What’s on HDS’s Summer Reading List

June 5, 2018
A stack of books inside Andover Hall. Photo: Tony Rinaldo.

Whether you’re packing for a trip to the beach or woods, or comfortably settling onto your couch this vacation season, HDS has some book suggestions you may want to add to your bag or side table. Members of the HDS community recently shared what they’ll be reading this summer—for work and for pleasure.

Matthew Potts, Associate Professor of Religion and Literature and of Ministry Studies

I like to focus on recent novels in the summer, since I don't always have time to read fiction for pleasure during the year. Two novels on my list this summer are A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Ozeki’s novel is a few years old now, and is written from both sides of the Pacific as it follows a young Japanese girl named Nao and the tsunami of 2011. In addition to being an accomplished novelist and filmmaker, Ozeki is also a Zen Buddhist priest, and the title of this book is a reference to the thought of Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, who developed the concept of uji, or time-being, in thirteenth-century Japan. Homegoing meanwhile is a celebrated 2016 novel of eighteenth-century Ghana that follows two half-sisters, one who marries an Englishman in Ghana and the other who is sold into slavery in America. Several students have recommended this book to me, so I’m eager to read it. The third novel on my list is Toni Morrison’s classic Song of Solomon, which I’m ashamed to admit I have never read. It seems a gap I should fill as soon as possible, so that’s on my bedside table now.

The last piece of summer reading is a new translation of Augustine’s Confessions by Sarah Ruden. Though my own theological work tends toward contemporary writings, I always find myself turning back to Augustine, especially the Confessions, and this new translation looks to be quite creative and interestingly interpretive.

Sidra Ali, MDiv candidate and HDS Student Association president

This summer, I’m excited to work on racial justice and healing curriculum resources for my field education. I’ve got quite the reading list ahead of me, but I’m most looking forward to reading Derald Wing Sue’s, Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence, Iljeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race?, Carol Anderson’s White Rage, and Sara Ahmed’s brilliant monograph on racism and diversity in institutional life, On Being Included. When I’m not reading for work, I look forward to finally sitting down with Arundhati Roy’s The End of Imagination and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. And because I anticipate needing something a bit more light-hearted, Jonathan L. Howard’s delightfully macabre Johannes Cabal the Necromancer has been tucked away in my backpack for sunny afternoons and extra-long rides on the T.

Wendy McDowell, Harvard Divinity Bulletin editor

There are four books on my bedside table I have been “saving up” for summer. Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward, is an epic family saga set in rural Mississippi. Everything Ward writes is to be savored, and I can’t wait to sink into her latest. Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel The People in the Trees “examines issues of moral relativism, Western hubris, colonization and ecological disruption in the name of science” (New York Times). I was riveted by Yanagihara’s masterpiece A Little Life last summer. My vacation read will be the latest mystery in the Shetland series by Ann Cleeves, Cold Earth. I relish this series for its atmospheric evocation of the Shetland Islands (a subarctic archipelago of Scotland). I plan to start my summer reading with Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America, by George Yancy—one of my favorite contemporary philosophers and public intellectuals—in which he writes about threats and responses he received after his New York Times op-ed “Dear White America” appeared. Every book of Yancy’s I’ve read has awakened, edified, and inspired me.

Liz Lee-Hood, PhD candidate in the Study of Religion and research associate, Religions and the Practice of Peace

This summer I look forward to returning to a number of books. Of relevance to our emerging "One Harvard" Sustainable Peace Initiative is a fascinating book by one of our advisers, Martin A. Nowak, Professor of Biology and Mathematics and director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard, SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. Nowak's research challenges Darwinian theory, making the case that cooperation rather than competition is the key driver of evolution to more complex life forms. His analysis of the dynamics of cooperation may cast light on ways in which we as a species might advance toward a next evolutionary level as "supercooperators," which would be a welcome development indeed.

Nowak's book touches upon virtues that make for successful cooperators, and on the topic of virtue cultivation, I'll be reading parts of the 40-volume magnum opus of Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, Enlivening the Sciences of Religion. This treasure trove of teachings on spiritual formation brings together much accumulated wisdom from the Qur'an forward and, though penned in the late eleventh/early-twelfth century CE, remains among the most famous and widely-read works of Islamic literature. Volumes now available in English translation (Islamic Texts Society) that I will enjoy perusing along with the Arabic original include On Vigilance and Self-Examination (tr. A. Shaker); On Intention, Sincerity, and Truthfulness (tr. A. Shaker); On Patience and Thankfulness (tr. H.T. Littlejohn); and On Love, Longing, Intimacy, and Contentment (tr. O. Ormsby)—as often as possible in view of green trees!

Davíd Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America

I'm immersing myself in Toni Morrison's writings this summer. This task and pleasure is driven by the book project Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Mara Willard, and I are doing with Toni Morrison about the religious dimensions of her writings. This book, "Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination," to be published by the University of Virginia Press, emerges from the six-week seminar Stephanie and I led in 2012 in preparation for Toni's Ingersoll Lecture. A number of our HDS students, staff, and faculty participated in six meetings about her writings and it was all topped off when Toni Morrison came and spent an afternoon with us at HDS. All that intellectual wonder and community is now coming to fruition with our book. Speaking of community, I add that our colleague Professor Matthew Potts and former students Jay Williams and Josslyn Luckett also have essays in the forthcoming book.

My focus in reading Toni Morrison is on the “spiritual allies” that guide, aid, and sometimes challenge the characters in her books. This theme of spiritual allies, of solidarity between living people, ancestors, ghosts, and spirits came to me when Toni, her son Ford, and I arrived at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico some years back. It was during their intersession but the crowds of students, faculty, and staff who came to see and hear her was almost overwhelming. As we struggled to make our way from the car to the Sala Magna where she was going to speak we saw green signs with a photograph of her plastered to every wall and column. The signs had four words in Spanish around her photograph. They said "Toni Morrison Entre Nosotors", or Toni Morrison Among Us. The Mexicans identified with Toni Morrison and felt honored that she had come to their main university to be among them, to talk with them, listen to them, and read to them. That they saw her as an ally came clear to me when she was introduced in the big hall, overflowing with Mexicans. When one of our hosts asked the audience if they wished her to translate Toni’s comments and reading into Spanish, members of the audience bellowed out, “NO, Por Favor No!” We came to hear Toni Morrison’s voice. We can understand her in her language because we are IN her novels. Toni Morrison is Entre Nosotros.”

Many readers have felt alliances, social and spiritual, with Morrison. Some readers say they are physically, psychologically, and spiritually healed by reading The Bluest Eye, Sula, Beloved. Readers claim that she is their social and spiritual ally. Her characters are often in travail, great physical and even ontological danger. In novels Song of Solomon, Love, and Home, powerful spiritual allies appear in dreams, in nature, and through other human beings to guide, aid, and often challenge the traveler to explore goodness in the face of evil.

Read Home this summer and travel along with Korean war veteran Frank Money who goes on a pilgrimage in the reverse direction of the underground railroad to rescue and care for his sister Cee who is in grave danger. Along the way he meets a number of people who aid him and some who try to block his way. Meet the African American women of Lotus, Georgia, whose spiritual caretaking and knowledge of folk healing provide Cee with a new life and us readers with a secret message of where to find home. Keep an eye out for the spiritual ally in the form of a zoot suiter who appears at crucial points to urge Frank Money on to becoming a new kind of man who discovers his reason for being in caring for others.

Toni reminds me of the need for friendships and spiritual allies when she asks this question about our community, our house here in the US of A. Home begins with these words: Whose house is this? Whose night keeps out the light in here?

Read on with me to the end of Home this summer and discover who and how the light comes back in to the lives of this brother and sister.

by Michael Naughton