As 2020 — the year of the coronavirus pandemic — draws to a close, More to Come is the platform for sharing the annual list of books I’ve read over the past twelve months. As regular readers know, since returning from sabbatical early in 2016 I’ve committed to reading more, and to seeking out a wider range of works beyond my favored histories and biographies. But 2020 — with the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the mass attacks on our democracy — called me to read more about race, social justice, and our democracy than may normally have been the case. With that in mind, here — in the order I read them — are the treasures I found on my reading shelf this past year.
I began the year by re-reading Michelle Alexander’s seminal work The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It still stands, some ten years later, as a stinging rebuke to those — like Chief Justice John Roberts in his terribly misguided ruling on the Voting Rights Act — who make the case that we are a post-racial society and should quickly move beyond our racist past.* And I read it before the racial justice reckoning that we began facing after the death of George Floyd and others at the hands of the police. Alexander wrote in her essay around the book’s 10th anniversary, that “We are now living in an era not of post-racialism but of unabashed racialism, a time when many white Americans feel free to speak openly of their nostalgia for an age when their cultural, political and economic dominance could be taken for granted — no apologies required.”
The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution is historian Eric Foner’s most recent book, bringing together a lifetime of scholarship around this most contentious era in our nation’s history. In spite of its look at a period some 150 years in the past, this is work with great resonance for this day, this political climate, and the major questions of how we will advance as a nation. As Foner states in his preface, “Key issues confronting American society today are in some ways Reconstruction questions.”
Alex Krieger’s 2019 book City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present examines America’s long history of living with an eye on the horizon, seeking something shiny and new. Krieger, longtime professor in urban design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a practicing urban planner, has written an accessible book about the many strands of utopia that have shaped the American landscape and personality.
In Margaret Renkl’s wonderful debut book Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, she makes the comment that “It takes a lot of nerve” for someone like herself, who is “so ignorant of true wilderness” to put herself forward as a nature writer. But then she adds, “the flip side of ignorance is astonishment, and I am good at astonishment.” In another passage in this beautiful collection of short essays about nature, family, community, love, and loss, Renkl writes, “Every day the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world,” Late Migrations opens the reader to Renkl’s experiences growing up in Lower Alabama and the inevitable imperfections of life. We are all drifting towards death, as Renkl explains so lovingly to her three-year-old in the essay “All Birds?” (As in “All birds die? All dogs die? All teachers die? All mommies die? I will die?”) Yet we are missing why we’re here if we don’t inhabit this imperfect world fully, with astonishment and awe.
The recently released second edition of Giving Preservation a History, edited by Randall Mason and Max Page, is a strong attempt to reverse our trend at historical amnesia in the preservation field. Through seven essays retained from the first edition, six new essays prepared for the 2020 book, and two concluding chapters to wrap both works together, the editors have endeavored to put forward arguments that may rebut old myths around the elite nature of the movement’s founding while also challenging the field to consider how it has fallen short in the embrace of multi-culturalism and issues of social justice. Like much else in life, historic preservation has a mixed, layered history. But Giving Preservation a History reminds us that understanding our own past is worth knowing as we envision the future. With the preservation movement adapting amid significant societal change, those who understand this past are best equipped to use preservation as an effective tool today and tomorrow.
If you are looking for a good sports book to fill up your hours, I wish I could send you to Jane Leavy’s 2018 The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created with more enthusiasm. While there are good parts to this work, Leavy has gone all Ruthian on us with prodigious amounts of material. But, just like the Babe, she plows through almost 500 pages without a sense of discipline in deciding what’s worth keeping and what is best left untouched. In Leavy’s portrait, Babe Ruth comes across as the man who helped shape many facets of modern America that we know today. His love for baseball, food, beer, women, and attention are at the forefront of this work. Unfortunately, the excesses of modern life in the new age of celebrity also come across in ways intended and unintended in The Big Fella.
At the very beginning of 2018’s American Dialogue: The Founders and Us, historian Joseph J. Ellis lays out his personal self-evident truth. The guide star that leads his work is simple yet important: “The study of history is an ongoing conversation between past and present from which we all have much to learn.” Over the book’s 200+ pages, Ellis demonstrates how just such a dialogue takes place in the hands of a talented historian, biographer, writer, and thinker immersed in the study of our nation’s founding. Focusing on key issues of our day — race, inequality, law, and foreign policy — he carries on a rich, thoughtful, and challenging conversation with four founders that helps us go back to the beginning and understand some of their controversial decisions, and how they differ from choices we are making today.
As it became clear that isolationism isn’t an option with a global pandemic taking place, I turned to Robert Kaplan’s Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World. Kaplan argues that America became a great country not just because of our constitution and values, but because it occupies some of the best, most fertile land on the planet that is connected by a river system (running diagonally) that unites the heartland into a strong political unit. “America’s greatness,” in his words, “ultimately, is based on it being a nation, an empire, and a continent rolled into one.” And in taming the frontier, America learned how to be a global power. There’s much to consider here during an age when our role in the world is very much upside down and few countries look to us for leadership during this time.
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Northwestern University historian Daniel Immerwahr turned out to be among the great surprises of the year for me. The “Greater United States” was a term used by some at the turn of the 20th century to describe the states and territories of the U.S. Immerwahr is standing on the shoulders of many scholars who have focused on aspects of U.S. imperialism in the past. Yet he brings their work together in a narrative of impressive scope and depth, changing the way one thinks about the U.S. The history we’ve learned growing up is that America is a republic, born out of a desire to overthrow an empire. When someone talks about Americans as imperialistic, it raises our hackles. But as Immerwahr writes, “At various times, the inhabitants of the U.S. Empire have been shot, shelled, starved, interned, dispossessed, tortured and experimented on. What they haven’t been, by and large, is seen.” As a lifelong student of history who learned new lessons from virtually every page of this remarkable 2019 work, I am here to say that How to Hide an Empire should be required reading for all Americans.
I read two books about aging well during the first few months of the pandemic. The first, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives by Daniel J. Levitin, is written as an effort to change the status quo about the role older people play in daily life. Levitin examines what happens in the brain as we age and what are the keys to aging well. In 400 pages packed full of the latest science as well as stories from the lives of those who are demonstrating the benefits that can come from getting older, Levitin makes the case that aging is not inevitably a period of decline and loss and irrelevance. The other book in my rite of passage reading was 2002’s Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life by George E. Vaillant, M.D., based on the oldest, most thorough study of aging ever undertaken. Dr. Vaillant’s description of the key findings to emerge from the study include several thoughts that relate to successful aging in a time of turmoil “It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us,” he notes, “it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age.”
Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by MacArthur Foundation Fellow Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, is a look at all the ways we make biased judgements without realizing that we’re even doing so. We are wired for bias, Eberhardt writes, but it is not something we exhibit and act on all the time. Instead, it is conditioned, so we begin to battle bias by understanding the conditions — especially speed and ambiguity — under which bias is likely to come alive.
The hopeful message of this book is that “we all have the capacity to make change — within ourselves, in the world, and in our relationship to that world.”
Barbara Brown Taylor’s latest book, Holy Envy; Finding God in the Faith of Others, turns to the questions, worries, and concerns that arise in most of us when we encounter “difference” and “others.” As an Episcopal priest, her focus is on spiritual riches. But we can all look at how our minds and worldview are expanded when we are open to the wonder that is all around us. Taylor’s encouragement to not only think deeply about our beliefs, but to look to others outside our tribe and traditions for the many truths they tell, extends to areas far beyond the spiritual. I recommend this book because we are at a moment in history where so many people are having their “truth” upended.
Edward Achorn’s 2020 work Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln is a fascinating book that looks at March 3rd and 4th, 1865 and the cast of characters — including Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass, and John Wilkes Booth — who gathered in Washington as Lincoln began his second term. Achorn illuminates all the capitol’s “mud, sewage, and saloons, its prostitutes, spies, reporters, social-climbing spouses and power-hungry politicians” and then showcases the activities of these two days “as a microcosm of all the opposing forces that had driven the country apart.” With a journalist’s eye and a storyteller’s skill, Achorn captures the frenzy, the turmoil, the excitement, and the despair of that time in a remarkable work.
I picked up Patti Smith’s Devotion because, in my push to write well, I often look to what others have to say on the subject. Smith’s slender volume is part of Yale’s Why I Write series. But as I note in my review, this three-part book — consisting of a look at Smith’s creative process, a shallow and creepy short story, and a final segment written from Camus’ villa — has a great deal of what one reviewer described as “overblown language, artistic reverence, and pseudo-revelatory style.” I do use the post to send readers in what I consider better directions to answer questions about why and how to write, including Paul Graham, John McPhee, and Annie Dillard.
Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America is the story of a five-year journey across the country, most of it taken at low altitude in a propeller airplane. Along the way, journalists James and Deborah Fallows saw small and mid-sized towns that had faced economic hardship, political crises, and job losses. They also saw “the emerging pattern of American reinvention.” One of the first places they stopped in each town to gather local information and to gauge the character of the community was the public library, a fact I build upon in my post about the book. Since the book was published in 2018, I came away thinking that much of what they found would require some type of 2020 reality check. Thankfully, their Our Towns website has stories that deal with this most challenging of years, produced with the same straightforward, non-judgmental approach that does not gloss over the issues but speaks to the energy and renewal possible across the country.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X.Kendi is usually found right at the top of the list of recommended works to read in order to understand the systemic racism in our country and how best to respond. Kendi has written a work that challenges assumptions and rationalizations we all make to assure ourselves and others that we are “not racist.” What could be wrong with not being a racist? Kendi makes the argument right up front that there is “no neutrality in the racism struggle.” After 2020, I believe we all have to acknowledge that perspective as we consider how best to fight the scourge of white supremacy. Highly recommended.
As I finished reading the monumental 2018 biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, the first on Douglass in a quarter century, I came away humbled, enlightened, and inspired. By Douglass’s life and work, certainly. But also by Blight’s efforts to capture, in very human form, the essence of his most extraordinary subject.
While he tries to balance the narrative of Douglass’s life with “analyses of his evolving mind,” Blight writes of how he returns to that narrative, because…
“It is Douglass’s story, though, that lasts and gives and instructs. There is no greater voice of America’s terrible transformation from slavery to freedom than Douglass’s. For all who wish to escape from outward or inward captivity, they would do well to feel the pulses of this life, and to read the words of this voice. And then go act in the world.”
Blight is not afraid to bring Douglass’s prophetic voice into today’s world as he analyzes his words and evolving mind. As he was drawing closer to death in 1893 and 1894, Douglass found his old voice and, as Blight phrases it, “preached an old creed.”
“Men talk of the Negro problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their Constitution.”
And so the question from the prophet remains today: are we willing to change in order to live up to the ideals of the constitution? Douglass is a 19th century prophet, but like most great prophets, his words still ring true in the 21st century, if we’ll only listen.
Historic Cities: Issues in Urban Conservation is co-edited by my friend Jeff Cody at the Getty Conservation Institute. Published in 2019, this masterly survey brings together 67 different articles and groups them into eight sections covering topics such as the shared nature of the historic city, significant values, sustainability, and managing the historic city.
This is a richly illustrated book with a range of writings sure to interest both practitioners and the curious layperson who cares about past efforts and current concerns and work to maintain historic cities and their buildings that, as noted by architect Marwa Al-Sabouni, hold the “values — the aesthetic values, the moral values — of the place.”
As the turmoil of Donald Trump’s attempt to overthrow the country was playing out in the news, I was reading Nancy MacLean’s 2017 book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. This award-winning and well-researched intellectual history of the radical right demonstrates that Trump is just a noisy distraction in a sixty-year effort to undermine America’s democracy. And while he did not succeed at getting “his” Supreme Court to throw out millions of valid votes, the work to make the people who cast those 81.2 million votes against Donald Trump irrelevant in future elections continues apace.
MacLean’s well written narrative tells the story of James McGill Buchanan, a Tennessee boy who went to my alma mater and then used his considerable intellect to earn his doctorate in economics at the University of Chicago. Buchanan came to the University of Virginia in the midst of the state’s turmoil over the massive resistance to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling on school desegregation. He arrived to set up an economics policy center that would, in MacLean’s words, develop the intellectual underpinning for an ideological “stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and the national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.” This is…
“…the utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance.”
It may scare you, but it should, which is why it is highly recommended.
So what’s on the bookshelf for 2021? I am getting ready to begin Purposeful Retirement, then I have Pete Buttigieg’s Trust up next, followed by the first volume of President Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land. I’m reading the last two as part of the work to restore some of my faith in our government as we transfer to new leadership. I’m reading the first one well…because I’m semi-retired and learning how to “do something different” from what I’ve done over the past four decades.
No matter your career status or state-of-mind as this most challenging of years comes to an end, my advice is to keep on reading!
More to come…
*Chief Justice Roberts really does not believe that we are a post-racial society. If you read the last book in my list, you’ll see that his work is part of a 60-year-old stealth plan to keep people from voting based on those old American issues of power, money, and race.