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The Ultimate Reading Guide To Understand The Key Issues Of This Election

Earlier this month, the New York Public Library compiled a list of books exploring key issues of this election, like climate change, racial equality, public health, immigration, and more. No matter what happens next week, one thing is certain: It will be just one step in ongoing work. Below, we’ve featured some of our favorite books from the library’s extensive list to help you dive deeper into issues that will continue to affect the country (and world), and figure out what your next move will be.

CLIMATE CHANGE

Henry Holt & Co., Beacon Press, Simon & Schuster, Belknap Press

In its long, long history, our planet has experienced five periods of mass extinction, each of which dramatically decreased the diversity of life. Elizabeth Kolbert contemplates the idea of a sixth extinction — the result of climate change — and how human beings are responsible for changing life on earth in a way no other species has.

Indigenous researcher and activist Dina Gilio-Whitaker presents a multifaceted and accessible examination of “Indigenized environmental justice,” comprising a history of federal and corporate destruction of Native peoples’ land and their active resistance to it, a critical look at how mainstream environmental activism has alienated Native populations, and insight into effective ways of fighting for sustainability.

Naomi Klein’s provocative book unveils the myths surrounding climate change, explores how the “free market” is holding us back from making vital changes that are necessary for a livable future (like reducing greenhouse emissions), and argues that these changes wouldn’t only counteract the climate crisis but would also spur economic and social progress.

In 1999, lawyer Joe Mendelson petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict greenhouse emissions from new cars, arguing that carbon dioxide fell under the umbrella of air pollutants it had been granted power to regulate via the Clean Air Act. Mendelson was challenged by all sides — even prominent environmentalists argued it was a dead end — but through his dogged persistence, he was able to gather support from Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and 12 state attorneys and take the EPA to court.

Further reading:

THE ECONOMY

Knopf, Simon & Schuster, W.W. Norton

At a time when the wage gap is increasing and social mobility is declining, journalist Steven Greenhouse walks us through how we got here by offering an accessible history of American labor policies and activism, exposing the exploitation of modern American workers through original reporting and in-depth profiles, and proposing methods for workers to reclaim their power.

In December 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession, General Motors shut down its the oldest operating assembly plant in the US — and, with that decision, wiped out the main employer of the industrial town of Janesville, Wisconsin. Through years of on-the-ground reporting, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Amy Goldstein gives a deep and multifaceted portrait of the Janesville community and the ways in which it recovered from an economic collapse.

Nomadland tells the stories of “workampers” — a growing, albeit still largely invisible population of American senior citizens who have ridden themselves of mortgages and rent and taken to life on the road. Bruder profiles a cast of characters but centers on Linda May as she is pushed out of job after job, moves into an RV, and finds community through short-term and scattered work at places like Amazon, state parks, and private farms. It exposes the oppression under capitalism and presents a way of life that exists outside of it.

Further reading:

EDUCATION

The New Press, University of Chicago Press, Pantheon

Noliwe Rooks, a cultural critic and American studies professor, digs into the modern segregation of the country’s schools, outlining how issues like privatization, school choice, teacher quality, class size, and funding disproportionately put Black students at a disadvantage. This year’s edition is updated with a new foreword from former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch.

At 15 years old, Victor Rios walked away from a dangerous life of gangs, drugs, and violence. Through the mentorship of one of his teachers, he found a job, worked his way to college, and eventually earned a PhD. In Human Targets, he turns his attention toward California teens at a similar crossroads — following young gang members through their daily lives and interactions and painting complex, nuanced portraits of Latino youth who are too frequently stereotyped and victimized.

Award-winning constitutional law scholar Justin Driver exposes how the US public school system has failed to protect students’ constitutional rights since the 1970s, allowing educators and administrators to inflict corporal punishment, perform body and property searches without probable cause, and suppress free speech, among other transgressions.

Morris, cofounder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, follows young Black girls across the country, exposing the profound judgments they face from teachers and administrators and exploring how these harsh environments can degrade their will and stunt their potential.

Further reading:

FOREIGN POLICY

Yale University Press, Riverhead, Knopf

Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko argue that global fearmongering is advantageous to a Presidential administration that doesn’t want to deal with national security threats within the country, and that the world is actually healthier and safer than it’s ever been. Dissecting what they call the “threat-industrial complex,” the authors call for a refocusing of our energy with issues like gun violence, income inequality, failing infrastructure, and inadequate healthcare in the US.

Masha Gessen’s biography of Putin looks at his ascension into absolute, dangerous power — from a young man groomed to be Boris Yeltsin’s successor to a corrupt leader responsible for the destruction of Russian democracy. Gessen is able to provide a vital perspective, drawing from her firsthand experience as a journalist living in Moscow and gathering insight from new and rare sources.

Giridharadas skewers the groups of super-wealthy entrepreneurs, philanthropists, politicians, and “thought leaders” who build reputations on working for justice and improving the world, but who, behind the scenes, refuse to do anything that might challenge the status quo or diminish their power within it. It’s a compelling look through interviews with powerful figures, but it’s also a reminder that meaningful change won’t come from a select few. (Read an excerpt from Winners Take All.)

GUN CONTROL

Nan A. Talese, Bold Type Books, Viking

Kotlowitz looks beyond the data of Chicago’s notorious gun violence and gives voice to the lives affected by it. Through intimate, moving portraits — of a man reckoning with past crimes, a social worker trying to help a student embroiled in a dangerous situation, and a witness to a police shooting, among others — Kotlowitz brings these communities to life and challenges the stereotypes about them.

Award-winning journalist Gary Younge looks at the overwhelming number of yearly gun fatalities in the US — nearly 40,000 in 2017, from the CDC’s most recent data — and zeroes in on killings on one day: Nov.23, 2013. Over the course of those 24 hours, 10 people — Black, white, and Latino, aged 9 to 19 — died across the country, and Younge digs into their lives to paint complex, human portraits of the people behind the numbers.

New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz is deeply embedded in the social media spheres, reporting both on the side of the entrepreneurs shaping these platforms and of the “gate-crashers” commandeering them. Antisocial tracks the spread of disinformation and failing media literacy, bringing light to the trolls, conspiracists, and white supremacists who use social media to grow in popularity and turn their digital agendas into real threats.

HEALTH

PublicAffairs, Sarah Crichton Books, Metropolitan Books

Science journalist Laura Spinney turns her attention to the flu pandemic of 1918–1920, chronicling a narrative history of a virus that infected a third of the global population, killing between 50 million and 100 million people. She traces its spread around the world and its devastating effects, arguing that it was as socially and politically significant as both world wars.

Award-winning science journalist Sonia Shah offers a survey of the world’s most destructive pandemics; in this year’s new edition, COVID-19 is appropriately added to that list. Shah blends historical analysis, original reporting, and personal narrative, drawing connections among the world’s deadliest pathogens and presenting a path to a more viable future.

In April 2014, residents of Flint, Michigan, mostly Black and living in poverty, started complaining about foul-smelling and discolored water pouring from their faucets, but their grievances were dismissed. The state wouldn’t admit the water was poisoned with lead and other toxins for over a year. Detroit journalist Anna Clark offers the first extensive account of the crisis — one that is ongoing — and exposes the many failures of the state to protect its citizens.

Further reading:

IMMIGRATION

Basic Books, Bold Type Books, Coffee House Press

The US national identity hinges on it being a “melting pot,” and a necessary component of that is a population of immigrants from all around the world. So why has xenophobia endured every step of the way? Erika Lee traces our country’s deep-seated fear and even hatred of immigrants from the colonial era to the present day and writes about how that xenophobia has been enacted through policy.

Immigrant rights activist and lawyer Alina Das walks the reader through an immigration system she calls the “deportation machine” — one that arrests, imprisons, and deports hundreds of thousands of people in the US each year. Das exposes the racism underlying US policy that created the idea of the “criminal alien” and the dangerous notion that some are good and some are bad, and then used these constructs to justify the violent uprooting and banishing of human beings.

Valeria Luiselli — a Mexican writer who grew up in South Africa and Mexico and then moved to New York — reflects on her experience as a translator for undocumented Latin American children who have to answer 40 questions that will be evaluated by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services in order to determine whether they will stay or be deported. By drawing from these answers, Luiselli humanizes these children — some as young as 6 years old, many of whom have experienced unthinkable trauma — and shifts the abstract idea of the immigrant experience into reality.

Further reading:

LGBTQ RIGHTS

Duke University Press, Little, Brown and Company, Beacon Press

Toby Beauchamp, professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, connects the enforcement of gender conformity with US surveillance, arguing that the marginalization of gender nonconformity is directly related to its perceived threat to the US security, and how the government tries to mold citizens into something it can predict and control.

Award-winning journalist Samantha Allen puts a spotlight on the lives and worlds of queer Americans across the country in this book that is equal parts travelogue, cultural analysis, and narrative nonfiction. She blends interviews and research with her own experience as a trans woman traveling through Republican states. The result is an illuminating, stereotype-busting account of queer America. Read an excerpt.

Activist Charlene Carruthers presents a vigorous and uncompromising argument for making the Black liberation movement more queer and more feminist, as well as a clear and practical model for enacting these necessary changes in the fight for social justice.

Find further reading on LGBTQ news here.

MEDIA

Basic Books, Metropolitan Books

MIT professor Sherry Turkle argues that the increasing integration of the internet into our daily lives has led to a growing sense of isolation — that the connections we make on social media don’t function as authentic communication. Based on hundreds of interviews and shrewd analysis, Turkle explores how technology is shifting our personal relationships.

Historian Claire Bond Potter challenges the idea that the internet has been uniquely detrimental to politics, with its ability to spread false information and amplify outrage and trolls. Drawing a line from independent newsletters in the 1950s to talk radio in the 1970s to cable television in the 1980s, Potter contextualizes social and web media in a long history of alternative outlets on both the left and right.

Investigative journalist Anna Merlan dives into the history of conspiracy theories and hoaxes in the US, giving a nuanced and complex account of the people who believe them and the social, cultural, and political circumstances that make these beliefs attractive. Through historical analysis and firsthand reporting, Merlan explores how formerly fringe theories have gained mainstream prominence during the Trump era.

GENDER EQUALITY

Seal Press, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Dutton

When it was originally published in 2002, this anthology was revolutionary in its exposure of the feminist movement as exclusive and predominantly white. Revised and updated in 2019, the book takes into consideration key social movements like Black Lives Matter and activism within the transgender and immigrant communities.

Historian Linda Hirshman chronicles the events leading up to the #MeToo movement and its aftermath. She examines the first stories of workplace harassment to get mainstream attention in the 1970s, the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal (and its villainization of Lewinsky), and the thwarted attempts to address and end rape on college campuses. She also explores the political, legal, and social movements to fight sexual abuse that have gained traction, largely due to organizing led by women of color.

In the 2018 US election cycle, more women ran for local and national office than ever before. Journalist Caitlin Moscatello follows four candidates — a mom and former CIA operative in Virginia, a Colombian-born attorney in New York, an Iranian American in Florida, and a young Black Memphis native running as a Democrat — and expounds on their experiences through interviews with researchers and strategists.

POLARIZATION

Doubleday, Random House, University of Illinois Press

Investigative journalist Jane Mayer exposes the behind-the-scenes work of American billionaires in steering US politics toward their interests, tracing billions of dollars from these elite networks to academic institutions, media groups, political powers, and industry leaders in an effort to maximize their influence — and, in doing so, compromising the function of democracy.

Philosopher and political analyst Jason Stanley draws not only from research but also his experience as the child of World War II refugees to expose how democratic societies become vulnerable to fascism. Stanley presents and deconstructs 10 pillars of fascist policies — connecting examples from Poland, India, the US, and elsewhere — and lays bare the ways in which anti-intellectualism, attacks on labor groups, idealized national history, and racist policing disintegrate democracy.

Professor and historian Deborah Gray White turns her attention to the US at the turn of the millennium — an era often remembered as one of peace and prosperity despite its mass protests. Looking at personal testimonies from participants in the Million Mom March, the Promise Keepers, and the LGBTQ protests, White presents Americans looking for community in a culture of growing isolation, and looking for agency and meaning in a time of rapid change.

POLICING

Penguin Press, Random House, St. Martin’s Press, New Press

In 2014, Shane Bauer — an award-winning investigative journalist — was hired as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Louisiana, where he worked for four months. American Prison is part exposé, drawing from his experiences, and part historical account of for-profit prisons, reaching back to before the Civil War — a blistering condemnation of a system built on racism.

Journalist Emily Bazelon deflates the notion that, within the American criminal justice system, the fight between the prosecution and defense is a fair and balanced one. Bazelon follows two young people — a 20-year-old man charged with a violent felony in Brooklyn and a teenage girl from Memphis indicted for her mother’s killing — from their arrest to their sentencing, weaving in her own research and analysis to show how prosecutors can control the outcome of their cases, but also presenting the gains being made toward reforming the system.

Political science professor Virginia Eubanks exposes the bias built into automated systems used to streamline political, professional, social, and financial industries. Eubanks discusses how decisions based on data mining, policy algorithms, and predictive risk models are used to punish and police the most impoverished and already marginalized communities — and how it’s part of a long history of using tech to keep people in poverty.

Alexander’s bestselling book dismantles the notion of “color blindness” through the lens of the criminal justice system. Alexander argues that by targeting Black communities through programs like the war on drugs, stop-and-frisk, and “broken windows” policing, the government has enacted a new type of racial control — mass incarceration. The 10th-anniversary edition, out this year, includes a new preface from Alexander.

RACIAL EQUALITY

Graywolf Press, One World, Verso, Bold Type Books

This book-length poetic essay — one we named in our best books of the 2010s — is a powerful meditation on race, racism, and the violence against Black people that has been going on for centuries in the US without significant change. It’s a damning condemnation of white supremacy and its immeasurable physical and psychological toll on Black people, transcending the idea of “timeliness.”

Read our interview with Claudia Rankine.

Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir is a frank but warm examination of the world as distilled and understood by Jacob’s 6-year-old son, who is half Jewish and half Indian. In answering his many questions about current events, Jacob turns to her own history and shares the conversations about race, sexuality, injustice, and love that have helped her make sense of the world.

Latinos — or Latinx, the gender-neutral term increasing in popularity — make up one of the largest ethnic minority groups in the US, and it’s a population that’s growing rapidly. What do those communities look like, and how are they shaping the identity of the US? Journalist and poet Ed Morales explores the diversity within the Latinx population and how their political identities (and influence) are shaped by the Latin American history of mestizaje, i.e., its racial and cultural intersections.

Kendi’s National Book Award–winning Stamped From the Beginning scrutinizes the history of anti-Black racism in the US, from this nation’s birth to now. By showing how deeply entrenched racist ideas have been — and still are — in America, and thus clearly exposing and discrediting these ideas, Kendi has created not only a great work of scholarship but a much-needed tool in anti-racist work.

Further reading:

VOTER RIGHTS

St. Martin’s Press, New York Review Books, Bloomsbury, Liveright

Supreme Court journalist Jesse Wegman presents an extensively researched argument for abolishing the Electoral College, analyzing the history of its controversial creation and drawing on insight from influential campaign managers and officials gathered from his on-the-ground reporting.

Blackballed is a compact (i.e., under 150 pages) but powerful meditation on the history of Black Americans’ participation in US politics from Reconstruction to today, blending memoir, history, and political analysis. Pinckney looks at key leaders in the ongoing fight for racial justice and civil rights and their differing strategies toward equality. The 2020 reissue comes with a new essay on fighting for racial justice in the midst of a pandemic disproportionately harming Black communities, with protests reaching a global audience after the killing of George Floyd.

Award-winning historian Carol Anderson looks at the history of voter suppression, outlining the hindrances to Black Americans’ participation specifically after the Shelby ruling — the 2013 Supreme Court decision to quash the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Through shrewd analysis and by following real voters, Anderson exposes the racial discrimination underlying government-sanctioned laws and practices like photo ID requirements and gerrymandering.

Journalist David Daley follows the growing resistance movements fighting voter suppression, turning to key victories against gerrymandering across the country, outlining their significance, and using these as examples of how to continue the work.

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