The Stanford class of 2021 will get a jump on their education if professor Noah Diffenbaugh has anything to do with it.

He's the faculty moderator of the Three Books program, an initiative for incoming freshman that is "designed to introduce you to the experience of reading, thinking, and talking about challenging subjects as a member of Stanford's intellectual community."

This year's theme is equity and sustainability, a subject close to Diffenbaugh's heart. He's a climate scientist who thinks deeply about "how we can manage the amount of climate change that we experience while also providing the energy, food, and water that are required for billions of people to thrive on Planet Earth."

A pause here to acknowledge how equity and sustainability is an exceptionally relevant theme, especially for the new generation of thinkers.

Each book has had a profound impact on Diffenbaugh on both a personal and professional level. In his note to the incoming freshmen, he says, "[J]ust as each of these books offers a sense of hope and optimism amid extremely challenging circumstances, I am optimistic that in discussing these challenges we can help each other find a sense of hope for the future."

Encouragingly, all three authors on this year's list are women, and two are women of color. Two have ties to the institution (Gyasi holds a BA in English from Stanford, and Ward was a Stegner Fellow there from 2008 to 2010). All are critically acclaimed.

Here are three books not to be missed:

In step-by-step fashion, Kolbert reveals the truth of what is now called the sixth mass extinction--the loss of as many as half of all the species on the planet.

The author herself acknowledges the potentially depressing nature of the topic: In the prologue, she says, "If extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is, well, massively so."

However, far from being depressing, the book ends up being accessible and surprisingly funny. And rather than feeling overwhelmed and anxious about the future of the planet, Kolbert found that writing the book had her ponder important questions we should all consider, such as: Will we, as a species, take responsibility for what we are doing, and what will come along with that? And: Given the truth of the situation, what comes next?

2. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The setting is Ghana in the 17th century, where two half-sisters are born unaware of each other. Raised in different villages, their life paths vary dramatically: One marries a British gentleman and lives in a Cape Coast castle. The other is kidnapped from her village, taken as a prisoner to the very same castle, then sold as a slave.

Homegoing then becomes a vivid and haunting portrait of slavery from beginning to end, as it tracks the sisters and their descendants from Africa to the New World. Generations survive Mississippi, the Civil War, the Harlem Renaissance, and more. Ultimately, the book is a tribute to both the human beings who stayed in Africa, and those who joined the new nation across the ocean. The legacy is a critical and undeniable part of the very essence of the United States.

3. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

It's 12 days before Hurricane Katrina, and the Batiste family watches closely as the giant storm looms ever closer to their coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. The story follows Esch, pregnant at 14, her teenage brothers, and their father, an alcoholic who is often absent.

In addition to being a "wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty," Ward captures the essence of something important and real: the true, far-reaching, and chilling effects of climate change. A Katrina survivor herself, she brings her soul to bear on this chapter of American history and the power of love even in the face of massive destruction.


"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." --Frederick Douglas