House Made of Dawn
N. Scott Momaday
New York: HarperCollins, 1999 (© 1968)
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the story of a young Native American man's struggle between two cultures. In 1945, Abel returns home to his village in New Mexico from World War II and finds that he no longer fits in there, nor does he fit in white society. It's a powerful story and compelling reading. But what is most significant to me about this book is that when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, I took an English course from Scott Momaday, and we read this novel. This was the first time I had the opportunity to read a book in a class taught by its author and discuss it with him. This, I thought, is what an education at Berkeley is supposed to be.
Barbara Gross Davis
Assistant Vice Chancellor
Student Life-Educational Development
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
New York: Viking Penguin, 1999 (originally published 1837-1839)
I was alone at college, hopelessly confused by organic chemistry and realizing that I was NOT going to make it to vet school. I read this book, and was almost immediately swept up by the colorful characters and the plot, which at times had me sobbing so hard my tummy hurt. After this, I knew I was destined to be an English lit. major and that is what I became. Still one of my favorite books!
Assistant to the Assistant Vice Chancellor
Office of Public Affairs
The French Lieutenant's Woman
Boston: Little Brown, 1998 (© 1969)
I guess I enjoyed this book so much because it does so many things at once. Wonderful influences of Darwin, Marx, and Freud run through it, and the narration is continually jumping from the 1860s, when it is set on the southwest coast of England, to the same landscape in 1969. The plot is amusing, with lots of Dickensian characters and Hardyan coincidences, and the book makes you think as it entertains. It helped me to put several pretty disparate streams of thought together, and I've found that my freshman seminar classes enjoy it as much as I did.
Professor, Integrative Biology
Curator, Museum of Paleontology
Director, College Writing Programs
New York: Dell Publishing, 1976 (© 1975)
I loved that book (and read it at about the age of 18). Beyond the story, which is wonderful, it introduced me to the Japanese spirita first glimpse (for me) into the culture, history, passions, and fears of a people that I knew very little about at the time. This intercultural eye-opening became quite significant: I ultimately decided on an academic career applying social sciences internationally.
Professor, Haas School of Business
Haiku Harvest: Japanese Haiku Series IV
Translation by Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn
Mount Vernon, New York: Peter Pauper Press, 1962
The summer before I started college, I spent the money I earned working as a farm hand on books of poetry. My favorites were a series of translations of haiku, Japanese poetry written in seventeen syllables. Each page had woodcuts on blocks of persimmon and sage of small views of naturedragonflies, waterfalls, clouds, snow, ripples in a stream. Each haiku focused my mind's eye on a concrete moment, a visceral sensation, an unmistakable sound and then, like the concentration on the concrete breath in meditation, led elsewhere. I followed haiku all summer into nature and myself.
There are many books of haiku, including translations by former Poet Laureate, Robert Hass, in the English department. (The Essential Haiku:Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa, edited by Robert Hass, Ecco Press, 1994). I hope the two haiku below from Haiku Harvest will open a door for you into this exquisite poetry.
touch with tenderness, alas,
pricks like a bramble."
"A small hungry child|
told to grind rice, instead
gazes on moonlight."
Professor, Environmental Science, Policy, & Management
Cry, the Beloved Country
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995 ( © 1948)
Fifty years ago, Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country made a huge impression with its eloquent portrayal of the intersection of blacks and whites in the South Africa of the 1940s, in the placid countryside and in teeming Johannesburg. Told in appropriately simple language through the eyes of Kumalo, a black parish priest in a remote valley, the story chronicles the poverty and hopelessness of rural blacks, the consequent destruction of even the best of families, the crime bred of unemployment and social injustice, the corruption by power among both races, and a tragedy that engulfs a white family and Kumalo's.
On rereading the book recently, I was struck at how 50 years has brought immense changes in South Africa, yet how much is still the samesegregation still, crime bred from poverty, corruption of those in power, blacks dying in mining accidents, deaths from disease and hunger. Cry, the Beloved Country, despite its idealized protagonists and premature hope of racial tranquility, depicts sympathetically the difficult world of South African blacks (and their too few white supporters) as it was then and is in large measure still.
Professor Emeritus, Physics
Children of Violence: Martha Quest and A Proper Marriage
New York: Harper/Perennial, 1995 (© 1964-65)
This book contains the first two novels in Lessing's five-novel Children of Violence series. They are now published separately under the titles Martha Quest and A Proper Marriage. In the first novel, which in my opinion is the best of the series, Martha Quest comes of age in Africa at the time of the Second World War. The daughter of poor colonial farmers, she struggles against the older generation and apartheid society. I read this novel as a college student, and found Lessing's depiction of Martha's life perceptive and fascinating. I agree completely with the New York Times Book Review on Amazon.com, "There are many notable descriptions of adolescent boys and young men in our fiction. There are very few, in the same deep and radical sense, of young women. Mrs. Lessing's study of Martha Quest is one of them."
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999 (© 1962)
I was 24 when I read this but I would have read it when I was 18 if it had been published. I was just developing a career as a biologist and in my personal life I was very concerned about the environment (having grown up in inner-city St. Louis). Rachel Carson's exposť of what DDT and other chemicals were doing to "nature" shocked us, scared us, and galvanized a generation into a new kind of environmental activism. It was written with a unique blending of science and societal concern. Regrettably, 40 years after its original publication, the message of the book is probably even more relevant. We may have learned a lot since then but have we done much about it?
Professor, Integrative Biology
Dean, Biological Sciences
College of Letters & Science
To Kill a Mockingbird
New York: HarperCollins, 1999 (© 1960)
First, choose a book that reflects the day-to-day lives of people like your ancestors. From books like these, you will better understand the social influences and daily pressures that formed the culture of your family and helped make you who you are.
Next, choose a book that reflects the day-to-day lives of people from another cultural group. If you are European-American, try reading Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, for example. If you are African-American, read Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Coming to Berkeley means entering a new world of others. You will better appreciate your new classmates if you understand something of the cultures that produced them.
If I must be restricted to recommending a single specific book, my choice would be To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee's penetrating depiction of the soul of a small southern town during a crisis of public conscience never fails to move me now as it did when I first read it. Many of the grand themesjustice, race, class, courageare developed against a disarmingly ordinary background and described by the young narrator, Scout Finch. Having been a young girl in a small southern town, I found it easy to project myself into the story, but I believe anyone can appreciate this book. To Kill a Mockingbird was first published when I was seventeen.
Karen K. De Valois
Professor and Chair, Psychology
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
New York: Vintage Books, 1990 (© 1933)
When I first came into contact with Gertrude Stein I thought she was the subject of the art I saw on a museum wall, because her portrait had been painted by Picasso. Her art was writing, which she created from either her many questions or many answers that required questions. She wrote about her immigrant background, her childhood in Baltimore and Oakland, her college years reading voraciously, her inappropriate laughter while in medical school, and her life as a patriotic expatriate in France. Her companion Alice B. Toklas experienced the San Francisco earthquake and never missed an opportunity to hail California as a superior place. The fact that Gertrude Stein had taken complete charge of what she would be and do was just what I was curious about as I was about to leave home for college.
Student Affairs Officer and
Assistant to the Chairman, Dept. of Astronomy
The Anthology of Japanese Literature, from the Earliest Era to the Mid-nineteenth Century
New York: Grove Press, 1988
Modern Japanese Literature; From 1868 to the Present Day
New York: Grove Press, 1989
I would recommend to you any book at all that you come upon unexpectedly, one that you pick up for no particular reason. Books like that can surprise you. They can even change your life. I say this because exactly such an experience, in retrospect, set me on a career path I could never have imagined as a high school senior planning with utter certainty a college major in Chemistry. One weekend during my senior year of high school I was browsing the shelves of a favorite, now long gone, ramshackle used bookstore in Manhattan. A relatively recently published volume caught my eye, Anthology of Japanese Literature. I believe I bought it because it seemed so very exotic to me. As I read it, it opened up a world I had never imagined, never even thought of imagining. Roughly two years later I had the opportunity to travel abroad on a summer student exchange program. Remembering the pleasure that book had given me, I picked Japan. By the time I returned from Japan I was no longer so sure of my major. By the middle of sophomore year in college I made the leap from Chemistry to Japanese, fortunate that I was at one of the few universities in the country where one could major in Japanese at that time (Berkeley would have been one of them). As my studies continued and I began to acquire a command of Japanese, the exoticism melted away, replaced by ever deepening interest in Japanese literature. In graduate school I became a student of Professor Keene, the editor of that life-changing volume. All of that was unimaginable when I first picked up the book, and I still occasionally look at the name of the man who bought it new and sold it to the used bookstore. For him, it obviously did not have the same effect. You never know what a book may do to you.
Professor and Chair, East Asian Languages and Cultures