An annual tradition in our household, like in many of yours I am sure, is summer reading.  So enticing is summer reading that some years it seems I spend more minutes planning what books I will read than I spend actually reading them.

I love reading summer reading suggestion lists; two I have encountered and admired in recent days are NAIS President Pat Bassett’s and Cool-Cat Teacher Vicki Davis’.    Check them out.

Here is a stab at offering my suggestions, the favorites of what I have read in the past twelve months. I hope you find it helpful to planning your summer reading.


Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson.  This is the best, hands down, among the books I have read in the past year, in helping me think more clearly about what environmental/cultural features support the emergence of good ideas and informing us on how we can better advance this.  It is is also a classic “general nonfiction” read, completely accessible and a genuine pleasure to read.


The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba.  Innovation again, but from entirely the opposite perspective of Steve Johnson, from the ground up this time.   A great story and a great inspiration.

Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching can Transform Education by David Perkins. I write often about Project based learning, but this book pulls back the focus and articulates a holistic philosophy of schooling where pbl units are not isolated but embedded into an entire classroom and school-house culture where everything connects and all our learning is related and relevant to students and teachers.   Using an extended metaphor of baseball, Perkins writes brilliantly about both concepts and practices that will engage, enrich and inspire our students.


A New Culture of Learning by John Seely Brown and Doug Brown.  I have written already about this book; it is a lovely and lively exploration of the ways we all, child and adult, are learning and can learn in rich and meaningful ways never before available.    Succinct and chock-full of anecdotes and examples, this is the rare non-fiction treasure that can be genuinely enjoyed on the beach, airplane, cafe and library equally.

The World is Open by Curtis Bonk.  I didn’t love this book at all– there are many aspects of the narrative and the writing style that just plain irked me, and I didn’t even finish it altogether: so how can I recommend it?   Because it is a valiant effort to contain within its covers a vast breadth of information and ideas about the way the world of learning is changing, and it does so with an admirable ideological agenda: open information and open source will serve us all, and serve our learning and our individuation phenomenally in the coming years if we let it.

presentation zen by Garr Reynolds is less current than others on this list, but I only discovered zen this past year, and I am eagerly trying to internalize its lessons about how better to communicate orally and with images.  Such a lovely design, this book and its sequel display, that you want to just hold them and turn the pages slowly to absorb the beauty with the hope that some of the aesthetic will then rub off onto you and into your bloodstream, vision, and worldview.

 Communicating and Connecting with Social Media by Jason Ramsden, Bill Ferriter and Eric Sheninger.   Perhaps it is unfair to recommend this book, because it is written by three now-friends, face to face friends, but in fairness, all three only became my friends via social media, the subject of the book, and so my friendship with them is testimony itself to the importance of the book’s subject and the power of social media.   There are many of us who lead schools who wish to advance further in our effective use of SM, both internally and externally, to strengthen our schools’ community, communications, and regional recognition, and this is a great guide.

Brain Rules by John Medina.   Better than most others, this book combines strong and deep brain research and knowledge with a very high accessibility for the general reader, and offers great suggestions and insights that you can really apply in your daily life, and in your classroom.  For more on applications of the book, see this post: Medina’s Brain Rules: Informing Teachers as Researchers.


Blessings of a B-Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers by Wendy Mogel.  Like her previous, and also terrific book, the Blessings of a Skinned Knee, this book is very valuable in reassuring and advising us as parents and educators that we need have both high expectations and high forgiveness for our kids as they journey through childhood and adolescence.  We want them to learn and grow, and so we have to want them to make mistakes, as incredibly frustrating as that may be for us.   We want them to have experiences and to immerse themselves in their world, and we need to strive to let them do so even as we appropriately protect them– no easy balancing act.   One quibble: I think student experiences of international community service, such as in Kenya, can be and usually are incredible growth experiences, and are not to be dismissed in the way she chooses to do.

Poke the Box by Seth Godin.  I read everything Godin writes– and this is again succinct, informed, and insightful into our fast-changing world and the way it is demanding differently from us today than in the past if we seek to be successful.   It also inspires us to act, to move, to do something, and to poke the darn box already.

Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky.  Shirky is a rock star: upbeat, energetic, optimistic, and evangelistic.   Think  Bono, without sunglasses and with an iphone.   Since reading this book last August, I have found myself often, perhaps too often, retelling the anecdote from the book’s conclusion, about the four year old girl who gets up from her grandparents couch to examine the large-screen TV.  Grandma, observing her scanning the back of the TV, begins to try to explain to the child that no, the characters she has been watching are not real people back behind a window, but the prekindergarten hero of the story cuts her off– No, no grandma, that is not what I am thinking, I am looking for the mouse.   None of us, and kids especially, are content any longer just watching: we demand interactivity with our media.


Literary, or Semi-Literary Fiction

Solar by Ian McEwan.  I will always be devoted to McEwan: he is undeniably Nobel-worthy and enormously readable.  I enjoyed Solar, laughed, saw compelling insights into our world and satire of our times, and yet, this is not among his finest.   Solar is a bit of an artifice, a bit too much of a parable, and never brings us as deeply into the souls of the characters as Saturday and Atonement did.  That said, it is still an important and interesting work about our ambitions, our hubris, and our limitations.

The Heights by Peter Hedges.  This is a very engaging slice of contemporary life novel set in Brooklyn, and featuring as the central character a history teacher at a prominent independent-private school, a connection to my own world and experience I especially enjoyed.  The novel is very much an insiders view of marriage, with a Tom Perotta-like sensibility, one that any married person will enjoy having the perspective of for comparison.   It is funny, sad, and ultimately reconciling in its view of relationships and love.

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross.  This is a postmodern, mobius strip style novel that will keep you scratching your head as you manage the twisty narrative and keep you laughing out loud, sympathizing intensely,  and perhaps crying in angst as you experience the emotional roller coaster its characters ride.

The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall.  Fat, epic, far-reaching– definitely a contender in the great American novel category: this novel is also relevant in its effort to render what has become a popular topic of late, the lives of Mormons.  Like the HBO series Big Love, this is the story of a very complicated and yet rewarding marriage– one with many wives and many children and much stress.  The family in question becomes a stand-in for all our families and perhaps for more, and the novel illuminates domestic drama and American life by the power of its exaggeration, farce, and tragedy.


Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  I was one of the many who completely loved Franzen’s previous novel, The Corrections; I was also one of the many who was a bit letdown by Freedom.  But my disappointment wasn’t nearly as deep as that of others.  The book is inviting and engrossing, and its characters, though deeply flawed and not always likable (except for Lalitha, whom I adored) do represent a contemporary uneasiness of living on and abusing our planet in the way we do today.   This is a dis-ease that is a disease, and Franzen doesn’t try to let us off the hook or excuse it: he confronts it and asks us to do so also, as uncomfortable as that may be.


The Ask by Sam Lipsyte. This is a bit depressing,  a middle age crisis novel capturing as it does the world of educational fundraising and the inherent stresses, complexities, and tensions therein.   Satirical, I hope, it offers a circus mirror view of the world of organizations and provokes us to ask ourselves important questions about integrity and character as we observe, pity, and recognize the journey of the protagonist.

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett.    A rich story I couldn’t put down, this novel aims to capture the impact on recognizably real people in real towns of the crazy financial era we recently saw end so explosively, with so much terrible fallout.   The “hero,” who is anything but, rises and falls dizzily with the financial boom and bust, and we see his view of it as we see that of those surrounding him.    It is not a pretty picture, nor a happy story; it asks of the reader an intellectual inquiry into the allegorical implications of the disturbing, even appalling relationship the protagonist has with a troubled teenage boy, but through this lens we see powerfully the way our community has been devastated by financial chicanery.


The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman.  Like the previous, this novel shows us how the stock market and its loopy roller coaster affects people in many different environments, but here it is the dotcom boom and bust of 1998-2001 we are observing; this is also a September 11 story.   For me, it was a joy to read because it is set primarily in three of my hometowns or favorite spots: Berkeley, Cambridge, and Humboldt County, California.    It is also wide ranging, informing and educating us about cookbooks, architecture, software engineering, IPOs, redwood trees, and much more– an autodidact’s delight.


The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.  Perhaps not to everyone’s taste, as it crosses boundaries in a way that might make some uncomfortable, this book is, nonetheless, my absolutely favorite novel of the past year or several years.  Risqué, outrageous, subversive, Bruno is also hilarious and philosophical, deeply, about what it means to be human and what it means to be civilized.   Even as I write this I want to pick it up and read it again, and reflect again, with our hero Bruno, the chimpanzee who can talk, about how we define ourselves and limit ourselves by our relationships, our understandings, our definitions, our rules, and our insights.

The Uncoupling.  My strongest memory of ninth grade is of reading out-loud in Ancient History class the play Lysistrata, and one of my favorite teaching experiences has been teaching that same play to ninth and twelfth graders.  Stunningly current and contemporary, the 4th century BCE play deserves to be read for the remainder of human history. In this novel set inside of a high school (a favorite setting of mine) in contemporary suburbia, every romantic relationship in the town, adult and teen, must be reexamined and reconsidered when the new drama teacher stages Aristophanes’ classic.

Not-So-Literary Fiction

61 Hours by Lee Child.  Really you should read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels sequentially, but no matter how you do it, read Child.   Jack Reacher is one of, nay the, most fascinating recurring characters of contemporary genre literature, and by entering his worldview one must think, think, think about moral choices and moral responsibility, even as you learn about how to fight, shoot, and drink coffee. I read each one of these the day it is released, and I would read them monthly if I had the opportunity.


The Passage by   Vampires or zombies, they tell us, are the two competing monsters of our age: this novel seems to blend them into a post-apocalyptic, Corman McCarthy The Road-like, epic narrative of scientific disaster.  The story got a bit weary and drab in the last third of the book, but I enjoyed it on the whole and look forward to the sequel.

Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst. I haven’t  read much Furst this past decade, but I have been missing out.  I loved this story of Greece and the Balkans (with a touch of Paris) in the early days of World War II– the characters, the intrigue, the romance, the settings.   I am going to read more Furst this summer.


At lunch with my family today, we did one of those great family things that every family should do often, but which sadly we d0 far too rarely: together we set, for each of us individually, our summer reading and learning goals and wrote them carefully down and posted them on the kitchen wall.   S., going into 8th grade,  plans to read four nonfiction books, his four required summer reading novels, and ten additional novels; he also plans to complete at least ten Khan Academy lessons in Math and Chemistry.

When it came to my turn, I shared my ambition to read ten novels and ten works of nonfiction, many of which will come from the following list– but no guarantees.  I share the list so you can see my aspirations, and because by publishing this list I will feel a slightly greater responsibility to try to accomplish completing the list.   But I will say, if I begin reading a book and it doesn’t work for me, I discontinue reading, and it is entirely possible that will happen to one or more of this list.

Check back next June (2012) to see which among the following make my subsequent suggestion list.


  1. 2030 by Albert Brooks.
  2. The Privileges by Jonathan Dee
  3. Three Stages of Amazement by Carol Edgarian
  4. Sixkill by Robert Parker (the last Spenser– such a sadness).
  5. the Rembrandt Affair by Daniel Silva
  6. The Fifth Witness by Michael Connolly
  7. Dark Star and Dark Voyage by Alan Furst


  1. Academically Adrift
  2. The Parents We Mean to Be by Weissbourd
  3. Visible Learning by Hattie.
  4. Incognito by Eagleman
  5. Reality is Broken by McGonigle
  6. We-Think by Leadbeater
  7. UnSchooling Rules by Aldrich.
  8. Diversity & Complexity by Page.
  9. Flourishing by Seligman
  10. ReDesigning Leadership by Maeda.

As always, I welcome and encourage readers to use the “leave a comment box” to share your reactions to any of the books discussed above, or to share your own summer reading suggestions.

Happy reading!