Gene Lucas

For 18 years, the UCSB Reads program has brought the campus and Santa Barbara communities together to read a common book that explores compelling interdisciplinary issues of our time. The program has become a mainstay in campus education and outreach, with book topics tackling issues as diverse as climate change, mass incarceration, Buddhism and artificial intelligence, among others. Each year, the program culminates in a public lecture by the author(s), some of which have drawn hundreds and–in the case of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2009–thousands of students, faculty, staff, and community members to campus. 

With such a storied history, it’s no wonder that the program has become a time-honored ritual where students line up in the Library in January to receive their free copies from the University Librarian and Chancellor Henry Yang, who has long handed out books in celebration of the program’s annual launch. The program’s success over the years is due to the support of the University at large as well as Library innovators who believed in the potential of a common reads book program to ignite discourse and thoughtful discussion around topics that directly relate to our time. 

These innovators include Gene Lucas, whose 36-year career at UCSB spanned various roles, most notably as UCSB’s Executive Vice Chancellor (EVC). During his 11-year tenure as EVC, Lucas also served in leadership roles with the Graduate Division, academic personnel, and as the Acting University Librarian. It was in this capacity that Lucas launched the UCSB Reads program. 

While I was Acting University Librarian,” remembers Lucas, “a group of librarians came to me with the question: ‘Would you be interested in starting a program where we pick a book, raise some money and hand it out for free?’ They then gave me a list of five or six books and I picked Field Notes From a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert.”

Kolbert’s book–which has since become a seminal text in the climate change movement–was an auspicious start to the program, garnering positive attention from faculty, students and community members in 2007. Over time, the book selection evolved to its current committee format, which engages students, faculty and community members to make recommendations for the final pick. 

“We look for books that can be incorporated into the University curriculum, but that will also inspire dialogue outside of the classroom,” comments Associate University Librarian for Learning and Engagement Rebecca Metzger, who oversees the program. “Students are hungry for opportunities to connect with each other, and the UCSB Reads program fosters a sense of shared campus belonging."

Each successive year, the UCSB Reads program gained momentum, spinning off topical book programming on campus and collaborations with community partners. Today, it remains a beloved tradition on campus. Lucas remarks that “UCSB students love this program, especially the seniors because they’ve done it for four years. It’s become part of the campus mythology.” 

Since the first book selection, Lucas has diligently read all UCSB Reads books, even after his retirement from UCSB in 2013. While he has enjoyed all of the Reads books over the years, he does have a few favorites, including Moonwalking with Einstein (2013), which explored the hidden impact of memory on our lives; Moby-Duck (2012), which follows the environmental impact of a shipment of lost bath toys at sea; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2011), which chronicles the usage of Lack’s cells in scientific research; and most recently, Exhalation (2022), an award-winning series of science fiction short stories. He particularly relishes the fact that many of the books’ topics can be connected over the program’s 18-year history, which points to the program’s continued relevancy. 

To commemorate the longevity of the UCSB Reads program and ensure its long-term success, Lucas recently included the program in a planned gift to the UCSB Library. “I’m proud that it still exists and that people have gotten so much pleasure reading the book and hearing directly from the author,” says Lucas. 

“I’m also proud of the fact that it’s not just a campus thing–I have friends in the community that look forward to the book each year.” He continues, “I’m an avid reader and UCSB Reads appeals to me personally. I’m just a happy guy when I have a good book to read, especially on a rainy day.”