2016 Reading List

Like George Constanza I am hooked on audio books. Since I’m trying to educate myself about American history, American culture and what it means to be born American, I consume a considerable amount of books annually. Audio books help make that possible since I can pair up walking and reading.

This list is the noteworthy books I’ve read in 2016. To view my 2015 list, click here.

American Culture

  1. War is a Racket by Smedley Butler. At the time of his retirement in the early 1930s, Butler was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. He is the only Marine to receive the Brevet Medal and two Medals of Honor, all for separate actions. But, he became a controversial figure in the years after his retirement when he became a proponent of the Peace Movement. In War is a Racket, based largely on speeches he gave, he details the profits many well-known U.S. companies earned during WWI, and offers a simple solution to end all wars — let CEOs and politicians live on a soldiers pay for 30 days before war is officially declared. He surmises that would lessen the patriotic spirit of the wealthy. Purchase (99 cents)
  2. Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey. Dickey is the owner of a mixed-breed dog that some believe is a Pit Bull mix. My interest in the book is because I rescued a dog that some believe is part Pit. The reaction Dickey receives for simply rescuing and owning the dog drives her to understand how the breed become so negatively viewed. But the book is much more than just an understanding of a particular dog breed, it is really more about Americans and how they react to something they fear. Purchase
  3. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam. Putnam, Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, is the product of a small Ohio town similar in size to my hometown of Eaton (pop. 8,000). As he notes in the book’s opening lines, his hometown in the 1950s, Port Clinton (pop. 6,500 in the 50s) was the ‘passable embodiment of the American Dream.’ Today it is not. As Putnam sets out to understand why, he tells the story — supported by stats, interviews and studies — of small towns throughout the country where kids are robbed of even a chance at chasing the American Dream. The book is not all doom and gloom, though. Putnam ends it with possible solutions to reverse the trend. Purchase
  4. Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It by Kate Harding. This book is not for the faint of heart. Harding, raped at 17 on a U.S. college campus has a lot of very straightforward comments about how our society says one thing, but does another, when rape happens. I read the book because it feels like I live in the rape capital of the country (I know we are only 18th on the list). From Ohio native Brock Turner to the 2012 Steubenville rape case — when will it end? Purchase

American History

  1. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. Few myths die as hard as the ones we are comfortable with — and one of the most repeated myths is America is a society without a class structure. Isenberg, through extensive research and careful analysis destroys this myth, starting with the country’s inception when ‘waste’ people were used to populate the colonies. She follows the story line of our class structure to the modern era, looking at everything from what Founders wrote to the country’s love affair with eugenics in the early 20th century. The story of class is a story of exploitation. Purchase
  2. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott. This is a very interesting read about four very different women who used very different methods of fighting during the Civil War. In the book, Abbott weaves their stories together by using private journal entries, newspaper accounts and other historical documents. What she accomplishes is four engaging tales of espionage carried out by women on both sides of the conflict. Although some of the women were fairly famous in their day, few Americans today know their stories. If you love spy or war tales, this is an excellent choice. Review | Purchase
  3. Love & Hate In Jamestown by David A. Price. Although plenty of books have been written about Jamestown and Captain John Smith, this one warrants a read for several reasons. It is fresh and insightful, well-documented and is written in a linear story fashion. This approach captures just enough of the episodes that the troubled colony endured, to educate the reader on how this British American colony survived. Review | Purchase
  4. America at 1750: A Social Portrait by Richard Hofstadter. At just under 300 pages, this is almost a candidate for a weekend read (my definition is 200 pages or less). It is a fast-moving book that covers everything from the Great Awakening to slavery. One of the most interesting sections though is the fairly in-depth look at indentured servitude — a subject that often gets overshadow by slavery. Purchase

Essay

  1. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks. This short book consists of four essays written by Sacks shortly before his death to cancer. The author, most known for his book Awakenings, delivers an insightful look at a live well lived and faces his death without fear. Great prospect for a weekend read. Very uplifting book. Purchase

Idea Creation

  1. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Although probably best known for her work — Eat. Pray. Love — this work by Gilbert looks into the challenge of a creative life. As she delves into the habits, patterns and skills required to produce creative works, she also reminds the reader not to take life so serious. Purchase
  2. Where Do Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. This is the second book of Johnson’s I’ve read and this one is just as good as the first. In this book Johnson explores the intellectual and social environments that have spawned some of the greatest inventions and innovations. The book is also filled with plenty of practical, down-to-earth stories about how individuals have created pragmatic solutions to complicated problems — like a infant incubator built from automobile parts. Purchase

Literature

  1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. After my daughter read this Pulitzer prize-winning novel in her English class I decided it was time I read it. Somehow I bypassed this highly-readable classic in high school and college. The book is as relevant today as when Lee published it in the 1960s. The real tragedy is many of the issues, and much of the hypocrisy espoused and embraced by White society that 9-year-old Scout so poignantly exposes throughout the story, still exist today. Purchase
  2. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Few books in American history have had such a pronounced affect on the country’s culture. Just like Uncle Tom’s Cabin exposed the true evils of slavery, The Jungle threw a spotlight on the inherent evils of unchecked capitalism. The book ultimately led to governmental oversight of the food-processing industry. But, it’s real strength was in blasting a hole in the theory that, in a country plagued with systemic problems, hard work and perseverance ensure an individual’s success and upward mobility. Read (free)

Memoir

  1. Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself by Alan Alda. Of course, like most people of my generation I know Alan Alda as Hawkeye from the TV show M*A*S*H, but what I never knew was his skill as a writer. In this book, which opens with the story of how he almost died and his resolve to truly live the gift of a ‘second’ life, Alda recaptures and revives his old speeches. But, instead of rehashing old material, he weaves in the backstory and reflection that makes the reader appreciate the value of this thing we call living. Alda is thoughtful, funny and insightful in this well-crafted memoir. A highly recommended read. Purchase
  2. Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cummings. Although I did not know this until I read the book, Cummings is a successful character actor. But his memoir has very little to do with his fame. It is a story about growing up with an abusive father and about his appearance on Who Do You Think You Are? — a genealogy show. The Who Do You Think You Are? episode deals with the untimely and mysterious death of his grandfather (a soldier) — who was in his mid-30s when he died of a gunshot wound. The book is a very interesting read. Purchase

Politics

  1. Wrapped in the Flag by Claire Conner. Few symbols evoke as much emotion as the American flag and Claire Conner knows a thing or two about what it means to be a ‘real American.’ Raised from her youth by John Birch Society regional leaders the story of Wrapped in her journey from ultra-conservativism to a more balanced understanding of what it really means to be a human — and an American. Review | Purchase
  2. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical by Jane Mayer. If you are, like me, disgusted with: the sheer volume of money spent to sway public, the rise of extremism and the, seemingly endless ways Americans are politically duped, read this book. Mayer has painstakingly tracked down the ‘dark money’ (anonymous donations) that have flooded our political system for years — buying influence and confusing the public. This money flow expanded exponentially after the Supreme Court Citizens United ruling. The book will help you understand how insignificant your vote really is. Review | Purchase
  3. Our Divided Heart Political Heart by E.J. Dionne Jr. The subtitle says it all — The Battle for the American Idea Set in an Age of Discontent. The book was written largely in response to the Tea Party’s overreliance  on the rugged individualist aspect of the American character. Dionne, a skilled and experience political reporter, presents a compelling case that individualism is but one of two intertwining aspects of the country’s collective character — the other being a strong belief in community. He argues when both aspects are strong, the country is strong. Purchase
  4. God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom’ by William Buckley Jr. If you want to understand the logic behind the modern conservative movement — head to the source. This 1950s era book by Buckley is credited with launching to movement. Basically, the book is Buckley’s indictment of Yale, which he claims, was undermining America’s true values of individualism and Christianity. The book is an excellent textbook to study if you want to understand how conservative arguments are formulated. Purchase
  5. The Mass Marketing of Politics: Democracy in an Age of Manufactured Images by Bruce I. Newman. Although this is basically a textbook and the book was published during the Clinton era, it is still a very interesting look at how your vote is manipulated through the marketing process. The author examines why certain campaigns succeeded while others failed — all from the vantage point of seeing a campaign, not as an individual seeking office, but as a product being packaged and sold to the American public. Purchase

Productivity

  1. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Newport argues (successfully) that to accomplish high-level work you must engage in activities that are highly focused. This approach lets you reach a deeper level of understanding and higher-quality productivity. Besides arguing for deep work, Newport also includes plenty of techniques to help you move past the superficial and mundane. Purchase
  2. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This book is a must for anyone who want to be creative. It is a 12-week course filled with practical advise and exercises. Designed mostly for ‘stuck’ creatives, it is still a handy resource for those who do not consider themselves stuck. Regardless of the type of art you create, the book will guide and re-energize you — and it will help you develop your voice. Purchase
  3. Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin. This book is worth the read for the practical advise on setting, maintaining and creating worthwhile habits. Although these types of books often rely on old worn-out tips on how to create a habit, Rubin adopts a philosophy that no ‘one size fits all’ approach ever works. She contends their are four basic types of people with regards to habit building and offers tips and ideas that align with each type. Purchase

Religion and Secularism

  1. The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, begins his book with an obituary for White Christian America and ends it with an eulogy. In between those chapters he delves deep into the statistics that show how white Protestant voters are statistically on a path to a minority status. Jones does not see it as a defeat, though, just a condition of the changing landscape of America and offers pragmatic and practical advise for Christians wanted to navigate politics in the millennial era. Purchase
  2. After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path by Jack Cornfield. Drawing off interviews and insights from Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Sufi spiritual leaders Cornfield delves into how we remain spiritual in the ‘real world.’ As he relays stories from each of the religious traditions he reminds us that family, friends and work are an important aspect of the spiritual journey. Purchase
  3. The Gnostic Gospels (Modern Library 100 Best Nonfiction Books) by Elaine Pagels. Written in 1979, this book opens in Egypt with the bizarre 1948 discovery of early Christian writings — writings that became known as the Gnostic Gospels. Against this backdrop of mystery, the author launches into a detailed discourse about heresy and orthodox teachings of the early church, showing how political, social and hierarchal structure played an important role in which beliefs became accepted as truth. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the first 200 years of Christianity. Purchase
  4. Agnostic A Spirited Manifesto by Lesley Hazelton. I like books that challenge conventional wisdom and put a new spin on old arguments. Hazelton’s memoir-styled book delivers the goods. She embraces the uncertainty and ambiguity of life — asserting to be agnostic is to “cherish both paradox and conundrum.” Purchase
  5. Nonbeliever Nation by David Niose. At this point in my blogging career, I’ve read enough American history to disagree with the assertion that the Founding Fathers were creating a Christian nation. Most of the leaders were entrenched in the Enlightenment Movement which embraced science over religion. In Nonbeliever Nation, Niose looks briefly at the country’s founding, but mostly at current stats that suggests mixing religion and politics is damaging our country. Although the book slows down near the end, it is a good read for anyone wanting a better understanding of the various court cases and agencies that have prompted the Secularists to revamp and reinvigorate their movement. Purchase

Spiritual/Self-Help

  1. Getting Unstuck by Pema Chõdrõn. Book is actually a seminar given by Chõdrõn, an American, Tibetan Buddhist, about the principle of shenpa. Shenpa, which loosely translates to attachment, is the drive behind our motives. Chõdrõn offers practical ideas to minimize our tendency to be hooked by our thoughts. Purchase
  2. As a Man Thinketh by James Allen. Written in 1902 by an obscure English writer, As a Man Thinketh examines the power of thoughts in the creation of the world you live in. This short book is available free online.
  3. The Divine Matrix by Gregg Braden. This book examines several scientific experiments and principles — explaining Quantum Theory in laymen terms. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the section on how matter and energy mimic a hologram. Purchase
  4. Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph Hallinan. This book reminds me of You Are Not So Smart and You Are Now Less Dumb. It looks at modern events and scientific studies and delves into why we do what we do. If you are interested in the science behind your (or others’) actions, this book is an insightful look at those mental and behavioral weaknesses we all possess. Purchase
  5. Practicing the Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I have read other books by Tolle, but I like to listen to this one when I walk my dog, Versa. His concept is simple, but very powerful. All of life exists in the present, but most of us live in the past or the future. This succinct book helps develop the habit of living in the Now which, among so many other things, simplifies life, increases joy, and helps strip away all the minutiae and nonessentials from life. Purchase
  6. The Road to Character by David Brooks. This book is more than just a ‘remember when people had more morals.’ It is a hard look of what we’ve become. By examining the life stories of individuals who left the world better than they found it — despite their flaws — Brooks is harkening us back to the crooked timber tradition of morality. He is convincing us it’s time to focus on our eulogy traits. Even if you are not interested in the morality issue, the book is worth reading for the biographies. Purchase
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