In late June, Stanford mailed books to more than 1,700 incoming undergraduates for this year’s Three Books program, which serves as an introduction to new students to intellectual life on the Farm through the shared experience of reading, thinking about and discussing the same books.

Three books

Three books – two in print and one online – were sent to incoming undergraduates to read over the summer and discuss during orientation. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

The packages, sent to first-year and transfer students, were mailed to new students across the United States and to more than 70 other countries around the world. For the signature reading program, now in its 15th year, a professor selects a theme and carefully curates three books exploring that theme from varied perspectives.

This year, Sarah Billington, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, chose “cities” as the theme, specifically the ways cities shape experiences and social relationships.

“Sixty percent of the world’s population is projected to live in cities by 2030, soon after you graduate,” Billington wrote in a letter to incoming students. “How can we design our growing cities to support belonging, an essential component of well-being?”

This year’s books are There There, by Tommy Orange; Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley, by Cary McClelland; and The Just City Essays: 26 visions for Urban Equity, Inclusivity and Opportunity, an e-book that was not included in the package but can be read and downloaded for free from the nonprofit organization

The reading program, which includes online book chats later this summer, culminates in a roundtable discussion and Q&A with the authors during New Student Orientation.

Broader view of “community”

In her letter to new students, Billington reflected on her own educational journey.

“Given that you are all embarking on a new journey to college, I thought back on my own educational experiences and the feeling of ‘Do I belong here?’ resonated with me,” she wrote. “Everywhere I studied (small school, large school, private, public, in the United States and abroad) I believe I always struggled to feel like I truly belonged. I wanted to choose books that might broaden our view of what it means to belong in a community.”

Professor Sarah Billington

Professor Sarah Billington chose “cities” as the theme for books sent to incoming freshmen and transfer students. (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

Billington said the books – a novel, a collection of first-person interviews and a compilation of essays – offer many perspectives on the topic of belonging.

“There are examples of belonging that are likely familiar, such as having a shared heritage, religion or languages, or shared public spaces, such as community centers, parks and libraries,” she said. “The readings also offer ideas of how communities form in times of crisis as well as through active engagement – not just living somewhere, but participating in where you live. I hope the students will see that there are many ways to increase their sense of belonging by engaging with and contributing to their community.”

Billington, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, said the books present stories about urban life – both in the San Francisco Bay Area and around the world – from a diverse group of people.

“Each of these readings has deepened my understanding of alternate perspectives,” she told students. “Together they also offer ideas of how we as individuals can engage in our communities with our diverse backgrounds and careers to strive to create cities where every human can flourish.”

2019 Three Book selections

There There follows 12 characters from Native American communities who are traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow and are all connected to one another in ways they may not yet realize. Together, their chorus of voices tells of the plight of the urban Native American – grappling with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and spirituality and also  sacrifice and heroism.

Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley is a collection of first-person interviews with people whose lives have been transformed by Silicon Valley, the engine of the new American economy. The richer the San Francisco Bay Area region gets, the more unequal and less diverse it becomes, and cracks in the city’s façade – rapid gentrification,  evictions, rising crime, atrophied public institutions – have started to show.

The Just City Essays: 26 Visions for Urban Equity, Inclusivity and Opportunity is an e-book published by a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire social, economic and environmental change in cities through journalism and events. As troubling headlines in myriad cities make clear, dramatic inequalities in income, housing and safety demand a continued search for ideas and solutions to persistent injustice in the world’s cities.