars have written introductions to their lists, as well as short, tantalizing descriptions of the books, which range from classics to traditional textbooks to esoteric tomes to professors' personal favorites.

The chancellor suggests two books that he's recently enjoyed - David Maransis's "They Marched into Sunlight," which, Berdahl writes, "offers a crisp insight into the turmoil produced by the (Vietnam) war," and "Paris, 1919: Six Months that Changed the World," by Margaret MacMillan.

MacMillan, he notes, "does a masterful job of discussing the enormous range of complex issues facing the (peace) conference" at the end of World War I.

"It might seem non-academic for a cell biologist to be reading about desire, love, and superstition," writes Richard Steinhardt, UC Berkeley professor of cell and developmental biology, in the introduction to his four recommendations in the field of biology. "Yet, it is all very biological and very relevant to a curious person who is having the most fun while trying to figure things out."

His picks are "The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating" by David M. Buss, Pablo Neruda's "100 Love Sonnets," "The Psychology of Superstition" by Gustav Jahoda and, he said, a traditional cell biology text for those hoping for one - the fifth edition of "Molecular Cell Biology" by Harvey Lodish.

Earlier this fall, Jeffery Kahn, Web chief at UC Berkeley's Office of Public Affairs, proposed the idea of the list to Hexter, who then asked deans in the College of Letters & Science to choose professors to assemble the list. The college, with some 800 professors in about 60 departments or programs, encompasses more than half the UC Berkeley faculty, three-quarters of its undergraduates and almost half its Ph.D. students.

In coming years, the list will grow to include new subject areas with recommendations from faculty across the Berkeley campus.

Rosemary Joyce, a UC Berkeley professor of anthropology who is recommending six books on contemporary anthropological archaeology, said she was thrilled to be asked to contribute to the list, calling it "an ideal invitation."

As a faculty member, she said, "ninety percent of our lives is spent reading things we have to read. So, when something you have to read actually excites you and is fun to read, you want to share it with people, to say, 'You have to read this book.'"

Joyce added that the Berkeley Book List is perfect for readers "who are interested in what's happening in fields they once had exposure to and found interesting."

Joyce's selections include "The Archaeology of Mothering: An African-American Midwife's Tale," by her UC Berkeley colleague, Laurie Wilkie, and Joe Watkins' "Indigenous Archaeology: American Indian Values and Scientific Practice."

Among the recommendations from geologist Alvarez, a member of the team that discovered the cause of the dinosaur's demise, is "Annals of the Former World." This new, single-cover package of John McPhee's geological books is "beautifully written," he writes, and describes how our understanding of Earth "has completely changed, with the discovery of plate tectonics and the exploration of many other planets and moons."

Vaughan Jones, a UC Berkeley math professor, said he could hardly choose from the approximately 30 favorite books on mathematics that he keeps in a particular bookcase next to his armchair. The suggested limit for each scholar participating in the Berkeley Book List was between three and six books, but Jones couldn't comply.

"I love them all," he said, "and it has been a challenge to pare down the list to the eleven I give below, in no particular order." Among his favorites are "A Course in Arithmetic" by Jean-Pierre Serre, which, Jones writes, "can double as a party trick - just leave it lying around in the living room and watch the face of the non-mathematician as he picks it up to browse and by page 4, already is at quadractic reciprocity."

Anne Anlin Cheng, professor of English, agreed that picking just a handful of influential books in her field seemed "an impossible task." Nevertheless, she chose five - Charlotte Bronte's "Villete," Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent," Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," Chang-rae Lee's "A Gesture Life," and "Praise," by poet and UC Berkeley Professor Robert Hass.

Of "Praise," she writes, "Any person can read and admire many things over the course of time, but once in a while, you read something, and it drastically changes your mind about what language or a genre can do.

"I am speaking of something more than an intellectual insight; it is about having your mind and soul's tectonic plates shift. 'Praise' was one of those books for me."

For readers interested in social theory, John Lie, sociology professor and chair of the Center for Korean Studies, suggests Luc Boltanki's "Distant Suffering," among others.

"We are awash with images and stories of suffering: indeed, they saturate our media," Lie writes. "How do we make sense of and react to the vision of starvation or the narrative of social evil? Having convinced ourselves to say 'never again' to genocide, have we not remained impassive, bearing ineffectual witness to a series of horrendous mass murders in the last decade? Boltanski trenchantly analyzes political passivity in the age of mass media."

In recommending contemporary British fiction, Alex Zwerdling, professor emeritus of English, writes this about his three selections, which include Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day:"

"Each of these novels brings the forces of the distant past to vivid life, as those forces write the unalterable scripts of the characters' lives. Reading them can also help us to imagine how our own inheritors might one day look back upon the part we unwittingly played in the circumstances in which we find ourselves enmeshed."

Hexter said he hopes that the Berkeley Book List will offer a rewarding alternative to the overwhelming array of electronic media competing for the public's attention.

"There is nothing so deeply satisfying as a book," he writes in the online introduction to the book list. "One does not just click onto or scroll through a book...as readers, we remain in charge of our experience of it. And yet, the best books somehow take possession of us even as we take possession of them."

The professors hope this "feast of books," as Hexter calls it, will turn their favorites into food for thought for audiences beyond the classroom.

"In all cases," added Web chief Kahn, "these 15 professors felt their lives would be poorer had they not read these books."