I was in a really wonderful conversation with some of my colleagues about what we are reading. I am such a book-nerd and I read, on average, 4.5 books a week (my “get a life” guilt comes from the fact that I have read a minimum of 200 books a year every year since 1994) so I get really excited about a whole lot of books. One colleague of mine contacts me occasionally to say, “I only read about five books a year. Give me a list of five you think I ought to read.” I oblige with a top five nonfiction, a top five fiction, and I toss in a bonus book of poetry or a play as well.
Our conversation centered around justice books, and as I named the “five+ best” that I read (or reread) this year, one of my friends exclaimed, “But everything you are recommending is biased toward liberals!” Three reactions: 1) I freely admit that every title that has impressed me this year tends toward the progressive/liberal; 2) I read widely and I intentionally cover as broad a base as possible – conservative/liberal, traditional/progressive, male/female, straight/LGBTQIA+, national/international, fiction/non-fiction, black/white/brown/beige/amber/pink/cocoa, so I don’t narrow my focus toward one perspective or another; and 3) my recommendations of nonfiction are based on research and confirmation bias, rather than simple content. I am one of those rare and annoying individuals who actually reads footnotes/endnotes (and my STRONG preference is for footnotes so that I don’t have to constantly flip back and forth to check sources). I will often pursue primary sources to confirm that the secondary or tertiary source is honestly reflecting the cited source. (And news outlets are NOT primary sources – I am constantly amazed at how often CNN/Fox/MSNBC/etc., are cited as “sources.” They all draw from a pool of sources — often the Associated Press (AP) — yet report drastically different “information.” It is all too easy to cherry pick factoids and weave them together to say what you want them to. It takes real work to plow through references to get to primary sources.
I am recommending the best written, best researched, and best documented books on justice topics in my opinion. When I find better written, better investigated, well documented books presenting a conservative perspective, I will be the first to recommend them.
Also, I never recommend a book as THE last word, absolute authority, unimpeachable opinion, unassailable argument, complete and total factual, “period, end of report,” purest truth (mike drop…) on any topic. My favorite books are those that cause me to fume, argue, reflect, debate, and seek to confirm or refute. Books that raise as many questions as they provide answers are engaging and provocative. A good book needs to generate discussion and elicit response. Also, I am most impressed by books that call us to respond, to change, to get up/stand with/speak out. So, here are a handful of titles that I recommend relating to various justice issues.
- Racial Justice — Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson — An eye-opening and expansive examination of racism as a systemic reality, created by design, to benefit some at the expense of others. Wilkerson situates racism into the larger matrix of oppression, hegemony, and power structures. A powerful reread – doubly sad because so little progress has been made, is Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow. I recommended this book to the bishop and cabinet of the Wisconsin Conference shortly after I came here in 2010, and it was subsequently adopted and shared throughout the Council of Bishops. One more title on Racial Justice that I feel everyone in The United Methodist Church should read is The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby and Lecrae Moore. Humbling, shaming, and sad – Western Christianity has much to repent and answer for.
- Climate Justice — Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency by Mark Lynas — This is more of a toughy; there is SO much misinformation, bad science, political poison, and corporate opposition regarding climate and the environment that finding a “reasonable” book to read and discuss is a challenge. However, this approach takes pretty solid science and projects worst case scenarios for continued global temperature increases. Is it scary? You bet! Sensational? No question. Important? Essential.
- Food Justice — Food Justice Now: Deepening the Roots of Social Struggle by Joshua Sbicca — Hey, if you rarely, if ever miss a meal, have favorite foods and places to eat, and tip the scales at the higher end for your age and height, thank your lucky stars. So much of what the majority of U.S. citizens take for granted is a daily, life-and-death struggle globally. But even more startling are the number of our neighbors who live under the constant cloud of food insecurity. With all the supply in the world, WAY too many people go to bed, not only hungry but malnourished, every night. Read this, then explore the dozens of ways you can get involved in your own community.
- Economic Justice — Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty by Mark Robert Rank — Hopefully, this book will embarrass everyone who reads it. As I read this, I marveled at my own ignorance and obliviousness, and I thought I knew some things! But the factoids I accumulate haven’t added up to the scope and depth of poverty-related problems. Again, the system we have designed to guarantee that many people will struggle in poverty is a huge justice issue.
- Health Care Justice — The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care by T. R. Reid — Perhaps no other issue has been weaponized politically to the extent that health care has. It is fascinating how many beneficiaries of our movement toward health care as a basic human right actually oppose it. The global realities of the overall gains of “socialized” medicine and “universal” health care are generally ignored or dismissed as we continue to wallow in a morass of haves/have nots/never haves/never wills. Until health care is separated from politics and employment, we are going to see same-old, same-old.
- Social/Racial Justice — The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee — I separate this from the Racial Justice books above for the simple reason that I want to highlight not only the racial dimension, but the social/cultural dimension, and the seemingly irrational and irrevocable tendency we humans have to act AGAINST our own best interests. There is much here to supplement the other studies of racial justice, but few offer a more compelling argument about how self-defeatingly stupid racism is.
Okay, so that’s my list. Feel free to share your best reads if you have them. Just remember my confirmation bias — I will test the veracity claims of every new book I read! It’s a sickness…
Shalom! Okay, i’m nowhere near the reader you are, and as i read your short list here, i confess–or anyway, acknowledge–that many of the titles and authors (but not all) are unfamiliar to me. But our church group is reading a book as part of a Big Read program, and i’m actually reading every page. That’s a problem, though a good one, since there’s much on each page that makes me stop and reflect. It’s not a new book, and it may not pass your test. But i sure like it!
BRAIDING SWEETGRASS: INDIGENOUS WISDOM, SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE, AND THE TEACHINGS OF PLANTS by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Mpls. MN, Milkweed Editions, 2013.
One of my probably-favorite-of-all-time remains Thomas Kelly’s A TESTAMENT OF DEVOTION, 1941. Shalom!
Cool! Thanks for the recommendation. I will pick up a copy (and read it, too).