A column recommending books for the holidays might seem like a lazy columnist's trick (and I know 'em all). But as we collapse into a society of limited attention spans, where even smart people rarely venture outside their bunkers of expertise, where fewer and fewer American men are reading(!), let us brace ourselves to read and give books. Here are some that touch on issues we regularly address on Rogue:
The shelves groan under the number of books written about the financial crisis, its aftermath, causes and needed fixes. My favorites are Freefall: America, Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy, by nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz; 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown, by Simon Johnson and James Kwak; Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance, by Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm, and Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future, by Robert Reich. It's a soup-to-nuts telling of the bought-off politics, bad policy, deregulation and greed that brought on the crash, to the steps we must take in order to save ourselves. Not that we will.
The latest cooked-up "conservative" distraction is about American "exceptionalism." If you want to see us at out best, and worse, and exceptional, read Taylor Branch's magisterial trilogy on America in the King years: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan's Edge. Every literate citizen should know these books and this history.
We are not, of course, the only exceptional people, or the only ones who think of themselves so. I re-read Harrison Salisbury's The 900 Days about the siege of Leningrad, and it still holds up as essential reading. That led me to Catherine Merridale's Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army: 1939-1945. Even informed Americans have little idea of the suffering of Russia and the Soviet Union in World War II, or the brutal Stalinist regime that made it worse, or the heroic efforts of the Russian and Soviet people. (Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, one of the great novels of the 20th century, is another for your list). Closer to our own time, every American should read Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al Queda and the Road to 9/11.
For your urbanist and sustainability jones, I continue to urge James Howard Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere, the definitive critique of the loss of America's inspiring man-made landscape and the face-plant into sprawl. Kunstler has some other fine follow-ups on cities and suburbia, plus The Long Emergency, a 2006 book that has proven prophetic. If you've gone this far, take the plunge and read Jane Jacobs' iconic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It's worth it. Also, Robert Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, 35 years after its publication, it is still a masterful study of the man most responsibly for our destructive and dehumanizing post-war cityscapes.
Contemporary politics is dangerous terrain. For example, what value does Jonathan Alter's The Promise, about President Obama's first year in office, have after the sellouts of the past two weeks? The book to read is Jeff Sharlet's sobering The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. This carefully reported book will make you realize that Kevin Phillips wasn't nuts in American Theocracy.
The truly great history of Phoenix or Arizona has yet to be written. In the meantime, there's the classic Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner and A River No More, by Philip Fradkin. Jack August has written our best look so far at Arizona water politics with Vision in the Desert, about Carl Hayden, and Dividing Western Waters, on Mark Wilmer, the landmark Arizona v. California lawsuit and the winning of the CAP. The best history I know of Phoenix is William Collins' The Emerging Metropolis: Phoenix, 1944-1973. (You can buy it here).
I know readers have their own recommendations. Fire away. One last thought: Consider patronizing your local, independent bookstore. Without them, we lose one more prop of a civilized city.