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Summer reading: Sparking curiosity and conversations about our planet

Faculty at Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences recommend these 22 books for your summer reading.

Summer reading

This year’s informal survey of faculty at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) yielded a bounty of suggestions for summer reading that may spark renewed curiosity about our planet and the ways we live, think and learn.

Here are 22 titles to consider packing or downloading for downtime and adventures. Whether you’re craving true-life tales of discovery, fiction laced with insights on life in chaotic climates, poetry, or a new way to grapple with adaptation, wilderness and the Earth beneath our feet, there’s a title just right for your tent, beach bag or couch.

Mosaic of book covers

Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline

Empty Planet book cover

By Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson (2019)

The authors "make the provocative argument that the global population will soon begin to decline, dramatically shaping the social, political and economic landscape." – From the publisher

"I like books that challenge my view of the world and provide data or evidence to back up their argument," said Earth System Science professor David Lobell. "This book does both of those." Lobell is also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute, the Woods Institute for the Environment and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution

Crack In Creation book cover

By Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg (2018)

“Not since the atomic bomb has a technology so alarmed its inventors that they warned the world about its use. That is, until 2015, when biologist Jennifer Doudna called for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the gene-editing tool CRISPR – a revolutionary tool that she helped create – to make heritable changes in human embryos.” – From the publisher

A Crack in Creation illustrates how a scientific discovery can come about through a combination of hard work and chance connections, said Geological Sciences professor Jonathan Payne. "It is also an interesting and balanced account of how a scientist has reached out beyond her technical background to tackle the ethical aspects of developing a powerful technology with potentially global consequences."

Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

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By Lewis Dartnell (2019)

“From the cultivation of the first crops to the founding of modern states, Origins reveals the breathtaking impact of the earth beneath our feet on the shape of our human civilizations.” – From the publisher

The book offers "an interesting take on the influence of geology on human history," said geophysicist Gregory Beroza, Wayne Loel Professor in Earth Science.

Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America

Atlas of a Lost World

By Craig Childs (2018)

“Atlas of a Lost World chronicles the last millennia of the Ice Age, the violent oscillations and retreat of glaciers, the clues and traces that document the first encounters of early humans, and the animals whose presence governed the humans’ chances for survival. A blend of science and personal narrative reveals how much has changed since the time of mammoth hunters, and how little.” – From the publisher

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

In Search of the Canary Tree: The Story of a Scientist, a Cypress, and a Changing World

In Search Of The Canary book cover
Read our Q&A with the author.

By Lauren E. Oakes (2018)

Selected by Buzzfeed and Science Friday as one of the best books of 2018, In Search of the Canary Tree follows ecologist and Stanford Earth adjunct professor Lauren E. Oakes (PhD ’15) as her study of the threatened yellow cedar in Alaska’s old-growth forests leads her to discover resilience, recovery and communities adapting to climate change at a local scale. 

Thomas Hayden, Director of the Master of Arts in Earth Systems, Environmental Communication, called it, “a fascinating, thought-provoking meditation on a life in science, the meanings and uses of research in a time of great change, and the quest for hope and motivation in the face of ecosystem collapse.”

Also suggested by 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; and Richard Nevle, Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Earth Systems Program.

MaddAddam Trilogy

Oryx and Crake / The Year of the Flood / MaddAddam 
MadAddam Trilogy covers

By Margaret Atwood (2004 / 2010 / 2014)

“Set in a darkly plausible future shaped by plagues, floods, and genetic engineering, these three novels take us from the end of the world to a brave new beginning,” in which a “gentle, bioengineered quasi-human species” known as the Children of Crake will inherit the Earth. – From the publisher

“Atwood manages to make nearly the most cacotopic future imaginable actually human and maybe even hopeful," said James Holland Jones, Associate Professor of Earth System Science and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment. "These books are as beautiful as they are terrifying.”

Tesla: Man Out of Time

Tesla Man Out Of Time book cover

By Margaret Cheney (2001)

“Called a madman by his enemies, a genius by others, and an enigma by nearly everyone, Nikola Tesla […] introduced us to the fundamentals of robotics, computers, and missile science. […] Tesla: Man Out of Time is an in-depth look at the seminal accomplishments of a scientific wizard and a thoughtful examination of the obsessions and eccentricities of the man behind the science.” – From the publisher

“As a man, he was quite reserved and fully committed to science, and I love that aspect of him – nothing like Edison," said Simona Onori, Assistant Professor of Energy Resources Engineering.

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us

Evolution Of Beauty book cover

By Richard O. Prum (2017)

Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum offers “a major reimagining of how evolutionary forces work, revealing how mating preferences – what Darwin termed ‘the taste for the beautiful’ – create the extraordinary range of ornament in the animal world.” – From the publisher

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

The Invention that Changed the World: How a Small Group of Radar Pioneers Won the Second World War and Launched a Technological Revolution

Invention that Changed the World cover 130x196

By Robert Buderi (1998)

Buderi traces technological and historical achievements made possible by radar technology in a book that Dustin Schroeder, Assistant Professor of Geophysics, calls "an entertaining and informative dive into the WWII origins of one of the most powerful and exciting geophysical methods in glaciology and planetary science.” 

Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World

Timefulness cover

By Marcia Bjornerud (2018)

“Our everyday lives are shaped by processes that vastly predate us, and our habits will in turn have consequences that will outlast us by generations. Timefulness reveals how knowing the rhythms of Earth’s deep past and conceiving of time as a geologist does can give us the perspective we need for a more sustainable future.” – From the publisher

Suggested by Kevin Boyce, Professor of Geological Sciences.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

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By Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018)

First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt examine recent changes in childhood and education for the roots of what they call a “culture of safetyism,” and “the growing inability of Americans to live, work and cooperate across party lines.” – From the publisher

Suggested by Anthony Kovscek, Keleen and Carlton Beal Professor of Petroleum Engineering and Senior Fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Educated: A Memoir

Educated cover

By Tara Westover (2018)

“An unforgettable memoir about a young girl who, kept out of school, leaves her survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD from Cambridge University.” – From the publisher

Illenia Battiato, Assistant Professor of Energy Resources Engineering, calls the book, “an interesting story about how true critical thinking can upend one’s system of beliefs.” 

Also suggested by Simona Onori, Assistant Professor of Energy Resources Engineering.

A River Runs Through It

A River Runs Through It book cover

By Norman Maclean (1976)

“A lyric record of a time and a life, shining with Maclean’s special gift for calling the reader’s attention to arts of all kinds – the arts that work in nature, in personality, in social intercourse, in fly-fishing.” – Kenneth M. Pierce, Village Voice

“If you’ve never read the book, this short novella is one of the best ever written about the American west," said Erik Sperling, Assistant Professor of Geological Sciences. "In addition to the beautiful writing, the characters show sound understanding of geologic principles: the haunting closing stanza that starts with ‘the river was cut by the world’s great flood, and runs over rocks from the basement of time,’ for instance, references the Pleistocene glacial Lake Missoula floods.”

Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness 

Desert Cabal cover 130x196

By Amy Irvine (2018)

Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, published in 1968, “inspired generations of rebel-rousing advocacy on behalf of the American West.” Fifty years later, this slim volume of essays from Amy Irvine “admires the man who influenced her life and work while challenging all that is dated – offensive, even – between the covers of Abbey’s environmental classic.” – From the publisher

“This book is an upending of and challenge to traditional, white-male dominated notions of how we relate to wilderness,” said Richard Nevle, Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Earth Systems Program.

A Song of Ice and Fire Series

A Game of Thrones / A Clash of Kings / A Storm of Swords / A Feast for Crows / A Dance With Dragons
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By George R. R. Martin (1996 / 1999 / 2000 / 2005 / 2011)

For those who look, the story that HBO adapted into “Game of Thrones” offers a lens on life in an unstable climate and the difficulty of forming effective alliances to brace for its impacts. As the author of the as-yet unfinished book series told The New York Times in 2018, “The people in Westeros are fighting their individual battles over power and status and wealth. And those are so distracting them that they’re ignoring the threat of ‘winter is coming,’ which has the potential to destroy all of them and to destroy their world.”

Want to dive deeper into the climate of the Seven Kingdoms? Check out the work and Twitter feed of University of Bristol climate scientist Daniel Lunt (@ClimateSamwell), who has modeled the effect of rising greenhouse gas emissions on phenomena like dragon invasions and summertime hibernation of the series’ icy, supernatural antagonists, the White Walkers.  

Suggested by Noah Diffenbaugh, Kara J. Foundation Professor and Kimmelman Family Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment.

The Voyage of the Beagle

The Voyage Of The Beagle book cover

By Charles Darwin (1839)

"When HMS Beagle sailed out of Devonport on 27 December 1831, Charles Darwin was twenty-two and setting off on the voyage of a lifetime. His journal [...] shows a naturalist making patient observations concerning geology, natural history, people, places and events. Volcanoes in the Galapagos, the Gossamer spider of Patagonia and the Australasian coral reefs – all are to be found in these extraordinary writings.” – From the publisher

Suggested by Kevin Boyce, Professor of Geological Sciences.

Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food

Grain by Grain cover 130x196
Read our Q&A with Liz Carlisle.

By Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle (2019)

Farmer and plant biochemist Bob Quinn teams up with Stanford Earth lecturer Liz Carlisle to tell the story of how regenerative organic farming methods allowed Quinn to grow fruits and vegetables in cold, dry Montana, build a multimillion-dollar heirloom grain company and show the way for a more sustainable model in American agriculture.

Thomas Hayden, Director of the Master of Arts in Earth Systems, Environmental Communication, called it, "a fantastic book about making change in the food system, and about […] cooperating across the divides between red and blue America.”

The Sunny Top of California: Sierra Nevada Poems & a Story

The Sunny Top Of California book cover

By Norman Schaefer (2010)

Written between 1994 and 2009, the poems in this collection draw on Schaefer’s experiences walking, hiking and “reading the mountains like a book” in California’s Sierra Nevada over the course of more than 40 years. 

“This [poetry] will be beloved by anyone who loves the rocky high country of the Sierra Nevada,” said Richard Nevle, Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Earth Systems Program.

All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey

All Over The Map book cover

By Betsy Mason and Greg Miller (2018)

“Whether you like the painstaking detail of beautiful topographic maps, the imagination of celestial charts, the analytical representation of statistical data or the fantasy of the map of Westeros or the Death Star, then there’s plenty in this book to feast on.” – Kenneth Field, Cartonerd blog

Mason, who is a Stanford Earth alum, and Miller reveal the personal stories and characters behind a rich collection of maps, such as the eight years of planning, fieldwork, painting, and analysis that went into creation of Bradford and Barbara Washburn’s 1978 map of the Heart of Grand Canyon. 

"It explores the broad range of applications of maps, from the obvious – such as topography and geology – to applications in economics, to mapping the movement of refugees during the civil war in Syria," said Steve Graham, Chester Naramore Dean and Welton Joseph and Maud L’Anphere Crook Professor in Applied Earth Sciences. "We in Stanford Earth depend heavily on the visualization of spatially distributed data, and I found this lavishly illustrated volume a joy to read."

The Broken Earth Trilogy

The Fifth Season / The Obelisk Gate / The Stone Sky
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By N.K. Jemisin (2015 / 2016 / 2017)

“This is the way the world ends […] This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.” – From the publisher

“A remarkable epic of adaptation in a post-apocalyptic world brought about by arrogance and poor stewardship,” said James Holland Jones, Associate Professor of Earth System Science and Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment.

Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution

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By Menno Schilthuizen (2018)

Darwin Comes to Town draws on eye-popping examples of adaptation to share a stunning vision of urban evolution in which humans and wildlife coexist in a unique harmony. It reveals that evolution can happen far more rapidly than Darwin dreamed, while providing a glimmer of hope that our race toward overpopulation might not take the rest of nature down with us.” – From the publisher

Suggested by Richard Nevle, lecturer and deputy director of the Earth Systems Program.

What the Future Looks Like: Scientists Predict the Next Great Discoveries – and Reveal How Today's Breakthroughs Are Already Shaping Our World

What The Future Looks Like book cover

Edited by Jim Al-Khalili (2018)

This collection features “essays from experts offering their informed opinions on what the science and technology of today will look like in the future, from smart materials to artificial intelligence to genetic editing.” Mary Beth Griggs, Popular Science

Suggested by Aditi Sheshadri, Assistant Professor of Earth System Science.

Media Contacts

Josie Garthwaite
School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences
(650) 497-0947, 

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