U.C. Berkeley Summer Reading 2002

This summer, we're suggesting something a little different. We're suggesting that you read a banned book. Of course not all books are great literature, and not all books that have been banned have literary merit. However, many, if not most, books of great literary merit have been banned or challenged, and not just in far-off countries, but here in the United States.

So, based on the American Library Association's list of the 100 most challenged books in 1990-2000, we selected some that are worth reading. They're great books; but they have the added distinction of being books that someone, somewhere doesn't want you to read. And usually when someone doesn't want you to read something, it means that there's something valuable in that book.

To learn more about the censorship of books, you might take a look at "Banned Books Online" from the University of Pennsylvania library at: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/banned-books.html or the "Banned Books Week" page of the American Library Association at: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/index.html.

Song of Solomon
Toni Morrison
New York: Dutton/Plume, 1987, ©1977
I read this book on the recommendation of a friend I hardly knew while I was sojourning in Brooklyn one year; the friend was a literatus and book reviewer himself, so I thought he'd know a great book when he read one. I plowed through the book quickly, enjoying it a great deal myself. A few years later I found the book on the reading list of a course at San Jose State, "Literature and Personality," along with books by Dostoyevsky and Cather, among other great writers. Reading this book with a teacher to help me (with Biblical and other social/racial references I had missed) showed me that this book is indeed a piece of great literature; Morrison has constructed not only a wonderful narrative with ties to the social injustices suffered by African Americans, but a story of a young person's search for himself within history-as well as giving the book a beautiful, and very ambiguous, ending. I read this book last in 1984; I remember it with awe and love.

Kirsten Schwartz
College Writing Programs

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain
New York: Viking/Penguin, 1986, ©1885
This book has been celebrated since it was first published in 1885, and it has been in trouble, with one early critic calling it "a pitiable exhibition of irreverence and vulgarity." More recently, it has been challenged by readers offended by Mark Twain's characters' realistic use of the language of racism. The story is told in the first person by Huck Finn, the most famous runaway in American literature-a boy, according to Mark Twain, with a good heart but an ill-trained conscience. Huck talks his story as he journeys down the Mississippi River with his friend Jim, who has escaped from slavery. Much of what the reader discovers the narrator does not seem to understand. The technique and the language of the book gave rise to a strain in American literature that is still so comfortable and familiar for the modern reader, it is hard to realize just how innovative it once was. Some of Huck's talk is lulling, some hilarious, and some deeply unsettling as the reader recognizes all-too familiar issues of class and culture and racism that are still a part of American life. But most of all, it is a treat to read this book just for the pleasure of it.

Victor Fischer
Associate Editor
Mark Twain Project

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain
New York: Bantam Books, 1986, ©1876
Tom Sawyer gives the reader a graphic portrait of early 19th century life in a small Mississippi River town through the escapades of a young, mischievous boy and his best friend, Huck Finn. Lazy, hazy days of summer; the lure of the River and its potential for adventures free of adult supervision; a cave; a girlfriend. And best of all the whitewashed fence, surely the best account in American literature of conning someone else into doing your work for you.

Rebecca G. Lhermitte
Government Documents Librarian
Doe/Moffitt Reference

The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood
New York: Bantam, 1998, ©1985
This dystopian novel is set in a not-so-distant future. A poisoned environment has led to sharply reduced fertility rates, and extreme right-wing Christians have taken over the country and transformed it into a religious state following a literal interpretation of the Bible. With religious extremism growing around the globe, this is a timely and important book to read.

Gail Offen-Brown
College Writing Programs

The Color Purple
Alice Walker
New York: Pocket Books, 1990, ©1982
Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning prose explores the possibilities that life can offer. The protagonist, Celie, is a young woman broken down by tough circumstances. Yet when she meets a blues singer, Celie begins to recognize the value that she has, despite the numerous oppressions she faces. Celie comes to redefine and discover her own version of family, sexuality, and economy. This novel is an engaging and inspiring story. Walker's poetic language flows like a song through the pages of this novel; the tune of which stays with you long afterwards.

Megan Keane
Library Assistant
Library Technical Services

To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999, ©1960
I read this book during the summer before college, and the characters of Scout, Boo Radley, and Atticus are as vivid in my mind as they were almost 40 years ago. I ended up going to graduate school and doing research in the South for a while, and that book was the best preparation a kid from New York could have had. This was Harper Lee's only novel; but how could she ever top this one? The movie version is fantastic as well, and presents a wonderful comparison between what the two media do best.

Vince Resh
Environmental Science, Policy, and Management

back to top

Toni Morrison
New York: Dutton/Plume, 1987
Forget anything you thought you knew about slavery. This book will open your eyes. Toni Morrison won the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes when she wrote this novel, because she made something so beautiful, so terrifying, and so true. You have to give yourself over to it, not to expect to understand everything right away. This is a mystery, a ghost story, a love story, and a story of the fundamental events of American life. How can a person heal from the unimaginable? Toni Morrison takes us into the country of real-life nightmare, and then, brilliantly, she brings us back out again.

Sarah Stone
College Writing Programs

The Catcher in the Rye
J.D. Salinger
Boston: Little, Brown, 1991, ©1951
Written over fifty years ago, The Catcher in the Rye introduced readers to the musings and misadventures of Holden Caulfield, an affluent, white, sixteen-year-old recently expelled from his third prep school, stumbling through a long, lost weekend in Manhattan. As a product of a specific time and place-post World War II America and upper-class values - Holden Caulfield is a bright, sensitive soul searching for idealism, sincerity, and decency in an imperfect world. This novel will resonate with all who have survived, or are attempting to survive, adolescence, although it is a richly rewarding read at any time in life. The Catcher in the Rye is deep and edgy, thrilling and sad, all at once.

Phoebe Janes
History Librarian
Doe Library

The House of the Spirits
Isabel Allende
New York: Bantam Books, 1986, ©1985
"Emotion and memory are living things," someone once told me, and Chilean exile Isabel Allende's first novel powerfully creates a world where past, present, and future exist together as three generations of women try to live with integrity amid unchecked power and sudden violence. We gradually learn that the narrator, Alba (Dawn), is telling her family's stories to come to terms with the terror she's endured, and in doing so she finds remarkable healing and forgiveness. Allende understands the complex causes of the tragedies that befall her characters in their country's "unending tale of sorrow, blood, and love" and allows them to move to reconciliation with the past and with each other.

Jean Barker
Administrative Analyst
Undergraduate Education

Brave New World
Aldous Huxley
New York: Harper, 1998, ©1932
When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1932, he lived in a world where there was no pervasive culture of advertising, no widespread use of antidepressants, not a hint of cloning, or a whisper of genetic manipulation. Somehow Aldous Huxley foresaw that the future of humanity would lie down the path of technology and media. His guesses proved to be chillingly accurate. What was the most outrageous science fiction in 1934 remains a compelling examination of issues that fill the pages of our news magazines. To make this book all the more amazing, Huxley was a serious and gifted author. It is as if a contemporary literary giant like Saul Bellow had written a work of over-the-top science fiction. The beauty of Huxley's words still shines through. The questions of government control, media manipulation, and status remain unresolved. Do we have Alphas and Epsilons in our society? Have we found a drug like soma to help us avoid negative thinking? Have our governments figured out ways to keep us passive? Brave New World takes a bold, disturbing look at what it means to be human in a world gripped by technological change and the manipulation of the media. It is one of the most potent combinations of a good read and a disturbing, thought provoking statement that I know.

Robert C. Berring
Professor of Law and Law Librarian
School of Law (Boalt Hall)

Lord of the Flies
William Golding
New York: Penguin Books, 1982, ©1954
Lord of the Flies is a remarkable work of art. As with all good fiction, it transports the reader into a separate reality: it is a story that is lived, so to speak, as it is read, giving the reader the sensation that something is happening to him/her in the process; the feeling of being changed while reading. The story has to do with a group of adolescent boys who find themselves stranded on a desert island, and the turns in plot and interaction between characters make a kind of allegory, reflecting the author's rather grim view of human nature, perhaps. Or perhaps Golding is making the point that civilization is but a thin and fragile veneer laid over a fundamentally primitive and backward species-humankind. Or is it the writer's jaundiced view of children we are seeing as we read? Or something else altogether? I read this work only once, as a high school student, and many of its scenes are as vivid, compelling, and thought-provoking to me today as they were then, so it seems to me a literary experience that is not to be missed. An excellent motion picture based on this novel was made but, as always, the book is better.

Charles Stewart
Senior Photographer
Library Photographic Service

Kurt Vonnegut
New York: Dell, 1991, ©1969
Perhaps the most personal novel written by Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five is an antiwar story published in 1969, a year which saw escalating anti-Vietnam war protests sweep across America. The novel was daring in its condemnation of an event from the "good war" (WWII), the 1945 British and American fire-bombing of Dresden which killed 135,000 people. Vonnegut, a POW in Dresden at the time of the bombing, survived and went on to write what many consider to be one of THE finest antiwar novels ever written. Told in typical dark satiric Vonnegut style, the novel follows optometrist Billy Pilgrim as he becomes "unstuck" in time. Whether revisiting the safety of his mother's womb or witnessing the atrocity of Dresden or finding himself kidnapped by the extraterrestrial Tralfamadorians, Billy takes the reader on a disjointed journey through his life, where chronological time has no meaning. Billy's benign acceptance of everything which happens to him has led some to condemn what they see as Vonnegut's acceptance of the injustice of war. Yet, throughout the novel, the phrase "so it goes" appears whenever someone dies. By the end of the novel, "so it goes" has become the author's maddening rallying cry against Billy's (and the reader's) benign acceptance of the status quo.

Jean Smith
Assistant to the Assistant Vice Chancellor
Public Affairs


Copyright (C) 2010 by the Library, University of California, Berkeley. All rights reserved.
Document maintained on server: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/

Last update: 5/25/10. Graphics by: Bryan Mayberry
Server manager: webman@library.berkeley.edu