Off the Shelf

Recent books with Harvard connections

crowd of people dancing on Mykonos in 1955

Robert McCabe’s photographs capture Greece in an era now gone by—here, the simple pleasures of dancing on Mykonos, 1955. | PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT MCCABE

Rowing to Baikal, by Peter W. Fong ’82 (Latah Books, $19.95 paper). When he isn’t writing and editing from Algeria, the author, who has world-class wanderlust, is a flyfishing guide in Mongolia. This account covers a 60-day research expedition along Mongolia’s little-documented Selenge River basin, following its 1,500-kilometer course north to Lake Baikal, in Siberia, ahead of a planned program of dam construction and diversions for irrigation.

Far from the Rooftop of the World, by Amy Yee, M.P.A. ’20 (University of North Carolina, $22 paper). A veteran reporter who covered the aftermath of the Chinese crackdown on Tibetan protestors in 2008 melds journalism and personal reflection in narrating the experiences of Tibetans living in exile. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who inspired the work, wrote the foreword, but in a world with millions of people in flight—from war in Ukraine and Sudan, from repression and economic collapse in Venezuela— the “precious and invaluable” stories she tells sadly have universal appeal.

Henry David Thoreau: Thinking Disobediently, by Lawrence Buell, Cabot professor of American literature emeritus (Oxford, $19.95). A leading scholar of Transcendentalism and environmental humanities succinctly (115 pages) explains why Thoreau’s “one night in jail and two years of bivouacking in the woods near his home” (“Civil Disobedience,” Walden) have given him “the status of an international folk hero.” Buell points to “the energy and originality with which Thoreau expressed himself about a number of fundamental concerns”: the elements of a good life, reconciling personal integrity with the demands of society and the state, the importance of nature. In so doing, he became “a stimulus to see and be beyond the ordinary.”

Performance All the Way Down, by Richard O. Prum ’82 (University of Chicago, $22.50 paper). The Coe professor of ornithology at Yale has studied avian mating behavior and the evolution of feathers in pioneering ways. His research, and encounters with scholars in other disciplines, in part through a science and humanities program, have led him to a tenet of queer feminist theory: that gender is a performance. That encounter in turn leads him to pose large questions abo ut biological scientists’ understanding of the nature of sex and their inquiries into genetics, development, and physiology.

Greece After the War, by Robert A. McCabe, M.B.A. ’58 (European Cultural Center of Delphi/Abbeville Press, $45). A large-format volume of McCabe’s photographs of “years of hope,” taken from 1954 to 1965—after the Nazi devastation and Greece’s civil war. Beautifully evocative of people and ways of life gone by, in their timeless setting. Introduction by Panagiotis Roilos, Seferis professor of modern Greek studies and of comparative literature. (Abbeville, the estimable publisher, was founded in 1977 by the late Robert E. Abrams ’65, M.B.A. ’69.)

AI and the Future of Education, by Priten Shah ’18, Ed.M ’21 (Jossey-Bass, $25 paper). It may seem counterintuitive to try to keep up with AI in the classroom by reading a book about it, but Shah, CEO of Pedagogy.Cloud, an ed-tech consulting firm, offers a hopeful perspective in what is, essentially, a cookbook of prompts and ideas for classroom educators. Best seen as a first take on a rapidly evolving, if sometimes excessively buzzy, new tool. The decidedly more academic Literary Theory for Robots: How Computers Learned to Write, by Dennis Yi Tenen, Ph.D. ’11 (W.W. Norton, $22). A comparative literature scholar, former Microsoft engineer, and now Columbia data scientist and associate professor of English and comp lit examines machine intelligence. It may or may not be comforting to learn why “Computers love to read” any and everything about the “messiness of human wisdom and emotion,” and have come to power everything from search engines to chatbots. He is clear that “automation has come for ‘knowledge work.’”

Black Matters, edited by Andrew Garrod, Ed.D. ’82, and Robert Kilkenny, Ed.D. ’92 (Routledge, $56.95). An anthology of life stories by African American and African students at and graduates of Dartmouth, brought together by, respectively, an emeritus professor of education there and the founder of the Alliance for Inclusion and Prevention. Readers who put the New Hampshire context aside can gain access, available in perhaps no other way, to the interior thoughts and emotions of people who are an identifiable minority within an elite campus setting, and whose experiences in some cases encompass terrors and tragedies (a stop and frisking by the police, a father’s murder) that most of their peers cannot even imagine.

Grace in All Simplicity, by Robert N. Cahn ’66 and Chris Quigg (Pegasus, $29.95). A pair of emeriti from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the Fermi Lab, respectively, invite lay readers into the world of contemporary physics as told by following “the path of extraordinary people who uncovered new laws of nature” en route to the Higgs boson. The journey, from particle physics on the smallest scale to the grandest cosmological queries, has perhaps never been better told nor made more accessible. A gift to everyone who found ways to evade “hard” science requirements in college and now regrets it.

Bottled: How Coca-Cola Became African, by Sara Byala, Ph.D. ’06 (Oxford, $37.50). The author, now at the University of Pennsylvania, crafts an unusual case study of globalization. To be sure, a strong commercial impulse propels the product—but there is also demand, from consumers, for something safe and cold to drink that simultaneously confers a sense of being modern and of the larger world. “I would come to understand,” writes Byala, South African by birth, “that an ice-cold Coke far up the Niger River was as much about Mali as it was emblematic of an American corporation’s reach.”

A Theory of Everyone, by Michael Muthukrishna (MIT, $32.95). A former postdoc in and associate of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, now an economic psychologist at the London School of Economics, the author aspires to a behavioral equivalent to the “theory of everything” sought to explain all of physics. His “unified theory of human affairs” attempts to explain the interaction of “energy, innovation, cooperation, and evolution” through the lens of culture —and much more. A wildly ambitious romp toward a “periodic table for people.”

Know What Matters, by Ron Shaich, M.B.A. ’78 (Harvard Business Review Press, $30). A low-cal guide to “lessons from a lifetime of transformations” (the subtitle) by the founder of Panera Bread—who is now, as father of “fast-casual” dining, satisfying those with a sweet tooth and those with healthier inclinations through such concepts as the Cava, Tatte, and Life Alive chains. Success, distilled, comes down to telling the truth, knowing what matters, and getting the job done. But one can’t help but think that applying those maxims to good coffee and alluring sweets matters, too.

The Rebellious CEO: Twelve Leaders Who Did It Right, by Ralph Nader, LL.B. ’58 (Melville House, $29.99). The corporate critic profiles business leaders who, in his experience, “displayed forthright candor, competence, and a recognition of the complexities of society that shape the bottom line.” Among them are John Bogle, of Vanguard Group (low-cost index funds), Anita Roddick (The Body Shop), and Southwest Airlines’ Herb Kelleher. They and others convey a sense of “what…could be if business were rigorously framed as a process that was not only about making money and selling things, but about reducing damage and improving our social and natural world.”

When the Island Had Fish, by Janna Malamud Smith ’73 (Down East Books, $27.95). The author, a writer and retired psychotherapist, uses both skill sets in recounting the fishing history—extending back 5,000 years, and now rapidly changing with the climate and industrialization—of Vinalhaven, Maine, where she has long had a second home. She’s very good at eliciting details and preserving the little things. Technology, for example, has “made personal knowledge and generational instruction obsolete”: instead of referring to a fishing bottom by name (“Candy Mountain”), today’s mariners just punch in the GPS coordinates.

George Nakashima’s Conoid table and chairs, designed in 1960
Masterpieces in walnut and oak: George Nakashima’s Conoid table and chairs, designed in 1960 | COURTESY OF GEORGE NAKASHIMA WOODWORKERS SA, LTD.

The Nakashima Process Book, by Mira Nakashima ’63 (Nakashima Woodworkers, $35 paper). The daughter of the acclaimed woodworker George Nakashima, who maintains his workshop (producing his designs and her own), presents a family history, catalog, and collected sketches of the coveted hardwood masterpieces. It is thrilling, and stupefying, to see what someone with vision and skill can make from slabs of walnut.

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