We asked our faculty to suggest the best books to entertain, inspire, and inform you this summer and they responded with a list of wide-ranging companions for a season of relaxation, recharging, and rejuvenation.
Whether you’re ready to dive into the story of American culture in the pivotal years from the end of World War II to the Vietnam era, a dark crime novel set in Europe, insights into life in contemporary Shanghai, a look into how the intersection of economics and psychology explains profound human foibles, or a vision full of wonder and hope about aging, medicine, and humanity itself — there’s a title for you.
Explore the following recommendations and let summer begin!
Sign up for our newsletters to receive analysis and commentary by our experts.
Director of the Asia Health Policy Program and Deputy Director of APARC
My recommendations range from short stories to novels and from near my field to completely unrelated to it:
Director of the Southeast Asia Program
At 858 pages, Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War is borderline encyclopedic, but it avoids political history and delves instead into the parallel creativity of those years in art, music, literature, and philosophy.
For word mavens with a sense of humor, I suggest Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. For a grieving intellectual: Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life. For admirers of investigative journalism and the acumen and courage of women therein: Elizbeth Becker’s You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War.
Inexplicably, I still haven’t read Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, despite the independent urgings of several friends whose judgments I trust, who swear that it is, in fact, unputdownable. And finally, for anyone who shares my belief that The New Yorker's cartoon editor lacks a sense of humor, I recommend a hilarious compilation by Matthew Diffee, The Best of the Rejection Collection: 293 Cartoons That Were Too Dumb, Too Dark, or Too Naughty for The New Yorker.
Shorenstein APARC Fellow
I am an omnivorous reader who thinks more in terms of authors than individual books. I’ve read all (or almost all) of the books by the following authors and recommend all of them:
Ian Rankin has written more than twenty Inspector Rebus crime novels set in Edinburg. You can read each one individually, but Rebus ages and the city changes during the series.
Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series employs the conceit of placing Bernie, a diligent Berlin cop into a series of actual historical events. The series begins in Berlin on the eve of the Nazi takeover and continues into the 1960s. The wisecracking Gunther is entertaining and the struggles of one basically honest, dedicated, and decent man to survive in the Nazi era are telling. Kerr’s standalone novels are also very good.
Alan Furst has written 15 or more dark novels set in Europe just before and during WWII. The main characters in each one are different, but all undertake dangerous, even heroic actions for noble ends that end up accomplishing almost nothing. Furst’s novels are extremely well written and evocative of time and place.
Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao novels are not great literature, but they are both insightful and informative about life in contemporary Shanghai and nearby areas. Chen is an honest cop, party member, and poet regularly assigned to politically sensitive cases. The books can be read in any order but are best read in the order they were written.
T. Jefferson Parker writes about crime in southern California, and his books subdivide into several different series built around quite different characters. The Roland Ford series is my favorite.
FSI Center Fellow at APARC
There are so many books to recommend, but three selections particularly hit me, given the times:
The first is Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk, a series of essays about how mobility and travel shape us individually and as a people. The second is The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale about the dystopian society in which women have lost all their rights through a political movement that took off because of environmental and health issues that impacted fertility. These books made me think about how important it is to be ready to pick up and move anywhere if you need to! The third is Anxious People, by Frederik Backman, which deals with human connection and the impact people have on each other. Compassion and kindness win the day, so it’s a great read for tough times.
Director of APARC and of the Korea Program
I would recommend two books that can offer us historical lessons in light of recent events:
Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 and Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World.