The 2020 Summer Reading List

Stack of books outdoors with a hat and flowers on top of them

Though time spent reading by the beach may be limited this summer, lounging outdoors with the smell of a book and the feeling of the sun beating down remains a seasonal staple. Mercifully, a joy that even a pandemic can’t ruin. 

Below, find book recommendations from Penn faculty and staff, ranging from works that touch on racial justice to ones that explore stories of the “scientist hero.”

Montserrat Anguera, asssociate professor of biomedical sciences

The Book: “The Gene: An Intimate History,” by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Why I Picked It: I loved his first book (“The Emperor of All Maladies”), and I wanted to hear about his take on genes and genetics, which is an area of biology that I am fascinated about. In addition, my lab works on X-linked genes, so I’m looking forward to learning more about the historical background of gene discovery.

Vijay Balasubramanian, Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor of Physics

The Books: “The Plague,” by Albert Camus; “Ancillary Justice,” by Ann Leckie

Why I Picked Them: “The Plague”—This classic book, written as an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France, describes the breakdown of society in a small town when the plague suddenly arrives. The narrator is a doctor who realizes early that a crisis it at hand, but the city officials initially don’t want to panic the population. People continue their lives as normal while newspapers begin to publish daily case counts. Then quarantine and social distancing set in along with overwhelmed hospitals, shortages, and many cultural and moral tensions that recall our current situation.  The book has one of the greatest final sentences in world literature. If you speak French, read it in the original. The language is beautifully clear.

“Ancillary Justice”—This is the most original science fiction book I have read in a long time. The story is told through the eyes of an artificially intelligent spaceship equipped with many “ancillary” human bodies which share their thoughts in a collective consciousness. The text seamlessly interleaves the sensory impressions of the different bodies and of the ship, which are all observing events in different locations, while simultaneously interacting with the humans on the ship and the planet below. The rapid switching between perceptions reminds me of the famous scene of the massacre on the Odessa steps in the movie “Battleship Potemkin” by Sergei Eisenstein. Besides this fascinating literary device, this novel includes intricate political maneuvering set against a deep underlying human desire for love and justice, even on the part of the spaceship.

Brett LoGiurato, senior editor, Wharton School Press

The Book: “A Gentleman in Moscow,” by Amor Towles

Why I Picked It: Escape your current surroundings with this tale of a man locked inside his living quarters. The protagonist, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, is sentenced to house arrest at a swanky hotel in Russia in the early 1900s. Over the course of the book and next several decades, he becomes something of an observer frozen through time. The book holds a lot of lessons for today. One that sticks with me is this quote from the Count: “If one does not master one’s circumstances, one is bound to be mastered by them.”

David Fox, director of New Student Orientation & Academic Initiatives

The Book: “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community”

Why I Picked It: “Written in the aftermath of the Watts riots, the Chicago Open Housing movement, the rise of Black Power, and an expanding Vietnam War, the book provides a powerful reflective history of a tumultuous time. For King, recent events required him and the movement he led to take stock. But the book is more than a reflection on history and current developments. It is preeminently a declaration of hope and a call to action. King highlighted the need to organize and persevere in the face of severe challenges, including failed promises, rising despair, and, in some areas (e.g., economic), worsening conditions. At a time when the concept of leadership is too often confused and conflated with individual success, “Where Do We Go From Here” provides a case study of courageous, morally-inspired, and ethically-centered leadership.”

Paul Farber, senior research scholar at the Weitzman School, artistic director of Monument Lab

The Book: “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland,” by Jonathan Metzl

Why I Picked It: Earlier this spring, I wanted to read a book that would shed light on the intersection between public health and racist injustice. I started reading “Dying of Whiteness” the week armed, angry groups of white people entered various state capitols demanding states “open up” for non-life sustaining businesses including hair salons and fitness clubs. This remarkable book blew me away, in its framing and delivery, and immediately offered a window onto the underlying racial dynamics of COVID-19. At the time, that included the amplified reporting of predominately conservative white-led protests over inconveniences of wearing masks and taking health precautions for the sake of everyone–against a backdrop of the staggering, disproportionate, and lethal impact of the virus on Black and Indigenous communities throughout the country.

In “Dying of Whiteness,” Metzl thoughtfully and rigorously engages gun violence, healthcare, and public education to approach how “the white body that refuses treatment rather than supporting a system that might benefit everyone then becomes a metaphor for, and parable of, the threatened decline of the larger nation.” With a decade’s worth of research informing the book, he writes with compassion and conviction to understand “whiteness itself [as] a negative health indicator.” This prescient book continues to push me to think through the intersections of COVID-19, the current movement to dismantle systemic racism, and the everyday process of demythologizing whiteness. A must-read for our moment of reckoning and repair.

Herman Beavers, professor of English and Africana Studies

The Books: Russell Banks, “The Stories of Russell Banks” by Russel Banks; “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” by Nathan Englander; “Night Song” by John A. Williams; “The Infinite Plan” by Isabel Allende; “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood; “American Spy” by Laura Wilkinson

Brian Rose, James B. Pritchard Professor of Archaeology, curator of Penn Museum's Mediterranean Galleries

The Book: “Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror,” by James Hynes

Why I Picked It: Anyone who has dealt with the idiosyncrasies of the tenure process will enjoy “Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror,” by James Hynes (1998). Each of the tales views the tenure process through a different lens, from the helpless instructor to the full professor holding a named chair. The book was written by an academic who was never able to secure a tenure-track position, let alone tenure, so that senior professors in the tales experience some unfortunate accidents—indeed, he kills some of them off, but it’s a delicious academic satire with elements of the supernatural mixed in.

Brian Peterson, director of Makuu Black Cultural Center

The Book: “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson

Why I Picked It: Now a decade old, this is a timeless classic providing a wonderful mix of narrative and history, describing some of the ways that the Great Migration transformed America. For people who are questioning what’s happening in the U.S. now, this book is a reminder that it’s not just about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and the much-too-long contemporary list of lives tragically cut short by law enforcement. It’s also very much about the terror that was daily life for Blacks in the South, only to find, after fleeing, a new kind of struggle and discrimination in the North and Midwest. Wilkerson constructs the story in a way that holds your full attention, makes you feel, and helps you see America with new eyes. 

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, associate professor of literacy, culture, and international education

The Book: “The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies,” by Tiffany Lethabo King

Why I Picked It: We have needed this coarticulation between Black and Native studies for a while. This is incredible work and I’m taking my time to savor it. 

Heather Calvert, executive director of MindCORE

The Books: “The Royal We,” by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan; “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

Why I Picked Them: I used to be a big reader, but honestly mostly all I read now is the news and science and political articles online. I don’t sleep well so I do a lot of reading on my phone in bed in the early hours of the morning. I finally bought an e-reader at the beginning of Quarantimes after being a paper-book purist because I thought that I wasn’t reading books as much because my phone was easier to hold and read in the dark without waking my spouse. But even then, it took me more than a month to read the fun romance book I’d bought to help spur me back into reading books again—“The Royal We,” by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. It was delightful, but I still had to prod myself to return to it. I finally finished it on mother’s day as a gift/goal for myself. Now I am reading “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. I bought it one year ago following a trip to the Equal Justice Museum and Memorial in Montgomery Alabama. I meant to read it all year, even took it on a vacation last August. (I found a ticket stub in its pages.) I finally started it last week. I haven’t gotten very far yet, but I need to finish it soon because I promised to lend it to a friend. But already Bryan Stevenson seems like the right voice for me for this time. He is committed to confronting injustice; and he’s hopeful that we can be better. 

Linda Chance, associate professor of Japanese language and literature

The Books: “Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan,” by Eiko Maruko; “Sacred Cesium Ground,” by Kimura Yusuke

Why I Picked Them: “Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan”—During the stay-home period of the pandemic, reports are that many people are tidying up with the help of the KonMari method. Kondō Marie has her own religio-aesthetic notion of her sources, but Eiko Maruko Siniawer’s “Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan” will tell you the real story of Japan’s struggles with material affluence and unpack KonMari and other antimaterialists to boot.

“Sacred Cesium Ground”—Kimura Yūsuke’s “Sacred Cesium Ground” is clear-eyed fiction about the clean-up after the 3-11 nuclear meltdown. Pair it with a viewing of documentary footage about “Hope Ranch” in Namie, where an activist is keeping about 260 head of wagyū cattle alive, survivors from the 3,500 who were in the exclusion zone around Fukushima Daiichi in 2011.

Tulia Falleti, professor of political science, director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program

The Books: “Doughnut Economics,” by Kate Raworth; “Me & White Supremacy,” by Layla F. Saad

Why I Picked Them: “Doughnut Economics”—This is the economic vision that the city of Amsterdam, among possibly 40 other cities or more in the world, plans to follow in the post-pandemic recovery. Kate Raworth is a Cambridge-trained economist who teaches at Oxford University. She has also recently been identified by Forbes as one of the Top 5 most influential economists of the year (all of them women, by the way). The book is superb to have us all think critically about our approach to economic development and realizing how unsustainable the approach we have taken since the mid-19th century has been. We need development that is socially and environmentally responsible and accountable. (I plan to include this book in my undergraduate teaching in the near future, and would love one day to have Kate Raworth at Penn, perhaps as a Perry World House Visiting Scholar.) 

“Me & White Supremacy”—I am currently reading this book and although I haven’t yet finished (the book is a journey, really, originally intended to take at least 28 days), I can already see that is transformational. This book is essential reading for our current politics and the systemic and institutionalized racism and white supremacy that predominates in the U.S. and in the world, and that we reproduce. This is as much true of the U.S. as it is of region of the world that I study and know best, Latin America, where white supremacy has led to the extermination, dispossession, and exploitation of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. It is a book that I honestly think every person who is not Black, Indigenous, or People of Color, or who is BIPOC but passes as white, must read and wrestle with. 

Richard Rys, editor of Wharton Magazine

The Book: “The End of October,” by Lawrence Wright

Why I Picked It: He’s a phenomenal journalist and narrative non-fiction writer, a longtime New Yorker contributor, and best known for his books on Scientology ("Going Clear") and Al-Qaeda ("The Looming Tower," which won a Pulitzer). This is his first novel, and the subject matter hits almost too close to home—an epidemiologist from the WHO investigates a virus in Asia that quickly develops into a global pandemic and devastates the U.S. Not a great choice if you’re hoping for escapism, but I’m looking forward to seeing Wright apply his deep research and storytelling talents to a new form and a timely subject.

Anthony Sorrentino, assistant vice president, Office of the Executive Vice President

The Books: “Some Assembly Required,” by Neil Shubin; “Exhalation,” by Ted Chaing

Why I Picked Them: “Some Assembly Required”—In my opinion the “poet laureate” of science writing is University of Chicago evolutionary biologist (and Philly native) Neil Shubin. In his third book he takes us on a fascinating and entrancing ride through the history and evolution of DNA. What Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” explained about natural selection, Shubin does for DNA. As we know from his debut “Your Inner Fish,” Shubin is an explorer; this time, the field research is not fossil hunting, but using technology to explore fossil DNA so to connect the dots among all living things, past and present, possessing DNA. 

“Exhalation”—This is Ted Chaing’s new collection of science-fiction short stories and is a piercing look at how humans coexist within the universe and the technological advances impacting humanity’s evolutionary journey, including artificial intelligence, software, and biomechanics. 

This is the era of the hero scientist, so let’s embrace nonfiction and science fiction writers who contemplate the role of science and medicine and its role in our society. I suggest reading Shubin first, to bring you up from the ancient past to the present, and then let Chaing’s imagination take you further.