As another year comes to a close, I’ve decided to do a retrospective on some of the books I’ve read this year that have been most important to me. Although I am a loyal Goodreads user, I purposely never set a goal for myself in their reading challenge. I always know I will read, but I also know that there are times when things get busy and I don’t have as much time to read for fun, or I have trouble finding the right book to read, or I’m focusing more on reading articles. But no matter how many books I end up reading in a given year, there will always be a few that stick out and stick with me. This year that was especially true, so I wanted to share those.
Something unique about the books that have stuck with me this year is that they all revolve in some way around the theme of going against the mainstream narrative, or exposing those who have traditionally been in power for their misdeeds. Reading these books has been a great opportunity to learn on my own what I was generally not taught in schools or read elsewhere: the other side of the dominant narrative. Each book provided me with some lesson or helped me change my thinking on an issue in some way.
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I was very late to this party, about seventeen years late. I think I was scared off by how gross this book would be, but I’m glad I got to it eventually. Although the book is from 2001 and some of the information may be outdated, it’s probably safe to assume that things haven’t improved much (and have likely gotten even worse) since the writing of the book.
At the risk of sounding dramatic or even corny, it was reading this book that made me appreciate (or re-appreciate) the power of reading and books to help people learn the truth about our society, our country, and our world. Schlosser’s well-researched, well-written exposé shows us how the fast food industry got its start and, most importantly, the influence it has on American life and economics.
What especially got to me about Schlosser’s reporting was just how terribly workers all across the industry are treated, from the cashiers at McDonald’s to the slaughterhouses and factories. Of course the low wages are a well-known issue, as anyone who knows about the Fight for $15 can attest. And while certain aspects of fast food culture have improved, such as the forcing of restaurants to provide (slightly) healthier options and conspicuous posting of nutrition information, the human rights issues remain and continue to get worse.
Reading this book energized me to make sure I keep paying attention and learn as much as I can about issues that the mainstream media barely covers, ie progressive issues: raising the minimum wage, quality of jobs, and the monopoly of corporations, among others. I’ve realized that I tend not to get through many fiction books for some reason; maybe I’m just not finding the right ones, or the right ones for me. But I also think that I can’t seem to get enough of learning about these issues, probably because they were lacking in my schooling days.
The next book in my journey is likely the least known and advertised, which shouldn’t be. I don’t actually remember where I first heard about this book, but I do remember that I couldn’t even find it from the New York Public Library! So I was happy to purchase it online. This book, written by a historian originally from Tennessee, is a response to the wildly popular Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Vance’s book, which came out before the 2016 election and received more attention after the shock of Donald Trump’s victory, is an attempt to explain to “the rest of us” why this part of the country has been such a failure for so long.
As Catte explains, Vance’s description of his fellow Appalachians was insulting and condescending to say the least, as he portrays them as passive, irresponsible people who constantly make terrible decisions, like being unemployed and getting addicted to drugs. On top of that, Vance portrays himself as if he’s the only successful person to come out of the place, as he joined the Marines, went to Yale Law School, and became a venture capitalist. He’s the hero figure. Catte smashes this narrative to pieces by giving us the history of activism in the region. The people there are not helpless, as Vance would have us think, to make himself look better; they have always been fighters but have been left in the lurch by politicians and the government for decades, or longer, creating the environment for things like addiction and unemployment.
I loved this book because it gives a perspective that is hardly ever heard, but is sorely need. I will also admit that I’ve fallen victim to these standard narratives promoted by the media and by Vance, and reading this book helped me challenge those views and help start my re-education on these issues. While Vance wrote his book for his own personal gain, it is clear that Catte wrote this book out of a pure love for her fellow Appalachians. In her book she’s done the important work of giving the traditionally voiceless more of a voice. It’s a shame this book hasn’t received more of the attention it deserves, but I hope I can do my small part to help change that.
Another one I was almost a decade late for, but still an important read. This is a painstakingly researched book with more stats than you’ll ever need, but they all tell the same story: with most of us not consciously realizing it, particularly those of us who are not of color, our government has created a racial caste system derived from the eras of slavery and Jim Crow, in the form of mass incarceration. This system has been kept in place by white elites pitting blacks and poor white against each other, which is still happening in 2018. By the end I was definitely wondering how I had never known all this before.
I found the last chapter, “The Fire This Time,” the most informative and thought-provoking. In this chapter, Alexander takes an honest look at the civil rights and criminal justice reform movements to date and shows how reforms like affirmative action and success stories like that of Barack Obama have not really fought against the system, but rather help keep it in place. She then urges an action that we don’t hear every day–that in order to really dismantle the system of racism in America, it needs to be a movement of blacks AND whites, particularly poor whites. This goes back to the point she makes at the beginning of the book about how blacks and poor whites have been historically pitted against each other. If no effort is made in the way she describes, she warns, mass incarceration will eventually be replaced by something else we cannot foresee. But the charged and tangled history of race and racism in this country will make such a movement extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve.
This book tells the fascinating story of the transformation of Derek Black, the son of the founder of white supremacist website Stormfront, and godson of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. When he enters college, Black makes friends with a diverse group of fellow students, who slowly convince him how wrong his beliefs are. He has now fully renounced his racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, etc views, sacrificing his relationships with his family and entire support network. What struck me about this story more than the transformation was having a firsthand account of how these views operated in the minds of white supremacists. Nothing could ever normalize them, but hearing them straight from the horse’s mouth from someone who has crossed to the other side was an invaluable, albeit scary, experience.
Additionally, this book is not officially on my list, but I would also like to include Saslow’s series of articles in The Washington Post about the hunger crisis in America called American Hunger. This collection won the Pulitzer a few years ago, and I stumbled upon it while checking something on the Pulitzer website. Possibly nothing else this year has reminded me of the bubble I and many others are fortunate enough to live in as much as reading these pieces about people who can’t afford the most basic necessity of food. Another book that forced me to challenge my own thinking and experience.
Most of us likely know about the history of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, and the struggle for civil and voting rights for African Americans (among others). But this well-researched book teaches us more than most of us probably ever learned in school about the still very relevant topic of voter suppression.
Anderson gives a detailed history of disenfranchisement and three main ways states have conspired to limit the vote, particularly that of minorities: voter ID laws, purging voter rolls, and gerrymandering. She then ends with how voter rights groups are fighting back, including the incredible example of how a Democrat was elected to the Senate in Alabama last year. She concludes with a warning of how divided we have become–states who are limiting the vote versus states who are trying to expand it. All the while our voting system produces a government that is less and less representative of the people. That, and democracy, cannot stand for long if we keep on the same path. It’s unfortunate that voting, which is seen as sacred or even mandatory in some countries, is still not a de facto right for many people in this country, and that so much effort has to be put into what is supposed to be a democratic system. I’m glad there are so many out there fighting this oppression, and hope to help the efforts however I can.
This book wraps up my year’s reading nicely. I’m currently still reading it, but already I’m glad that I am. I learned about this book from YouTuber Jimmy Dore, a die-hard progressive who had Frank on his show to talk more about his thesis: that Democrats in the last 40 years have done nothing to help improve this country’s ever-widening inequality gap–in fact, they have actively helped to make it worse. By making the decision to turn their backs on workers and the New Deal policies that guided this country out of the Great Depression in favor of the new “professional” class, Democrats signaled to their base and the rest of the country that, at least economically, they were not much different than the Republicans. This culminated in the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.
Remarkably, Frank wrote this book before the election of Donald Trump, an event which shocked many of us (including me), and which forced many of us to take a hard look at some of our assumptions about this country. Reading the book in the era of Trump just makes Frank’s argument even more urgent. The battle being waged within the Democratic party is an important test of what the party’s trajectory will be in 2020 and post-Trump. The Democratic leadership would be wise to learn from their recent failure, but based on how they’ve acted the last two years, I don’t hold out much hope.
This book got me thinking about how the internet, particularly YouTube, has helped expose these lies and temper the dominant narrative with the nuances and untold stories. Before then, all we had were the few main newspapers and TV networks, which the older generation still depends on; this is a major factor in the generation gap between these groups. I’m grateful for this book for opening my eyes to facts I simply did not have before. It is arming me with the ability to view events through a different, but significant, lens.
Overall, it’s been another great year in books! I already have a bunch I’m looking forward to reading in 2019, where I hope to keep learning and examining my views from different angles even more. Here’s to another great year of books!