For your summer reading list, professors share the books that influenced them the most.
Associate professor, history
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). I read it for historian James Goodman’s 20th Century Race Relations in the United States. He had inserted the Hurston novel into his history course as a lens into the “muck of the Everglades,” showing us the remarkable, historically factual burdens faced by African American women in the postbellum South. I had never read anything like it before—the use of dialect, the protofeminist arc, and the close near-ethnographic attention to African American culture. So fiction drew me to history.
Associate professor, physics and astronomy & astrophysics
Nightfall (1941), by Isaac Asimov. I first read this very short story when I was about 10. It touches on science, sociology, history, religion, and the fate of humankind. It asks what it might be like to have night arrive only once every 2,000 years. Imagine seeing the stars for the very first time and realizing that our solar system might be just one of countless others. The story emphasizes the fragility of civilization and brings home just how profound it can be to look up into the night sky. That feeling of awe has never left me.
Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics
I most enjoy books that grapple with big ideas through careful empirical research. And of late, I’ve found few works more arresting than those written by James Scott. In his 1999 tome, Seeing Like a State, Scott investigates the kinds of information that a state requires and the regimented ways in which it puts this information to use. The book is just brimming with ideas and insights. Two years after having read it, I’m still wrestling with what it says about the politics of surveillance and the pathologies of central planning.
Dennis J. Hutchinson
Senior lecturer in law and William Rainey Harper Professor in the College
Only 32 pages long, Audubon: A Vision (1969) is the book I return to more than any other. Written by Robert Penn Warren at the height of his powers, the poem is at once lyrical, allegorical, and brutally vivid. The suite of seven sections is nominally the biography of the great naturalist John James Audubon and his explorations in the wilderness where he discovers “How thin is the membrane between himself and the world.” Idealism fades into acceptance of fate, satisfying a deep but unclassifiable longing. The poem ends with a childlike wish that echoes the journey: “In this century, and moment, of mania / Tell me a story. / Make it a story of great distances and starlight. / The name of the story will be Time, But you must not pronounce its name. / Tell me a story of deep delight.”
Bel Canto (2001) by Ann Patchett. This story oozes pathos as a group of people are held hostage. Yet it is dignity and generosity of spirit that emerge as the dominant themes. Rather than crying and wringing their hands, the characters make controlled and deliberate choices that move the reader in the same way as do Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. My feeling of admiration for the characters’ principled actions under extraordinary circumstances is as fresh as it was on the day I finished the book.
Senior lecturer, computer science
As far as I can remember, I have always liked computers. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s without internet access, I had to get by with the few books I could get my hands on in Spain, and had no way to connect with a like-minded community. Going to college didn’t actually help much at first, as I found that most of my classmates were driven not so much by a passion for computing but by the promise of a lucrative career in the tech industry.
During my sophomore year I read Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984). I was blown away. Levy’s book presented not just the rich history of hacker culture, which gave rise to some of the greatest advances in computing, but also the hacker ethic, a set of values that I had been adhering to already: finding joy in learning, blurring the lines between work and play, and sharing knowledge responsibly and freely. Hackers had a profound impact because it gave me the identity I had been seeking for so long.
Associate professor, political science
Samuel Huntington’s 1968 work, Political Order in Changing Societies. It’s turned out that many of its claims were wrong, and others too vague to be right or wrong. But it brought together in one place the study of political order, revolution, insurgency, counterrevolution, state building, military coups, the politics of the postcolonial world, foreign military interventions, and many other topics that often are studied separately. I remember reading it early in graduate school and thinking, “This—all of it—is exactly what I want to study.” It also insisted that social science is relevant to, and important in, policy debates, even if in controversial or problematic ways. I can still flip through it and find interesting, provocative (sometimes contradictory) ideas popping off the page.
Sara Ray Stoelinga, AB’95, AM’01, PhD’04
Sara Liston Spurlark Director, Urban Education Institute
One of the books that has had a significant influence on my thinking is So Much Reform, So Little Change (2008) by Charles Payne [Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor, School of Social Service Administration]. Payne examines urban schools and public school systems and identifies the reasons why school reform initiatives have been unsuccessful. His analysis describes the social, cultural, historical, and structural aspects of urban public schools and the ways reform efforts do not understand, take into account, or work within these realities. Payne provides a clear-eyed depiction of the complex challenges that face urban schools coupled with a sense of hope that recent school reform efforts have identified pathways to improvement.
A version of this article originally appeared on the College’s website. See more Uniquely Chicago articles, photos, and videos by student contributors at college.uchicago.edu/archives.