6 Books Written by Faculty Members That Will Make Terrific Summer Reads

From memoirs to history to literary theory, we've got you covered with this diverse list of books.

Eve Glasberg
June 05, 2024

From Dickson Despommier's The New City, his plan for creating a self-sustaining urban landscape, to Shane McCrae's Pulling the Chariot of the Sun, his memoir in which he tells the story of his own kidnapping; Julia Bryan-Wilson's Louise Nevelson's Sculpture, in which she reconsiders the work of the renowned artist; and Dennis Yi-Tenen's take on AI, Literary Theory for Robots, Columbia faculty have published wide-ranging books recently. Here is a sampling, all of them perfect for a warm-weather read.


Louise Nevelson's Sculpture: Drag, Color, Join, Face

By Julia Bryan-Wilson

Louise Nevelson's Sculpture by Columbia University Professor Julia Bryan-Wilson

In Louise Nevelson’s Sculpture: Drag, Color, Join, FaceJulia Bryan-Wilson, a professor of art history and archeology, provides a rethinking of the art of Nevelson (1899–1988). A signature figure in postwar sculpture, this Ukraine-born, Jewish immigrant persevered in the male-dominated New York art world. Nonetheless, her careful procedures of construction—in which she assembled found pieces of wood into elaborate structures, usually painted black—have been little studied. Organized around a series of key operations in Nevelson’s process (dragging, coloring, joining, and facing), the book comprises four slipcased, individually bound volumes. Both form and content thus echo Nevelson’s own modular sculptures, the gridded boxes of which the artist herself rearranged. By exploring how Nevelson’s procedures relate to domesticity, racialized matter, gendered labor, and the environment, Bryan-Wilson examines the social and political implications of Nevelson’s art. Bryan-Wilson also approaches Nevelson’s sculptures from her own perspective as a queer feminist scholar. She forges an expansive art history that places Nevelson’s assemblages in dialogue with a wide array of marginalized makers and artists.

Read a Columbia News interview with Professor Bryan-Wilson about the book.


The New City: How to Build Our Sustainable Urban Future

By Dickson Despommier

The New City by Columbia University emeritus professor Dickson Despommier

Cities are core drivers of the climate crisis, as Dickson Despommier, an emeritus professor of public health and microbiology at Columbia, details in The New City: How to Build Our Sustainable Urban Future. Cities’ dependence on the outside world for vital resources is causing global temperatures to rise and wildlife habitats to shrink. But there is an opportunity, says Despommier, to make cities more sustainable by transforming the built environment. In the book, he proposes a visionary yet achievable plan for creating a new, self-sustaining urban landscape. He argues for solutions based on the concept of biomimicry—emulating successful strategies found in nature. A better city is possible if its design echoes the ways in which forests and trees store carbon, grow food, collect rainwater, and convert sunlight into energy. By describing established and leading-edge technologies, The New City provides a blueprint for this new urban environment. Cities built from wood are more resilient and less destructive than concrete and steel construction; they also encourage reforestation, boosting carbon sequestration. Vertical farms inside city limits supply residents with a reliable, healthy food supply. Buildings will harvest moisture from the rain and air to secure a clean water supply. Renewable energy—including not only wind, solar, and geothermal, but also clear, photovoltaic window glass and nonpolluting hydrogen fuel cells—can power a cleaner city.

Read a Columbia News interview with Dickson Despommier about the book.



By Leslie Jamison

Splinters by Columbia University Professor Leslie Jamison

In her first memoir, Splinters: Another Kind of Love StoryLeslie Jamison, the head of the nonfiction concentration in the Writing Program at School of the Arts, turns her powers of perception on some of the most intimate relationships of her life. In examining her love for her young daughter, her ruptured marriage, and the legacy of her parents’ complicated bond, Jamison explores what it means for a woman to be many things at once—a mother, an artist, a teacher, a lover. In a book that grieves the departure of one love even as it celebrates the arrival of another, Jamison asks: How do we move forward into joy when we are haunted by loss? How do we claim hope alongside the harm we’ve caused?

Read a Columbia News interview with Professor Jamison about the book.


Pulling the Chariot of the Sun

By Shane McCrae

Pulling the Chariot of the Sun by Columbia University Professor Shane McCrae

In Pulling the Chariot of the SunShane McCrae, a writing professor at the School of the Arts, tells the story of how his grandparents kidnapped him and took him to suburban Texas when he was 3 years old. His mom was white and his dad was Black, and to hide his Blackness from him, his maternal grandparents stole him from his father. In the years that followed, they manipulated and controlled him, refusing to acknowledge his heritage—all the while believing they were doing what was best for him. For their own safety and to ensure that the kidnapping remained a success, McCrae’s grandparents never told him the truth—so he was raised, in effect, to participate in his own disappearance. But despite elaborate fabrications and unreliable memories, McCrae began to reconstruct his own story and to forge his own identity. Gradually, the truth unveiled itself, and with the truth, came a path to reuniting with his father and finding his own place in the world.

Read a Columbia News interview with Professor McCrae about the book.


Red Orchestra

By Anne Nelson

Red Orchestra by Columbia University research scholar Anne Nelson

Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler, by Anne Nelson, a research scholar at Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, tells the dramatic story of a group of German citizens who opposed Hitler from the start. The 150 or so members of the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra) resistance movement chose to stay in Germany to resist Nazism and help its victims. The group was made up of academics, theater people, and factory workers; Protestants, Catholics, and Jews; people from all walks of life. Drawing on archives, memoirs, and interviews with survivors, Nelson presents the men and women involved, and the terrifying, day-to-day decisions in their lives, from the Nazi takeover in 1933 to their Gestapo arrest in 1942. Nelson traces the Red Orchestra within the context of German history, from the 1920s to the end of World War II. She also constructs the narrative around the life of Greta Kuckhoff and other women, whose role in the anti-Nazi resistance fight is too often unrecognized or under-appreciated.

Read a Columbia News interview with Anne Nelson about the book.


Literary Theory for Robots

By Dennis Yi Tenen

Literary Theory for Robots by Columbia University Professor Dennis Yi Tenen

Literary Theory for Robots, the new book by Dennis Yi Tenen, an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature, explores the history of modern machine intelligence, taking readers on a journey that includes medieval Arabic philosophy, visions of a universal language, Hollywood fiction factories, and missile defense systems trained on Russian folktales. In his reflection on the shared pasts of literature and computer science, Tenen, a former Microsoft engineer, provides crucial context for recent developments in AI. Tenen, whose research happens at the intersection of people, text, and technology, maintains that intelligence expressed through technology should not be mistaken for a magical genie, capable of self-directed thought or action. Rather, he perceives AI as the mechanics of collaborative work. Something as simple as a spell-checker or a grammar-correction tool, embedded in every word processor, represents the culmination of a shared human effort, spanning centuries. Smart tools, like dictionaries and grammar books, have always accompanied the acts of writing, thinking, and communicating. That these paper machines are now automated does not bring them to life. By blending history, technology, and philosophy, Literary Theory for Robots presents AI as a matter of labor history, recognizing the long-standing cooperation between authors and engineers.

Read a Columbia News interview with Professor Yi Tenen about the book.