Crucial Books on American Culture.

Want to better understand the undercurrents and nuances as to what is going on in the U.S. right now? Read these.

There is significant upheaval in the U.S. at the moment, as everyone who lives here is aware. A sense of fracturing in our society. A polarized and hateful political situation. Skyhigh rates of loneliness, anxiety, depression. A sense of disconnectedness from one another. A fascist, dangerous, psychotic dictator in our White House. Much anger (and rightly so) about the deep-rooted, systemic racism that is a part of our society. A decline of wisdom and the spread of much propaganda. A housing crisis. An affordability crisis for a majority of the country with regard to student loans, child care costs, healthcare costs, and affordability of housing. A healthcare system that is broken (we pay as individuals, on average, and out of pocket, some of the highest amounts in the world for medical care. And yet, our quality of healthcare is lower than in many other places. America has some of the highest rates of obesity, suicide, and chronic disease in the world). Just to name a few of the especially pressing issues in America currently.

To learn more about other people, the world, and oneself, a person needs to read. Thus, these books shed more light and offer a deeper dive into the issues I skimmed the surface of above, and how, as well as why they have progressed and developed to such a degree. Because, without nuanced and deep knowledge of a problem, one can hardly expect to be able to see it with clear eyes, or, to be able to fix it.

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Evicted: Poverty and Profit in America by Matthew Desmond. This book. It’s harrowing, heartbreaking, and mind-blowing. Within this Pulitzer-Prize winning, must-read, we follow the stories of several families. Some of them are white, some are black, one is a drug addict, all of them are poor. The book reads like fiction, in such a way that you become emotionally involved and gripped by each person’s story. Desmond also laces each person’s story through with information about poverty, eviction, cost of housing, and homelessness in America. This is, hands down, now in the top ten best books I’ve ever read (and I’ve read over 1,000 in my life, to give some context to the statement of it landing in my top ten). Read it. It’s an unforgettable read.

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Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal by Ben Sasse. This is an eye-opening, fascinating read in which Sasse traces the trajectory of how we came to this point of such division, disconnect, and dislike of one another. He talks about our addiction to our devices and how this is driving a wedge into families and relationships, the decline of legit news and the spread of propaganda, the diminishment of our sense of community and connection with one another, and more. Informative, interesting, and a great book.

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Lost Connections by Johann Hari. I blew through this in one weekend. The book challenges the question: is depression really a malfunction of someone’s brain, or, is it more heavily based on situations outside of oneself? Is depression biology-based or situational? You are likely to be stunned by the answer.

Then, Hari delves into various aspects of our current culture that are, most certainly, significant contributors to the rise of depression and anxiety in our culture. Some topics he touches on: the rise of meaningless work and bulls*it jobs, our disconnection from nature and the outdoors, fixation on our electronics, junk values (such as our Instagram followers, money, status, brand names, big houses, etc). He finished the book by identifying the solution and remedies to each of these problems. This is an excellent read.

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Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case and Angus Deaton (Princeton Press). This book paints a troubling portrait of the American dream in decline. For the white working class, today’s America has become a land of broken families and few prospects. As the college-educated become healthier and wealthier, adults without a degree are literally dying from pain and despair.

In this critically important book, Case and Deaton tie the crisis to the weakening position of labor, the growing power of corporations, and, above all, to a rapacious health-care sector that redistributes working-class wages into the pockets of the wealthy. Capitalism, which over two centuries lifted countless people out of poverty, is now destroying the lives of blue-collar America.

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Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly. This is a phenomenal, rage-inducing, timely, and important read. Prior to reading this one, I thought I was well-versed in the barriers and problems women face in our society today. Wow, was I wrong. This book is laden with research and statistics, all with regards to how dismally and degradingly women are still treated today in our society.

From wages at work to childcare, with regard to the risk of assault and bodily violence, to their opportunities in various career fields, and even student loans and potential wealth they might accrue, women have it much worse than men, in almost every regard. This book will shock you. It’s a crucial read for everyone, man and woman, today who care about making the lives of women better.

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The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (Pulitzer Prize finalist). This is one of the most well-written books I’ve ever read. The prose is superb. It is partially a love letter to books, and part manifesto (and a well researched one at that) with regard to the science behind what the internet is doing to our brains. Want a sneak peek? It isn’t good.

Ever heard of neuroplasticity? This is the concept that the things we read, do, learn, and interact with actually change the structure of our brains, literally. The internet and smartphones are doing that, and in ways that are harming us. The way we consume information today (in short bursts and snippets, scrolling down a screen, scanning, and in great volume), all of this is fracturing and diminishing our attention span. Our focus has grown scattered. We are less able to engage deeply and with sustained concentration nowadays.

Consider: when on your computer and engaged in a task, I bet your attention wanders numerous times during this. You open up new webpages, get sidetracked, check your email, think of something else you need to do, and then recall the original task on which you were working. Maybe your computer and phone are away, and you are trying to read a book. But after ten or fifteen minutes, you notice your attention wandering. You reach for your phone and scroll through Instagram. Or, while reading an article online, you read the first paragraph or two and then skim the rest.

(Maybe you’ve even had trouble reading just the last few paragraphs, with the urge to just skim, finding yourself feeling restless and distracted).

All of this? A result of the method through which we consume information today (the internet, and in short bursts, and, in overload). Our brains are actually changing. They are now downshifting and are losing the capacity for sustained focus, as well as deep thought and retention of information. This book is excellent, wild, and a must-read for our tech generation. We are sprinting down dangerous pathways with our preoccupation with our devices, and it’s making us less intelligent, less capable of deep thought, less mentally present, and less able to hold onto information.

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The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. From selfies to our extreme prioritizing of how “hot we are”, to plastic surgery, preoccupation with our internet selves and images, to a focus on status and popularity, our hungering for money and impressing others, and our sense of deserving (“I’m going to buy myself this new car because I deserve it”). We have become a society of highly narcissistic, self-focused people.

This is resulting in a diminished sense of empathy for one another, disconnectedness between people, and much unhappiness. Parents unknowingly do many things that instill a high degree of self-focus and narcissism in their children, our media helps this along the way, our fixation on celebrity culture, and more. An important and timely topic.

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Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It by Kate Harding. Harding addresses, with a take-no-bullsh*t voice, and cuts right to the center of our still rampant rape culture. What is rape culture? And how can we change it? She answers all this and more in her book.

“Women-hating jokes are not jokes. They are men telling you how they truly feel.”

She delves into rape culture within differing tiers, such as within politics, within law enforcement, how rape culture is handled by the media (not well. In fact, we make light of and perpetuate it), and how we continually cast doubt on and outright blame victims of rape. She gives jaw-dropping real-life cases and examples. She lists the most common rape myths and punches numerous holes in all of them.

“But there is something very wrong when you’re telling women (and only women) to keep their hair short, only dress in ways that no one could consider “provocative,” only dress in clothing that is difficult to cut off with scissors (so, Kevlar jeans, I guess?), and never use their phones or search through their purses in public.”

“There’s something wrong with expecting women to remember that they should always go for the groin, or the eyes, or the armpit, or the upper thigh, or the first two fingers (I am not making any of these up), and that it only takes five pounds of pressure to rip off a human ear, and if you hit someone’s nose with the palm of your hand and push up just right, you can drive the bone into their brain and kill them.”

“There’s something wrong with acting as though it’s perfectly reasonable to tell women never to drink to excess — and, when drinking to non-excess, never to let their drinks out of their sight — and not to walk alone at night and definitely not to travel alone, and not to jog with earphones, and not to approach a stoplight without locking the car doors, and not to respond to the sound of a crying baby, and not to get into their cars without checking both the backseat and underneath the car first, and not to get in on the driver’s side if there’s a van parked next to it, and not to pull over for unmarked police cars until they’re in well-lit areas, and, and, and.”

This book is well researched and thought out. This is a significant, life-ruining problem that is prevalent in our culture today, and one that needs attention as well as much reform. This book highly readable (I read it in less than a week). Not dry or dull, it is instead, engaging and gripping. It is a must-read, and for everyone. Period.

If you are concerned with and want to be far better versed and aware of what is going on today in America, how we got this way, and how we might fix it, read these books. And I imagine there are also many other excellent books out there on similar topics which I have not yet heard of or read.

A few likely-to-be honorable mentions, though these I have not yet read (I’ve ordered them and they are on the way).

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam (Harvard Social Scientist)

Tightrope: Americans Reaching For Hope by Nicholas Kristof

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam

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