Editor’s note: This is the first in a Summer Reading Series featuring notable books, author Q&As and more.
The University of Chicago boasts several well-known alumni who wrote books that have made a significant mark. Here are eight alumni who penned memorable books and why they’re notable. Revisit these modern classics or experience them for the first time on a languid summer day.
“Herzog” by Saul Bellow
The book that made Bellow famous is a perfect example of his talent for observation. “Herzog,” which won the National Book Award in 1965, follows five days in the life of a failed academic whose wife has left him for his best friend. Through letters, it illuminates in funny and moving ways the internal life of its main character and the complexity of modern consciousness. The novel spent 42 weeks on the bestseller lists and, in 1965, Bellow was awarded the International Literary Prize for “Herzog”—the first American to receive the prize.
Bellow, X’39, was a playwright, teacher, war correspondent, critic and novelist, who was raised in Chicago. Bellow transformed modern literature and laid bare 20th-century American life. He also was heavily criticized for his controversial takes on race, gender, crime and class. Bellow, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres and the National Medal of Arts, also wrote “Ravelstein,” “The Adventures of Augie March” and “Humboldt’s Gift.”
“Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s First Wave of Black Migration” by Timuel Black
This 2003 book was the first of three volumes featuring moving interviews with African Americans who arrived in Chicago from the South. Fleeing a Jim Crow system of racial discrimination and segregation, they set in motion a sea change in Chicago and all of American society. This influential oral history gave voices to those seeking opportunity and finding new hope in a new city, but also encountering racism. These children and grandchildren of ex-slaves created a “Black Belt” on the South Side, started businesses, and brought new life and music to the city.
Black, AM’54, was an American educator, civil rights activist, historian and author. Black studied sociology and history at UChicago and learned from Allison Davis, the first tenured African American professor at the University. Black marched with Martin Luther King Jr., campaigned for Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, mentored a young Barack Obama and helped bring the Obama Center to the South Side. He also wrote a memoir, “Sacred Ground,” and regularly gave tours and lectures about his long life and career.
“Personal History” by Katharine Graham
Graham’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning memoir, released in 1997, features a fascinating cast of well-known and influential characters and takes us through the most dramatic moments of her stewardship of the Washington Post, including the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. It is also a deeply personal tale of Graham’s attempts to navigate her husband’s mental illness and her struggle to run the business left to her after his suicide in 1963.
Graham, AB’38, was the president of the Washington Post Company and the publisher of the Post and Newsweek. When Graham was in grade school, her father bought the Washington Post for a huge discount when it was on the brink of financial ruin. After taking the helm at the Post, Graham worked for years to rise above the sexism of the male-dominated working world and oversaw the paper through tumultuous times and great successes.
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” by Robert Pirsig
An unlikely literary splash when it was released in 1974, “Zen” features a vanishing America of long stretches of road, a deep connection to the slow, simple pleasures of travel and a meditative search for meaning. The book, which was rejected by more than 100 publishers before finding a home and selling one million copies its first year, inspired generations to road trip across America. A 1968 motorcycle trip through the West with his son, Christopher, was Pirsig’s inspiration for this “novelistic autobiography.” The book still resonates today, despite, or perhaps because of, our obsession with cellphones, GPS, portable white noise machines and smart luggage tags.
Pirsig, who began a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Chicago, was an exceptionally bright child who received his high school diploma at age 14. Serving in the Army before the start of the Korean War, he visited Japan on leave and became interested in Zen Buddhism. He taught writing at Montana State University and at the University of Illinois Chicago. Pirsig wrote only one other book: “Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.”
“Portnoy’s Complaint” by Philip Roth
The book that made Roth a literary superstar caused a firestorm of controversy when it was released in 1969. The novel, featuring a lustful young Jewish bachelor confessing his sexual desires and frustrations to a silent psychoanalyst, landed like a bomb in late-1960s America. The book was “an experiment in verbal exuberance,” Roth once said. It broke rules and eventually found its place among American classics.
Roth, AM’55, was a prolific novelist and chronicler of American anxiety and sexual desire who took on many guises in his books. He taught at UChicago’s writing program for about two years and became friends with writer Saul Bellow there. Roth produced vibrant and vital work for several decades and was drawn many times to write about themes of Jewish identity, anti-Semitism and the Jewish experience in America. He won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker International Prize. Roth also wrote “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain” and “The Dying Animal.”
“Cosmos” by Carl Sagan
“Cosmos,” first published in 1980, is one of the best-selling science books of all time. It puts science in its broadest context: How science and civilization grew up together. Sagan uses his ability to make scientific ideas both understandable and interesting through 15 billion years of cosmic evolution. He examines the evolution of life into consciousness that enables the cosmos to wonder about itself.
Sagan, AB’54, SB’55, SM’56, PhD’60, was an American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, writer and science communicator best known for narrating and co-writing the award-winning 1980 television series, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” “Cosmos” has been watched by at least 500 million people in 60 countries, making it the most widely watched series in the history of U.S. public television. Sagan wrote “Cosmos” to accompany the series. He also wrote “Contact,” “Intelligent Life in the Universe” and “Billions and Billions.”
“On Photography” by Susan Sontag
One of the most highly regarded books of its kind and winner of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Criticism, “On Photography” first appeared in 1977 and was described by its author as “a progress of essays about the meaning and career of photographs.” It begins with Sontag’s famous “In Plato’s Cave” essay, but includes five other prose meditations on this topic, concluding with a far-reaching “Brief Anthology of Quotations.”
Sontag, AB’51, was an author, playwright, filmmaker, director and human rights activist. In Sontag’s body of work, made up mostly of essays, she tackled various topics, including photography, culture and media, AIDS and illness, human rights and leftist ideology. She was known for making provocative statements, but her essays are marked by a serious philosophical approach to various aspects and personalities of modern culture. Other popular books by Sontag include “Under the Sign of Saturn,” “Against Interpretation” and “Illness as Metaphor.”
“Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut
Dubbed one of the 100 best novels of all time by the Modern Library, “Slaughterhouse-Five” is an American classic and one of the world’s most powerful anti-war books. Vonnegut, who survived the allied bombing of Dresden while an American POW, centers his book on that infamous firebombing. His main character, Billy Pilgrim, makes an odyssey through time, which reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most. The book became one of the most often banned for strong language and sexual references, but it has stood the test of time and has never gone out of print since its release in 1969.
Vonnegut, AM’71, was an American novelist and graphic artist known for his satire and dark humor. Vonnegut trained as a chemist and worked as a journalist before joining the U.S. Army in 1943. After returning from World War II, he attended UChicago as a graduate student in anthropology. He published his first novel, “Player Piano,” in 1952, but didn’t gain wide appeal until the publication of “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Vonnegut also wrote “Cat’s Cradle,” “Breakfast of Champions,” “Galapagos” and “Hocus Pocus.”
Sources: The University of Chicago, The Nobel Prize, The New York Times, NPR, the Modern Library, Penguin Random House and Macmillan Publishers.