Your Summer Reading List

Independent School’s Columnist Shares His Top Picks for Summer Reading

​A college friend gave me a book-embossing stamp a few years ago, with my initials in the center; but around the rim he had had printed “Immoderate Bibliophile,” to which I plead guilty. Since the only pleasure to match reading books is recommending them, I’m happy to comply when asked for suggestions.

So here’s a list of recommended books for your summer vacation. As with my column in Independent School, it isn’t limited to educator books, but rambles eclectically. Obviously, it is one reader’s set of blinkers and enthusiasms. These are books I’ve started, finished, or mean to get to very soon, and my sources for suggestions include prize winners, major newspapers, and the shelves of my favorite independent bookstores. I hope you’ll try some.

Required Reading

David Brooks, The Road to Character
Because everyone else will have read it or read about it, and because even glib journalists get some things — but not everything — exactly right.
Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
Because the 99 percent, and especially the lost children, are our responsibility too.


Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read
Not so much a book as a mixed media inquiry into what happens when we use our eyes for the “unnatural” act of reading type and making visual meaning.

Fiction and Poetry

Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics
Posthumous collection from Italy’s great magical realist.  I wonder if Stephen Hawking knows Calvino’s version of the Big Bang?
Louise Gluck, Ararat
Although Gluck just won the National Book Award for Faithful and Virtuous Night, I prefer its predecessor, a sequence of poems by a daughter, offering profound insight into the most mystifying human institution.
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
The Japanese tsunami, a young woman’s diary, and the wisdom of a Buddhist nun, along with a fascinating challenge to our everyday view of cause and effect.
Marilynne Robinson’s just-completed trilogy (Gilead, Lila, Home)
I started Gilead years ago and put it down, then picked it up recently on the recommendation of a friend. I have no idea how I could have abandoned it – lack of maturity I guess.

History and Biography

Steven Johnson, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
Less compendious than similar works, with a very unusual take on the theme.  You’ll never think about refrigerators, mirrors, or novels the same way.
Ben MacIntyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
For those interested in the Cold War, and the British class system; the “true spy” version of a LeCarré novel.
Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
Want to know why there has never been an unum of the pluribus?  More readable than Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, more historical than Garreau’s Nine Nations of North America.
Michael Zantovsky, Havel: A Life
Hardly noticed in America (ranking #117,425 on Amazon, almost exactly 117,000 behind the in-house Steve Jobs book), the life of the closest the last century produced to Plato’s philosopher-ruler.


Bob Mankoff, How About Never — Is Never Good For You?: My Life in Cartoons
More than 300 New Yorker cartoons, from early days to today, and a history of the magazine’s cartooning that provokes as many laughs as the cartoons.


Philip Glass, Words Without Music: A Memoir
The avant-garde composer tells a straightforward story, of a life filled with Eastern thought, western literature, and innumerable surprising connections from visual art to yoga.  Pair with Patti Smith’s Just Kids.
Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
A memoir in poetry recognized by both the Newbery and the National Book Awards, this book shows the limitations of the “Young Adult” label.


Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
If you have only a vague understanding of, or respect for, “native American wisdom,” this book will enlighten and delight.
Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk
City boy reads Wart’s adventures among the predators, then Robinson Jeffers’ poem “Hurt Hawks.” Fascination culminates with this gem.


Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex
Yes, that Plato, and that Google.  The Athenian holds his own among scientists, advice columnists, child-rearing experts in the liveliest Platonic text since the Apology.

Science and Technology

John Brockman, Edge Question Series (This Idea Must Die, What Should We Be Worried About?, etc.)
The perfect formula for wisdom: Ask 300 of your closest friends a good question; publish.  Of course you have to be friends with people like Howard Gardner and Stephen Pinker.
Sam Kean, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery
Kean is my favorite science writer of the moment.  He made the periodic table and DNA interesting, and now he has an even more engrossing subject – us.
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
The book on our environmental impact that has even The Wall Street Journal and Business Insider worried. It received the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in April 2015.

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