Must reads from Berkshire literati

Summer may be almost over, but there's still time to squeeze in one last summer reading assignment.

You can join the incoming freshmen class of 2021 students at Williams College, who have been given free copies of "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson as part of its Williams Reads program for its First Days conversations. Or at MCLA, where incoming freshmen have been asked to read Jana Laiz's "Weeping Under This Same Moon." Or, you could follow in the footsteps of Stanford University's incoming class and read "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" by Williamstown resident and Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Kolbert. (Before you start to complain about heavy reading assignments, take note that Stanford students had not one, but three summer reading assignments before their first class goes into session this fall.)

About 40 percent of college orientations include discussion of a common reading assignment, according to a report by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina.

Even if you're way past your first-year reading assignment days (or, maybe you skipped that assigned book all together — we won't tell) we could all use some inspiring book recommendations. We asked notable readers from across Berkshire County which book every college freshmen should read. Here are the results of our informal survey:

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead

Chosen by Linda Greenhouse, former Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, who is now an instructor at Yale Law School and a resident of Stockbridge.

"This 2016 novel won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. The compelling narrative is grounded in reality but built around several thought experiments about slavery and American history. A young person who reads this novel will never be able to think about the pre-Civil War South or North in the same way — and will understand today's United States in a richer way as well, which I believe was the author's intention."

"Leadership on the Line, Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading" by Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky

Chosen by Charles "Chip" Joffe-Halpern, currently executive director of Berkshire Area Health Education Center, formerly 20-year executive director of Ecu-Health Care, assisting low-income people in securing insurance/care, in North Adams.

"Heifetz is the director of the Leadership Program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The thesis of the book is that the most important function of leadership is to help people cope with loss. I first heard of the book when I heard Linsky speak at a Parents Weekend at Wesleyan University when our daughter was there. He was great. The book is engaging, readable, full of many examples and very smart. I wish the book was around when I was in college so many years ago. It will give students a perspective that I think will help them through their years of transition and they will carry with them as they enter adulthood."

"A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn

Chosen by Will Singleton, native of Pittsfield who pursued a career in education, including as superintendent of a New York state school district, then returned to Pittsfield and revived the Berkshire branch of the NAACP in 2012, serving until 2014.

"The author's purpose was to inspire people to read, learn and make history. This book would be a good start for the young people who will be our future leaders and voting citizens."

"The Success Principals" by Jack Canfield

Chosen by Ty Allan Jackson, author and founder of Big Head Books.

" 'The Success Principals' is an essential book to enhance the growth and development of anyone and everyone, regardless of profession or goals. It touches on attributes we all need in our personal and professional life from perseverance to appreciation to achieve the level of success we desire. I like to call it my Bible and a blueprint for a fulfilling life. It's arguably the most important book I've ever read and I accredit much of my success to the philosophies inside of it."

"Cleopatra" by Stacy Schiff

Chosen by Jennifer Trainer Thompson, author and president and CEO of Hancock Shaker Village.

"I re-read it recently (Stacy was in the Berkshires) and it is a dazzling biography of one of the most intriguing women in history. The book strips away our assumptions, and brings to life not only Alexandria as the intellectual capital of the known world at the time, but also Egypt as an ancient pioneer of gender equality. Schiff pulls history forward and makes it breathe, subtly challenging us to rethink the way we look at myths, history and indeed ourselves."

"The Education of Henry Adams," by Henry Adams

Chosen by Donald Morrison, author, journalist and educator. In a long career at TIME, he wrote and edited in every department of the magazine. Today, he is the European editor of the London-based magazine PORT and lives in Becket.

"I'd nominate Henry Adams' 'The Education of Henry Adams,' one of the few books I can still recall having read in college. That's because, despite having been written more than a century ago, it's lively, snarky, intellectually engaging and pulsing with life. Adams, great-grandson of founding father John Adams and grandson of John Qunicy Adams, was a respected historian and literary giant when he penned this privately published memoir in the waning years of the 19th century. It tells the story of America as it left behind its high-minded New England origins and became a rough-edged, money-grubbing, technology-obsessed, 20th century economic power — a transition that appalled the prim and proper Adams. It's the story of America told in a way you've never heard. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919, more than a decade after it first appeared."

"The Anxiety of Influence" by Harold Bloom

Chosen by Mandy Greenfield, artistic director of Williamstown Theatre Festival.

"Incoming college freshmen should read it and four years later, read it again as outgoing seniors. If the book is almost meaningless on the way in, and deeply meaningful on the way out, their college education was a good one."

"Between The World and Me" by Ta'Nehisi Coates

Chosen by Julianne Boyd, Barrington Stage artistic director

"It's a brilliant, no-holds-barred look at America's racial history and where we are today. Young people of all races should read this book to understand we need to come together to solve this country's racial problems."

"Birdsong" by Sebastian Faulks

Chosen by James Burton, Tanglewood Festival Chorus conductor and BSO choral director

"It's partially an historical novel, and I found it brilliantly researched and informative (set in France during the first World War) and it flits between that time and the modern day. Structurally, it's therefore an ingenious book, but above all it's a totally gripping story. As a war novel it borders on the epic, and the more personal writing is deeply moving. It's one of the few books which made me weep uncontrollably."

"Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" by Jared Diamond

Chosen by Van Shields, executive director of Berkshire Museum.

"What I like about this book is how it uses data points from different disciplines to illuminate the complex story of people and place, beginning with the migration of humans out of Africa and spreading over the globe. I took great interest in learning about the environmental and cultural variables that impacted human social organization and development. I was also intrigued by how the same species with the same needs (that would be us) meets those needs in different ways based on their culture and time. The book won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and for a student entering college, 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' could be an inspiration to, as Steve Jobs famously said, think different."

"The History of Love" by Nicole Krauss

Chosen by Pamela Tatge, director of Jacob's Pillow.

"... an epic book-within-a-book that is so beautifully crafted, so dizzyingly true and so full of wisdom. You will love the characters she creates and care deeply about their journeys. A first-year student will immediately be engaged in the power of this writer and her ability to paint pictures we can so fluidly enter. It's a masterpiece."

Picks from Kate Maguire, artistic director and CEO of Berkshire Theatre Group:

"Books on my mind have to do with aging gracefully, so I decided to ask my kids and their mates for their recommendations. The following are their responses:"

From Isadora: Rainer Maria Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet," because it underscores being true to yourself and helps through lonely times.

From Joe: John Berger's "Ways of Seeing," because it is an eye opening, accessible starting point into cultural theory.

From Emma: Carl Bernstein's and Bob Woodward's "All the President's Men," because it's about dogged work paying off.

From Stephanie: Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals," because it's about building personal power and avoiding indoctrination.

From Alexander: Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding," because it's a great story about going to college and learning about yourself.

From Nicole: Paulo Coelho's "The Alchemist," because it's about finding one's destiny and filled with wisdom and advice."


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