Summer Reading List: Defining Moments


Hello, fellow Cal readers!

We invite you to peruse the latest edition of the UC Berkeley Summer Reading List for New Students. The list is intended as a welcome to incoming students who will be arriving on campus for the fall semester, but we are happy to have any and all avid readers who find their way to this site.

With “Defining Moments” as its theme, this year’s list features engaging works of fiction and nonfiction — a wide range of books (plus one film) — recommended for you, as every year, by enthusiastic Cal faculty, staff, and students. Each one concerns a defining moment (or, more often, a lot of defining moments) for individuals, communities, or the world. Perhaps one of these selections will become a defining moment for you, the reader.

Part of the beauty of this list is that the titles it features are not required reading. These books, and the entire archive of annual summer reading lists dating back to 1985, will be here for you to check out at your leisure. And who knows? Perhaps a relative or friend of yours who spent some time here at Cal found a defining moment on one of those earlier lists as well.

We wish you happy reading!

Michael Larkin and Chisako Cole
Continuing Lecturers
College Writing Programs

Tim Dilworth
First-year Coordinator
UC Berkeley Library

Christopher Nolan (director)

The featured work for the 2024 On the Same Page program, selected especially for the fall 2024 incoming class, is Oppenheimer, a film that will change the way you see and think about UC Berkeley and our campus’s place in history and the world. Christopher Nolan’s Academy Award-winning film follows the spectacular rise and fall of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s career, beginning in the fall of 1929, when he arrived at Berkeley as an assistant professor in the Department of Physics at the age of 25. The years he spent at Berkeley were a defining moment for the young professor and future father of the atomic bomb: Here, he met close friends and collaborators, established his reputation as a charismatic public intellectual, and began his political awakening. As much as Oppenheimer left a mark on Berkeley, Berkeley left its mark on him — and, consequently, on the world.

Director of Curricular Engagement Initiatives
College of Letters & Science

Crying in H Mart*
Michelle Zauner

This 2021 memoir by the frontwoman of the band Japanese Breakfast is her intense, gripping, loving story of her attempts to define herself, her relationships to her Korean and American heritages, her ambitions, and her obligations and joys as a daughter, granddaughter, and niece. We follow Zauner, nonlinearly, through her childhood and adolescence and, in especially sharp focus, her early 20s, which are defined by her mother’s unexpected cancer diagnosis, treatment, and death, and the aftermaths of these. Full of Korean dishes described in glorious detail, as well as experiences of travel, rascally behavior, musical ambition, domestic life, and city adventures, Zauner’s story is for anyone who has ever loved deeply and wondered about how we define, and are defined by, the ways we identify and the ways we love.

College Writing Programs

The Midnight Library*
Matt Haig

This novel is an exploration of defining moments and whether there is such a thing as a “right” or “wrong” choice. The main character is a woman who at the start of the book is lamenting the defining moments of her life and how they have led her to a life she is not happy with, leading her to attempt to take her own life. At that point, she is swept into the Midnight Library, where she is transported into other versions of her life to explore what would have happened had she made different choices. Each life has good and bad sides, and the overarching theme of the book is that there is no one “correct” decision to make in these pivotal moments. I found it to be profoundly beautiful and comforting in its message that no choice is mistaken — they all lead you down a path that is beautiful in its own way. It ends with a strong message of hope, and I think its message offers a beautiful lesson for incoming students who often feel pressured to make the “right” choices as they enter college.

College of Letters & Science Undergraduate Advising

The Vaster Wilds
Lauren Groff

A young servant flees the Jamestown colony into the darkness of the surrounding wilderness. The moment she crosses from within the walls of the colonial settlement into the unknown marks a crucial divide — between the known and unknown, between society and isolation, between civilization (no matter how compromised and desperate) and a natural place whose laws and ways she does not comprehend. In extreme need — she cannot stay in the colonial settlement any longer — she has engineered this defining moment for herself. She must rely on her wits, her will, her faith, and luck to survive. An absolute page-turner, this novel is also a meditation on the ways that human culture both nurtures and fails us, the impacts of colonialism, and the limits of individual will.

Library Assistant
The Bancroft Library

His Name is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice*
Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa

Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa’s 2022 biography tells the story of a man who did not live to tell his own — though we get glimpses from occasional journal entries and jotted-down lyrics. Otherwise, the authors draw on over 400 interviews with those who knew George Floyd. We, too, enjoy the chance to get to know him. While artfully building a narrative of Floyd’s life, the authors consistently zoom out to incisively cover the relevant sociopolitical context; at each juncture, they show how systemic racism impacted every aspect of Floyd’s life.

For me, the most powerful chapter may be the third one, “Roots,” where the authors trace Floyd’s family tree back to Floyd’s great-great-grandfather, born into slavery, and contrast his lineage across two centuries with that of the white slave masters with the same last name. We understand viscerally what the authors mean when they write in the introduction, “Here, we have documented Floyd’s struggle to breathe as a Black man in America, a battle that began long before a police officer’s knee landed on his neck” — referencing a defining moment the world remembers.

Continuing Lecturer
College Writing Programs

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Brené Brown

Theodore Roosevelt, in a 1910 speech known as “The Man in the Arena,” argued that the “credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, … who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” Over 100 years later, Brené Brown argues that giving yourself the chance to be vulnerable by reframing shame, being engaged, and loving “wholeheartedly” is an act of daring greatly. Throughout our personal, academic, and professional lives, we will have to make the conscious choice to dare greatly, to go the distance, knowing that we could fail, which, to me, are defining moments. For incoming Cal students, your time in this arena is just beginning, and I believe that the lessons in Daring Greatly can help you conquer your defining moments with grit and grace.

Nuclear engineering major
Class of 2026

Wandering Stars
Tommy Orange

This multigenerational story is a prequel and sequel of sorts to Tommy Orange’s prizewinning debut novel, There There. It follows Jude Star, a Cheyenne survivor of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, and his descendants, through forced assimilation, the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz, and present-day Oakland (with a return to familiar characters from There There). Harrowing, lyrical, and inventive, Wandering Stars explores how trauma persists, how we hunger for ritual, and how stories are part of survival. 

Continuing Lecturer
College Writing Programs

Heathen: Religion and Race in American History*
Kathryn Gin Lum

Occasionally you read a book, and all of what you understand about society changes. This was my experience with Heathen: Religion and Race in American History, a readable academic book by Kathryn Gin Lum, professor of religious studies at Stanford University, filled with lingering personal reflections and historical anecdotes. Gin Lum traces the trajectory of the concept of “heathen” against the backdrop of whiteness, Protestantism, and American triumphalism, and captures its pervasive and pernicious effects: how it underlies so many dehumanizing impulses and rationalizes too many injustices — but all under the guise of patronization. The book also captures the vestiges of “heathen” that still echo today: in racial inequities, global politics, and humanitarian efforts. If only we could go back in time and eradicate this notion; since we cannot, it behooves us to be alert to its subtle varieties and how it continues to infiltrate our thinking, and actively work against any attempt to singularize and reduce the rich complexity of humanity.

Associate Clinical Professor
Department of Psychology

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
Sydney Padua

Ada Byron (daughter of the poet Lord Byron and his wife, Annabella Milbanke) was 17 years old in 1833 when she met Cambridge math professor Charles Babbage at a demonstration of his Difference Engine calculating machine. The encounter changed both of their lives. Babbage, inspired by their discussions, went on to design the even more sophisticated Analytical Engine, which used punch cards to govern its operations. (The punch card idea, later adopted by early computer programmers and designers, was derived from mechanical Jacquard looms, which wove cloth with complicated patterns.)

Ada, by then Lady Lovelace, would go on to publish her translation of a French-language article on the Analytical Engine, which was based on notes taken at one of Babbage’s lectures. To the 25-page article, she appended 41 pages of her own explanatory notes, in which she included a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers using the Analytical Engine — an algorithm that has been called the first computer program. Sydney Padua’s graphic novel tells the story of these two pioneers, and imagines a steampunk Victorian world in which the computer revolution begins in the mid-1800s instead of a century later.

Biology & Bioinformatics Librarian
UC Berkeley Library

The Riders Come Out at Night: Brutality, Corruption, and Cover-Up in Oakland
Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham

Policing has been at a “defining moment” stage since 2020 but has been a constant struggle in adjacent Oakland for decades. The city’s police department has had a federally mandated body that monitors recommendations for reform, set forth almost two decades before, and instituted a community police review board in the 21st century. This book explores how Oakland has (and also has not) adopted policing advances, of necessity following generations of high-profile abrogation of Black folks’ civil rights in the city during the 20th century. New students reading this text will get insights into the region they will navigate and context on recent concerns about public safety and crime, and how to increase accountability of those who have been entrusted with enforcing our civil rights.

Chief Operations Manager
Arts & Humanities Division
UC Berkeley Library

Min Jin Lee

In this compelling novel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction in 2017, students will learn about the history between Japan and Korea during World War II, and about the experience of Koreans living in Japan. This three-generation story of Koreans living through a series of individual and multinational defining moments since 1901 will help students to reflect on who they are in time and space. There is also an adaptation of this novel airing on Apple TV+.

Senior Lecturer
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures

The Bee Sting
Paul Murray

The Bee Sting is a beautiful work of fiction that follows the four members of a family in rural modern-day Ireland as they navigate friendships and familial relationships within the larger context of an economic crash, shifting culture, and the rising threat of climate change. Throughout the book, the characters experience or reflect on pivotal moments during which the trajectories of their individual lives change.

Data Services Librarian
UC Berkeley Library

Live at the Masque: Nightmare in Punk Alley
Brendan Mullen with Roger Gastman

The Masque was one of the premier clubs of the late ’70s punk scene in Los Angeles. Nightmare in Punk Alley is a photographic chronicle of the (literally) underground venue by the club’s proprietor. This reviewer fondly remembers strolling one evening on Hollywood Boulevard circa 1978 before a series of shows, fully aware of, and grateful for, the good fortune I had to have been living at that time and place of creativity, artistry, and fun. I felt like I was participating in and enjoying a little bit of cultural history in the making. For better or worse, photos of yours truly and his dreadful band appear in these pages.

Interim Director
Law Library

Chronicles: Volume One
Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan needs no introduction and clearly no definition (a word he has often referred to as “the death of creativity”). The legendary songwriter/Nobel laureate has been part of so many defining moments in history that to pigeonhole him in one era would be a great disservice.

To first-time readers, let it be known that this is not an autobiography. It is focused primarily on three periods in his life: first, his arrival in New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1961 as an ambitious 19-year-old troubadour hoping to meet his idol, Woody Guthrie, and play in the thriving folk music coffee houses of that era; second, his reclusiveness in the late ’60s and early ’70s as he withdrew to Woodstock, New York, trying to escape world fame and start a normal family life; and third, the production of his album Oh Mercy in New Orleans in the late 1980s, with attempts at reviving his flagging career and touring with Tom Petty. For incoming students at Berkeley who have traveled very long distances and left small towns behind, this book will be a welcome surprise.

Receiving Specialist
Spanish/Italian/French/Portuguese/Catalan Collections
UC Berkeley Library

The Uncommon Reader
Alan Bennett

If you are Queen Elizabeth II and your corgi runs away, you have no choice but to follow it. And if it runs up to the bookmobile behind Buckingham Palace, you are duty-bound to go in and, once inside, choose a book. In this imaginative — and hilarious — novella, the queen’s choosing of a book, in order to actually read it for pleasure (unheard of!), is her defining moment. She returns the first book and chooses another — and becomes entranced with reading and literature. Instead of making light conversation on her walkabouts, she’s now asking what people are reading! Book by book, her life changes, along with the lives of everyone around her. Beautifully written, and called “audacious,” “deliciously funny,” and “superbly observed” by reviewers, this is a light read. (You can devour it in an evening.) It will make you laugh out loud but also make you think — and perhaps even seek out the nearest library!

Social Sciences Division
UC Berkeley Library

To Say Nothing of the Dog
Connie Willis

In a future where time travel is used primarily for academic research, Ned Henry is sent back to Victorian England to correct an incongruity that may endanger time itself. Ned and his colleagues covertly hunt for the defining moment when things went awry while attempting to pass as true Victorians, but they face a series of comic misadventures involving seances, missing pets, an ill-fated boating trip down the River Thames, and a mysterious objet d’art called “the bishop’s bird stump.”

Assistant Professor
Department of Statistics

A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future
David Attenborough and Jonnie Hughes

A compelling story about the evolutionary history of life, seen through the eyes of the British broadcaster, biologist, natural historian, and author David Attenborough. Through a biographical lens, Attenborough conveys grief over the loss of wild places on Earth. The author strives to raise awareness about the impact of human activities on the environment while ending on an optimistic note, with a vision for a more sustainable future.

Department of French 

Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees*
Peter Sahlins

In this close, detailed examination of the Catalan communities living in the eastern mountains that separate France and Spain, historian Peter Sahlins shows how notions of national identity (French and Spanish) developed and hardened when central governments in both countries attempted to draw strict borderlines between nations in places where villagers had long intermingled and understood themselves as neither. From the 1600s through the 1800s, farmers, merchants, and nobles alike residing in the Pyrenees played these two major powers off each other in whatever ways were convenient for their own interests, only to find as modern nation-states solidified, they could no longer take off the costumes and uniforms that they had donned to please the rulers in Paris and Madrid. This study became highly influential in late-20th-century academic theorizing about identity and nation-state formation. And it’s available from University of California Press, too! (Go Bears!)

Student Services Manager
Nano Institute (BNNI)

When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment*
Mark A.R. Kleiman

This is the most important book about crime in decades. Crime and punishment (imprisonment and policing) are costly, and a society can easily get stuck with a lot of both. The decision to offend (or not) is the defining moment of the lifetime it arises in; author Mark A.R. Kleiman builds his analysis around it. He also demonstrates how a first-rate policy analyst engages with a prickly, refractory, and important social problem with professional-grade sociology and psychology, mathematical models, and economics.

Professor of the Graduate School
Goldman School of Public Policy

* Electronic access requires CalNet authentication.

Summer Reading background


Since 1985, the University has offered the UC Berkeley Summer Reading List for New Students as one of the welcomes to the incoming classes of freshmen and transfer students. Whether you’re a new student at Cal, an alum, a UC Berkeley employee, or an avid reader who has found your way to our site, we invite you to have a look at the current list of suggestions as well as an archive of past years’ reading lists.

These readings aren’t required; they’re offered for pleasure. They’ve been suggested by Cal faculty, staff, and students as great readings that will introduce incoming students to a small slice of the intellectual life of the university and perhaps send them exploring the Library’s rich collections. Also, the readings aren’t selected by us, the list curators. Instead, we ask people across the Cal campus for their suggestions of great readings that would fit within a given theme, and then see what we get. (Also, we don’t accept suggestions from publishers or authors.) The list is always a potluck, always eclectic, and always full of worthwhile readings. We feel sure you’ll find something on one of these lists that will spark your interest.

If you have any questions about the list, please email Michael Larkin or Tim Dilworth