Like many others, I was devastated by the results of the 2016 Presidential election. Especially in the months leading up to the inauguration, I felt helpless, especially since I was at home with a newborn rather than on campus. I decided that the best action I could take given my circumstances was to read and learn as much as I could to better understand how we've ended up here as a nation and the issues that matter. It is an ongoing process, but students often ask me for recommendations on what they might read in these troubling times. Here is a list of the most important books I've read over the past 10 months or so.
Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
If you are going to read one book to help you understand why people vote against their own self interests, this is the one. Hochschild leaves her home in Berkeley, California to spend time in rural Louisiana. There, she sees firsthand the stuttering economy, the environmental degradation, and the disillusionment with government that runs rampant in the bayou. However, she also sees people. People who are warm, welcoming, and who vehemently oppose her liberal views. This is a staggering work of empathy that serves as an example of how we might treat and come to understand those with whom we disagree.
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy
I haven't felt a shock of recognition like this, of seeing my home portrayed in words, since I first read Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Vance's should be a story of American triumph; he climbs the ladder of success from his family's Appalachia roots all the way to Yale Law School. However, Vance's story also exposes the alienation that comes when the American dream comes true (something I have experienced in my own life) for some, but remains out of reach for too many others. While I ultimately disagree with Vance's conclusions about what should be done for places like Middletown, Ohio (he believes a bit more in bootstrapping than I do), I respect the pinpoint accuracy of his observations of growing up in the Midwest.
Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right
Perhaps nothing has caused greater rifts in American politics or sown more economic inequality than the flow of so-called "dark money" through our political system. Through meticulous research, Mayer traces the networks of anonymous donors who have bankrolled policies that favor the wealthy and thwart progress on key issues such as climate change. Pairs well with Arlie Russell Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land if you want to better understand both cause and effect. Be prepared though, "dark" is a key word here. This book may require a signifiant recovery period.
Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
If I were a dark money billionaire, I might spend my funds on buying up as many copies of this slim little book as possible and sending them to everyone I know. Snyder, a Yale History Professor, draws on his expertise on twentieth century European history to extrapolate lessons that we, in this time, may learn from the catastrophes of that earlier age. While many of the books on this list might leave you feeling a bit helpless, the lessons in this book are simple enough to do every day--believe in truth, make eye contact, or contribute to good causes--but powerful enough to make a real difference.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Okay, so technically I read this book before the election, but it must be on this list. After all, Toni Morrison says it's required reading. That means something. Written as a letter to his son, I could spend the bulk of my notes here praising the brilliant use of form and language in this book. However, in this context what really matters is that this book gives a personal, historical, imaginative account of the black experience in America. I usually don't take notes when I read, unless I'm reading for work, but my copy of this book is full of dog ears and underlines.
Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
I am privileged. I have been fortunate in my life to find work that I love and where I make a good living. Nevertheless, at various times in my life, I've found myself looking at the bank account and looking at the next month's rent and not knowing quite how I was going to reconcile the two. When my husband lost his job back in 2010, I remember the terror I felt when I realized we couldn't swing it. We were lucky enough to have family that would help, but many are not so lucky. This book lays bare the true cost of the high cost of living in American cities. Desmond follows families through the eviction process and documents how the loss of a home can tear a family apart. Does anyone know of a similar book about healthcare in America?
Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic
I'm actually still reading this one, but I'm so taken with it that I decided to put it on the list anyway. The opioid epidemic was one of those issues I thought I had a pretty good handle on: doctors overprescribe painkillers and people become hooked and substitute cheap heroin for costly pharmaceuticals. Simple, right? I had no idea how little I knew, how deep a history this issue had, and how many phenomena had to converge to create this perfect storm. Quinones follows the opioid epidemic from the Dreamland pool in Portsmouth, Ohio, to the drug traffickers of the San Fernando Valley and their small Mexican home town, and back east over the Mississippi River to the American heartland. I suspect that the story of the devastating costs of the rise of cheap black tar heroin will become more prominent in the years to come.
Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate
The 2016 election forced me to come to terms with the reality of climate change. With the hope of meaningful action all but erased with the initiation of the Trump administration, I couldn't stop imagining the world my daughter will inherit if nothing is done to curb the consumption of fossil fuels. In many ways, Klein's book is a solid review of what we already know about climate change. But what really makes this book worth the read is the reporting on the role of indigenous peoples in fighting climate change and her personal reflections of the fertility crisis that may already be unfolding under the radar as a result of our toxic environment. And, of course, this book asks us to confront the big questions about the destruction, environmental and social, inherent in our economic system.
Let's keep building this list in the comments. What have been your most important reads over the past year? What books have given you solace? What should I read next?