Summer reading: Igniting curiosity about Earth and imagining our future
Faculty at Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences recommend these 29 books for your summer reading.
This year’s informal survey of faculty and senior staff at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) yielded suggestions for summer reading that may inspire new reflections on the living world, spark conversations about environmental justice, or fuel critical thinking about sustainability.
Here are 29 titles to consider as companions for a summer of easing pandemic restrictions and a time of transformation. Whether you’re ready for a meditation on the majesty of mountains, a new perspective on U.S. history, a novel about how the climate crisis could play out, a collection of poetry, or a chronicle of inequities in American wastewater infrastructure, there’s a title for you.
The Ministry for the Future
By Kim Stanley Robinson (2020)
"A sweeping, optimistic portrait of humanity's ability to cooperate in the face of disaster. This heartfelt work of hard science-fiction is a must-read for anyone worried about the future of the planet." – Publishers Weekly
Suggested by Chris Field, the Perry L. McCarty Director of Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies, and Senior Fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy; and by Rob Jackson, the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor and Senior Fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and at the Precourt Institute for Energy. According to Jackson, The Ministry for the Future "envisions the physical and social costs of climate change in a reasonably hopeful way."
By Richard Powers (2019)
“This unusual novel was inspired by the author's first experience of coastal redwoods during a stay at Stanford. It addresses the logging and destruction of North America's of old-growth forests through the intersecting stories of a few people and a few trees," said Jonathan Payne, the Dorrell William Kirby Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs. "It completely changed the way I look at the forests when I hike. And if trees could read, I think they would appreciate the novel, too."
"It kind of blew my mind," said Richard Nevle, Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Earth Systems Program. "I simply could not put the book down."
The Four Winds: A Novel
By Kristin Hannah (2021)
"Through one woman’s survival during the harsh and haunting Dust Bowl, [Kristin Hannah], reminds us that the human heart and our Earth are as tough, yet as fragile, as a change in the wind." – Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing
"It's one of the best depictions I've read to date on the biophysical and social drama surrounding the Dust Bowl – very relevant for people interested in climate and sustainable agriculture," said Rosamond Naylor, the William Wrigley Professor of Earth System Science, Senior Fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Professor, by courtesy, of Economics.
Waste: One Woman's Fight Against America's Dirty Secret
By Catherine Coleman Flowers (2020)
"Catherine Coleman Flowers grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, a place that’s been called 'Bloody Lowndes' because of its violent, racist history. Once the epicenter of the voting rights struggle, today it’s Ground Zero for a new movement that is Flowers’s life’s work. It’s a fight to ensure human dignity through a right most Americans take for granted: basic sanitation. Too many people, especially the rural poor, lack an affordable means of disposing cleanly of the waste from their toilets, and, as a consequence, live amid filth." – From the publisher
Flowers is a MacArthur grant winner and environmental justice advisor in the Biden Administration. "This book is a must read for anybody interested in environmental justice," said Emily Polk, an Advanced Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric Studies. "I was floored by it."
The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland
By Nan Shepherd (1977, reissued 2011)
"Most works of mountain literature are written by men, and most of them focus on the goal of the summit. Nan Shepherd's aimless, sensual exploration of the Cairngorms is bracingly different." – Robert Macfarlane, author, The Wild Places
Composed during the Second World War, the manuscript of The Living Mountain lay unpublished until 1977. "Why do mountains captivate us? This book is one of the most exquisite meditations on the majesty of mountains, told through the lens of her many years exploring the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland," said Kate Maher, Professor of Earth System Science and Senior Fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis
Edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson (2020)
"All We Can Save steps into the leadership void in finding deep solutions to the climate crisis, centering the voices, experiences, and expertise of women. It presents a positive vision for tackling climate change now, and building a just, sustainable, welcoming world into the future," said Thomas Hayden, Professor of the Practice, Earth Systems Program.
Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction
By Michelle Nijhuis (2021)
"In the late nineteenth century, humans came at long last to a devastating realization: their rapidly industrializing and globalizing societies were driving scores of animal species to extinction. [Science journalist] Michelle Nijhuis traces the history of the movement to protect and conserve other forms of life ... and confronts the darker side of modern conservation, long shadowed by racism and colonialism." – From the publisher
"Highly, highly recommend," said Richard Nevle, Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Earth Systems Program
Caste: The Origins of our Discontents
By Isabel Wilkerson (2020)
"The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions." – From the publisher
"This was a really interesting and often-heavy read that I put in the category of 'history they didn't teach in high school in North Dakota!' But there was so much more," said Jane Willenbring, Associate Professor of Geological Sciences. "I was pulled into the stories, her language, and the amazing metaphors that made me think and then communicate to others about the U.S./world in a new way."
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
By Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013, reissued 2020)
"Drawing on her life as an Indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, [Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment,] shows how other living beings ... offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. In a rich braid of reflections ... she circles toward a central argument: that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world." – From the publisher
Suggested by Pamela Matson, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor in Environmental Studies, Co-Director of the Change Leadership for Sustainability Program and Senior Fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; and by Julia Novy-Hildesley, Professor of the Practice and Executive Director of the Change Leadership for Sustainability Program.
SCALE: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies
By Geoffrey West (2017)
"Scale, a grand synthesis of topics [Geoffrey West] has studied for several decades, makes an important and eloquent case for the significance [of universal laws of size and growth] in an ecology of the natural and human world – and in understanding whether the two can fit together." – Nature
"This is a book that asks big questions and, at the same time, looks for unity and simplicity in the answer," said Rodney Ewing, the Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security in the Center for International Security and Cooperation in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Darwin's First Theory: Exploring Darwin's Quest for a Theory of Earth
By Rob Wesson (2017)
"A wonderful evocation of Darwin's great theory of subsidence and uplift, the substrate of his later, explosive discovery of evolution." – Nature
Wesson received an MS and PhD in geophysics from Stanford, and spent 40 years with the U.S. Geological Survey. Suggested by William Ellsworth, Professor (Research) of Geophysics.
Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West
By Robert Leonard Reid (2017)
"A writer of brilliant mind and capacious heart," said Richard Nevle, Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Earth Systems Program. "In each of the subjects he investigates in this collection of insightful essays on topics related to the American West, nothing escapes his searing gaze; yet no folly or disaster is beyond the possibility of redemption. I love his honesty, vulnerability, and the hard won hope on offer in this writing."
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
By Robert Macfarlane (2013)
Folding together natural history, cartography, geology and literature, Robert Macfarlane explores "the voices that haunt old paths and the stories our tracks tell ... discovering that paths offer a means not just of traversing space but also of feeling, knowing and thinking." – From the publisher
Kate Maher, Professor of Earth System Science and Senior Fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, called it "a fascinating examination of the natural, geopolitical and literary history of paths and how they influence."
Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed it to the World
By Lesley M.M. Blume (2020)
When The New Yorker published “Hiroshima,” by journalist John Hershey, in August 1946, the article "became an instant global sensation, and inspired pervasive horror about the hellish new threat that America had unleashed. Since 1945, no nuclear weapons have ever been deployed in war partly because Hersey alerted the world to their true, devastating impact. This knowledge has remained among the greatest deterrents to using them since the end of World War II." – From the publisher
Suggested by Rodney Ewing, the Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security in the Center for International Security and Cooperation in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump
By William J. Perry and Tom Z. Collina (2020)
"At a time when sustainability and climate change are pressing global issues, we should never forget the immense destructive power of nuclear weapons. I suggest that readers combine reading Fallout with The Button. These two books taken together provide a one-two punch on the existential threat of nuclear weapons," said Rodney Ewing, the Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security in the Center for International Security and Cooperation in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
The Night Watchman
By Louise Erdrich (2020)
"In this kaleidoscopic story, the efforts of Native Americans to save their lands from being taken away by the U.S. government in the early 1950s come intimately, vividly to life ... A knowing, loving evocation of people trying to survive with their personalities and traditions intact." – Kirkus Reviews
Paul Segall, the Cecil H. And Ida M. Green Professor of Geophysics, suggested this winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and described it as "an incredible story with memorable character."
Under the Sky We Make: How to Be Human in a Warming World
By Kimberly Nicholas (BS '99, PhD '09) (2021)
"Saving ourselves from climate apocalypse will require radical shifts within each of us, to effect real change in our society and culture. But it can be done. It requires, [Kimberly Nicholas] argues, belief in our own agency and value, alongside a deep understanding that no one will ever hand us power – we’re going to have to seize it for ourselves." – From the publisher
"She writes about the balance between systemic change and individual responsibility for climate change and achieving sustainability, and argues for the importance of individual agency as people deepen their commitment to real, lasting change to meet the climate crisis," said Thomas Hayden, Professor of the Practice, Earth Systems Program.
Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don't Know About the Ocean
By Naomi Oreskes (2020)
"Tracing the recent history of oceanography, Naomi Oreskes discloses dramatic changes in American ocean science since the Cold War, uncovering how and why it changed. Much of it has to do with who pays. After World War II, the U.S. military turned to a new, uncharted theater of warfare: the deep sea. The Earth sciences – particularly physical oceanography and marine geophysics – became essential to the U.S. Navy, who poured unprecedented money and logistical support into their study. Science on a Mission brings to light how this influx of military funding was both enabling and constricting." – From the publisher
Suggested by Erik Sperling, Assistant Professor of Geological Sciences and, by courtesy of Biology and Center Fellow, by courtesy, at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
These Truths: A History of the United States
By Jill Lepore (2018)
Paul Segall, the Cecil H. And Ida M. Green Professor of Geophysics, called this "the history of the U.S. I wish I had in high school." The author "skips over details (battles, etc.) to focus rather on what was going on in society. Attitudes on race are at the core of the book," he said. "It is eerie how current some of the issues still are. In my reading she doesn't try to put our current sensibilities onto historical figures, but rather brings to light the range of thinking at the time."
A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future
By David Attenborough (2020)
"The eminent traveler and naturalist delivers a combination of memoir and manifesto, the first leisurely, the second earnest ... Recognizing that we are at a tipping point, Attenborough is refreshingly optimistic, noting that one thing humans do well is solve problems." – From the publisher
"It’s not the densest read, but it is a clear and powerful articulation of the degradation suffered by the planet over the last 100 years, written as a first-hand account from someone who has spent their career documenting the natural world," said George Hilley, Professor of Geological Sciences. "It explains to the public what is meant by sustainability, and why evolving toward a sustainable world is an urgent and critical undertaking.
How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don't) Say About Human Difference
By Adam Rutherford (2020)
"Rutherford equips readers with the tools to discredit the prejudices of both racists and well-intentioned people. Despite its fraught history, scientists' understanding of genes has long since converged on one truth: race, while very real as a social construct, has no foundation in science." – Scientific American
Suggested by James Holland Jones, Associate Professor of Earth System Science and Senior Fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
By Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer (2020)
"A collection of poems about human ecology ... driven by curiosity and a willingness to dance in the unknown. The poems celebrate the broken, the lowly, the humble, the parched, the lost." – From the publisher
"Her poems are ravishing, and as a reader I simply feel grateful that such poetry as hers exists. Her poems, quite simply, make the world a better place to live. Read them and you will become a better human," said Richard Nevle, Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Earth Systems Program.
Leonardo da Vinci
By Walter Isaacson (2017)
"Leonardo da Vinci's prowess as a polymath – driven by insatiable curiosity about everything from the human womb to deadly weaponry – still stuns. In this copiously illustrated biography, we feel its force all over again. Walter Isaacson wonderfully conveys how Leonardo's genius unified science and art." – Nature
Suggested by Julia Novy-Hildesley, Professor of the Practice and Executive Director of the Change Leadership for Sustainability Program.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey
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 Eric Lambin, the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor and Senior Fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
By Barry Lopez (2020)
Barry Lopez "probes the long history of humanity’s thirst for exploration, including the prehistoric peoples who trekked across Skraeling Island in northern Canada, the colonialists who plundered Central Africa, an enlightenment-era Englishman who sailed the Pacific, a Native American emissary who found his way into isolationist Japan, and today’s ecotourists in the tropics. And always, throughout his journeys ... Lopez searches for meaning and purpose in a broken world." – From the publisher
"Simply masterful," said Richard Nevle, Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Earth Systems Program.
The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – And Why They Stop
By Adam Kucharski (2020)
Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, "explores topics including gun violence, online manipulation, and, of course, outbreaks of disease to show how much we get wrong about contagion, and how astonishing the real science is ... By uncovering the crucial factors driving outbreaks, we can see how things really spread – and what we can do about it." – From the publisher
Suggested by James Holland Jones, Associate Professor of Earth System Science and Senior Fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
Weather: A Novel
By Jenny Offill (2020)
"Offill's signature achievement here is to capture the angst specific to our particular moment in time – the rising tide of anxiety, especially in New York City, about a world threatened by climate change and the ascension of right-wing strongmen ... This potent, appealing little book is about how we weather this sense of doom – with humor, incredulity, panic, disaster preparedness, or, best of all, action." – NPR
"Each paragraph reads like an essential, luminous story all on its own. It's profoundly creative, insightful, and maybe most importantly, really funny," said Emily Polk, an Advanced Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric Studies.
The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir
By Samantha Power (2021)
"An unusual combination of autobiography, diplomatic history, moral argument and manual on how to breast-feed a child with one hand while talking to Secretary of State John Kerry on a cellphone with the other. The interweaving of Power’s personal story, family story, diplomatic history and moral arguments is executed seamlessly – and with unblinking honesty." – The New York Times
"I don't typically read memoirs, but once I got into it - I couldn't put this book down! It is such a well written, fascinating window into diplomacy, U.S. foreign policy, and leadership. It was also fun to read how Power creatively navigated such high-demand jobs with little kids," said Jane Willenbring, Associate Professor of Geological Sciences.
The Book of Delights
By Ross Gay (2019)
Ross Gay's "experiences of 'delight,' recorded daily for a year, vary widely but yield revealing patterns through insights about everything from nature and the body to race and masculinity. The fruits of this experiment – for which gardens and gardening provide a frequent, apt metaphor – attest to an imagination cultivated in hostile conditions. Gay’s optimism is as easy as it is improbable, his ‘heart cooing like a pigeon nestled on a windowsill where the spikes rusted off." – The New Yorker
Emily Polk, an Advanced Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric Studies, said, "I read this book during the worst part of the pandemic and it was a life raft of wonder and inspiration for me, a reminder that small miracles are always with us even in our darkest times."