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The late Howard Zinn's book, "A People's History of the United States", will help you understand US history. It also helps place current political and social threads into the context of history. Highly recommended.
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A few books have impressed enough that I heartily recommend whenever I can. These are not the "Great Books" of traditional western literature. They are exclusively in English, so that narrows the view. These are recent and speak of things that were not necessarily well understood before.
I have not had time to add every book that deserves to be here. It's a work in progress.
|Howard Zinn||A People's History of the United States||History||History books commonly ignore much of the impact of the past on ordinary people. Howard Zinn, history professor at Boston University decided (at his retirement) that this was a vital topic that needed covering. This 700 page book is the result. It covers about 400 years of history of the Americas. It will completely change your view of US history in several ways. One critical thing: every important improvement in people's lives (meaning every step along the long road to someday implement what the US Constitution promises) is the result of protest movements, not of calm reasoning. Protest movements work. Everyone living in the US should read it. Others may find it illuminating too.|
|Edmund Fawcett||Liberalism: The Life of an Idea||Philisophy, History||Liberalism is fundamentally misunderstood in the US and this book informs on its real meaning and history. The idea was born about 1830. Fawcett says, in the Preface "Liberalism as I take it here was a search for an ethically acceptable order of human progress among civic equals without recourse to undue power." But you have to read the book to understand the history of liberalism and indeed, the meaning of liberalism. You will not find a genuine definition of Liberalism in the main-stream media. You will find one in this book.|
|J.D. Vance||Hillbilly Elegy, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis||History||It makes the situation in much of the U.S. with people of Scots-Irish descent understandable. J.D. Vance grew up in that culture but with help from others (including family) grew out of the culture trap (while retaining his love of the people). A must read if you want to understand an important part of current politics. These are people who need help but who will resist changing and resist help. He struggles with the culture trap and some things people say force him to struggle with a strong impulse to simply beat the speaker to a pulp as that is what people do in that culture. Do not insult his mother even in jest, it is both gross (in modern conversation) and dangerous (to the speaker's health and well-being). Note that Vance downplays the importance of the federal dollars going to help people there. He makes something of the people cheating on Food Stamps to buy drugs but no credit to the goverment for providing the Food Stamps. Nor does he give the government credit for creating the schools, roads, etc that underpin his personal achievements. The dollars that helped him at crucial times in his childhood are just 'vague old-age payments' to his grandmother. Such omissions take nothing from his laudable accomplishments, but one does need to take a wider view, as a reader.|
|John Lewis. Andrew Aydin. Nate Powell.||March||History||A graphic (illustrated) life story of John Lewis in three books. John Lewis of the towering figures in the too-slow progression of getting full rights to the Black citizens of the US. I was a bit worried about the graphic aspect. But it is exceedingly well done and the graphics add a real impact. While it may be aimed at younger readers (the graphic aspect) it is meaningful for those of any age (even old fogies like me). Wonderful. I hope to pass the set on to my nephews when they are young teens (not too long now).|
|Peter Singer||Ethics in the Real World||Philosophy||This collection of Singer's essays has an important explanation of where morality comes from (hint: not religion).|
|Clayton Christensen||Competing Against Luck||Business||This follow-on to The Innovator's Dilemma actually answers the question of how a business can survive. The key phrase is "Jobs To Be Done" and reading the book will tell you what that means and how it matters.|
|Steven Pinker||The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined||History, Sociology||In the first and second quarters of the book Pinker shows, from the historical record, how violence has declined. The impression one gets from the media (about violence) is misleading. Fascinating tables of violence over human history. The third quarter, about the brain, I found uninteresting and could not see strong connections with the rest of the book. The fourth quarter is again wonderful.|
|Charles C. Mann||1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus||History||There were a lot more people living in South and Central America than your history books said there were. And all those jungles were, essentially, planted gardens. So the way species are intermingled in the jungles is the intent of the many millions of folks who lived there. (Precis: Europeans first exterminated nearly everyone and destroyed all written records in South America and then decided the tattered remnants of civilization meant there never had been civilization)|
|Charles C. Mann||1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created||History||Extends Alfred Crosby's "The Columbian Exchange" and "Ecological Imperialism" with recent scholarship those books provoked. Columbus started the movement of people and things across the world. Wonderful book.|
|Paul N. Edwards||A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming.||Science, Politics||When climate investigations started (1850 or so) and how it has all proceeded in a semi-chronological order. There is no data without models, it turns out. Models (almost) all the way down. Winner, 2010 ASLI Choice Award in the History category, awarded by Atmospheric Science Librarians International. Winner, 2011 Computer History Museum Prize, awarded by the Society for the History of Technology Winner, 2012 Louis J. Battan Author’s Award, awarded by the American Meteorological Society.|
|Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway||Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming||Science, Politics||The denial of science in an organized way started around 1950. The deniers were cold-war warriors (well, US Government weapons physicists) and well organized and hated government and believed any regulation is a move to socialism and communism. The original denier-organization (whose first campaign was to pretend cigarette smoking was non-harmful then moved on to denying DDT was harmful and now denies global warning and more) is still around, renamed, though now oil and coal companies fund many additional groups. Their one-page attack-on-science plan is still in use -- a brilliant and amoral plan. Oreskes and Conway are historians.|
|Robbert Dijkgraaf and Abraham Flexner||The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge||Science, Learning, Politics||Now, when science and learning are threatened in so many places (definitely including the USA) it's important to again read and hear why basic research (useless knowledge) is so important. Einstein's theory of relativity was useless to the ordinary citizen for 100 years. But today GPS depends on it: without it a GPS location would drift seven miles in a single day. Dijkgraaf is part of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. Flexner founded the IAS in 1933.|