The Professor's Bookshelf

The ultimate reading list: Professors share their most influential books.
The ultimate reading list.
Photo by: 
Alice Xiao, Illustrator, Class of 2017
Steven Levy's Hackers had a profound impact on me because it gave me the identity I had been seeking for so long. I wasn't just someone who liked computers. I was, and continue to be, a *hacker*...
Borja Sotomayor
Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science

What does your favorite professor like to read? We asked professors from across the College to share what books have most inspired and influenced them, and their responses range as widely as their disciplines. Read on! 

Matthew Briones, Associate Professor of American History and the College

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I was reading it for the historian James Goodman’s “20th Century Race Relations in the U.S.” He had inserted the fictitious Hurston novel into his history course as a lens unto the “muck of the Everglades,” showing us the remarkable, historically factual burdens faced by African American women in the post-bellum South, both from within and without their communities. The protagonist Janie Crawford’s story of initial unrequited love, second abusive marriage, and her final love-filled, empowering, but vexed relationship with a man named Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods simply captivated me. I had never read anything like it before – the use of dialect, the proto-feminist arc, and the close, near ethnographic attention to African American culture. So, fiction drew me to history.

Anne S. Henly, Senior Lecturer in Psychology and the College

I encountered the ideas that sparked my interest in how our minds work, i.e., psychology, not so much in books but in essays and articles. These were not actually directed at understanding how our minds work but rather at understanding how signs and symbols convey (or perhaps create) meaning. Although these works focus on the ambiguity inherent in language, they were the source of my dawning appreciation for the fundamental ambiguity of experience and my interest in what shapes our interpretation of it. Several articles I read early on in college (and revisit from time to time) stand out as especially provocative for me: Gottlob Frege’s "On Sense and Reference," Charles Sanders Peirce’s "On a New List of Categories," H. P. Grice’s "Logic and Conversation," and Charles F. Hockett’s "Logical Considerations in the Study of Animal Communication." So, the works that influenced me were neither books nor in my current field of study!

Daniel Holz, Associate Professor, Departments of Physics and Astronomy & Astrophysics

Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov. I first read this very short story when I was about 10. It touches on science, sociology, history, religion, and the fate of humankind. It asks what it might be like to have night arrive only once every 2,000 years. Imagine seeing the stars for the very first time, and realizing that our Solar System might be just one of countless others. The story emphasizes the fragility of civilization, and brings home just how profound it can be to look up into the night sky. That feeling of awe has never left me.

William Howell, Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics

I most enjoy books that grapple with big ideas through careful empirical research. And of late, I've found few works more arresting than those written by James Scott. In his 1999 tome, Seeing like a State, Scott investigates the kinds of information that a state requires and the regimented ways in which it puts this information to use. The book is just brimming with ideas and insights. Two years after having read it, I'm still wrestling with what it says about the politics of surveillance and the pathologies of central planning. Like so many of Scott's books, this one is a gem.

Dennis J. Hutchinson, Senior Lecturer in Law and Master of the College's New Collegiate Division

Only 32 pages long, Audubon: A Vision is the book I return to more than any other. Written by Robert Penn Warren at the height of his powers, the poem is at once lyrical, allegorical, and brutally vivid. The suite of seven sections is nominally the biography of the great naturalist John James Audubon and his explorations in the wilderness where he discovers “How thin is the membrane between himself and the world.” Idealism fades into acceptance of fate, satisfying a deep but unclassifiable longing. The poem ends with a childlike wish which echoes the journey: “In this century, and moment, of mania/Tell me a story./Make it a story of great distances and starlight./The name of the story will be Time, But you must not pronounce its name./Tell me a story of deep delight.”

Peggy Mason, Professor in Department of Neurobiology

Leaving aside The Plague by Albert Camus, about which I have previously written, another favorite is Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. This story, set in everywhere, oozes pathos as a group of people are held hostage. Yet, it is dignity and generosity of spirit that emerge as the dominant themes. Rather than crying and wringing their hands, the characters make controlled and deliberate choices that move the reader in the same way as do Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. I don’t remember the character’s names or too many specific events but the feeling of admiration for the characters’ principled actions under extraordinary circumstances is as fresh as it was on the day I finished the book.

Borja Sotomayor, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science

As far as I can remember, I have always liked computers. Using them, playing with them, tinkering with them, opening them up to see what's inside. I enjoyed not just learning about them, but also sharing what I learned with others. However, growing up in the 80s and 90s without Internet access, I had to get by with the few books I could get my hands on in Spain, and had no way to connect with a like-minded community of computer enthusiasts. Going to college didn't actually help much at first, as I found that most of my classmates were driven not so much by a passion for computing but by the promise of a lucrative career in the tech industry.

Then, during my sophomore year in college, someone (I don't remember who) suggested I read Steven Levy's Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. I was blown away. While the term "hacker" became popular in the ’80s to denote a computer criminal, the term originated in the ’60s to refer to anyone who didn't just like computers and programming, but approached them with a sense of fun and exploration, and relished the challenge of solving new problems with them (in fact, this is still the commonly accepted definition in computing and tech circles). Levy's book presented not just the rich history of hacker culture, which gave rise to some of the greatest advances in computing, but also the hacker ethic, a set of values that I had been adhering to already: finding joy in learning, blurring the lines between work and play, and sharing knowledge responsibly and freely (for a more scholarly treatise on the hacker ethic, I recommend Pekka Himanen's "The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age")

Steven Levy's Hackers had a profound impact on me because it gave me the identity I had been seeking for so long. I wasn't just someone who liked computers. I was, and continue to be, a *hacker*. Eventually, I connected with other hackers in college and finally felt part of a community: we would hack together, geek out about new technologies, and even run free workshops to share what we had learned.

All that said, I have to mention that the fiction book that had the biggest influence in me is Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. Our school librarian recommended it to me when I was in middle school, and it was the first book I got truly hooked on, staying up until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. on a school night because I just had to find out what happened next. It did not fundamentally change my views on anything but it did introduce me to the pure, unadulterated joy of reading. Until then, I did not realize that reading could be so enjoyable.

Paul Staniland, Assistant Professor of Political Science

The most influential book is Samuel Huntington’s 1968 work, Political Order in Changing Societies. It’s turned out that many of its claims were wrong, and others too vague to be right or wrong. But it brought together in one place the study of political order, revolution, insurgency, counter revolution, state-building, military coups, the politics of the postcolonial world, foreign military interventions, and many other topics that often are studied separately. I remember reading it early in graduate school and thinking “this – all of it – is exactly what I want to study.” It also insisted that social science is relevant to, and important in, policy debates, even if in controversial or problematic ways. I can still flip through it and find interesting, provocative (sometimes contradictory!) ideas popping off the page.

Sara Ray Stoelinga, Sara Liston Spurlark Director, University of Chicago Urban Education Institute

One of the books that has had a significant influence on my thinking is So Much Reform, So Little Change by Charles Payne. Professor Payne examines the context of urban schools and public school systems and identifies the reasons why school reform initiatives have been unsuccessful. His analysis describes the social, cultural, historical, and structural aspects of urban public schools and the ways in which reform efforts do not understand, take into account, or work within these realities. Payne provides a clear-eyed depiction of the complex challenges that face urban schools coupled with a sense of hope that recent school reform efforts have identified pathways to improvement.