Some History and Current Affairs Books I've Especially Appreciated

    Being a slow reader, I have read 2 pages or more from a book on all but 7 days over the past 21 years, according to my reading log.  This is a habit I fell into, without making any point-in-time "decision" to do so that I can now recall.  It is the only way I can get books read.  

    Following are some (mostly) history and current affairs titles, my primary genres, that have had enduring impact on my thinking.  I am grateful to their authors for believing that something they might wish to contribute might be welcomed by others, and for making the effort.  These are in no particular order of significance to me.

    Why Societies Need Dissent, Cass Sunstein
    Wealth and Our Commonwealth, Gates, Sr. and Chuck Collins
    Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth
    ​Owning Our Future, Marjorie Kelly
    A Hope in the Unseen, Ron Suskind
    Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, Garry Wills (on the topic of self-imposed restraint by elites)
    The Fireside Conversations, Lawrence and Cornelia Levine
    Hitler's 30 Days to Power, Henry Ashby Turner
    When Everything Changed, Gail Collins
    Animal Farm
    Mindset, Carol Dweck
    The Arrogance of Power, Senator J. William Fulbright
    The Fate of the Earth, Jonathan Schell
    Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr
    The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell
    Self-Renewal, John W. Gardner
    Going Down Jericho Road, Michael Honey
    A Different Mirror, Ronald Takaki
    All Together Now, Richard Kahlenberg
    ​The Social Construction of Reality, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann
    A Testament of Hope (MLK words), James Washington, ed.
    The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform, Seymour Sarason
    Walking with the Wind, John Lewis
    Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann
    The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey
    The Wise Men, Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas (on the subject of establishmentarians committed to the public good)
    You Just Don't Understand, Deborah Tannen
    ​Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics, Christopher Eberle
    ​Citizen Soldiers, Stephen Ambrose
    The Shallows, Nicholas Carr
    Age of Fracture, Daniel Rodgers
    The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt 
    Everything for Sale, Robert Kuttner
    Lessons in Disaster, Gordon Goldstein
    Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes
    Words Onscreen, Naomi Baron
    Finnish Lessons, Pasi Sahlberg
    ​What Then Must We Do?, Gar Alperovitz
    Robert F. Kennedy In His Own Words
    RFK: Collected Speeches, RFK and Edwin Guthman
    RFK: A Memoir, Jack Newfield
    Beyond Test Scores, Jack Schneider
    Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler
    The Private Abuse of the Public Interest, Lawrence Brown and Lawrence Jacobs
    The Educator and the Oligarch, Anthony Cody
    The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein
    ​The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, and The Reckoning, David Halberstam
    Decision-Making in the White House, Theodore Sorensen
    The Republic, Plato 

    Some other nonfiction writers not listed above whose works I like: Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Ta Nehisi Coates, Albert Hirschman, John Nichols, Mike Rose (UCLA), Diane Ravitch, Julian Vasquez Heilig (Cloaking Inequity blog)

    Obviously this list of special favorites is both U.S. and modern era-centric.  We will be vacationing as a family in Greece next summer and I plan to use that as an excuse to do some reading on ancient Greece (and also Rome, for current topical reasons).  I have found the life of Robert F. Kennedy a source of continuing fascination, as well as, at times, inspiration.  I think this is partly because I want to believe that adults in high positions of public influence and responsibility can learn, grow and change substantially and for the better.  As women continue to demand and secure more power and authority, I would anticipate that there will be many more female authors assertively voicing opinions on matters of societal consequence and public affairs, the sort of writing to which I tend to gravitate.  If I were living in a different era and composing this list 20 or 40 years from now, I would expect a higher proportion of the authors to be female.   As for the esteemed proprietor of this site, Unreasonable Men is nearing my "on-deck" reading circle. 

    Of course I would be most interested in any titles any of you may wish to mention as having left an impression with you.


    Thank you for your list, American Dreamer.

    I have read a number of them or other works by the same author. Seeing the ones I have not read makes me want to check them out.

    Books that have strongly influenced my view of culture and politics include:

    The Care of the Self, Michel Foucault
    Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen
    Why We Can't Wait, Martin Luther King Jr.
    Tools of Conviviality, Ivan Illich
    The New Industrial State, Kenneth Galbraith
    Ethics (all parts), Benedict de Spinoza
    The Concept of Anxiety, Soren Kierkegaard

    Like many books, these reflect other books not named, just as with your list. I guess I am sort of stuck inside of these volumes, unable to leave them behind or advance past them.

    Thanks, moat, and thanks for your list. I'll be checking out those.  I can't believe I still haven't gotten to Veblen.

    A few that occurred to me after I posted are:

    The Fall, Albert Camus

    The Nuclear Delusion, George Kennan

    Life Itself, Roger Ebert

    The Brethren, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong

    The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn

    Two biographies of women I liked were:

    Kirsten Downie bio of Frances Perkins The Woman Behind the New Deal and the bio of Florence Kelley by Sklar.  I've heard good things about the Megan Marshall bio of the remarkable 19th century adventurer Margaret Fuller.

    Another current writer I really like is Jennifer Rubin.  She writes The Right Turn blog at the WashPost website. She is/was a Republican.  For months she has been ripping Trump, Trump Admin and the GOP Congress multiple new ones, often multiple times daily.  On the Russia stuff she has almost instant analysis of where the next round of questions needs to go in the wake of the latest developments.

    Merry Christmas or happy holiday season as the case may be!


    The Brothers Karamazov

    Merry Christmas

    Thanks, Flavius.  Merry Christmas to you, too!


    When Affirmative Action Was White, Ira Katznelson

    AD, I remember from exchanges we've had long ago that you are also a collector of out-of-print and rare, so I thought of you when I saw this obit, pointed out by a friend who is a rare book expert, thought you might like to see it if you hadn't already:

    Fred Bass, Maestro of the Strand @ Daily

    back in the pre-internet days, the Strand was always a fun visit for anyone, even if not a book maniac, all the hubbub was fun, just seeing all the book selling as well as the book buying....and the stacks, oh my....

    Thanks for the link--interesting!  I've never experienced The Strand's market, may check out that scene next time I am in NYC.

    Actually what I strongly recommend instead is that you treat yourself to this when you can:

    they have it twice a year at the beautiful old Armory on Park & 67, next one is March 8-11

    I went last year for the first time and it like save me from despair that the collecting world was no longer for me! I have been really depressed by what the art collecting world and its fairs have become and the move of many sales to the lonely virtual world, but this was like a wondrous breath of a return to the halycon days of everyone in the antiques world being really really nice fun, eccentric and interesting people, every single one of the booths was manned by wonderful people just a joy to visit.

    In case you were thinking: I'd be classed out. Nope. All price ranges! No hoity toity, none of that. Tiny booths because they couldn't afford high fees. It's not for vicious collectors, it's for people that love books and ideas. Just a fun world of really nice people passionately sharing their interests. Everybody happy, seriously! Clearly all the dealers like each other, they are there to share, not to compete, like big party (Yes, it was as if the current art world and the current presidency didn't exist.)

    You could run down to the Strand during your visit, strikes me now how that would be a different world, visiting vicious buy/sell NYC. But the book fair itself, that's like a lovely little Arcadia that descends from heaven. I agree with these promo quotes:

    “The best book fair in the world.” – Andy Rooney

    “It is exciting in a way you probably don't expect when you just hear the word ‘Book Fair.' Well, to me it is just as exciting as sitting in the dark of the theatre and watch a horror film! This experience is not horror. But it's just as exciting!” – Yoko Ono

    It was really busy, too, and the crowds were likewise nice friendly people, willing to engage with others, not like the usual these days with everyone engaging with their devices instead.

    Thanks for the tip--I appreciate it!

    Did you end up going to this?

    Yes I did, and was just as nice as last year. The few vendors from NYC were the only snobby ones as typical. Even the London guys were nice. Met some real interesting people dealing from Chicago area and LA.

    I just ran across this from March @ LitHub, kinda related, and very interesting, apparently there's no retail apocalypse in the book biz if you go local, the business is doing very well:



    Yes. In these parts, Politics and Prose bookstore in DC opened 2 new stores.  They are a multi-dimensional community hub.

    On the subjects of immigration, citizenship and rights, these two have helped complicate my views:

    The Citizen and the Alien: Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership, Linda Bozniak
    Semi-Citizenship in Democratic Politics, Elizabeth Cohen

    Neither is a light read, although perfectly accessible for folks here who may consider whether to invest the time.  Both are expensive, even e-reader versions who those using these.  Fortunately, there still exist, in some places at any rate, institutions known as public libraries, and practices such as inter-library loans.  

    edits to add:

    I need to add Nancy MacLean's Democracy in Chains, seeing as I am mentioning it to many people I know.  I think it is indispensable for understanding the present moment.  

    And one I am 90% through, that I mentioned on another thread, is Cass Sunstein's Impeachment: A Citizen's Guide.  It is short and easily accessible to a public affairs audience.  It is also as breezy, fun and compelling as perhaps anything could be on this topic, particularly topical these days, although hopefully not for too much longer.  For folks here, I can almost guarantee you will learn something from it that you will be glad to know just now.  

    adding James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, which I read last week.  I don't know if it is going to stick with me for a while.  Based on how I was feeling while reading it I'd say there's a very good chance.

    Also, economics writer Dani Rodrik, out with what appears to be a thoughtful, well-informed release called Straight Talk About Trade, is someone whose earlier work The Globalization Paradox I found enlightening and thought-provoking.    

    I’m re-reading Taylor Branch’s thee part volume on Martin Luther King Jr. I finished re-reading King’s call for a guaranteed income in Where Do We Go From Here?

    Great--I hope you'll consider sharing any reactions or takeaways you have.  Among other works coming out as we near the 50 year mark of his assassination is To Shape a New World, an edited collection of writings about King's political philosophy.  I'm currently reading a 2005 book by the co-editor of that volume, Tommie Shelby, called We Who are Dark.  

    edit to add: I probably could elicit some glances and perhaps remarks (I imagine the thought bubble as something like "Is that man confused?") from fellow metro commuters if I am seen reading the Shelby book.  This happened when I was reading Cass Sunstein's Impeachment: A Citizen's Guide a week or two ago.  A middle-aged female fellow rider asked "Is there any hope?"  We chatted a bit.  Another nearby female middle-aged passenger who had been eavesdropping caught me on her way off the train with "Thanks for the reading list!".  (I had mentioned Democracy in Chains.)   

    To Shape a New World should hit my Kindle on President’s day, the 19th. I’m also waiting for an old hardcover Prisoner of Hope about LBJ, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism by Randall B. Woods.

    King has been so sanitized that his words are quoted to sell cars during the Super Bowl.

    Yeah, I saw that.  I thought it was tacky to say the least, and noted others had stronger reactions than mine.  Can only imagine what King would have thought if he were alive today...

    Apparently, the family had no problem with the ad.

    The King Center is headed by a nephew who says Trump is not a racist in the classic sense. The family is not setting a good example.

    From the ad mentioned in the npr Garrow interview  Coretta would have been alive at the time of the earlier ad.  Makes me curious about her role in decisions made by the estate over the years, how she handled or wanted handled various requests.

    I had no idea about that first ad. The restrictions placed on writers is chilling.

    Here is an LATimes op-ed from 2002 I found of Lincoln scholar James Swanson defending the King family against similar accusations of mercenary motives as to copyright. TV commercials appear to be an issue at that time, too. I googled him to find that he just published on King, Chasing King's Killers. Interesting that until now, though, he published only on Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, John Wilkes Booth and JFK. Maybe he had a relationship with them for a long time, don't know.

    There is no debate that the King family can allow the use of King’s words in a car ad. We can opine that the ad is distasteful.

    Yes, just so.  Swanson's article went beyond the legal issue to express Swanson's opinion that the matter of whether the ad is in poor taste is not just legally irrelevant, but irrelevant, period.  In so doing Swanson comes across to me as dismissive of anyone who may have found the ad in poor taste and as regrettably tending to trivialize or undermine the spirit of King's words and work.  One might be sympathetic to circumstances which led the King family to decide as it did while also being bothered by a particular use of his words.  

    Swanson refers to television commercials in general and does not speak to the particulars of the 2002 TV ad, which I have not seen.  Perhaps because to Swanson, the nature of any particular ad using King's words is inherently irrelevant; all that matters is that the family had the legal right to do as they did.  Strikes me as an impoverished Cato Institute-type stance to take, derivative in spirit of the Cato Institute's ideology that private property rights always override any potentially or actually conflicting other kinds of rights.  Swanson worked there at the time.


    Thanks for the info on Swanson. 

    There are ongoing attempts to turn the fiery King into the meek man who did not speak out on injustice.

    Some in the family seem to be going along with the transformation.

    Unreasonable Men was excellent.  I finally got around to reading it recently and am sorry I did not get to it sooner.  It's a timeless tale of political dynamics present in every era, very much including our own.  When Michael wrote it most of the commentators compared and contrasted Senator Robert La Follette to the Tea Party and President Theodore Roosevelt to the Republican establishment.  Reading it today of course I was led to compare and contrast La Follette with Sanders, Roosevelt with HRC, and the La Follette-TR dynamic to the Sanders-Clinton dynamic.  

    Coming from Michael, none of us are remotely surprised that it's lively, well-written, extensively researched, and moves like the political potboiler it is.  He told a great and consequential story.  

    Well, I read it 5 months after the '16 electio (posting this review), with the Sanders-Clinton dynamic still smoldering and the idea of populism still not as tarnished as the last year's dealings around the world have put it. Besides the suspicions that Sanders is simply not up to La Follette stature, the nature of today's problems and solutions seems more nuanced than big swing-of-the-bat approaches might warrant. Others, including the author, will likely disagree. We also did a followup interview that you might enjoy if didn't see it at the time.

    Thank you very much, Dreamer. I also see parallels between early progressives and their contemporary intellectual heirs, but ultimately, I see Unreasonable Men as a story about universal political principles. Whether Sanders measures up to La Follette or HRC measures up to TR isn't so important. What matters is that we can see the same push-pull dynamic between idealism and pragmatism during the Progressive Era that exists in the Democratic Party today.

    The lesson I take from the history is that idealism is important and essential for creating political change. What rankled me during the primary debates were accusations that Sanders' policies were "pie in the sky." I say that not because I thought his proposals were achievable in the short term but because we need pie-in-the-sky ideas to recapture the passion that created the progressive movement and energized it for much of the 20th century. Another term for pie in the sky is a dream. Our forebears dreamed of a better world and inspired the nation to seek it. Today, we're too willing to settle for damage control.

    That is not to dismiss pragmatism. It was pragmatists who built what the idealists dreamed up. But they were only able to build it with the force of the movement at their backs. TR couldn't build an egalitarian welfare state in 1905; he lacked the political power. But Wilson had it 1913, FDR had it 1933, and LBJ had it in 1963. They had that power because those dreamers, the Bob La Follettes' and MLKs, had inspired the voters to toss out the conservative obstructionists and fill the legislatures with ardent progressives who demanded change. 

    Adding Jared Bernstein, The Reconnection Agenda, 2015, every bit as on point now as it was then.  For those looking for proposals on what to do about the economy.  I haven't so far come across an agenda offering more promise to cut across some of our deepest divisions to improve economic opportunity and security (and also not BTW enhance growth)  for the vast majority of our fellow citizens of all backgrounds.  

    No short summary, key takeaways, examples?

    Two additions:

    Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hoschschild.  Read it--if you dare.  Hochschild, a progressive Berkeley sociology professor, spent five years getting to know 40 Tea Party supporters in heavily, heavily polluted southwest Louisiana.  She used views about the environment as her "keyhole" issue to try to, in her words, scale her own "emphathy wall" and, without judgment or getting into arguments with them, understand the world view of the people she sought successfully to befriend.  Fascinating book.

    As an aside--although views on gender are not something she chose to focus on in her book--she said, in the afterword to the paperback addition:

    " men's minds, women tended to be divided into separate mental categories: daughters ("Be anything you want"), wives or partners ("Earn a lot but don't outshine me"), and potential rivals at work ("No pie charts, please").   

    "No pie charts" refers to opposition among the male Tea Party supporters she got to know to workplace affirmative action to increase the proportion of female employees.

    The other addition is Fred Block's " Capitalism: The Future of an Illusion".  Do people exist, or are we fated, to submit to an economic system perceived to be autonomous (from government, politics, and other realms of society such as culture, religion, etc.), coherent, and regulated by its own internal laws?  Or is the economy actually fluid, not internally coherent or self-regulating, and adjusted or changing repeatedly in ways which produce very different outcomes depending on the existing legal rules and relative bargaining power of the parties?  

    Michael M wrote a comment a few months back which, implicitly to me, raised what seems to me to be a closely related question (I'm paraphrasing what I took to be Michael's meaning, and also elaborating a little--I am unable to locate what Michael wrote and would welcome anything Michael or others may want to say on this) of whether people exist to serve this economy, or whether the economy needs to, and could, better serve the needs of people. 

    If you believe that market fundamentalist thinking has been overwhelmingly dominant in public policy and in political debates in recent decades, and that this may be having some really problematic consequences for our society (and for our world), this book might help stimulate or refine your thinking on this topic.   

    edits to add: corrected a few typos

    It seems as though nothing gets by you, aa.  Yes.

    Well it was such a great point he was raising. As I age, more and more I see this hamster wheel we are all on to create greater GNP for each country and I am going: why? So I remembered it, too. All I had to do is click on his name on the masthead here and scroll down to find it.

    As to your new comment, the book by Hochschield certainly sounds intriguing. I did a quick google because I was curious to find the publication date, since you mentioned the Tea Party, and that of course has been around some time, and I wondered whether it was applicable to the here and now. And the publisher is touting it like this

    Finalist, National Book Award 2016
    One of “6 Books to Understand Trump’s Win” according to the New York Times the day after the election...

    Did you find it actually did that for you? Or is it just more of a repeat of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Because I sense that while Trump definitely appealed to "Tea Party/Kansas" type districts, something new was in the mix, too? Something more "Steve Bannon" as it were, because he saw it as global, after all...

    Good question.  She begins the afterword to the paperback edition as follows:

    The hardcover edition of this book was published in early September 2016.  Two months later, something happened that the vast majority of America's pollsters, journalists, and politicians did not anticipate: Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.  Over the next year I made three trips back to Louisiana to see how the people I'd come to know over the previous half decades were feeling.  They were ecstatic.  All those I profiled in the book, and most of their kin, friends, and fellow parishioners had voted for Trump.

    She then shares the reactions to Trump of several of the people she profiled.  Late in the final chapter she shared reactions to various 2016 GOP presidential aspirants. But really the entire book, I found, was very helpful in understanding the sort of world view which Trump tapped into.  Trump was not in all ways overtly hostile to the federal government on the campaign trail.  But it seemed entirely understandable to me why he connected emotionally to the people profiled in the book.  Beyond policy stances, he said many things they were longing to hear a politician say to leave them and their world view feeling understood and validated.    

    So, yes, I found it highly relevant in understanding the Trump phenomenon and prevailing sentiments in today's GOP and Trump-supporting part of the electorate.   

    BTW, one other thing I liked about the book is that in an appendix, she fact checks common impressions held by people she got to know.   

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