‘Three Books’ is a signature Stanford New Student Orientation program for first-year and new transfer students. Each year, a faculty moderator selects three books for incoming undergraduate students to read over the summer. The program culminates in a panel and roundtable discussion with the authors, where students are given the special opportunity to ask the authors questions and hear their perspectives.
For 2017, faculty moderator, Dr. Noah Diffenbaugh (Professor of Earth System Science), chose books on the theme of Sustainability & Equity:
- Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing
Summary: Effia and Esi: two sisters with two very different destinies. One sold into slavery; one a slave trader’s wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow. Taking us from the Gold Coast of Africa to the cotton-picking plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem, spanning three continents and seven generations, Yaa Gyasi has written a miraculous novel – the intimate, gripping story of a brilliantly vivid cast of characters and through their lives the very story of America itself.
Quote: “We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?, Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”
- Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Summary: Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions of life on earth. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.
Elizabeth Kolbert combines brilliant field reporting, the history of ideas and the work of geologists, botanists and marine biologists to tell the gripping stories of a dozen species – including the Panamanian golden frog and the Sumatran rhino – some already gone, others at the point of vanishing.
The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind’s most lasting legacy and Elizabeth Kolbert’s book urgently compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.
Quote: “Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.”
- Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones.
Summary: A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi and Esch’s father is growing concerned. He’s a hard drinker, largely absent and it isn’t often he worries about the family. Esch and her three brothers are stocking up on food, but there isn’t much to save. Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; at fifteen, she has just realized that she’s pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pit bull’s new litter, dying one by one. Meanwhile, brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting. As the twelve days that make up the novel’s framework yield to a dramatic conclusion, this unforgettable family – motherless children sacrificing for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce – pulls itself up to face another day.
Quote: “And I get up because it is the only thing I can do.”
2016- Books chosen by Elizabeth Tallent, Professor of English
- NoViolet Bulaway’s We Need New Names
Summary: Darling and her friends live in a shanty called Paradise, which of course is no such thing. It isn’t all bad, though. There’s mischief and adventure, games of Find bin Laden, stealing guavas, singing Lady Gaga at the tops of their voices.
They dream of the paradises of America, Dubai, Europe, where Madonna and Barack Obama and David Beckham live. For Darling, that dream will come true. But, like the thousands of people all over the world trying to forge new lives far from home, Darling finds this new paradise brings its own set of challenges – for her and also for those she’s left behind.
Quote: “If you are stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. This way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do in the first place, stealing not just a tiny piece but a whole country. Who can ever forget you stole something like that?”
- Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell
Summary: Why is it that in the aftermath of a disaster? whether manmade or natural?people suddenly become altruistic, resourceful, and brave? What makes the newfound communities and purpose many find in the ruins and crises after disaster so joyous? And what does this joy reveal about ordinarily unmet social desires and possibilities?
In A Paradise Built in Hell, award-winning author Rebecca Solnit explores these phenomena, looking at major calamities from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco through the 1917 explosion that tore up Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She examines how disaster throws people into a temporary utopia of changed states of mind and social possibilities, as well as looking at the cost of the widespread myths and rarer real cases of social deterioration during crisis.
Quote: “It’s tempting to ask why if you fed your neighbors during the time of the earthquake and fire, you didn’t do so before or after.”
- Justin Torres’ We the Animals
Summary: Three brothers tear their way through childhood, smashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from rubbish, hiding when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift. Paps and Ma are from Brooklyn, he’s Puerto Rican, she’s white. Barely out of childhood themselves, their love is a serious, dangerous thing. Life in this family is fierce and absorbing, full of chaos and heartbreak and the euphoria of belonging completely to one another. From the intense familial unity felt by a child to the profound alienation he endures as he begins to forge his own way in the world, this beautiful novel reinvents the coming of age story in a way that is sly and incredibly powerful.
Quote: “I’m an adult,” the boy says. “I got rights.”
“Everybody’s got rights. A man tied to a bed got rights. A man down in a dungeon got rights. A little screaming baby got rights. Yeah, you got rights. What you don’t got is power.”
2015- Books chosen by John Hennessy, President of Stanford University
- Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators
Summary: Innovators is Walter Isaacson’s story of the people who created the computer and the Internet. It is destined to be the standard history of the digital revolution and a guide to how innovation really works. What talents allowed certain inventors and entrepreneurs to turn their disruptive ideas into realities? What led to their creative leaps? Why did some succeed and others fail? In his exciting saga, Isaacson begins with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, who pioneered computer programming in the 1840s. He then explores the fascinating personalities that created our current digital revolution, such as Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Robert Noyce, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee and Larry Page. For an era that seeks to foster innovation, creativity and teamwork, this book shows how they actually happen.
Quote: “Innovation requires having at least three things: a great idea, the engineering talent to execute it, and the business savvy (plus deal-making moxie) to turn it into a successful product.”
Find it here: Amazon
- Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life
Summary: Separated by divorce from his father and brother, Toby and his mother are constantly on the move, yet they develop an extraordinarily close, almost telepathic relationship. As Toby fights for identity and self-respect against the unrelenting hostility of a new stepfather, his experiences are at once poignant and comical, and Wolff does a masterful job of re-creating the frustrations and cruelties of adolescence.
Quote: “I was giving up–being realistic, as people liked to say, meaning the same thing. Being realistic made me feel bitter.”
- Lalita Tademy’s Cane River
Summary: Set among the plantations in deepest Louisiana, Cane River follows the lives of five generations of women from the time of slavery in the early 1800s into the early years of the 20th century. From down-trodden, philosophical Suzette, who was born and died a slave, to educated, pale-skinned Emily, whose high ambitions born in freedom become her downfall, we are introduced to a remarkable cast of characters whose struggles reflect the tragedy of slavery and, ultimately, the triumph of the spirit.
Quote: “This was the face of slavery. To have nothing, and still have something more to lose.”
2014- Books chosen by Persis Drell, Dean of the School of Engineering and Professor of Physics
- Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats
Summary: When documentarian Jane Takagi-Little finally lands a job producing a Japanese television show that just happens to be sponsored by an American meat-exporting business, she uncovers some unsavory truths about love, fertility, and a dangerous hormone called DES. Soon she will also cross paths with Akiko Ueno, a beleaguered Japanese housewife struggling to escape her overbearing husband.
Quote: “There are many answers, none of them right, but some of them most definitely wrong.”
- Richard A. Muller’s Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines
Summary: We live in complicated, dangerous times. Present and future presidents need to know if North Korea’s nascent nuclear capability is a genuine threat to the West, if biochemical weapons are likely to be developed by terrorists, if there are viable alternatives to fossil fuels that should be nurtured and supported by the government, if private companies should be allowed to lead the way on space exploration, and what the actual facts are about the worsening threats from climate change. This is “must-have” information for all presidents—and citizens—of the twenty-first century.
Quote: “The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tests wine, gin, whiskey, and vodka for radioactivity. A fifth of whiskey must emit at least 400 beta rays every minute or the drink is considered unfit for human consumption. Biofuels are radioactive. Fossil fuels are not. Of those killed by the Hiroshima atomic bomb, the best estimate is that fewer than 2% died of radiation-induced cancer. These statements are all true. They are not even disputed, at least by experts. Yet they surprise most people.”
- Lauren Redniss’ Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout
Summary: Through words and her own gorgeously crafted illustrations, artist and journalist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Marie Curie, née Marya Sklodowska, and her working and romantic relationship with Pierre Curie, including their discovery of two new scientific elements with startling properties—as well as the tragic car accident that killed Pierre, Marie’s two Nobel Prizes, and her scandalous affair with a married scientist. And Radioactive looks beyond the contours of Marie’s life, surveying the changes wrought by the Curies’ discoveries—nuclear weapons, radiation in medical treatment, and nuclear energy as a possible energy source—to create an eerie, wondrous, and moving evocation of one of history’s most intriguing figures.
Quote: “We must eat, drink, sleep, be idle, have sex, love, touch the sweetest things in life and yet not succumb to them.”
Find it here: Amazon