Vox writers, editors, and designers recommend the most interesting, illuminating books in their areas of expertise.
No, it's not typically considered an economics book, but read this 2000 classic now, as social mobility and economic segregation increasingly dominate the national conversation, and you'll see that those current problems give "Bowling Alone" remarkable staying power. The book tackles the question of why Americans' participation in civic life declined so steadily — and dramatically — in the second half of the 20th century. Americans' political participation fell off, along with their union membership, PTA membership, rates of visiting each other, and even their trust in their fellow Americans. The causes are wide-ranging, from longer work hours to suburban sprawl to our collective national obsession with TV.
All of this matters well beyond the demise of bowling leagues and bridge clubs; lower social participation is linked to lower social mobility, higher crime, and poorer education outcomes, among other things — in other words, social capital is up there with economic capital in improving someone's quality of life. Take away a community's formal and informal associations, and you take away those people's economic opportunity. The book is an elegy for many of the hallmarks of the American Dream: safe communities, trustworthy neighbors, and the ability to climb the economic ladder past your parents. Read it if you want some inspiration to throw out your TV or join your local neighborhood watch or book club. (Added bonus: read it as a primer for Putnam's forthcoming book, "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.")
We read and write and think about war as a phenomenon of politics and history, leaders and factions. But in fact war is principally a thing that happens to the individuals and families caught in its wake, a truth conveyed in excruciating and heartbreaking detail by "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," the debut novel by Anthony Marra. Published just last summer, it tells the interlocking stories of a dozen or so people caught in the Second Chechen War, in which Chechen insurgents fought for independence from Russia between 1999 and 2009.
The book is intimate in scope, dwelling on such stories as a father's tortured relationship with the adult son who is informing for the Russians, and a man's adoption of his neighbors' suddenly orphaned daughter. Marra writes of a young woman, Sonja, searching for a sister who has disappeared into the flow of refugees: "Metaphors failed her; Natasha could not be summarized. What she possessed were losses: the loss of Natasha's scorn, the loss of Natasha's begrudging love; and as a phantom limb can ache and tickle, her lost Natasha was still laughing, still scornful, still loving begrudgingly, burgeoning with enough life to make Sonja wonder if she, herself, was the one disappeared."
Neither combat nor politics appear more than glancingly in the novel, which is exactly what makes it so powerful for understanding the horrible actuality of war today. Substitute a few names and key words and this book could easily be about the wars in Syria or Afghanistan or Guatemala. That fact, of the consistency of postmodern war and its many sufferings is an insight so profoundly true it could only be told through fiction.
T.R. Reid’s "Healing of America" starts with a bum shoulder — and ends with a terrific tour of how modern countries provide health care to their citizens. The former Washington Post correspondent uses an old shoulder injury, left over from his service in the Navy, to explore how different countries, from Canada to France to Japan, provide care for the exact same medical condition.
Reid’s book digs into the fundamental values that underlie each country’s healthcare system. One of my favorite sentences captures the ethos of Canada's single-payer system: “Canadians don't mind waiting lines, as long as the rich Canadian and the poor Canadian have to wait about the same amount of time." This tells you a very concrete fact about the Canadian health-care system (it has longer wait times) and the value underlying that statement (Canadians value equality in their health care system).
Health-care systems are big, complex, overwhelming things. But Reid’s book makes the five countries he writes about — France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Canada — easily accessible. You can expect to come away from "The Healing of America" with a better understanding of both how those health care systems work, and the deeper values that drive countries to build different models.
"And the Band Played On" isn’t just my favorite public-health book; it’s one of my favorite books, period. The history of the early AIDS epidemic is the fastest 650-page work of non-fiction I’ve ever read. Shilts was a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1980s. His book traces AIDS from Patient Zero (a French-Canadian airline attendant) to full-blown epidemic. What I love about Shilts’ storytelling is how masterfully it blends the stories of AIDS patients, mostly in San Francisco and New York, with those of the researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and legislators in Washington who were waking up to the disease much too slowly.
"And the Band Played On" has devastating moments. You can see, in real time, the anguish of the first AIDS patients suffering from a terrible and mysterious disease. And you can see how the United States’ expansive public health system didn't move anywhere near fast enough. Homophobia, scientists’ egos, and fights over sexual liberation all conspired to slow the public health response to AIDS and let the disease flourish.
It's a sign of how quickly the internet is changing that when I picked up the 2008 classic "Here Comes Everybody," I was struck by how dated the examples were. The book, written by New York University scholar Clay Shirky, opens with a story about a man's effort to retrieve a stolen Sidekick (for younger readers, that's a smartphone that was popular in the pre-iPhone era). The man's friends combed MySpace to find pictures of the perpetrator, then publicized the story on the later-defunct (and recently resurrected) social news site Digg.
MySpace is mentioned 15 times in the book, more than Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube put together. But while its examples are dated, "Here Comes Everybody" remains essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how the internet is changing societies around the world.
Shirky's key insight is that in the pre-internet world, large-scale social projects required either an organized institution — a government or church, for example — or the forces of the market to accomplish. But thanks to the internet, it's now possible for people cooperate without any central direction.
Wikipedia, for example, has produced hundreds of thousands of high-quality articles about a wide variety of topics without any central direction and without paying contributors. Users on Twitter often tell each other about news events such as earthquakes much faster than professional journalists can report on the story. And it's easier than ever for ordinary activists to bypass elites who once controlled the national conversation and create autonomous activist groups, from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street.
This shift has important implications for everyone who produces or consumes information — which is to say all of us. "Here Comes Everyone" will give you a better understanding of how Wikipedia works, why BuzzFeed is destroying traditional news organizations, and how the internet is forcing large institutions of all kinds to be more transparent and accountable to ordinary people.
There's a fundamental problem for anyone trying to comprehend the concept of evolution. It’s simply not intuitive. At all. Evolution has taken place over billions of years. But our feeble human minds have evolved in an environment where we only had to understand human-scale time of a lifespan or two.
It's terribly difficult to truly fathom how tiny random mutations could ever really add up to something as complex and seemingly well-engineered as a single cell, let alone a worm or person.
First published in 1989, Richard Dawkins’ book "The Blind Watchmaker" is still the best explanation of evolution out there. Instead of just defending evolution with straight logic, Dawkins also aims to bridge this inherent cognitive gap and have us feel it: "You can explain something so that your reader understands the words; and you can explain something so that the reader feels it in the marrow of his bones," he writes. He aims for the marrow and hits his target.
The title of the book refers to natural selection, the evolutionary process that works “blind” with no aims and yet — bewilderingly — produces objects that appear to have been carefully designed.
Insightful, intelligent, and sometimes even funny, "The Blind Watchmaker" patiently takes the reader on a conceptual journey from awe-inducing descriptions of the amazing instrument that is the human eye to the obligatory monkey with a typewriter randomly banging out Shakespeare — with a zillion other destinations and delightful asides in between. By the end, you’ll not only have a good grasp of how evolution works, you’ll feel it in your bones.
President Obama often gets attacked for wanting to transform America into a European-style social democracy. He doesn't want that, really, but I sure do, and University of Arizona sociologist Lane Kenworthy lays out a very comprehensive plan to get us there in this book.
Specifically, Kenworthy wants to raise taxes by 10 percent of GDP — through a carbon tax, a consumption tax, higher income and payroll taxes, and a financial transactions tax — to pay for a litany of welfare state increases, from year-long paid parental leave to universal early childhood education to higher earned-income and child tax credits to direct government hiring of the unemployed.
Love it or hate it, that's a real, comprehensive plan to turn America into Sweden, or something close to it. My favorite aspect is that it cuts across traditional left v. liberal cleavages. Matthew Yglesias says it's a neoliberal policy program. Ryan Cooper thinks it's a rejection of "neoliberal dogmas that are poles apart from social democracy." Call it what you want, but it's an essential contribution to debates over the future of the welfare state.
It's not inevitable that the political party that likes tax cuts also hates abortion. Or that the party that wants universal access to birth control is also pro-immigration. These linkages between issues have to be created by what political scientist Hans Noel calls "coalition merchants": writers and political activists who bring together specific constituencies to form political parties.
Nina Easton's "Gang of Five" is a biography of five of the most important coalition merchants in the modern Republican party: Bill Kristol, Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, Clint Bolick, and David McIntosh. It was published in 2000, but doesn't feel dated at all. Part of that is because these men are still prominent — Kristol and Norquist especially so — but mostly because the changes they've made to American politics have stuck. For example, McIntosh hasn't been in the public eye as much since losing a governor's election in 2000, but he also cofounded the Federalist Society, a hugely influential network of conservatives at law schools.
The most fascinating parts of the book, by far, concern Norquist, whether he's flying to Angola to work with rebel leader Jonas Savimbi or asking his revolutionary socialist colleagues at the Harvard Crimson if they actually owned any guns."Well I do," he said. "And my friends do, so if you want to borrow them for your revolution, just let me know."
This book will ruin you.
You'll start to hate simple things. Doors. Yes, doors. Every time you use a door and you can't tell if you should push it or pull it or lift it or twist it, you'll instagram photos, “saw a Norman door today.”
This is good news. It means you've been set free. The design of the door wasn't your fault and when you start to realize the problems you encounter in the world are not your fault — that something actually is difficult to use and understand — you'll understand the power of design. Design has failed us, and often the more designed or pretty something looks the less usable it becomes.
This isn't just a book for designers. This is a book for anyone who wants to understand why we live in an imperfect world.
We are after all human and imperfect. When we understand our imperfections, together we can build a better, more friendly world. A world for people. A world for us.
The breakthrough described in this book came nearly 300 years ago, and nowadays, it seems so obvious that it's hard to believe that it was once one of the world's most pressing scientific questions. I'm talking, of course, about a clock that keeps time reliably.
In 1714, the British crown offered a hefty cash prize to anyone who could solve the problem of determining a ship's longitude at sea. Latitude was always relatively easy to determine (you can infer it from looking at the angle of the sun at noon), but knowing how far a ship had traveled east or west (that is, longitude) had been difficult for centuries. This caused shipwrecks and impeded trade, and some scientists suggested that it could be solved by looking at the moon or other celestial bodies.
The book tells the story of John Harrison, a self-educated carpenter and clockmaker who solved the problem of longitude in an indirect, remarkably simple way. His clock — the first ever that could keep accurate time aboard the rolling deck of a ship — allowed sailors to calculate the difference between local noon and noon in the place they'd departed from. In doing so, they could calculate longitude.
This succinct, lively book is worth reading both for what it illustrates about the enduring qualities of science, and for all the things that have dramatically changed. Nowadays, the problems we're trying to solve are so complex that they take international teams of scientists, rather than an individual clockmaker. They're sometimes so esoteric that explaining them to a lay audience is nearly impossible. But both today and 300 years ago, addressing these problems often involves landing on an elegant, overlooked solution — and applying it rigorously through painstaking trial and error.
If state weakness is the wound, corruption is the infection that festers inside it. And in politics, as in medicine, it's often the infection that kills. Pervasive corruption — along with the violence that supports and enforces it — necrotizes political, judicial, and administrative institutions, becoming a law unto itself. If you want to understand the mechanics of how that works, and how it affects the people who have to live with it, start by reading Francisco Goldman’s "The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?"
Goldman was a novelist first, and it shows in his vivid, careful prose. (David Grann, a master of the true-crime genre, is a fan). It examines the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was bludgeoned to death in the garage of his home in Guatemala City two days after publishing a report that implicated the country’s military power structure in a series of terrible crimes committed during Guatemala’s brutal civil war. In its meticulous discussion of the crime, as well as the cover-ups, investigations, and trials that followed it, Goldman’s book is also an excellent window about what happens to a country where trust has been corroded by crime and violence, and how difficult those problems are to reverse.
At a time when the discourse about health is clogged up with bad science and peddlers of "miracle belly-fat blasters," British physician Ben Goldacre's writing is, if you will, a statin. He is simply the most lucid (and fun) evidence-based thinker on health, anywhere. A couple of years ago, the former Guardian newspaper columnist published a very important book, "Bad Pharma."
Before you write it off as another tome on the evils of the pharmaceutical industry, you should know that it's much more than that: Goldacre documents how the entire information architecture of medicine — the data on which doctors rely to make decisions about our health every single day — is utterly broken.
You'll learn about where new drugs come from, how unflattering data about them goes missing, and how researchers routinely rig studies to make the results more favorable. You'll learn about the flawed incentive structures in academic publishing and how health regulators have failed us. You'll learn about how self-interested doctors and medical bodies have helped perpetuate the broken system.
Though Goldacre manages to communicate all of this with clarity and a sense of humor, you should prepare to be outraged and disturbed. You will finish the book thinking that, as a society, we are going to look back at this period in medicine with the same horror we view bloodletting today.
In the last five years, Marvel has become a behemoth. The company has perfected the art of the superhero movie, and looks to be taking over the world with movies slated until 2020. But this stable of heroes didn't just materialize overnight.
Marvel's superheroes and their stories were created in an America whose politics and ideas about immigration, race, and gender were very different than they are today. And creators like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Roy Thomas, and Chris Claremont, each had a hand in twisting the genre and baking those ideas into the characters who would inspire children who were eager to spend their sticky nickels.
Howe brings clarity to the winding stories at Marvel — the history behind each writer and artist, the fights, the triumphs, the failures, and the wild successes — that shaped the company and its comic books. He explains how this group of geeks and misfits changed the world, how they ruled it, and how the company ultimately broke their hearts.
As comic books continue to swallow pop culture whole, Howe's cultural spelunking becomes an important look at how we got to this point. While supermen like Iron Man and Captain America are a hook and a point of entry, Howe's exploration into the lives of these ordinary humans will keep you plowing through this thick tome.
The least-appreciated truth about the world today is that it’s in the best shape in human history. On almost every possible metric — health, wealth, quality of life — the post-Cold War era has been the best time to be alive. In "Getting Better," Center for Global Development senior fellow Charles Kenny provides a reader-friendly, measured explanation of the reasons behind this happy state of affairs. It’s an especially great book to read now, given how unrelentingly grim the big headlines about world news have been in 2014.
The statistics in Kenny’s book are astounding. “Since 1960, global average infant mortality...has more than halved,” he writes. “In 2006, nine million children who would have died before then if mortality remained at their 1960 level celebrated their first birthday. And the vast majority of these live in developing countries.”
Why the improvement? Kenny credits the global economy, freer political institutions, and foreign aid with creating the conditions necessary for the massive progress in recent decades. Cheaper medicine, easier to access education, and governments who care about getting basic goods to ordinary people have conspired to produce a much better world. Kenny breaks all of this down in a really clear, uplifting fashion — and also runs through some very promising policies that could ensure that this progress keeps going.
Kenny’s not a blinkered optimist. He notes up front, for instance, that incomes are stagnant across much of the developing world (though, thanks to India and China, poverty has fallen dramatically in the past 50 years). And climate change poses a serious threat to the hopeful trends documented in the book. But Kenny’s book is an incredibly persuasive case that we should be optimistic about humanity’s future.
If you were following the protests in Ferguson in August, you probably asked yourself, at some point, “How did we get to a place where cops dress in camo and position snipers on American streets?” "Rise of the Warrior Cop" is written to answer that question. Journalist Radley Balko, who’s now at the Washington Post, wrote it as a history of police militarization — not just the use of military technology, but the idea that police are fighting a “war on crime” and its consequences.
Balko’s narrative starts with a quick trip through early American history, but it really picks up steam when he gets to the 1960s. He unearths both the trends that not enough elites noticed at the time, like increasing use of SWAT teams for routine patrols, and the things that were initially controversial but aren’t anymore, like no-knock raids.
The bottom line is that militarization wasn’t inevitable — or even unchallenged. If you're looking for reassurance that policing can be reformed, you can read the book pessimistically, as a reminder that white Americans are more willing to accept injustice if it’s happening to black Americans. (Race doesn’t actually play as central a role in "Rise of the Warrior Cop" as you might expect.) Or you can read it optimistically: police militarization has been rolled back before, and maybe it can be rolled back again.
The thing about criminal-justice reporting is that it’s much easier to write a story about a particularly horrific case than about the systems that allowed or encouraged it to happen. That sends the message to readers that the cases they hear about are the exceptions to the rule. This book is an antidote to that. "Rise of the Warrior Cop" is narrative history, not academic history. The main character isn’t the police; it’s the policies that encouraged them to look and act like soldiers.
My copy of "The Teacher Wars," Dana Goldstein’s 175-year history of teaching in the United States, is starting to look like a textbook for a difficult college class: underlined passages, bracketed paragraphs, stars and comments written in the margins. "The Teacher Wars" is the best book I’ve read to understand one of the biggest policy debates: who should teach, what conditions they should work in, how much we should pay them, and how much of a difference they should make.
"The Teacher Wars" traces the history of teachers’ unions, programs like Teach for America, and proposals to evaluate teachers based on their students’ test scores. (Spoiler: none of this is new.)
Goldstein's book is a history, not a polemic. Although she concludes with a section of policy recommendations, partisans on all sides of education debates will find something to enlighten, support, or challenge their arguments in here. That's one of the things that makes "The Teacher Wars" so excellent.
The underlying assumption in the US drug policy discussion is that the illegal drugs are bad and the legal drugs are, at the very least, okay. "The Cult of Pharmacology" by Richard DeGrandpre challenges these assumptions through a thorough but subtle takedown of the war on drugs. The book highlights both cases in which legal drug use went wrong — like when several people became aggressive and attacked their families after taking medication to deal with depression — and cases in which illegal drug use seemed to go fine, such as when a prominent surgeon used morphine throughout his career.
The book’s lessons have never been more pertinent. As the US debates whether it should legalize marijuana, the three deadliest drugs in the country are legal for recreational or medical uses. In 2010, tobacco led to 480,000 deaths, alcohol led to 80,000 deaths, and prescription painkillers caused more than 16,600 fatal overdoses. All other drugs combined were linked to fewer than 16,200 fatal overdoses, with none of those being caused by marijuana.
The book doesn’t necessarily prove that all these drugs should be legal or illegal. But it does dismantle the idea that America’s drug scheduling system in any way reflects which drug can be treated as an “angel” and which can be shunned as a “demon,” to borrow DeGrandpre’s words.
No decade of American history seems more relevant in today's climate of protest and fights for equality than the 1960s. And for American music, the 1960s and '70s are a well-recorded, beloved era of rock-and-roll and psychadelia. It was the age of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin and The Stones.
Which is why it is so amazing that Ellen Willis's collection of essays in "Out of the Vinyl Deep" feels fresh and new. Bob Dylan, Willis argues, was fraught with personal fears and doubts. Janis Joplin, she says, “was not so much a victim as a casualty.” Her perspective on music and the music business is refreshing because it is exactly what great music writing should be—critical beyond her personal opinions.
Ellen Willis was the first pop music critic for The New Yorker. In that role she wrote about the Velvet Underground, the Who, and how Creedence Clearwater Revival eclipsed the Rolling Stones. This collection tells us about what music and music criticism can be. Willis's essays harken back to a period of American music history where fragmentation was first really taking hold, but she still very much existed inside a monoculture: when she wrote about Woodstock or The Who, everyone in America knew what she was talking about.
Willis's essays, of course, are not flawless. She writes almost exclusively about white rockers. There are no mentions of James Brown, or Aretha Franklin or any black artist in her essays. But "Out of the Vinyl Deeps" is a great place to start learning about the nuance of celebrity and fame.
Douglas Rae's 2005 book "City: Urbanism and Its End" is, in fact, a history of the particular city of New Haven rather than a generic portrait of all cities. And New Haven is, of course, an idiosyncratic place. It's decidedly on the small side for a city, and close enough to New York to not really be the local center of gravity. It is also, obviously, host to a particularly famous university, Yale. And more Italian in its immigrant heritage than most places.
But Rae's history is not just a history of one place. He shows that, in an inversion of Tolstoy, all late-20th century American cities in decline were alike. The book is narrow in its focus, but broad in its theoretical scope. Rae uses New Haven as a lens to examine the basic forces that shape cities. The fundamental technological realities around water and rail transportation that made cities so important, and then the newer technology of the automobile that unraveled them.
These days, many American cities — New Haven included — are on the rebound. But to understand the roots of those rebounds, you need to understand the source of the decline. And there's no better book than Rae's to get you there.
When President Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981, he appointed Rep. David Stockman of Michigan as his budget director. The events that followed are chronicled in Stockman’s memoir, "The Triumph of Politics" — a fascinating, entertaining, and sometimes horrifying tour of how government policy is actually set.
In Stockman’s mind, the Reagan Revolution was chiefly an opportunity for massive federal spending cuts, and he decided it was his job to bring these about. His main obstacles were the bureaucratic shenanigans of cabinet secretaries like Alexander Haig and Caspar Weinberger, the parochialism and ignorance of Congress (from liberal demagogues to squishy RINOs to Southern porkers), and the uncertain commitment of administration higher-ups to this politically risky goal — plus the inconvenient possibility that Stockman’s agenda might not be what the public wants.
Stockman’s firsthand accounts of internal administration deliberations and battles make the book a captivating read. And he writes with a self-awareness and even self-laceration that’s rare for political memoirs. Big questions, such as “Do political parties represent ideas or interests,” and “What happens when ideological principles meet political reality,” recur.
You don’t have to agree with Stockman on policy matters, or even on his evaluations of his rivals in the administration, to learn a ton from his book. Stockman believes he’s the only principled person fighting to cut spending in a world of hacks, but one can also see him as a heartless ideologue or an arrogant, insubordinate jerk, and the details of his quest will remain just as compelling.
As far as many are concerned, television began with HBO’s "The Sopranos," or maybe Fox’s "Arrested Development," which took a creatively moribund medium and brought it to new life. And if you’re primarily interested in this modern era, there are lots of great books you could read, most notably Alan Sepinwall’s "The Revolution Was Televised." But understanding television also understands the weird world of commercial and artistic compromise it has always existed in. And that means delving into the medium’s history.
Jennifer Keshin Armstrong’s "Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted" is about the conception, creation, and run of the brilliant, hugely influential sitcom "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in 1970, an era when television was on the cusp of a new creative revolution that "Mary" would be among the programs to usher in. Armstrong follows everyone involved in the production of the show, from its star, still flailing from a movie career that didn’t take hold; to its creators, two men who didn’t really want to be making television in the first place and let that indifference color the program they created.
"Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted" doesn’t chronicle the first time TV would become art, but it chronicles a moment when the idea of TV as art seemed all but impossible, only for those involved in the program to find a way to make something beautiful and profound. And in so doing, they invented ways of thinking about the medium that still reverberate today.
Good luck finding this book, long out of print (though most libraries have a copy buried in their systems somewhere). But if you want to know anything about what it means to write scripts for stage and screen, then Raphaelson’s book is the best possible primer. It’s created a bit of a cult among literary types, who read Raphaelson’s advice about taking stories and making them intensely personal and wonder how he can make something so difficult seem so blindingly easy.
Raphaelson has his biases. He doesn’t think much of genres other than realistic fiction, for instance, but if you can see past them to realize the advice he gives can apply to just about any form of writing, then he has much to teach. The book’s structure is that of a class he gave in the mid-'40s, right after World War II, and the beauty of the book is that it records the questions of the students, thus doubling as a history of the country as it stood at the time. The students reveal their hopes and fears, while Raphaelson pontificates on how these are the grist of great drama. And in so doing, all seem to be having a dialogue about the nation they are a part of, newly a superpower, yet still uncertain – as they all are.
Caputo’s title is a riff on “What Would Jesus Do?,” the slogan Christians were once taught to ask whenever they were tempted to sin. Would Jesus smoke pot? Would Jesus cuss? Would Jesus not clean his room? But as Caputo argues, framing the question in this negative way — what would Jesus avoid doing? — misses the point minister Charles Sheldon intended when he first put the question to his congregation in 1896. For Sheldon, the question was intended to spur his congregation to work for social justice: what Jesus would do is feed the hungry and help the poor.
The “What Would Jesus Do?” slogan has become representative of a kind of American Christianity that has often overlooked working for social justice to focus on arguing about evolution and homosexuality. But by deconstructing this limited and limiting interpretation of “What Would Jesus Do?,” Caputo reminds his readers that at the heart of Jesus’ mission was compassion, justice, and mercy. To practice those things, and to work to make sure they are practiced at societal and political levels, is to imitate Jesus.
Race is a social construct. This isn’t a new concept. But, in "The History of White People," historian Nell Irvin Painter breaks it down expertly and exhaustively, by putting the focus on the idea of whiteness — when it began and how it evolved over hundreds of years.
Painter starts the book in Ancient Greece, where Hippocrates, in 400 BC, laid out one of the first arguments for European superiority: his theory was that climate, topology, and water influenced body type, character, and attractiveness. He wrote that men in colder mountainous regions were lighter-skinned and more muscular, intelligent, and attractive than men from the warmer lowlands, whom he characterized as darker, schlubby, and not too bright or interesting.
From there, she details the pseudo-science that throughout history has telegraphed to the world that white means superior beauty, intelligence, and strength of character. Yes, this has all been thoroughly debunked. But as potentially harmful skin bleaching creams continue to sell in places like Nigeria or Dominican Republic, as our laws and the law enforcement practices meant to enforce them seem designed to disproportionately target communities of color, as racial disparities exist in nearly every meaningful aspect of American life, it’s clear that the idea that “white is right” still has a stranglehold on us all. Painter’s book is as a helpful reminder of how we got here, which is an important first step to change.
One of the oddest facts about the United States is that we've built a bunch of large, thriving cities — Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas — in the middle of a vast desert. It was an audacious thing to do. And, with the West now facing endless drought and water shortages, perhaps a foolish thing to do.
Marc Reisner's 1986 classic is still one of the best starting points for understanding the West's water woes. The story of how the federal government dammed and diverted rivers in the 20th century to make the desert habitable turns out to be unexpectedly fascinating. There was the time Franklin Roosevelt tricked Congress into funding the Grand Coulee Dam, which would later help the United States win World War II. Or the era when the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers were racing to build dozens of useless or harmful dams just to win arcane bureaucratic turf battles.
But "Cadillac Desert" is more than just a history. The book famously warned that, despite all its huge dams and clever engineering, the desert West simply couldn't sustain all the cities and farms that have sprung up. The region's scarce freshwater was destined to run short, its farms fated to be overrun by salt, its reservoirs clogged with sediment.
Not all of Reisner's apocalyptic predictions have panned out (partly because policymakers have begun to address some of the problems he wrote about). But in 2010, a group of scientists took a fresh look at the book and found that many of its specific warnings about water scarcity remain relevant today — particularly as climate change dries out the region. Odds are good this book will be essential reading for years to come.
The Gamble is the story of the 2012 presidential election as told by two political scientists and lots and lots of data. Wait! Don’t leave!
The book doesn’t have the juicy gossip and tight plotting of traditional campaign literature. But that’s why it’s so good. It’s an antidote to pretty much everything else you’ll ever read about an election. It signals this on the very first page. “68,” the authors wrote. “That is how many moments were described as ‘game-changers’ in the 2012 presidential election.” "The Gamble" goes on to show that pretty much none of them were. The ads, the gaffes, the messages, the stakes — it mostly comes out in the wash.
That isn’t to say campaigns don’t matter. It’s to say that the two campaigns are almost always helmed by competent candidates, managed by professionals, and speaking to an electorate where almost everyone knows how they’re going to vote before the first commercial is aired. This is the book you need to read to put all those other campaign books in context.
Popular legend claims that Ernest Hemingway wrote an incredibly poignant six-word story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
Today, communicating briefly in texts or tweets is second nature to most of us, but rarely do we craft our messages with the care and attention of Hemingway. To celebrate the art of the six-word essay, Smith Magazine put together a delightful compilation on the subject of love and heartbreak. Hundreds of personal stories of love, loss, heartbreak and humor are intertwined throughout the pages of the small book.
From finding that perfect someone: “They both hated wide ruled paper” (Scarborough Fairchild). To finding the wrong someone: “I loved the idea of you” (Audrey Adu-Appiah). And a few modern love tales mixed in: “Met him online. Blogged our divorce” (Kristy Sammis). “Will always follow you. On Twitter” (Mircea Lungu).
Whether you’re blissfully in love, horribly heartbroken, or somewhere in between, this book shows the incredible power that just six words can convey.
“I fell in love twice today” (Vanessa Aricco).
"The Practice of Everyday Life" is a difficult read — let’s just get that out of the way. It’s also extremely rewarding if you really like to think. It touches on psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and anthropology. Certeau, a French post-structuralist, poetically maps out an analytic framework for thinking about place, power structures, and meaning-making as an extremely personal process (as opposed to a pre-determined one as defined by corporations or governments).
Though first published 40 years ago, Certeau’s framework creates a helpful and thought-provoking lens that is still useful for thinking critically about current issues and events. You don’t really ever "finish" this book — it is perpetually relevant, and so dense that you're never 100 percent sure you've understood all of it.
Editor: Eleanor Barkhorn, Designer: Tyson Whiting, Developer: Yuri Victor