For the Civic Minded

I thought I had missed the setup for the joke. Two members of the Spotsylvania School Board in Virginia raised the ante on the effort to remove books from school libraries. They want to see the books burn. I have no words.

Despite these stories, times have changed, and it's doubtful that a book burning would be as effective as it once was. The People of the Internet enjoyed a good laugh over the digital app included on the list of books to ban and burn. Of course, folks who read the news also know that COVID-19 lockdowns prompted a surge in ebook and audiobook sales across the country.

Our books today have some staying power. I had the good fortune to receive a fantastic book recommendation with artwork where I could get lost. I can hardly wait to receive a hard copy of Maria Popova's A Velocity of Being. The children's book presents a collection of letters to young readers on "why we read and what books do for the human spirit." In explaining the project's purpose, Popova refers to this quote from author Anne Lamott:

A free public library is a revolutionary notion, and when people don't have free access to books, then communities are like radios without batteries. You cut people off from essential sources of information — mythical, practical, linguistic, political — and you break them. You render them helpless in the face of political oppression.

What kind of people would deny themselves books? Broken people who have as little purpose as a radio without batteries.

So, this newsletter is one long list of recommended books. The list includes titles you all wrote to me about, titles I read myself, and a couple of suggestions from a very tall stack of books in my "To Be Read" pile. It also recognizes that some of our best journalism is most accessible through podcasts and other formats. So, if you finish a book next week and want to know what to read next, this is a list of titles that are worth your time.

The right book at the right time can certainly work to restore power and energy for the difficult work of living in a democracy. Our reading habits have a direct relationship to the health of our democracy too. In "Why We Believe Reading is a Civic Duty," I posted to Politicolor that we have a civic responsibility to keep turning pages:

Our reading habits build a capacity to see the relationships between ideas, people, and places. The perspective and understanding we find in the books we read equip us to disrupt the worst tendencies of our past. We start to see innovative approaches to the future.

I hope you have a great holiday and find something powerful to read next.


"Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind"
—Toni Morrison, Author

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For Your Reading List

Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami

"These are the many Americans who cannot enjoy full rights because of markers of identity, such as race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. For conditional citizens, duality is the inevitable constant. We want America to succeed, as our fates are here; and yet we cannot turn a blind eye to the enormous gulf between purported values of equality and the realities of systematic oppression." (NPR Book Reviews)

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (and Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

"The experiment was called the “Free Town Project” (it later became the “Free State Project”), and the goal was simple: take over Grafton’s local government and turn it into a libertarian utopia. The movement was cooked up by a small group of ragtag libertarian activists who saw in Grafton a unique opportunity to realize their dreams of a perfectly logical and perfectly market-based community. Needless to say, utopia never arrived, but the bears did!" (Vox interview with the author)

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee

"McGhee, a native Chicagoan and former head of progressive think tank Demos, has crafted a book that combines economics, sociology, public policy, and memoir to tell the story of how all Americans (save the very wealthiest) have been harmed by “zero sum” thinking — that the benefit to one group must come at the expense of another." (Chicago Tribune)

Trans Like Me: Conversations for All of Us by Cn Lester

"As well as being an LGBT and transgender rights activist, Lester is an academic, and a classical and alternative singer-songwriter. They share their everyday experiences of living and working to illustrate what everyday life is like living as a trans person, having to navigate between the prejudices and abuse, and being part of a supportive trans community." (Litro Magazine Book Review)

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert

"In Under a White Sky, she [Kolbert] tracks the spiralling absurdity of human attempts to control nature with technology. Grand, Promethean interventions of the sort of which modernity’s boosters were once so proud – a river’s flow reversed to carry waste to a more convenient location, an aquifer tapped to grow alfalfa in the desert, coal and oil extracted from great depths and burned to move machines – spawn unforeseen disasters." (The Guardian Book of the Day)

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (Fiction)

"The placid surface of Gifty’s professional life betrays none of the intellectual and emotional torment she relays in the lines of this urgent novel. Although she’s reluctant to tell her colleagues, her older brother struggled for years with substance abuse. The novel's most painful sections — told in poignant flashbacks — explore the interwoven strands of grief, anger and shame that Gifty felt as her beloved brother succumbed, rallied and succumbed again." (Washington Post Book Review)

One Year: 1977 (Season One) a Slate Podcast by Josh Levin

"A year when gay rights hung in the balance, Roots dominated the airwaves, and Jesus appeared on a tortilla." (Series description on Slate)

Time: The Kalief Browder Story on Netflix

"Profiles the life of 16-year-old Kalief Browder who was arrested and accused of stealing a backpack back in 2010 when he was on his way home from a party in the Bronx. He wound up spending more than three years in the notorious Rikers Island jail complex, much of it in solitary confinement before the charges were dropped."  (NPR Movie Interviews)

"Jones has spent her career documenting the contestation over American democracy. Her 2018 book, “Birthright Citizens,” tells the story of how Black Americans in the 19th century fought to address the Constitution’s silence on the question of who counts as a citizen, ultimately securing the establishment of birthright citizenship through the 14th Amendment." (NYT Opinion)

Newly added to Shellee's To-Be-Read List

The Loneliest Americans by Jay Caspian Kang

"A first-generation Korean American, Kang is refreshingly candid in his analysis, addressing how immigrants who come from Asia lack the intrinsic solidarity that has been foisted upon them—either by American ignorance or well-intentioned, but often misguided, activist efforts. He adds texture to this sentiment by making the historical personal, detailing his experience as the son of two North Korean refugees who moved to the United States in 1979. " (Publishers Weekly)

Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality by Sarah McBride

"I gravitate to the parts of McBride’s memoir in which she relies instead on her sincere and singular identity — as a young widow who was raised as a boy surrounded by an environment of relative privilege despite inner turmoil — to continue her fight for justice." (NYT Book Review)

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles

"In 1850s South Carolina, just before nine-year-old Ashley was sold, her mother Rose gave her a sack filled with just a few things as a token of her love. Decades later, Ashley's granddaughter Ruth embroidered this history on the bag--including Rose's message that 'It be filled with my Love always.'" (Bookmarks Book Review)

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