As a great enthusiast of book lists, last year, I decided to join the ranks of people offering summer reading lists. To me, book lists offer the tantalizing excitement of new worlds, new wisdom, and new ways of thinking. We didn't get a television until I was seven years old, which meant that I had already discovered the joys of reading. I devoured biographies, while also reading fiction and books about Native Americans who fascinated me. In those pre-internet days, books also provided instructions about the arts and crafts I still love. While today I turn to the web when I need to learn a knitting stitch, I still treasure books as an endless source of both learning and entertainment.
While I read all year round, usually at least two books at once—one nonfiction and one novel, my packed schedule constrains my reading time. Summer, by contrast, always offers the prospect of long unscheduled days—even though that prospect always proves somewhat illusory. There's no harm in dreaming, though, and when I don't read all the books I wanted to (which is always), I try not to feel disappointed.
Thanks to President of the National Association of Independent Schools Donna Orem's blog, I recently learned some interesting information about the value of reading. A study conducted by the New School for Social Research found that reading literary fiction makes people more empathetic (more than reading popular fiction, nonfiction, or not reading at all). The deep development of character in literary fiction "disrupt[s] reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes." Other research has found that high schoolers who read Harry Potter test as less racist. There is also evidence that reading books and discussing them in-depth, in-person with people who have different political views breaks down partisanship. Finally, reading can serve as a form of therapy, a means to get out of ourselves and gain perspective that makes us feel better.
Nor should we forget that we assign students summer reading with purpose—it's a way for them to keep a hand in academic work during the long summer hiatus. I would hope it would also help children find some respite from their busy, often over-scheduled lives while offering all the advantages outlined above. However, it's fine if young people read solely for entertainment. All Holton students will have some summer reading to do, but you also might consider signing up for your local public library's summer reading program. These are low-key and fun and will connect your daughter to the amazing resource that is our public library system.
Having neither majored in English nor taught it, I don't feel equipped to distinguish between literary and popular fiction. However, with that caveat and considering the research on the value of reading fiction, I will share some recent favorites. I recently finished The Great Alone by Kristen Hannah, an engrossing, moving story about a family who moves to Alaska in the 1970s to escape what the Vietnam veteran father/husband views as the corruption of American society. I have never been to Alaska, but Hannah's descriptions of the landscape made me feel as though I had. Her descriptive powers provide the context for a story of love, familial and romantic, abusive and healthy. I often couldn't put it down and I keep thinking about it months later. I chose it because I had loved another book by Hannah, The Nightingale, an incredible story of two sisters living in occupied France during World War II. One joins the Resistance and carries out dangerous missions rescuing downed Allied pilots; the other tries to survive with her children in a village where the inhabitants are forced to quarter German troops. It's totally different from The Great Alone, but at least as good.
Another recent read I highly recommend has been around for a while: The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro. Shapiro uses the 1990 Isabel Steward Gardiner Museum art theft as a springboard for an original story that takes us deep into the world of artists and art dealers, as well as the art of forgery. It keeps you guessing right up until the end, finishing with a plot twist that even fooled my husband, who always figures out mysteries and whodunit.
If this topic interests you at all, I also highly recommend a podcast entitled Last Seen, a deep investigation by reporters from WBUR and The Boston Globe of the Gardiner heist, in which thieves stole 13 priceless works of art that have yet to be recovered. Despite knowing from the outset that we'll never learn the answer, I found it totally engrossing. (I listened to Last Seen before reading The Art Forger, which was hardly necessary but did provide background knowledge for the novel.)
Another Boston-based novel that transported me into a completely unfamiliar world was The Chalk Artist, by Allegra Goodman. The story centers on an artistically talented young man who is having a hard finding direction in his life until, you guessed it, he meets a girl. Besides being an artist, Aidan is an avid gamer, and it turns out that Nina's father owns the video game company that creates Aidan's favorite game. The story takes both expected and unexpected turns and carries you along on its own merit, but the immersion into the gaming world about which I know very little was also fascinating.
On to my nonfiction recommendations:
Last year, in the parenting category, I recommended Lisa Damour, PhD's Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, and this year, I urge you to read Lisa's latest book, which just came out in February: Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. In this engaging, accessible read, Lisa unpacks stress and anxiety. She helps us to recognize what stress and anxiety are telling us, to acknowledge that they can be normal and healthy, and to understand when they are unhealthy. I found her book to be a sympathetic exploration of this important issue that puts stress and anxiety in perspective. Lisa will be at Holton on Nov. 13, so save the date! She's a wonderful speaker whom you won't want to miss.
As I thought a lot last fall about how we could do an even better job protecting our students from sexual harassment and assault, I finally read Peggy Orenstein's Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. This is another book I highly recommend, both for Orenstein's insights into contemporary girls' (and boys') sex lives and for her concrete suggestions about how we could better help our children learn about sex. She wisely and compassionately emphasizes the importance of girls finding true pleasure in sex and treating it as a normal, healthy part of life. I found her explanation of the Dutch approach to sex education particularly interesting.
One of the books on my list to read last summer, which was also one of our faculty/staff choices, was Debby Irving's Waking Up White, And Finding Myself in the Story of Race. Having now read it, I would encourage anyone white to do so as well. Irving takes us on her own journey as a white woman towards greater understanding of all the ways we benefit, more often than not unwittingly, from our skin color. As we travel with her, we benefit from what she learns and grow in our own understanding.
Also on last summer's list was Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and professor of international health. Bill Gates recommended Factfulness as a must-read, and I agree. While acknowledging that we still have much work to do, Rosling helps us see all the progress we've made across the world in the past few decades in improving millions of people's standard of living. In the process, he also highlights how we can continue on this trajectory. We now use Rosling's work in Global Perspectives, the class juniors take to prepare for their Junior Journeys, and in our Advanced Global Applications in Environmental Science course. Be prepared for a welcome dose of good news!
Those of you who lead teams of almost any kind will surely gain a lot from Daniel Coyle's The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. The Administrative Team read this and used it as the basis of our January retreat. After studying highly successful groups across a range of professions from Navy SEALS to jewel thieves, he identifies three prerogatives to create high-functioning teams: build safety; share vulnerability; establish purpose. One of the most interesting aspects of his book is his argument that you need to share vulnerability to build trust, rather than the more accepted notion that trust must exist for people to feel comfortable being vulnerable. Coyle shares numerous stories that illustrate his points and offers concrete steps we can take to build these skills. It's readable, practical, and enlightening.
What am I reading now, you ask:
Michelle Obama, Becoming
John Palfrey, Safe Places, Brave Places (Palfrey is the Head of School at Andover and a lawyer by training; he writes a thoughtful and useful work about how to find middle ground between protecting people from harmful speech and allowing for the freedom of expression so essential to democracy.)
Edgar H. Schein and Peter Schein, Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust (I'm always looking for good books on leadership and the Scheins' approach seems to fit with how I view effective leadership.)
Kate Atkinson, Transcription (Books about female spies during WWII seem all the rage, and this is a fictional account by an author with two previous books, also set in England during roughly the same time period, that I loved: God in Ruins and Life After Life.)
Soraya Chemaly, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger (Just what the title suggests, using a combination of extensive research and personal experience; full disclosure: my sister-in-law.)
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife (Also just what the title suggests, by a member of Holton's Class of 1977 and a former NPR reporter.)
My summer list (after I finish those above):
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (This, along with Damour's Under Pressure, and the next book on the list are our faculty/staff summer reading choices.)
Melinda Gates, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World
Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization
Tara Westover, Educated
That's an attempt to be a little realistic, because I actually have a much longer list! Happy summer and happy reading!