The Phi Beta Kappa Society’s 2021 Summer Reading List includes something for everyone, whether you prefer fantasy fiction, an important historical account, or even books focused on wellbeing. Chosen by fellow Phi Beta Kappa members on social media, these books include a mix of fiction and nonfiction, many of which will make you ponder current and past events. Also featured are recommendations from our alumni book clubs around the country and works by Phi Beta Kappa authors listed on the Key Reporter's Goodreads page.

Leave a comment to tell us how many of these titles you have read as well as other titles you think we should keep in mind for future selections. Thanks to our members for their many thoughtful suggestions, and here’s to a summer of great reading! 


Member Suggestions


Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su

For mathematician Francis Su, a society without mathematical affection is like a city without concerts, parks, or museums. Su weaves parables, puzzles, and personal reflections to show how mathematics meets basic human desires—such as for play, beauty, freedom, justice, and love—and cultivates virtues essential for human flourishing.

Watch Phi Beta Kappa's (En)Lightning Talk with Francis Su.


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Ghana, eighteenth century: two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle, while the other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.


Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard 

Simard writes of her own life, born and raised into a logging world in the rainforests of British Columbia, of her days as a child spent cataloging the trees from the forest and how she came to love and respect them. As she writes of her scientific quest, she writes of her own journey, making us understand how deeply human scientific inquiry exists beyond data and technology, that it is about understanding who we are and our place in the world.

Listen to the American Scholar's Smarty Pants podcast interview with Suzanne Simard.


The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind is a coming-of-age tale of a young boy who, through the magic of a single book, finds a purpose greater than himself and a hero in a man he’s never met. With the passion of García Márquez, the irony of Dickens, and the necromancy of Poe, Carlos Ruiz Zafón spins a web of intrigue so thick that it ensnares the reader from the very first line.


The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

A riveting, emotional family story about twin sisters, inseparable as children, who ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds, one black and one white. The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person's decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores the multiple reasons people feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.


Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

An immersive, unforgettable, and eye-opening perspective on swimming—and on human behavior. Bonnie Tsui, a swimmer herself, dives into the deep, from the San Francisco Bay to the South China Sea, investigating what about water—despite its dangers—seduces us and why we come back to it again and again.


On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed

Weaving together American history, dramatic family chronicle, and searing episodes of memoir, Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth provides a historian’s view of the country’s long road to Juneteenth, recounting both its origins in Texas and the enormous hardships that African-Americans have endured in the century since, from Reconstruction through Jim Crow and beyond.

Register to attend our free, virtual event with Annette Gordon-Reed and Viet Thanh Nguyen on August 3.


Firekeeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley

A groundbreaking YA thriller about a Native teen, Daunis, who must root out the corruption in her community. Now, she must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she'll go to protect her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.


No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

At once a love letter to the endless scroll and a profound, modern meditation on love, language, and human connection, No One Is Talking About This centers on a woman who has recently been elevated to prominence for her social media posts. The woman confronts a world that seems to contain both an abundance of proof that there is goodness, empathy, and justice in the universe, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.


Foodology: A Food-lover's Guide to Digestive Health and Happiness by Saliha Mahmood Ahmed

Explaining the process of digestion and how the food we eat influences the way we feel, Saliha draws on the latest science and her own experiences as both a doctor and a cook, to bring the subject to life. From childhood memories of devouring Indian street food, to why munching on a jam doughnut brings gastronomic happiness, Saliha offers 50 new, simple, delicious (and mostly vegetarian) recipes to help you explore your gut health and find your own gastronomic happiness.


The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets. Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.


Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin live near one another–yet they exist worlds apart with Rami in Israel and Bassam in Palestine. The real-life friendship between these two men, united by the loss of their daughters, starts to permeate what has for generations seemed an impermeable conflict.


Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

An unexpected teenage pregnancy pulls together two families from different social classes and explores their histories–reaching back to the Tulsa race massacre of 1921–and exposing the private hopes, disappointments, and longings that can bind or divide us from each other.


The Outdoor Scientist: The Wonder of Observing the Natural World by Temple Grandin

From world-renowned scientist and autism spokesperson Temple Grandin comes a book about exploring the world around us, asking questions, and making sense of what we see. With 40 fun outdoor activities that promote independent thinking, kids, parents and teachers will enjoy this book all year round!


One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Márquez tells the story of the Buendia family and chronicles the irreconcilable conflict between the desire for solitude and the need for love—in rich, imaginative prose that has come to define an entire genre known as "magical realism."

Book Club Picks


The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

In this historical novel, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption. Listen to The American Scholar's book club [Spoiler Alert] discuss this book, and join them for upcomming events.


The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Based on the extraordinary life of author Louise Erdrich’s grandfather who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., this powerful novel explores themes of love and death with lightness and gravity. The Chicago Phi Beta Kappa Association hosts a discussion of this book on July 11 at 1:00 p.m.


The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

The House of the Spirits is an enthralling saga that spans decades and lives, twining the personal and the political into an epic novel of love, magic, and fate. Join the D.C. Area Association as they read The House of the Spirits and discuss the novel on July 27th at 6:30pm.


Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

Charting the most cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs, and marshalling his decades of research and clinical practice, Walker explains how we can harness sleep to improve learning, mood and energy levels, regulate hormones, prevent cancer, Alzheimer's and diabetes, slow the effects of aging, and increase longevity. The Chicago Phi Beta Kappa Association hosts a discussion of this book on August 1 at 1:00 p.m.


Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

A deeply personal novel about race, pop culture, immigration, assimilation, and escaping the roles we are forced to play, Yu explores Hollywood's inclination for promoting clichés about Asians and Asian-Americans.


Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Described as a campus novel and a coming-of-age novel, the partly autobiographical book tells of the experiences of a gay, Black doctoral student in a predominantly White, Midwestern PhD program. The Atlanta Association hosts a discussion of this book on August 21 at 3:00 p.m.


Don't see an event near you?
Check with your local ΦBK alumni association

Book Clubs

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Phi Beta Kappa Authors


Find more authors on The Key Reporter's Goodreads page. 


Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 by Keisha N. Blain (ΦBK, SUNY at Binghamton)

An epoch-defining history of African America, the first to appear in a generation, Four Hundred Souls is a chronological account of four hundred years of Black America as told by ninety of America's leading Black writers. 


Infraction by Yvonne Zipter (ΦBK, University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee)

Inspired by a real-life account, Infraction tells the story of Marya Zhukova and her lover, Vera. It takes place in the socially turbulent St. Petersburg of 1875—a time when women who yearn for more find that freedom comes at a cost.


How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education by Scott L. Newstok (ΦBK, Grinnell College)

How to Think Like Shakespeare is a brilliantly fun exploration of the craft of thought—one that demonstrates what we've lost in education today, and how we might begin to recover it. Drawing from Shakespeare's world and works, and from other writers past and present, Newstok distills enduring practices that can make learning more creative and pleasurable.

Read The Key Reporter's book review for How to Think Like Shakespeare.


Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety by Chloe Carmichael (ΦBK, Columbia University)

A roadmap for high achievers to harness restlessness, roadblocks, and distractions into a productive drive towards personal and professional fulfillment.


We're Gonna Die by Young Jean Lee (ΦBK, University of California - Berkeley)

Drawing from true stories of people's experiences with tragedy, despair, and loneliness, Young Jean Lee creates a life-affirming play about the one thing we all have in common: we're gonna die.


A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey by Jonathan Meiburg (ΦBK, University of the South)

An enthralling account of a modern voyage of discovery as we meet the clever, social birds of prey called caracaras, which puzzled Darwin, fascinate modern-day falconers, and carry secrets of our planet's deep past in their family history.


The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember by Fred Rogers (ΦBK, Carnegie Mellon University)

Culled from Fred Rogers' speeches, program transcripts, books, letters, and interviews, along with some of his never-before-published writings, The World According to Mister Rogers is a testament to the legacy of a man who served and continues to serve as a role model to millions. It is a timeless collection of wisdom on love, friendship, respect, individuality, and honesty.