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Summer reading: Illuminating our planet and paths toward sustainability

Faculty at Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences recommend these 24 books for your summer reading.

Summer book stack
Image credit: iStock

This year’s informal survey of faculty at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) yielded suggestions for summer reading that may inspire curiosity about our planet, conversations about the way we live on it and fresh perspectives on a more sustainable future. 

Here are 24 titles to consider as companions for a summer of uncertainty and a season of change. Whether you’re ready to dive into a story of how pandemics begin, a memoir dealing with the intertwining of environmentalism and social justice, a sci-fi novel, a scientist's journey of discovery or a collection of poetry, there’s a title for you.

Summer reading mosaic

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

Spillover book cover

By David Quammen (2012)

National Geographic writer David Quammen tracks the subject of viruses jumping to humans from wildlife, illuminating the dynamics of Ebola, SARS, bird flu, Lyme disease, and other emerging threats and telling the story of AIDS and its origins. – From the publisher

"Quammen is one of our best science writers and in 2012 he wrote a book that now appears eerily prescient," said Jonathan Payne, the Dorrell William Kirby Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs. "It addresses how viruses can jump from non-human species into humans and potentially lead to pandemics. It combines clear explanation of the biology with Quammen's own travel experiences to places where spillovers have occurred."

The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here

Story of More book cover

By Hope Jahren (2020)

"Over and over, [Jahren] shows how the world divides between those who consume and waste more and those who live on much less. She explores not only food scarcity, but also lack of electricity and sanitary water conditions. She clearly shows how the amount of waste created by the privileged could provide plenty for those less privileged." Jahren, a paleobiologist at the University of Oslo and author of the best-selling memoir Lab Girl, has written "a concise and personal yet universally applicable examination of a problem that affects everyone on planet Earth." – Kirkus Reviews

"This book is the best book on global warming and climate change I’ve ever read," said Jane Willenbring, Associate Professor of Geological Sciences.

An American Marriage

American Marriage book cover

By Tayari Jones (2018)

"While An American Marriage confronts thorny issues around race and the criminal justice system it is, at heart, a love story. It’s also a meditation on the creation of art, the meaning of family and the conflict between duty and desire." The Los Angeles Times

"This story is an example of how racial injustice and wrongful imprisonment can impact Black lives," said Paula Welander, Associate Professor of Earth System Science. "The characters' struggles reveal both their strengths and their flaws, demonstrating their human complexity. Stories focused on Black lives written by Black authors, like An American Marriage, have been critical in helping me better understand the impacts of systemic racism."

Superior: The Return of Race Science

Superior book cover

By Angela Saini (2019)

"At a time when racialized nationalisms are a resurgent threat throughout the world, Superior is a rigorous, much-needed examination of the insidious and destructive nature of race science – and a powerful reminder that, biologically, we are all far more alike than different." – From the publisher

"It is a beautifully written, timely reminder that human race is a social construct – not a concept supported by scientific research of racial differences," said Jane Willenbring, Associate Professor of Geological Sciences.

The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature

Home Place book cover

By J. Drew Lanham (2017)

"The dominant common sense asks us to divide our loyalties: Either we support racial justice or we support the environment. There can be no more important task in the world today than to upend this rotten dichotomy, to heal the manufactured rift between environmentalism and the fight for social justice." This memoir by J. Drew Lanham, ornithologist and professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University, "offers us one way to begin." – "The Best Scholarly Books of the Decade," Chronicle of Higher Education

Suggested by Richard Nevle, Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Earth Systems Program.

Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire

Reimagining Capitalism book cover

By Rebecca Henderson (2020)

Harvard professor Rebecca Henderson "debunks the worldview that the only purpose of business is to make money and maximize shareholder value. She shows that we have failed to reimagine capitalism so that it is not only an engine of prosperity but also a system that is in harmony with environmental realities, striving for social justice and the demands of truly democratic institutions." – From the publisher

Suggested by Chris Field, the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies; Professor of Earth System Science and of Biology; and senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Seveneves: A Novel

Seveneves book cover

By Neal Stephenson (2016)

"Have you ever wondered what would happen if the Moon blew up tomorrow? Me neither," said Laura Schaefer, Assistant Professor of Geological Sciences. "This book is a thought experiment taken to the Nth degree, full of scientific imaginings and plenty of human foibles."

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

Tangled Tree book cover

By David Quammen (2019)

"How recent discoveries in molecular biology affect our understanding of evolution and life’s history." – From the publisher

Geophysicist Greg Beroza, the Wayne Loel Professor, called it "a lucid and engaging account of how the field of molecular phylogenetics was created and how it revolutionized our understanding of how life evolved."

Energy and Civilization: A History

Energy and Civilization book cover

By Vaclav Smil (2017)

"A comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today’s fossil fuel–driven civilization." – From the publisher

Suggested by Chris Field, the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies; Professor of Earth System Science and of Biology; and senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy.

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border

Line Becomes a River book cover

By Francisco Cantú (2018)

"At a time of overheated rhetoric about the threat along the border, Francisco Cantú relates what it means to police it. He is an empathetic witness to the desperation felt by those driven to cross it. But as a Border Patrol agent, he also knows the fear of those charged with guarding it. A sad tale, beautifully written." – Tom Gjelten, NPR

Suggested by Richard Nevle, Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Earth Systems Program.

Lord of the Butterflies

Lord of the Butterflies book cover

By Andrea Gibson (2018)

This collection of poetry from spoken-word artist Andrea Gibson "takes a potent and critical look at the confines of gender, the cruelties of America, and the kindness of love." Amber Tamblyn, Bust Magazine

Suggested by Richard Nevle, Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Earth Systems Program.

Close Encounters with Humankind: A Paleoanthropologist Investigates Our Evolving Species

Close Encounters book cover

By Sang-Hee Lee with Shin-Young Yoon (2018)

Sang-Hee Lee, a professor of anthropology at UC Riverside, offers "fresh perspectives into our first hominin ancestors and ways to challenge perceptions about the traditional progression of evolution." – From the publisher

"This book is the perfect read for anyone who has ever wondered how modern humans evolved, and why we ended up with the characteristics we have that distinguish us from other animals," said Sonia Tikoo-Schantz, Assistant Professor of Geophysics and, by courtesy, of Geological Sciences. "How did human health and diets change after the advent of agriculture? Why does it take our children so long to grow up and become self-sufficient? Why are people from some regions lactose intolerant and not others? In particular, I enjoyed learning about hominins discovered in Asia and the emerging multiregional theory for human origins.

The Montessori Method

Montessori Method book cover

By Maria Montessori (1912)

"This book is about the history, philosophy, and practice of Montessori’s teaching method back in 1900 Italy. This is by all means a scientific book, based on systematic behavioral observations from children during the first six years of their life," said Simona Onori, Assistant Professor of Energy Resources Engineering. "As I became a new mom, my reading has centered on educational material and the like. Out of the various books I picked, The Montessori Method is the one that has had the most profound impact on me."

Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel

Sing, Unburied, Sing book cover

By Jesmyn Ward (2018)

"Ward's novel addresses the impact of black slavery and anti-black racism in America through the history of one family and the ghosts that haunt its members," said Jonathan Payne, the Dorrell William Kirby Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs. "As a paleontologist, I spend much of my time trying to understand how events of the past have shaped the present diversity of life. This novel provides a similar, powerful perspective on how our nation's past has led us to the present moment."

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Technopoly book cover

By Neil Postman (1992)

A chronicle of our transformation into "a society that no longer merely uses technology as a support system but instead is shaped by it – with radical consequences for the meanings of politics, art, education, intelligence, and truth." – From the publisher

Suggested by Tiziana Vanorio, Assistant Professor of Geophysics.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Underland book cover

By Robert Macfarlane (2019)

"An epic exploration of the Earth’s underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself." – From the publisher

Suggested by Richard Nevle, Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Earth Systems Program.

Angle of Repose

Angle of Repose book cover

By Wallace Stegner (1971)

"Confined to a wheelchair, retired historian Lyman Ward sets out to write his grandparents’ remarkable story, chronicling their days spent carving civilization into the surface of America’s western frontier. But his research reveals even more about his own life than he’s willing to admit. What emerges is an enthralling portrait of four generations in the life of an American family." – From the publisher

Kevin Boyce, Professor of Geological Sciences, calls it "an excellent novel by a local author built around the letters of a local historical figure and all about the geological exploration of the West."

There There

There There book cover

By Tommy Orange (2019)

"Tommy Orange's wondrous and shattering novel follows twelve characters from Native American communities: all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. [...] Together, this chorus of voices tells of the plight of the urban Native American – grappling with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and spirituality, with communion and sacrifice and heroism." – From the publisher

Paul Segall, Professor of Geophysics, commented, "In the beginning it felt like a series of short stories. It's not. They all connect. There are so many characters that I ultimately had to diagram out all the connections."

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Born a Crime book cover

By Trevor Noah (2016)

"A harrowing look, through the prism of [Trevor Noah's] family, at life in South Africa under apartheid and the country’s lurching entry into a postapartheid era in the 1990s. [...] In the end, Born a Crime is not just an unnerving account of growing up in South Africa under apartheid, but a love letter to the author’s remarkable mother." – Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Suggested by Jef Karel Caers, Professor of Geological Sciences.

Parasites Like Us: A Novel

Parasites Like Us book cover

By Adam Johnson (2003)

The debut novel by the author of The Orphan Master’s Son (winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize) "takes us on an enthralling journey through memory, time, and the cost of mankind’s quest for its own past." – From the publisher

Eric Dunham, Associate Professor of Geophysics, called it "a bizarre, apocalyptic novel that left me laughing about academia and pandemics."

Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science's Highest Honor

Losing the Nobel book cover

By Brian Keating (2018)

"The inside story of the mesmerizing quest to unlock cosmology’s biggest mysteries and the human drama that ensued. We follow along on personal journey of revelation and discovery in the publish-or-perish world of modern science, and learn that the Nobel Prize might hamper—rather than advance—scientific progress." – From the publisher

Suggested by Jef Karel Caers, Professor of Geological Sciences.

Life on Mars: Poems

Life on Mars book cover

By Tracy K. Smith (2011)

"With allusions to David Bowie and interplanetary travel, Life on Mars [winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry] imagines a soundtrack for the universe to accompany the discoveries, failures, and oddities of human existence."– From the publisher

Rob Jackson, Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor and Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment and at the Precourt Institute for Energy, called the collection "a take on extra-planetary (and personal) health."

Technology vs. Humanity: The coming clash between man and machine

Technology vs Humanity book cover

By Gerd Leonhard (2016)

"Technology vs. Humanity is neither a celebration of the rapidly onrushing technology revolution nor a lament on the fall of civilization," Leonhard writes. Rather, it is an effort to "amplify and accelerate the debate about how to ensure that we guide, harness, and control science and technology developments so that they fulfill their primary purpose, which should be serving humanity and furthering human flourishing." – From the introduction

Suggested by Tiziana Vanorio, Assistant Professor of Geophysics.

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

When Things Fall Apart book cover

By Pema Chödrön (1997)

"Chödrön’s book is filled with useful advice about how Buddhism helps readers to cope with the grim realities of modern life, including fear, despair, rage, and the feeling that we are not in control of our lives." –Publishers Weekly

Suggested by Jef Karel Caers, Professor of Geological Sciences.

Media Contacts

Josie Garthwaite
School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

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