Inspiration, Reflection, Recharging: RHB’s Annual Summer Reading List

In higher education, when summer comes the work doesn’t stop. It takes a new seasonal shape. We hope you have been able to get away from work for a little while and spend time reconnecting with the people, activities and ideas that matter most to you. Even when you can’t travel, books can reliably take you somewhere new or allow you to recover familiar territory with a new perspective. One of the themes that ties together our recommendations this year is that a new world is possible. We can find it through fiction, creative practice and a shift in the philosophies and practices through which we interact with the world in our professional and our personal lives. From science and speculative fiction to poetry to weighty tomes on baseball and change management, there are fresh territories to explore. Even better, we don’t even have to turn to a new book—used and familiar books await an opportunity to change us anew.

Rick Bailey’s picks:

I confess that since I started working on my doctoral degree last year, I’ve not done much leisurely lakeside reading. I have read some great books, however, and if you’re into higher ed leadership and change management, I have some gems for you. My favorite of the year is The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ron Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alex Grashow. I’m a Heifetz fan and this book only elevates my respect. The subtitle of the book is “Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World” which sounds a lot like a subtitle for another book I’m really familiar with, so there’s that. But the subtitle isn’t the only thing that links this great book with Coherence. The theories in both are highly compatible. I appreciate the down-to-earth writing and the practicality of the examples. You’ll find advice you can put to use immediately. 

The second book I’d recommend is Florida Atlantic Dean Jeff Buller’s Change Leadership in Higher Education. I can see how Buller’s strong opinions might create both fans and non-fans. Still, I really appreciate his calling it like he sees it. He’s a no-nonsense consultant and builds strong cases for his perspectives. Even when I don’t agree fully with him, I can see his points. I’m hoping we can get Dr. Buller to speak at an RHB gathering; I’m sure he will challenge us with his ideas. You’ll enjoy his practicality but I’m warning you, it’s dense.

For my particular program we are reading a ton of Adrianna Kezar’s work. While it is valuable and she is a true guru in the field, I wouldn’t recommend her to anyone who isn’t serious about the topics. She has done the research herself and knows everyone else’s so her volumes are awesome resources. I would suggest that if you are needing a nap, her books might be great precursors to a good one.

All that being said, a great read for the summer is To Have and to Have Another by Philip Greene. In it, Greene cites references to cocktails in the writings of Hemingway and provides the background stories along with the recipe for each concoction (with emphasis on how Papa preferred it). The chapters are short story form so it, too, is perfect for pre-napping. And it’s inspiring in its own way (he says padding out to the bar…).

Ken Anselment’s picks:

The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier. Recommended to me by America magazine writer, Jim McDermott, a Jesuit who happens to be one of my best friends from college, this book is part philosophy, string theory and speculative fiction wrapped in a continental-spanning airline thriller where Emmanuel Macron, Xi Jinping and Stephen Colbert appear as characters. (It won some fancy French literary awards, too.) If you liked the way The Matrix poses questions about reality and existence (but with way less violence, leather and latex), you’ll dig this.

The Broken Earth Series by N. K. Jemison was my summer reading last year, and the three books (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky) are exceptionally engrossing science fiction wrapped around a core of race, culture, identity, power (and super power). When you start reading the story told from the p.o.v. of Jemison’s characters–some told through third person, some first person, some second person–you feel the presence of her genius as a writer, character developer and world builder. Her writerly voice is masterful. Those books came into my life thanks to a recommendation from Tobe Bott-Lyons while we were both enjoying some morning reading over coffee in the painted Adirondack chairs outside the dining hall at Ghost Ranch (the Abiqiu, New Mexico, retreat center where Georgia O’Keefe spent so much of her time). Tobe and I were there with several other college counseling professionals participating in the inaugural Rural Opportunities for College Access program, run by my wonderful friends at Breakthrough Santa Fe and the Davis New Mexico Scholars program. (I share all of that, because, much like a song you hear for the first time in a new place will henceforth summon memories of that experience, Jemisin’s books have done the same for me.)

Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman–I wish I had read this when I was a VP for Enrollment, because it makes me think differently (and more simply) about how to manage a complex operation by boiling it down to essential elements, permitting a leader not only to see the trees in the forest, but also to understand what types of trees they are, and whether they’re well-positioned to flourish as a forest.

The Baseball 100 by Joe Poznanski. This book, a gift to me from Ray Brown, is a deep plunge into the nostalgia pool of baseball, with short, eight- to 12-page stories about some of the greats throughout baseball history, including many of the Negro Leagues stars who, were it not for segregated baseball, would be household names alongside Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron (who, himself, came up through the Negro Leagues). If you like interesting takes on the stories that statistics can reveal, this book is a treasure. At more than 850 pages, though, it’s tough to take to the beach in the hardcover form I have.

Aimee Hosemann’s picks:

I have two picks, and just as a forewarning, I am married to the one of the co-editors of the first pick. The Diné Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature (The University of Arizona Press; Esther G. Belin, Jeff Berglund, Connie A. Jacobs and Anthony K. Webster, editors) is a treasure: a compilation of poetry, fiction and nonfiction by Navajo writers, in English, Navajo and Navajo English. “Diné” is a self-referential term for “people” used by some Navajos. This volume was envisioned as a way to introduce Navajo and other Native American and Indigenous high school and college students to this incredible body of work, but it communicates to any audience that wants to understand more about Navajo culture and language and the history of colonialism and its ongoing effects within the United States. 

You can watch a recording of the book release party featuring poetry readings by several of the authors, as well as commentary by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and First Lady Phefelia Nez. Featured poets include Luci Tapahanso and Laura Tohe, both of whom have been poet laureate of the Navajo Nation. Profits are donated to the Emerging Diné Writers Institute at Navajo Technical University.

My second recommendation is to browse the art section of a used bookstore in the middle of the day, with no goal and no need in mind. As a researcher, I metaphorically paint with words. I have a hard time thinking visually. But I draw inspiration from others’ capacities to create works that encapsulate the experience of the world in ways that I have never quite gotten the hang of. What I can do is express the feelings art provokes in something I write later. I find new words in the nonverbal.

I guess this summer I am in the mood for a reminder of the possibilities that any expressive practice can create for us, if we make the time for that.

Abigail J. Molen’s picks:

​​In the early days of lockdown when we learned of the origins of the COVID-19 virus, I couldn’t help but compare real life to the plot of one of my favorite books—Anne McCaffrey’s Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern. Written on the bleeding edge of science-fiction and fantasy, Moreta is a standalone novel from the larger Dragonriders of Pern series that explores the effects of a mysterious epidemic on a pre-industrial society. As disease spreads across Pern, healers, lords, dragonriders and their fantastic beasts work together to find the cause and develop a cure. The Pernese must race against (and through) time in order to save the population and their beloved planet. I decided to read Moreta again earlier this year, and was fascinated by the experience of living through a pandemic that was not my own. Revisiting this story through a new lens of understanding gave me an increased appreciation for the technology that allowed medical developments to be made quickly in the early days of COVID-19. After all, time travel was not an option for us! If you are interested in a cathartic read of pandemic-themed fiction, I recommend adding Moreta to your list. However readers beware: this story does not end without tragedy, so I must suggest keeping a box of tissues nearby!

For a more professional read, I recommend The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Preparing for the next academic cycle can be overwhelming and draining, but this witty no-nonsense book delivers a much-needed dose of motivation for the summer months. Pressfield’s methods for identifying, combating, and moving beyond resistance apply to many facets of our work in higher education. The short chapters of this nonfiction work are organized into smaller books within, making it a great choice for intermittent reading or as an extract for professional development purposes. The War of Art has maintained a consistent spot on my office bookshelf since I first read it, and sometimes I even will reference a random chapter to give me a message of motivation for the day ahead.

Marianne Nagengast’s picks:

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. It’s hard to believe we’re already having works of fiction set during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were times I struggled reading The Sentence by Louise Erdrich because it fully brought me back to the tense, anxiety-ridden days of lockdown. I picked up this book because I was intrigued by the plot—“a small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store’s most annoying customer.” I was expecting a funny, spooky ghost story. While it did deliver on that, it almost served as more of a backdrop to the story of an immensely complicated Indigenous woman coming to grips with her past and identity in the midst of a pandemic and protests. This was a book I had to sit with for a few days after completing it to fully wrap my head around what I had read, so in that sense, it was truly haunting. (Bonus: the book includes an extensive suggested reading list at the end, so you may find even more works to enjoy!)

Another read that has stuck with me is Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan. It’s the memoir of a young journalist who wakes up alone strapped to a hospital bed with no memory of how she got there. Through her own research and interviews with her friends, family and medical staff, she’s able to piece together her “month of madness,” how what she initially assumed to be burnout or a touch of mono turned into something far more serious. Physically and mentally incapacitated, Cahalan endured weeks of misdiagnoses—was it alcohol withdrawal? Schizophrenia? Bipolar disorder?—before a particularly dedicated doctor was able to determine she was suffering from a rare brain inflammation disease. It’s a fascinating (and terrifying) story of being the subject of a medical mystery, but even beyond that, it stresses the dangers of not making assumptions and the importance of asking questions and advocating for yourself and others when something doesn’t seem quite right. 

And finally, because my first two recommendations were heavier reads and I believe it’s important to find a good balance, as some lighter fare I have to recommend Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. It’s the story of a botched bank robbery turned hostage situation, but it’s really about how we are all just bumbling through life trying to make the best we can out of a difficult world and the importance of being kind and helping each other along the way. I’ve enjoyed several of Backman’s other works, but this story in particular highlighted his gift for showcasing the glorious vulnerability of being human and how we seek connection with each other. I laughed, I cried and then I read it again.

Amanda Sale’s pick:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

As I reflected on what recommendation I would share as a summer reading pick, I must confess my reading is widespread and ranges from thoughtful to what I’ll describe as cotton candy (and others may judge as junk!). However, my go-to pick for anyone—and a book that I read, re-read and use often to frame my day-to-day perspective—is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

This book was first gifted to me by Dr. Caroline Sotello Viernes Turner, my mentor and dissertation chair at Arizona State University, and I’ve, in turn, gifted it to friends, colleagues and mentees. It’s an easy read, funny and relatable (although, fair warning, there is a bit of cursing) and does an absolutely beautiful job breaking down insurmountable tasks that can be overwhelming. While Anne’s lessons are through the lens of writing, I find it profound to replace “writing” with life and find that her advice is applicable all around and forms a great internal dialogue – a few of my favorites include thinking about things bird by bird, not getting overwhelmed by first drafts and making space for broccoli.

In fact, as I write this, I am drawn to pick up my well-worn copy and reintroduce it into the mix of my current summertime reads—I’m happy to take something that reads like cotton candy, but has actual substance and thoughtful implications anytime.

Rob Zinkan’s pick:

Creative Acts for Curious People by Sarah Stein Greenberg

If the latest Walter Isaacson 500-pager isn’t your idea of a lakeside read, how about an illustrated book? “In an era of ambiguous, messy problems—as well as extraordinary opportunities for positive change—it’s vital to have both an inquisitive mind and the ability to act with intention.” Curated by executive director Sarah Stein Greenberg, this Stanford book is full of vibrant visuals and has 81 different assignments to help you build those skills with “resilience, care and confidence.” It’s reminiscent of RHB principal Rick Bailey’s 2021 Imagine Voraciously, with activities you can do individually or with your team. They are as simple as micro-mindfulness exercises such as spending a morning phone-free and then writing your reflections about everything you noticed—about yourself, others and your environment—that you might not have otherwise noticed. There are even some full-fledged projects, such as the haircut challenge, a guided assignment to reimagine the haircut experience for another person. These and a variety of other creative prompts can help spur new thinking when you’re in need of some inspiration.

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Rob Zinkan

Rob is the Vice President for Marketing Leadership at RHB.

Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is the Director of Qualitative Research at RHB.