December 21, 2016

Still looking for the perfect gift for that special someone? Something that can elevate us to a higher place, enhance our understanding of others, put us in concert with our fellow man and woman, carry us wherever we wish to go, join us with the hard earned lessons of the past, point us toward a better future? I have the perfect gift idea – give a book.

This world of ours needs light but first we must understand the dark, so I recommend Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Mayer’s book is a detailed portrayal of how dark money has infected presidential politics, congressional elections, state and local campaigns, foundations, think tanks, and virtually all aspects of our civic life.

What could be timelier than E.J. Dionne’s Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism – From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond. Even Dionne couldn’t predict that the “Beyond” would mean Donald Trump. Consider though chapters such as “The Gingrich Revolution and Conservatism’s Second Chance,” and “The Logic of Obstruction,” and you will have a grounding in the extremism of the Republican Party.

How might things go right instead of Right? That is the topic undertaken by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson in American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made Government Prosper. For those who actually would like to make America great again, we’d have to return to a mixed economy of markets that brought dynamism and a government that softened capitalism’s excesses and encouraged the basic research that has driven innovation.

The next publishing boom should be explaining how America could be so dumb as to elect Donald Trump. Get ahead of that surge by giving the classic Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. He saw what the technology of television was doing to our capacity to break down and analyze political arguments – dumbing it down. Imagine if Postman were still here to write about Twitter. Your loved ones are readers – they’ll appreciate the book.

Think you’ve heard the rancid rhetoric of Donald Trump before? You have, from Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and others. The market responds to what works so to understand the disgracefully low level of our political discourse and why it works so well, read Jeff Berry and Sarah Sobieraj’s ultra-smart The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility.

Since Election Day attention has been turned toward the white working class, and I hope Santa leaves me such well-regarded books as J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, or Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

But I recommend reading the novels of Richard Russo, particularly Nobody’s Fool and 2016’s  Everybody’s Fool. The two novels are situated in the downtrodden town of North Bath, NY. Its unluckiest citizen (later among its luckiest, a relative concept if there ever was one) is Donald Sullivan. In Nobody’s Fool Sully is shuffled off to retraining due to a bad knee, but finds community college not to his liking. He moderates the pain with pills, beer and friends, and returns to the hard and dirty work that offers him meaning. In North Bath there is unfairness, hardship, the wit of the working class, and limited expectations. There is racism as well, though few nonwhites. Russo’s offers important lessons about dignity, family, and friendships.It is unlikely that Sully's vote will be swayed by a lecture about white male privilege.

The perfect accompaniment for understanding Russo’s depiction of the working class is the Elegy exhibit from photographer Justin Kimball at Carroll & Sons Gallery in Boston.  Elegy is also in book form.

Bypass Amazon and head to your local independent bookseller. No Kindles. Your loved one won’t swoon for a revocable license that hides on an electronic device. Get that special someone an actual book they can hold and relate to (John Adams argued with his books and wrote his critiques in the margins). After the lucky recipient reads it your treasure can reside on a book shelf where it will look very handsome indeed. It will always be there to remind your friend of the enjoyment and learning he or she experienced on reading it and the gratitude felt toward you for your thoughtfulness. The lucky owner will take the book down and leaf through it over the years. Books are our friends; give them a good home.

Happy holidays, everyone. See you next year.


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