I'm an avid reader. While this year felt like I left so many books on the nightstand unread, I actually got through 57 and will likely meet last year's total of 61 by the end of the month. I do a combination of mostly Kindle and Audible audio book (on double speed -- you get used to it), although I do enjoy a good bound book now and then (my wife will only read old fashioned books -- she doesn't travel as much as I do and so has not come to fully appreciate the convenience of carrying 50 titles simultaneously on a Kindle).
For those of you that have not seen one of my book lists before (here's 2014 and 2015), you'll perhaps be disappointed by the lack of planning or engineering books. I am a momentum reader, following a topic as deep as I can. It's been a long time since I've had a planning or engineering itch that needed scratching. So apologies to my many friends, but I'm pretty zealous about my reading time and title selections.
Here are my five favorite books I read during 2016 in order.
This is one of the most important books I've ever read. Period.
Back in the mid-2000's, I realized that I didn't understand municipal finance, I didn't understand Wall Street and I didn't understand economics. I know enough now to know that I don't know enough, but back then I thought I had a firm grasp. Even so, the feedback I was getting from my professional and personal life was telling me I was the sucker at the poker table.
So I read everything I could on the subject. I bought a subscription to CNBC and had it on at my desk all day, just to absorb the language (ridiculously expensive for what you are getting). When I didn't understand something, I would research and research until I did. I read Keynesian economists. I read Austrian economists. I read the heretics. I listened to and watched everything I could that gave me deeper insight.
Every now and then, there is something new that adds value, but the questions I had did not seem answerable within the theories of the major schools of economic thought. Then I heard an interview with Sedlacek, bought his book and made a major leap forward in my understanding. I wrote an entire series this year discussing these insights and how they relate to Strong Towns.
Translated from Czech, this is not an easy read, but it is well worth the time if you are struggling, as I am, with some of these deeper economic questions.
2. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild
A sociologist from Berkeley travels to Louisiana to embed with Tea Party members in an attempt to build an empathy bridge and truly understand the deep story that motivates conservatives. With a premise like that, I knew the book would be fascinating. It didn't disappoint.
I've used this quote from the book before, but it has stuck with me. Hochschild is quoting a Louisiana resident talking about environmental regulation.
If your motorboat leaks a little gas into the water, the warden’ll write you up. But if companies leak thousands of gallons of it and kill all the life here? The state lets them go. If you shoot an endangered brown pelican, they’ll put you in jail. But if a company kills the brown pelican by poisoning the fish he eats? They let it go. I think they overregulate the bottom because it’s harder to regulate the top.”
The experience Hochschild has was all about getting to what she calls the deep story, the collective narrative that people culturally buy in to. The deep story for Tea Party Louisiana is very different than what you would find in Berkeley, but not necessarily wrong. And that's the beauty of this book: if you aren't already able to empathize with those who disagree with you on fundamental matters (and few do, including me in many ways), you'll experience what it is like to try. You'll also get a glimpse at the beauty that can result.
If we want to change the hearts and minds of people, if we want to become a just society, we all need to work to understand the deep story of others. In the process, we may understand our own in ways that are uplifting and empowering.
3. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
I'm going to remind everyone now that I'm an engineer. For those of you into Meyers-Briggs, I'm an INTJ with I being off the charts and J being pretty strong as well. I say this as a premise because you'll also find on my reading list a book that many, many people have recommended, Between the World and Me. I'll just flat out say: I hated it. I tried to like it, I tried to get it, but I just didn't. I read it and when friend after respected friend of mine continued to heap praise on it, I bought the audio book and listened to it. I thought perhaps in hearing the passion behind it -- it was narrated by the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates -- that maybe I'd understand. It was no less bizarre, no less illogical, to me on audio. It left me a little bewildered because I wanted to get it.
On the other hand, the apparently Spock-like part of my brain that deals with literature found The New Jim Crow to be powerfully compelling. It opened my law-and-order eyes (I'm also former military) to the impact of law-and-order policies, how they have been twisted and abused in really cruel ways. Most importantly, it helped me understand why the interactions I experience with law enforcement are so different than the experience of others, despite us living under the same laws. I'm better equipped for a productive conversation now when my neighbors say things ignorant like, "If a police officer tells you to move off the street, just do it," as a way to dismiss police violence.
I'll also note that I found the political inspiration behind these law-and-order policies to be deeply disturbing. During this past election season, there was a lot of tension over the code words many accused Donald Trump of using to incite racial animosity. I'm not the target audience and, as I said at the time, I didn't have a decoder ring and I wasn't hearing that. Having now read The New Jim Crow, I get it. And I also get how I kind of am the target audience and I really don't need a decoder ring: that's the insidious part. I'm very grateful for those of you that insisted I read this book.
4. The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth
This book was almost a throw away for me; I had very low expectations going in. Wow, did I underestimate this book.
First of all, it's a hilarious read. I found myself laughing out loud many, many times at the situation the author -- a Brit living in Denmark and traveling throughout the Nordic countries -- found himself in. I'm inclined to like dry, English wit and live in a part of America heavily influenced by Scandinavia so there were times the fun hit a little close to home. It's an easy and fun read.
Yet, I don't want to suggest that it's also not full of fact and deep insight. Around the time I was reading this book, there was a thread going around Facebook about how Finnish schools were so well run because they pay their teachers so much, ergo America should pay their teachers more and the results would be similar. Yes, Finnish schools perform well -- all Nordic schools do -- but they are also culturally homogeneous, suffer a really tragic rate of youth suicide and have more guns per capita than the U.S. In short, the story is more complicated.
At times it felt like Booth was trying to get the reader to not like the Nordic countries with their prudish customs and awkward behavior, yet I was left with a deep affection for this part of the world, the kind of honest bond you have with a good friend who knows your amazing qualities, but also your hidden faults. That was the point of the book. Highly recommended.
5. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
You're going to find this book on many, many lists this year. It's a liberal favorite because it shines a bright light on the ugly side of rural life in America and reinforces a lot of the stereotypes of people who rarely leave America's urban spaces. While stereotypes are dangerous because they prompt us to imprint a narrative, to automatically fill in the blanks when we don't know the full story, it is rare that a stereotype does not have some basis -- however slim -- in reality.
I'm going to return to Between the World and Me because I actually got Hillbilly Elegy between the reading and listening of it. Where I struggled to grasp Between the World and Me, I completely recognized (and had lived, in not such a dramatic way) the world described in Hillbilly Elegy. As I read reviews of the latter, I also realized that people who did not have this kind of experience -- growing up in a poor, dysfunctional place short on opportunity, high on despair -- would have a hard time understanding the cognitive dissonance on display. Christian people who don't attend church and don't act very Jesus-like. Family values that include beatings, drug abuse and malnutrition. Getting Hillbilly Elegy, not getting Between the World and Me, made me go back to the latter and give it a second try.
While the experiences are very different and there are obviously fewer complications for a white man who escapes poverty to become a lawyer than the same result for a racial minority, you can file both of these stories under the heading "living with poverty." I'm considering giving Between the World and Me a third try, this one consciously adopting Arlie Hochschild's approach of taking down my narrative wall and trying to build an empathy bridge. If you're an urbanite, do the same with Hillbilly Elegy and it will be an impactful read, not just a freak show.
Here's the entire list of books I've read this year. You can follow me on Pinterest to see prior years' lists. I'm happily taking recommendations for 2017, although don't just give titles; explain why I need to read it.
(Top photo by Syd Wachs)