Your summer reading assignment

Dotty royal memoirs! Thousand-year-old Persian epics! “Blistering, high-voltage prose!” We asked Yale faculty what you should bring to the beach.

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Jonathan Spence ’61, ’65PhD, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History

My favorite current, past, and future reading is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Completely absorbing, it can be read in large or small slices, on trains and planes, in buses, on beaches: English history and society are lovingly brought to life, by the fine device of using Thomas Cromwell’s eyes to view Henry VIII’s loves, follies, and cruelties. (I am trying to make it last as long as possible.)


Harold Bloom ’56PhD, Sterling Professor of Humanities

I reread Little, Big by John Crowley every summer because it makes me very happy. Crowley teaches at Yale and this book is his masterpiece. It is almost impossible to describe. Just read it.


Ian Ayres ’81, ’86JD, William K. Townsend Professor of Law, Yale Law School; Professor, School of Management

March by Geraldine Brooks is Little Women retold from the perspective of the gone-to-war father. I read this stark novel to my children, and we were weeping—and not because of Beth.


Stephen Carter ’79JD, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law

I recommend Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow. Ragtime is one of the few contemporary novels that truly belongs in the canon of great American literature. In simple yet lyrical strokes, Doctorow brings to life an entire era—two eras, in fact, because although the book is set, as the title suggests, in the era of ragtime, it evokes the political and cultural battles of the Sixties, particularly over race and gender. And he wraps all of this into a compelling thriller, difficult to put down.


Angus Trumble, Senior Curator of Paintings and Sculpture, Center for British Art

My Memories of Six Reigns, by H. H. Princess Marie Louise, belongs to that neglected but nevertheless exciting subgenre of dotty royal memoir. “Cousin Louie” was the younger daughter of Queen Victoria’s irritable fifth child and third daughter, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein. Louie in old age was partly responsible for introducing Cecil Beaton into the royal circle. She rarely invited herself to be the guest of far-flung colonial governors for less than four or five high-maintenance months at a time. She was also a committed table-rapper, fabulist, connoisseur of dried fruits, solicitor of valuable “gifts,” and unwitting precipitator of nervous breakdowns among successive ladies-in-waiting. Her book should be consumed in small doses, together with a good supply of Pimm’s.


David Gelernter ’76, ’77MA, Professor of Computer Science

Martin Amis’s new novel, The Pregnant Widow. It’s a novel about one summer, so it qualifies nicely. Amis’s blistering high-voltage prose arcs and snaps and crackles; its wit and beauty and sheer intensity recall Nabokov and Norman Mailer at the top of his game (which of course he managed all too rarely). The main action is set in 1970; the topic is sex and religion (although reviewers seem to have missed the part about religion). As usual for Amis, the plot has an alarmingly pessimistic trajectory, but the wit and glitter of the glamorous prose make the book more exhilarating than depressing—for Amis it’s an outright chore to write a depressing book, though he keeps trying. Compared with London Fields, and Amis’s two other great books, the Widow is minor; but anyone who cares about fiction would be crazy not to read it. It’s enormously entertaining.


Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology

I’m a sucker for novels about university professors, and much of my own research explores the origin of religious belief, so how could I resist Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, a story about the comic adventures of a cognitive scientist who struggles with the relationship between God and Science? But even if you don’t share my obsessions, you’ll find this funny, humane, and very thoughtful novel to be a great summer read.


Fred Strebeigh ’74, Senior Lecturer, English; Senior Lecturer, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

The Storks’ Nest: Life and Love in the Russian Countryside by Laura Lynne Williams ’99MES. This memoir from a tiny Russian village, by a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, brims with vitality. Reading its pages, you may feel that you too could raise an orphaned moose, now curled up on your living room floor. You may feel ready to saddle-train a wild stallion if you and your husband, a crusading Russian naturalist, need a second horse to help you both chase armed poachers. You may feel envious of lives remote from all you know.


Carlos Eire ’79PhD, Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies

I recommend The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, the best historical novel I’ve ever read. It’s set in twelfth-century England, and the narrative is centered on the construction of the first Gothic church. The novel is so accurate a recreation of the medieval setting—and such a good read—that I often recommend it to students as one of the best introductions ever written to the Middle Ages. The 973 pages go by quickly, and the paperback doesn’t weigh much.


Charles Hill, Senior Lecturer, International Studies

In The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason, Harry Feversham, scion of a distinguished military family, fears battle and resigns his commission in the army of Queen Victoria. His closest comrades and his fiancée each present him with a white feather symbolizing cowardice. To redeem himself, he sets out in disguise to the wars in Africa described by the young Winston Churchill, intent that his exploits in the empire of the Mahdi will enable him to prove his manhood and return the feathers. A movie version was made in 1939 and revived, for the worse, in 2002. The writing is spare and vivid, the action of epic consequence, yet the underlying human relationships emerge as the most important of all.


Emilie Townes, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology, Divinity School

The Hand I Fan With by Tina McElroy Ansa is at the top of my summer fiction reading list. Ansa is a wonderful storyteller and in her third novel, she invites us into the world of the protagonist, Lena McPherson, and her wonderfully crafted erotic love story with a hundred-year-old ghost—Herman—she conjures up to love and cherish her. This story, set in the fictional southern town of Mulberry, Georgia, promises to be Ansa at her best—funny, honest, and a very good story that affirms life and loving.


Shelly Kagan, Clark Professor of Philosophy

My light reading tends mostly to fantasy. One book I would happily recommend to just about anyone with a taste for fantasy of any sort is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This is an astonishing work of historical fantasy, set in a world pretty much identical to early nineteenth-century England, except for the reality of magic (and fairies). It is hard to describe just how wonderful the result is, how completely the imaginary world is envisioned (the book is filled with footnotes to supposed works of scholarship on the history of magic in this parallel world), how absorbing and delightful the story. I would recommend it without reservations. (Except for one. This book is long—almost 800 pages. So it isn’t the sort of thing one easily holds aloft at the beach.)


Oona A. Hathaway ’97JD, Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law

I’d suggest Yale professor Steve Pincus’s new book, 1688: The First Modern Revolution. The book re-envisions the events of 1688 in England as the first “modern” violent, popular, and transformational revolution. In the process, the book offers a new lens on the rise of modern liberal society itself.


Dave Bercovici, Professor of Geology and Geophysics

One of my favorite modern authors is Neal Stephenson. His latter books tend to be long epics and any of them are fantastic: CryptonomiconThe Baroque Cycle, and Anathem are all 1,000 pages or more each. However, one of his earlier books, The Diamond Age, is not so long and a great read. It’s set in a highly socially stratified not-so-distant future Earth (mostly near Shanghai) where nanotechnology infuses all aspects of life. The main story line follows a poor young girl who accidentally acquires an e-book or “primer” that proceeds to educate her beyond her “status,” and tells about her subsequent adventures and “rise.” There are many other story lines, and Stephenson is really a master at creating his worlds and strange characters in incredible detail, while still moving the story along with a great tongue-in-cheek tone.


Abbas Amanat, Professor of History and International and Area Studies

This year being the millennium of the composition ofShahnameh (The Persian Book of Kings) by the Persian poet Ferdowsi—one of the greatest epics ever written, based on the Iranian pre-Islamic legends and histories—I recommend the translation by Dick Davis. This is a remarkable book of many parts that can be read independently of one another. Davis’s translation is excellent and aimed at the American reader. The epic’s tragedy is a remarkable piece of poetry, reflecting human emotions and dilemmas, father-son tensions inherent in kingship, and the legendary roots of an ancient conflict between Iran and its northeastern neighbor. 


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