It isn’t that these books make you think hard to understand them, but rather they challenged my way of thinking about the world in humbling, or mind-blowing, or intriguing, or bridge-building ways. Between sheltering at home and reading background materials for the book I’m writing, I finished off 142 books in 2020. While I intended to write as usual about my five favorites, my first list consisted of 17 titles; frequently throughout the year I found myself setting aside good titles for others that were more substantive, more related to the events of the year. So I’m sharing ten that I highly recommend for 2021.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson

If you weren’t aware that the United States has a caste system, or that Nazi Germany used Jim Crow laws as models for their own regime—or even if you do know these things—start reading now. This book is gripping, convicting, mesmerizing. It contains facts, history, and comparisons, not opinions. Read it to understand the origins of our national divide. If it makes you uncomfortable, all the more reason to keep going.

The Politics Industry by Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter

If you don’t like how our government is working, are tired of polarization, wonder if your vote counts, and feel helpless, read this book. The authors not only diagnose how, not for the first time in US history, the rules and laws surrounding our two-party system keep government from solving the problems we need solved—but they have solutions based on what is working elsewhere. Grounded in their HBR report, they propose two major, doable solutions if citizens band together: ranked choice voting, which many municipalities are already finding success with, and a change to primaries that would put forth five candidates so that incumbents who chose to “work across the aisles” can’t be undone by party politics in primaries that often have voter turnouts as low as 6% but determine who is on the general ballot. 

Citizen groups are starting all over the country and the authors are providing ways readers can find these groups as well as resources and plans of action. They point out that whatever your biggest concern—climate, education, health care, social justice, infrastructure or any other big concern that Congress is failing to solve—the best way to make progress on it is to change the incentives in place for our elected officials. Read for yourself and see if their diagnosis and solution is worth our effort.

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I wish that this were mandatory reading before you could be sworn into public office. Then we could call people to account. “You knew better. You read how real, even though imperfect leaders, move us in the direction we need to go. Get your act together and do likewise…”

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara Brown Taylor is knowledgeable, humble, inspiring, articulate, entertaining, and wise. Through stories of teaching comparative religion and a conservative, private Southern college outside Atlanta, she gives us so many lessons. The book focuses on what she, and her students, grew to admire about Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and their own Christianity. The field trips and interactions with leaders of the other religions illustrate why it is so important to get to know those who think differently than we do. 

The Power of Bad by John Tierney

You may have heard that we pay more attention to bad news than good, but the extent to which that colors our world is pretty crazy, and makes the world crazier. The book blends research, intriguing examples, and steps we can take to avoid the traps of negativity, The Crisis Crisis, and more.

Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases, Michael Chabon, editor

If you don’t think you like the ACLU, read and find out what you owe to the organization. If you love the ACLU, read for a few examples of how they’ve gotten it wrong. Either way, dive into this amazing set of essays about key cases that shape the freedoms you enjoy. The audio book features narrations by several of the authors including Anne Patchett, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon. Other essays by writers such as Salman Rushdie are read by Sir Patrick Stewart, Lucy Wu, and other actors. Some essays are factual. Others, like Jacqueline Woodson’s, involve deeply personal stories and aspects of the fight for civil rights. If nothing in this book amazes you, then you’re really good at not taking the privileges you have for granted…

Apeirogon by Colum McCann

My one-word GoodReads review of this one was “Wow.” McCann gained permission to fictionalize the story of the relationship between an Israeli father and a Palestinian father, both of whom lost children to the ongoing violence in Jerusalem. They work together to promote peace, understanding and healing. McCann interviewed them and others, but writing it as fiction allowed him to step into the shoes of those involved in a deep, mind-bending way. If you seek to understand, their example will inspire you.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

We all need some laughs, but Noah’s memoir of growing up in Apartheid South Africa is one of those rare laugh-out-loud volumes that also makes you think. Born to a German father and Black African mother, he was literally the result of a crime. He describes not just incidents but helps us step into the culture to understand why people are doing what they are doing. And, he is realistic and humble. He wants people to understand that his success came not because of his own hard work; others were working just as hard. Instead, he credits it to someone giving him a CD burner. Read to know what that enabled him to do.

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson

Yes this is a graphic novel-style memoir for teens, and yes, every adult should read it. It is a magnificent use of the format to convey the childhood memories of Omar Mohamed, who was born in Somalia and grew up in the refuge camps of Kenya. You’ll learn far more about what these people went through via this book than many works for adults.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight

 I thought I was decently informed about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and have read extensively on these topics. The fact that I know only the barest of facts about Frederick Douglass, with all that reading, is absolutely crazy.

Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, another school consultant suggested that schools only study minority history, heroes, and thought for the next year. I had already had similar thoughts as I listened to this compelling audio book. If Douglass were a fictional character, you would dismiss him as not believable. Read his life and his essays and once again the words ring true, especially as I finished this during the week that George Floyd was murdered, that those who do not study history—all of it—are doomed to repeat it. May we in the present begin to grasp what we have not learned…

The other seven titles in my “Top 5” for 2020…

  1. Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
  2. The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathon Haidt
  3. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
  4. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
  5. The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
  6. Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta
  7. The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates

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