The Power of Words

Former President Obama’s recent summer reading list reminded me of how much I pick up fresh insights from seeing what books others recommend.  When I finish several months’ worth of reading, I’ll pass along my takes on those works to anyone who cares to listen, simply because I believe in the power of the written word.  Writer Cheryl Strayed said she was seven years old when she understood that, as Margaret Atwood wrote in her poem Spelling,

 “a word after a word after a word is power.”

According to Strayed, the power of those words she read at age seven, “wasn’t the sort of power we associate with politics or world affairs . . . It wasn’t the kind of power we talk about when we talk about destruction or physical force. It wasn’t about defeat or domination or control. It was about a deeper, older, truer sort of power, one that calls upon the original meaning of the word, which is derived from the Latin posse.  It means, quite simply, to be able. It’s a definition of power that’s about doing and creating, about writing word after word after word on the page.”

Earlier this year, the National Trust Council visited Oxford, Mississippi, where many of our members demonstrated the power of words by making a pilgrimage to Square Books—one of the country’s best-known independent bookstores.  I love the quote from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby included on the store’s bookmarks, because it speaks to the special power of the written word:

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score.  It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates, the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”

We learn a great deal by what others tell us about a book, but you have to read it to understand the power, get it in your head, and have it beat in your chest.  With our children on the west coast in August, we recently gathered on California’s Monterey Peninsula for a week’s vacation.  Given that we were less than a mile from historic Cannery Row—and having heard good things about this book from others—I dove into John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel that helped make this street of old sardine factories and marine laboratories famous.  Cannery Row was a delightful read, especially since I walked daily among the buildings and places that inspired the characters of Doc, Mack and the boys, Dora Flood, and Lee Chong. The connection between story and place took that book into my head and helped it beat in my chest. The book focuses on life as it is and celebrates community, while also acknowledging the loneliness of the individual. Steinbeck’s descriptive language and imagery—“What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?”—are as sharp and inspired as one would expect from a winner of both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.  Key to much of this book, as well as his classic The Grapes of Wrath, is this strong sense of place.

 

Steinbeck Monument

Steinbeck Monument on Cannery Row

 

Places that we save and celebrate are full of stories, both real and inspired, that tell much about us as a country and as individuals.

If you’re reading anything that has gotten into your head, is beating in your chest, or is powerful to you, please share it with someone. James Baldwin said in a 1963 interview with Life magazine, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.  It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

Sharing is fundamental to connecting with others. Connecting with others is fundamental to a balanced and productive life. Share the power of words.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Not Your Summer Reading List

Summer reading lists can be fun. I’ve enjoyed compiling my annual list since I started this blog ten years ago. I also enjoy reading lists developed by others, as you often get insights into both great new books and the thoughts of the individual who passes along recommendations. My criteria for good summer reading lists include:  they must be focused on a short period of time when the compiler is away (e.g., for an August vacation), and the reading can’t be too heavy, as there are 10 other months to read tomes about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

What follows is not a summer reading list.

I’ve fallen so far behind in updating readers about the books I’ve found interesting, challenging, refreshing, and—yes—troublesome that I’ve decided to take a Twitter-like approach and provide two-four sentence summaries of everything I’ve read between Memorial Day and Labor Day this year.  Since I can’t remember the order in which I read them, I’m listing them in alphabetical order (by author).  Let me know if you find one or more books that pique your interest this fall.

Bad Stories

Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond

Bad Stories:  What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond.  I began the summer with this work by the co-host of the Dear Sugars podcast and found it a coherent look at our current moment in history in America.  It was recommended by our former rector and Andrew’s godfather.  Almond makes the strong case—using examples from Moby Dick and other classics of literature—that we’ve made bad decisions as a country because we’ve told ourselves bad stories for a long time…and “bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously.”  Highly recommended.

Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.  This very impressive study by MacArthur Fellow Matthew Desmond is an important new work about poverty in 21st century America and the role of corporate America (both major financial institutions and small mom-and-pop rental firms) in driving housing policies that put profit first and people last.  Desmond’s research—coupled with real-life stories based on his years of living among the individuals he profiles—demonstrates vividly that evictions from homes often lead to a cascading of events that can trap people for years. The National Building Museum in Washington has a companion exhibit that runs through May 2019.  Highly recommended, especially for those interested in social justice issues in America.

UTC HQ

United Therapeutics Corporation’s Silver Spring Headquarters

Evolving Ourselves:  Redesigning the Future of Humanity—One Gene at a Time by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans.  Juan Enriquez was the keynote speaker at a conference I attended in July, and you can watch his TEDx Talk for a general summary of the key themes of Evolving Ourselves.  This wide-ranging look at how humans are changing the course of evolution for all species challenges one’s thinking on multiple levels.  The authors begin with a reminder of the scene in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman’s character is told the future is “Plastics” and then move forward to make the case that a similar scene today would use two words:  Life Code. While I may have understood one-half or less of this book (should have paid more attention in those science classes) this is still highly recommended, unless you believe the earth is only 10,000 years old (because in that case this book would make your head explode).*

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.  These two Harvard professors have spent twenty years studying the decline of democracies all around the world.  Their research shows that more often than not, it is the slow decline of institutions such as the judiciary and press that lead countries to move from democratic to authoritarian governments.  This accessible book is highly recommended, and perhaps should be required reading for the entire country at this point in time.

Hero of the Empire:  The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill and The River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.  I read and enjoyed both of these short, fast-paced books by best-selling author and story-teller extraordinaire Candice Millard.  The Churchill book starts slowly and doesn’t show the future prime minister in a flattering light, but it soon becomes a page-turner about a period of history that isn’t that familiar to me.  The Roosevelt story is amazing, especially when one thinks of the likelihood of any of our recent president going through such an arduous journey of exploration (i.e., highly unlikely).  Recommended.

Longitude by Dava Sobel. Now some 20+ years old, I came across this small book at a conference on geographic information systems and thought it was an intriguing topic:  a lone genius bucks the scientific establishment of the 18th century and figures out the “longitude problem” by building a clock that worked at sea.  John Harrison’s story, as told by Sobel, is part of a series of books I’ve read over the past year or two about the scientific advances that helped shape the modern world.  Once Harrison’s marine chronometer helped sailors determine exactly where they were at sea, everything changed. If you like to see how earlier eras addressed complex problems, and you enjoyed books such as The Invention of Nature and The Age of Wonder, this is a book for you.  Recommended.

The Nature of Parties

The Nature of Parties from Cannery Row

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.  I read this short novel for the first time in August during a week on the Monterey Peninsula, and found it delightful. Steinbeck’s language is superb, focusing on life as it is and celebrating community while acknowledging the loneliness of the individual.  I keep returning to the line, “What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?”  Recommended.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  This seemed to be a good year to re-read this American classic about the collision of the Haves and the Have-Nots during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.  The author Ursula K. Le Guin said it best when she wrote, “So now, if somebody asked me what book would tell them the most about what is good and what is bad in America, what is the most truly American book, what is the great American novel . . . a year ago I would have said—for all its faults—Huckleberry Finn. But now—for all its faults—I’d say The Grapes of Wrath.” Highly recommended as a stark reminder of what we can be—both good and bad—as a country.

Beach Reading

Beach Reading

Now I’m caught up.  Happy reading in what’s left of the summer.

More to come…

DJB

*I also wanted to read this book to see if I could understand the work of one of our neighbors here in Silver Spring:  United Therapeutics Corporation.  The authors mention that UTC—at the time of the book’s publication—used technology developed by Synthetic Genomics, Inc. to “begin humanizing pig lungs—a project that could eventually help save the 200,000 people who die every year waiting for an organ that never comes.”  I love the fact that UTC has developed a big corporate campus, with fun and innovative architectural design (seen above), right in the heart of downtown Silver Spring.

Observations from the Road: The Vacation Reading Edition

I’ve now been back from vacation for two weeks, and have finally decided that I am not going to find the time to write lengthy posts on each book I checked off my summer reading list.  So I’m resorting to my trusty “Observations from the Road” formula, to give you short takes on the four books I read over those two weeks.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

Hallelujah Anyway:  Rediscovering Mercy — Shortly before leaving on vacation, I picked up this book by the popular author Anne Lamott after seeing several short quotes attributed to her work.  Candice’s reaction was, “You’re reading Anne Lamott?” and I understand that sentiment. Yes, she is crafty and crotchety, and she has a “perfectly calibrated NPR appeal” which can grate on some. But yes, I am.  She’s funny and a bit snarky, both traits I enjoy (when I agree) and she’s a very good writer.  She’s also brief (a quality I’m enjoying more as I plow through 500+ page works).

This is a book about mercy.  She wanders a bit in getting there, but in the end there is a good bit to take away from this small collection.

“Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves—our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice….the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.”

“Kindness towards others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all.  Do you want this, or do you want to be right?  Well, can I get back to you on that?”

It’s the attitude in that last line that led me to respond to Candice, “Yeah, and I’m enjoying it.”

The Only Rule

The Only Rule is It Has to Work

The Only Rule is It Has to Work —You knew there had to be a baseball book in the batch…and you would be right.

This is a story of what happens when two numbers guys—Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller—get the chance to run an independent minor league team for a season.  Both worked at Baseball Prospectus and were eager to see how their sabermetric theories might play out in real life.

This is a fun read, in part because both are good writers and they have a good story to tell.  (They switch back-and-forth in writing chapters, which you get use to.)   For part of the season, they move slowly in implementing their theories.  But after they make the bold move to fire the player/manager who pushes back on many of their suggestions, changes come more quickly.  There’s the added bonus of having their team—the Sonoma Stompers—become the first professional team with an openly gay player.  Sean Conroy’s story is just one example of how the authors blend metrics and human interest in this funny and informative book.

Everybody Lies

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Everybody Lies:  Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are — This was easily the most interesting book of the four I read over my vacation, and I picked it up after chatting with a seat mate on a recent plane ride who gave it a strong recommendation.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a social scientist who is using new, big data sources to uncover hidden behaviors and attitudes.  He notes that Google searches are a type of “truth serum” because we undertake those searches anonymously and tools such as Google Trends can tell us what people—in huge data sets—are really thinking.  “In other words, people’s search for information is, in itself, information.”  And as Stephens-Davidowitz explains, “The power of Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else.”  That’s true about race, politics, and especially sex.  People lie about all three things when taking surveys, but they don’t lie when searching for data in the anonymity of their living rooms.  The recent acknowledgement of the rise of white nationalism in the main stream media was something that Google searches predicted in 2008…on the night Barack Obama was elected president.  There were more searches using the “n-word president” than “first black president” in some states.

This book has much to recommend it, and much that is disturbing to know about ourselves and our fellow citizens.  There is great analysis, excellent storytelling, and witty writing throughout.  I could go into so much more here, but suffice it to say that this book will change the way you view the world.

Architecture's Odd Couple

Architecture’s Odd Couple

Architecture’s Odd Couple:  Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson — Hugh Howard’s 2016 work on the intersection of two of the 20th century’s best-known architects is an interesting read that ultimately falls short of making its central case:  which is that each architect was greatly influenced at a key point in his career development, by the work of the other.  It is a hard argument to make given that Wright was a stunningly original innovator and one of the world’s great designers.  Johnson was more of a shaper of architectural tastes whose work doesn’t reach the breadth or depth of Wright’s.  (Full disclosure:  I work for an organization, the National Trust, that owns houses designed by both men.)

Nonetheless, there is much to like and take away from Howard’s work.  The focus on Johnson’s breakthrough with the MoMA architectural exhibition that helped introduce Modernism to the American public, while alienating Wright in the process, makes for great reading.  The descriptions of Wright’s designing of his masterpieces—Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum—as well as Johnson’s conception of The Glass House, are compelling and showcase Howard’s writing skills.

Fallingwater

Fallingwater (photo credit: DJB)

At the end, Howard’s conclusion gets it right.

“Rather against his will, Johnson evolved into one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most important public admirers.  As a man who worshiped the zeitgeist, he found that his old nemesis’s ideas retained remarkable vibrancy.  As he came to recognize the importance and the value of their odd alliance, he also grasped that Wright’s work transcended style and even time.  Though it rendered his work inimitable, Wright’s genius was, quite simply, of a greater magnitude than Johnson’s.”

“Today, more than half a century after his death, Wright remains America’s best-known and most admired architect.  By the time Johnson died, barely a decade ago, he had become what he himself disparagingly called, ‘the famous architect.’ With his death, his fame began to recede; inversely, Wright’s clearly grows.  Yet their connection, in death as in life, enriches our understanding of both grand men of American architecture.”

Once you read this book, you’ll be ready for another field trip to New Canaan, or Bear’s Run, or Spring Green, or New York City to see the works of these two men.  And that’s reason enough to pick this one up.

More to come…

DJB

For the Son of a Librarian, the Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree

Beach Reading

Beach Reading

I love seeing lists of books recommended by people from all walks of life.  As the son of a children’s librarian and the husband of a children’s reading specialist, books have always been a part of my life. This enthusiasm was brought home to me again when I recently saw a list of recommended readings from President Obama (or, as Inc.com called him, the “Bookworm-in-Chief.”)  It seemed appropriate – the day before the election – to recall all the good things President Obama has brought our way, including an intellectual curiosity about the world.

Writer Rebecca Solnit has said, “I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods.”  I know that feeling.  A couple of years ago, in thinking about a lifetime (so far) of reading, I put together my own list of twelve books (plus some bonus reads) that had influenced me. If you click through, you’ll see that the initial one on my list is the first I remember from my childhood. I suspect you’ll understand a bit more about me when you see that the title is If Everybody Did.

Books are a wonderful window into the world, and I’m always looking for reading recommendations.  In the past few months, I’ve received book suggestions from several colleagues that included Economics of Uniqueness – Investing in Historic City Cores and Cultural Heritage Assets for Sustainable Development (a free publication of the World Bank); Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, a 1998 book by biologist E. O. Wilson; as well as The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain by Barbara Strauch (which posits that middle-aged brains do not start to fail but instead become better at problem solving and making connections. Hmmm…I hope so!)

To reach a younger demographic, I often ask my 23-year-old twins what books influenced them, and they recently responded with a range of works, including Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (recommended by both and which is on my list); The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter by Meg Jay (perhaps I’m a bit past focusing on this); The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (from my urban studies-loving son); A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (a classic); Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (both in my book bag to be read); and the Harry Potter series (have read them all myself).

To end, I’ll circle back to President Obama.  I have read two of the books on his list of books that shaped his thinking, and would recommend both: the remarkable Thinking, Fast and Slow as well as Taylor Branch’s thorough and thoughtful history of the civil rights movement, Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63I’ve also read two from the President’s vacation reading listBetween the World and Me and  All the Light We Cannot See.  Both are powerful books, in very different ways.  Let me know what you would recommend, and when I have enough I’ll share a new “colleagues and friends” list.

Until then, have a great week (reading).

More to come…

DJB

Think before you speak. Read before you think.

Beach Reading

Ahhh…Summer Reading

Author Fran Lebowitz once wrote, “Think before you speak.  Read before you think.”

I’ve been thinking about reading recently, because I will be out of the office as I complete the final two weeks of my sabbatical and link that with some personal days off.

I have the opinion that summer reading lists should be light, but that may simply be an excuse to read another baseball book.  Since this time is tied to my sabbatical, I’m going a bit more serious this August and I thought I’d share a few of the books which will be on night stand.

(Regular readers can expect “mini reviews” in the coming weeks.)

Bending the Future

Bending the Future

Bending the Future:  50 Ideas for the Next 50 Years of Historic Preservation in the United States (Edited by Max Page and Marla R. Miller) – This brand new work from the University of Massachusetts Press contains a wonderful introductory essay and then 50 short contributions from practitioners, academicians, journalists, community activists and more.

I’m looking forward to digging into this work as one more way of scanning the current thinking about preservation’s future. (Full disclosure:  NTHP colleagues Stephanie Meeks, Tom Mayes, and Susan West Montgomery joined me as contributors to this book.)

Tabula Plena

Tabula Plena

Tabula Plena:  Forms of Urban Preservation (Edited by Bryony Roberts) – I met Bryony at the American Academy in Rome during the first part of my sabbatical, as she was the Rome Prize winner for 2016 in Historic Preservation.  In this new work from Lars Müller Publishers, Bryony and a group of authors consider – in contrast to tabula rosa urbanism – “the possibilities of tabula plena – urban sites that are full of existing buildings, systems, and activities that have accumulated over time….The transformation of existing buildings conserves resources while opening up possibilities for design through collaborative authorship and interlocking architectural forms.”  Her shop talk at the AAR on this work certainly whetted my appetite for this book.

After listening to my brown bag lunch talk at work about my time at the American Academy, a colleague  – who is currently on her own sabbatical in her native Croatia – sent me a copy of The Other Venice: Secrets of the City by Predrag Matvejević, a “writer of the world.”  I’m very much looking forward to seeing this wonderful city through different eyes.  And finally, another colleague loaned me one of her copies of Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience:  The Unity of Knowledge (her “hands-down favorite book”) after reading one of my regular Monday email musings to our staff.  She thought I would enjoy this work on uniting the knowledge of the sciences with the humanities. I have a few other books to consider as well, such as All the Light We Cannot See (by Rome Prize winner Anthony Doerr – see a pattern here?).  It promises to be a stimulating August in many ways.  Perhaps you’ll find something that piques your interest.  I would like to know what books you’ve found worth reading this summer.

And by the way, Fran Lebowitz also said, “In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra.”  Whether true or not, I find that a comforting thought.

More to come…

DJB

Summer Reading 2015

Beach reading

Summer reading is the best

This has been a busy summer, full of travel, family changes, work, and good food!  During the past three months, I’ve also had a chance to read a few books – a couple just okay, one interesting, and one terrific.  So here’s a short summary, from mediocre to recommended.

The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us, by Alison Lurie.  I picked up this 2014 book – with its promise to highlight how buildings speak to us in ways simple and complex, formal and informal – with great anticipation.  Written by a Pulitzer Prize winning author, I expected great – or at least good – writing that would pull me along.  Unfortunately, I found it a simplistic and rather bland work that I had trouble finishing.  This is a topic that holds a great deal of promise.  Unfortunately, Lurie’s work doesn’t deliver.

The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors:  A Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship by Henry Petroski.  I bought  this quirky work in Seattle while on my cross-country trip with Claire in 2014.  However, I only picked it up to read this year.  Petroski, who has written a best-seller on The Pencil, has been called the poet laureate of engineering.  With The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors, Petroski explores the craftsmanship and decision-making that goes into a Maine retreat he has purchased with his wife, photographer Catherine Petroski. There were times when I thought the detail was a bit too much, but hey – being the son of an engineer – I understand the love of detail that comes with the engineering brain. This is a nice little book for those who care about how buildings are constructed, and for those who love picking things apart.

The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity by Jeffrey D. Sachs. When economist Jeffrey Sachs writes, “We are a technology-rich, advertising-fed, knowledge-poor society,” I wanted to stand up and cheer.  The first half of this book outlines – in clear and compelling fashion – what ails America today. “Corporatocracy” is his favorite word, as he notes again and again – in compelling fashion – how corporate abuse of our political system has led to deeper cynicism in the American public.  Unfortunately, the prescriptions – as laid out by Sachs in the last half of the book – are less compelling and often don’t account for the difficulties that would have to be overcome to be enacted.  There is a “this is what we have to do” tone to Sachs’ work that – while serious – comes across as naive.  There really isn’t a guide for how to pull together to enact necessary reforms – and that may not be the purpose of the book.  But I feel that it would have more impact if Sachs addressed those challenges.

Cliff Dwellings

Cliff dwellings near Cedar Mesa

House of Rain:  Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest by Craig Childs. When I was hiking in Southeast Utah with colleagues from work, I asked Amy Cole of our Denver office to recommend a good book that would help put what I had seen in context.  She immediately directed me to Craig Childs and House of Rain – and am I glad she did.

Childs – described as a naturalist and adventurer – is at heart a natural-born story-teller. In this page-turner of a book, he takes the reader through his travels from Chaco Canyon north to Chimney Rock and Mesa Verde, and then through Comb Ridge and Cedar Mesa, Monument Valley…and on and on until he ends up along the Sierra Madre in Northern Mexico.  The purpose of this extended walk?  To find out what happened to the Ancestral Puebloans who – according to long-held belief – simply “disappeared” from this landscape in the thirteenth century after building incredible dwellings and cities exemplified by Chaco and Mesa Verde.

Childs walks many of these landscapes and – calling on new scholarship and his own strong powers of observation – makes a case that these people did not disappear, but moved South – all the way into Northern Mexico – in a structured and planned migration.  He leads the reader on a journey that ends with “the story the Spanish conquistadors” told a hundred years before the Mayflower…a story of endless indigenous settlements, adobe pueblos, well-planned streets, elaborate markets.  In other words, a land widely populated with a highly ordered civilization.  Until recently, the story of the Jesuit missionaries, who entered the area in the seventeenth century and found a sparsely populated landscape leading them to dismiss the conquistadors’ claims, held sway.  But Childs makes a compelling case that European plagues accomplished what the conquistadors could not in wiping out a population that may have been as high as 90,000 living below the west slope of the northern Sierra Madre.

While standing on the Colorado/Utah border – about one-third of the way through the book – Childs gives the reader thoughts on what is to come.

The logic is simple.  If the Anasazi left, they had to go somewhere.  Their civilization did not end here, as is so often believed. Gone from the Four Corners by the end of the thirteenth century, they took many paths away from this place.  A diaspora spread into the rest of the Southwest along ancient migratory routes and lanes of trade. The Anasazi moved on like a spectacular road show, carrying with the foundations of their culture:  signature T shapes, dazzling pottery, lofty architecture, and a penchant for corn.  They did not disappear.  In fact, a larger future lay before them, and they left a trail to follow to get there….

Childs is compelling because he treats the Ancestral Puebloans as the real people they are, and he gives their story the dignity it deserves.

Highly recommended.

More to come…

DJB

Summer Reading 2013, Continued: The Unwinding

Beach Reading 2013American journalist, novelist, and playwright George Packer wrote one of the most insightful works about America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq in his 2005 book The Assassins’ Gate:  America in Iraq. So when I heard that Packer had a new work out on the demise of the American social contract, I quickly picked it up and added it to my summer reading pile.

The Unwinding:  An Inner History of the New America is a very important work by a gifted observer and interpreter of American life.  It is not light summer reading.  Packer’s work can be hard to read – not because it is dense (it is anything but).  The Unwinding is difficult because almost any reader of this work is likely to find someone captured on its pages who represents his or her way of thinking and his or her life, and realizes the sad place we all find ourselves in today.

Packer’s work follows about ten individuals – most not well-known – over the course of the last 30 years, during the time when,

…the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way.  Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways – and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.

Those profiled include a factory worker in the rust belt, a Washington insider, a journalist in Tampa, and a Silicon Valley billionaire.  They come from all sides of the political spectrum, and it is interesting to see how their perspectives change chapter by chapter as time passes on and the institutions around them crumble.  Interspersed with these profiles are short vignettes of some 20 famous people from the past three decades, ranging from Jay-Z to Colin Powell, Alice Waters to Andrew Breitbart, Newt Gingrich to Elizabeth Warren.

The bottom line of Packer’s compelling work:  we’ve left the social compact – the caring for others that once defined America and helped build the world’s most productive middle class – in order to chase individual greed and power.  The monied interests and their helpers in government have forgotten about “We the People” and instead have focused on “I, Me, Mine.” And no where is his aim more devastating – and to my mind more accurate – than in his portrait of Mr. Sam Walton.

Sam Walton grew up a child of the Great Depression and – like many of his generation – developed a penny-pinching habit that he took to extremes. In five devastating pages that are worth the price of the book, Parker takes us through Walton’s career from the Walton 5&10 in Bentonville to the point – after his death – where six of the surviving Waltons would have as much money as the bottom 30 percent of Americans.

Think about that.  Six people have more money than 94 million Americans combined.

Parker’s final paragraph in the Walton profile says it all:

And it was only after his death, after Wal-Mart’s downhome founder was no longer its public face, that the country began to understand what his company had done.  Over the years, America had become more like Wal-Mart.  It had gotten cheap.  Prices were lower, and wages were lower.  There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters.  The small towns where Mr. Sam had seen his opportunity were getting poorer, which meant that consumers there depended more and more on everyday low prices, and made every last purchase at Wal-Mart, and maybe had to work there, too.  The hollowing out of the heartland was good for the company’s bottom line.  And in parts of the country that were getting richer, on the coasts and in some of the big cities, many consumers regarded Wal-Mart and its vast aisles full of crappy, if not dangerous, Chinese-made goods with horror, and instead purchased their shoes and meat in expensive boutiques as if overpaying might inoculate them against the spread of cheapness, while stores like Macy’s, the bastions of a former middle-class economy, faded out, and America began to look once more like the country Mr. Sam had grown up in.

As I read this well-conceived and well-written literary triumph, I couldn’t help but wonder about my role in the dissolution of the social compact in this country. Isn’t that what works of great moral force should do?  This difficult book needs to be read by everyone – and especially those who have found a way to thrive as our nation frays at the seams.

More to come…

DJB