Summer 2020 reading recommendations from UChicago faculty

Faculty teaching award winners suggest old favorites, new finds to turn to in 2020

If you’re feeling a little cooped up at home this summer, try escaping with a good book—with some help from University of Chicago faculty. This year’s Quantrell and Graduate Teaching award winners have a dozen recommendations, ranging from post-apocalyptic fiction, to 17th-century memoir, to analysis of the implications of big data.

David Archer, Professor of Geophysical Sciences and the College

“I’m going to go dark with a twofer, a nonfiction and a fiction pair. Nonfiction: Collapse by Jared Diamond; fiction: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Together, as a pair, they are a meditation on the fragility of the human enterprise.”

Elizabeth Asmis, Professor of Classics and the College

“Read, or re-read, Moby Dick. I did not myself appreciate what is so great about this classic until I actually went back to read the whole of it after seeing a fabulous new opera (by Jake Heggie) that is based on it. It opened up biological nature to me in a new way, as well as (of course) human nature. It is absolutely amazing how it pulls together diverse strands of human experience. I also recommend reading some ancient Greek plays, which have not been much performed in recent years, but are surprisingly accessible to a modern reader.”

Susan Gal, the Mae and Sidney G. Metzl Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics, and the College

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolph Trouillot—an anthropologist who was also a historian—is already 25 years old, yet astonishingly timely, discussing the way the West failed to acknowledge the most successful slave revolt in history (in Haiti in the 18th century). Placing that erasure next to Holocaust denial and controversies about the Alamo and statues of Columbus in the U.S., Trouillot speaks to the most immediate and wrenching issues of our own time in a scholarly way that is both rigorous and personal and beautifully written.”

“Kathryn Woolard’s Singular and Plural: Linguistic Authority in 21st Century Catalonia is equally accessible and scholarly, but more recent. This describes in vivid detail how the young people of Catalonia (in Spain) think and feel about the Spanish and Catalan languages; how these feelings become a tense politics that speaks back to right-wing oppression from Madrid. The book has the depth and passion reflecting Woolard's 40 years of ethnographic fieldwork in Barcelona.”

Miguel Martínez, Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and the College

“Catalina de Erauso’s The Lieutenant Nun is a truly engaging narrative written in 17th-century Spain, and everyone I have recommended it to loves it—including one of my neighbors downstairs. It is a memoir, but it reads like an accelerated novel of adventures. The author is thoroughly historical, although some of the episodes in the narrative are fictional. As an autobiography, it forces us to rethink our own categories of gender and sexuality; and yet it can be argued that this is one of the first texts written by a transgender person.”

“Stuart B. Schwartz’s All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World is a beautiful work of cultural and intellectual history. It gives a really vivid picture of how common people thought about religious dissidence and tolerance in early modern Spain, Portugal and Latin America. It kind of turns the records of the Inquisition against itself.”

Megan McNerney, Associate Professor of Pathology

“Anything by Yuval Noah Harari, but start with Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. This book helped me put current events into a framework that made them more understandable.”

Paolo Privitera, Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics, Physics, Enrico Fermi Institute, and the College

“Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Everything imaginable is in there. Find, for example, in Paradiso, Canto I, the Cosmic Microwave Background—the ubiquitous light relic of the birth of the universe.”

Eric Oliver, Professor of Political Science and the College

“I have two perennial favorite books. Richard Tanars’ The Passion of the Western Mind is a fantastically readable overview of the western intellectual tradition. Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart is a terrific expression of the eastern contemplative tradition and is a book I reread when ever facing challenging experiences.”

Eric Schwartz, Professor of Pharmacological and Physiological Sciences and the College

“My official advice: Read something you don’t know. Read outside your interest. The last book I read, I liked. It was called Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.”