UC Berkeley faculty recommend 12 favorite books for incoming freshman to read this summer

By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--If Marian Diamond could suggest what incoming freshmen should read this summer to prepare for college, you'd expect the prominent integrative biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, to list "Gray's Anatomy" or a thick textbook on the human brain.

Instead, she's recommending a 1926 tale about "a simple little bear, not brainy at all, who is loved by all the animals in the forest who are most considerate of each other."

Yes, Diamond's contribution to UC Berkeley's 1999 unofficial summer reading list for incoming freshmen is "Winnie the Pooh: Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh," written by A.A. Milne with illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard.

Diamond said she chose the 73-year-old book for its "elegant simplicity" and the "peace of mind" that it provides in this age of technology and information overload.

Her choice joins 11 other books chosen by individual UC Berkeley faculty members. The eclectic list includes "Contact" by Carl Sagan, "Crooked Little Heart" by Anne LaMott and the books of Genesis and Exodus from the Bible.

Nearing its 15th year of existence, UC Berkeley's summer reading list is produced by the campus's Teaching Library and the Office of Student Life/Educational Development. Each year, a pamphlet listing the recommended books is slipped into freshman orientation packets, in part to offset all the paperwork new students must complete.

"The hope is that, by sending out the list, we remind them that Berkeley is going to be more than all the forms they've been filling out," said Steve Tollefson, faculty development coordinator for the Office of Student Life/Educational Development, who co-produces the list with Ellen Meltzer, head of the Teaching Library in the Moffitt Library. "We're reminding them of the intellectual life at Berkeley and letting them know that people don't just read for the courses in their discipline."

Each year the list is compiled, Tollefson and Meltzer invite different members of the campus community to recommend books. This year, they asked a dozen faculty members who spend time in residence halls working with freshmen to "recommend a book that they found interesting and thought freshmen would like to read," said Tollefson.

"This is not an official list or a 'should read' list," he added.

Most of the books picked by faculty members this year aren't part of any traditional canon for college students, and all but a few books have a copyright date in the 1990s.

"We do tell people that they shouldn't just pick a classic just for the sake of picking a classic," said Tollefson. "Except for the Bible and Winnie the Pooh, these books are not classics at all."

The campus's 1999 list is the most diverse one to date, said Tollefson.

"The variety on this list is wider than in years past," he said. "While there are some best-sellers that are also good books, there are also some books that people would never have even heard of otherwise."

Along those lines, the list includes a book about Western European society's dominance in the world called "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" by Jared Diamond and "Dead Certainties: (Unwarranted Speculations)," a book by Simon Schama about how historical events are interpreted.

"The surprise is that every year the list changes," said Tollefson. "Except for the Bible, no one has ever recommended any of these books before."

Several of this year's recommendations are related to the faculty members' disciplines, said Tollefson, "whether it was a conscious intention or not."

Examples are Sagan's best-selling "Contact," which explores the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and was recommended by David Cudaback, senior lecturer emeritus of astronomy, and education professor Pedro Noguera's recommendation of "Savage Inequalities," a book by Jonathan Kozol about unequal funding to schools in the United States.

But some scholars, like Diamond, chose a book that has absolutely nothing to do with their field of expertise. For a summer reading list published many years ago, Diamond recommended Jack London's "Call of the Wild," saying that "if Buck could survive through all of that mayhem, any freshman could survive, thrive and enjoy him/herself at Berkeley."

The campus's summer reading list has become popular over the years, not only with new UC Berkeley students but with local high school teachers, professors and librarians. All the books on the list can be found in the UC Berkeley library, at bookstores and in public libraries.


1. "Crows Over a Wheatfield" by Paula Sharp

Pocket Books, 1997 (c. 1996)

"It is a beautifully crafted saga of life, mental health and the way the law deals with families," said Bob Berring, professor of law and law librarian at Boalt Hall. "It is no courtroom drama. It is the story of a family and a portrait of the underground railroad that exists for women who are trying to escape abusive relationships and for whom the legal system is a failure."

2. "Dead Certainties: (Unwarranted Speculations)" by Simon Schama

Vintage Books, 1992 (c. 1991)

"After this book, you should never look at histories the same way again," said Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology. "But while reading this book is a pleasure, Schama has serious points to make about ambiguity, contradiction and interpretation in history."

3. "Sacred Hunger" by Barry Unsworth

WW Norton Paperback Version, 1993 (c. 1991)

"Winner of the Booker Prize in the early '90s, this is ostensibly a novel, set in the 18th century, about the slave trade. It is that, a wonderfully told tale, but it is much more, a meditation on how greed and avarice dehumanize the oppressor and the oppressed," said Fred Witt, professor of molecular & cell biology.

4. "Einstein's Dreams" by Alan Lightman

Warner Books, 1994 (c. 1993)

"One of the most poetic and beautifully written books I have ever read, " said Bruce Birkett, a physics lecturer. "Having nothing to do with physics, this novel is rather the author's musings about Einstein's nightly dreams surrounding the nature of time."

5. "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" by Jared Diamond

Norton, 1997

"A tour de force! Answers the question of why Western European society has become dominant in the world, but not for the reasons that you may think," said Randy Katz, professor of electrical engineering & computer science.

6. "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer

Doubleday, 1999 (c. 1997)

"This is a gripping, eye-witness account of an ill-fated ascent of Mt. Everest, in which a number of poor decisions led to disastrous consequences during a rogue storm in May 1996. It is one of those books that's difficult to put down," said Alex Filippenko, professor of astronomy.

7. Genesis & Exodus, The Bible: Authorized King James Version

Oxford University Press, 1997

"These stories from the 'Old Testament' form the bedrock of Western moral and literary culture, shaping everything from early philosophy and science to the contemporary Civil Rights movement and today's American politics," said Claude Fischer, professor of sociology.

8. "Crooked Little Heart" by Anne LaMott

Doubleday, 1998 (c. 1997)

"A delightful coming-of-age book about an adolescent girl tennis player who learns about the importance of personal honesty," said Sandy Muir, professor of political science.

9. "Contact" by Carl Sagan

Pocket Books, 1985

"This is a novel written by a working scientist and foremost explainer of science to the public...The topic is what may be involved in a search for extraterrestrial intelligence, SETI, and what may happen if SETI were successful," said David Cudaback, a senior lecturer emeritus of astronomy.

10. "Savage Inequalities" by Jonathan Kozol

HarperCollins, 1992

"Kozol presents a passionate portrayal of children, teachers and schools in communities that have systematically been deprived of funds for education," said Pedro Noguera, professor of education.

11. "Ellen Foster" by Kaye Gibbons

Vintage Books, 1997 (c. 1987)

"This is the story of a motherless young girl living a life that would defeat most of us. Yet Ellen manages to find her way out of pain and misery through her own belief that there is something better waiting for her," said Joanne P. Ikeda, a nutritional education specialist at Cooperative Extension & Nutritional Sciences.

12. "Winnie the Pooh: Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh" by A.A. Milne

Penguin, 1996 (c. 1926)

"My goal has always been to attain elegant simplicity," said Marian Diamond, professor of integrative biology. "Today, my recommendation might be Winnie the Pooh, simple and elegant."

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