The best books on power and the powerless

Who am I?

I'm a specialist of ancient Egyptian social history, who against the better judgment of (practically all) her colleagues uses the ancient past to make the present understandable. If we don’t fetishize the ancient Egyptians as separate and magical, they have something to teach us, whispering to us from the past through papyri, temples, and archaeological sites. After all, Egyptian history is 3000 years plus in its time span, an astounding data set of a people using same approximate language, government system, religion, and culture. Some of us look hungrily to replicate that kind of lasting and divine power. I am obsessed with power—how it works, why we are helpless to it, and who gets exploited by it. The ancient Egyptian kings effectively packaged their power not only as necessary, but as moral and good, ancient marketing that continues to work on our minds.


I wrote...

Book cover of When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

What is my book about?

Female rulers are a rare phenomenon--but thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, women reigned supreme. Regularly, repeatedly, and with impunity, queens like Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra controlled the totalitarian state as power-brokers and rulers. But throughout human history, women in positions of power were more often used as political pawns in male-dominated societies. Why did ancient Egypt provide women this kind of access to the highest political office? What was it about these women that allowed them to transcend patriarchal obstacles? What did Egypt gain from its liberal reliance on female leadership, and could today's world learn from its example?

In this captivating narrative, celebrated Egyptologist Kara Cooney delivers a fascinating tale of female power, exploring the reasons why it has seldom been allowed through the ages--and why we should care.

The books I picked & why

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James Baldwin: Collected Essays

By James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Toni Morrison

Book cover of James Baldwin: Collected Essays

Why this book?

I am recommending this book because one can’t understand power without being beholden to it systemically and repeatedly, all the while dissecting power’s discontents. Baldwin’s words may seem to strike only to America’s core, but every marginalized person will find truth in them. As an Egyptologist, I rely on Baldwin to tell me what oppressed people in an authoritarian regime thought but could not commit to paper.

James Baldwin: Collected Essays

By James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Toni Morrison

Why should I read it?

1 author picked James Baldwin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

James Baldwin was a uniquely prophetic voice in American letters. His brilliant and provocative essays made him the literary voice of the Civil Rights Era, and they continue to speak with powerful urgency to us today, whether in the swirling debate over the Black Lives Matter movement or in the words of Raoul Peck's documentary "I Am Not Your Negro." Edited by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, the Library of America's Collected Essays is the most comprehensive gathering of Baldwin's nonfiction ever published.

With burning passion and jabbing, epigrammatic wit, Baldwin fearlessly articulated issues of race and democracy and American identity…


The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South

By Michael W. Twitty,

Book cover of The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South

Why this book?

I am recommending this book because it delves deep into a people’s connection to land, plants and animals, food, and ancestors. Even without the privilege of written history, the powerless can find a power in the past.

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South

By Michael W. Twitty,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Cooking Gene as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

2018 James Beard Foundation Book of the Year | 2018 James Beard Foundation Book Award Winner inWriting | Nominee for the 2018 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Nonfiction | #75 on The Root100 2018

A renowned culinary historian offers a fresh perspective on our most divisive cultural issue, race, in this illuminating memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces his ancestry—both black and white—through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom.

Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who "owns" it is one of the most provocative touch points in our…


Circe

By Madeline Miller,

Book cover of Circe

Why this book?

I am recommending this book because it is a lyrical poem of a book about a fierce and quiet female power that tries to hide but is subversive in spite of itself. Circe carves out her place amongst the kings and kingmakers of the world, not looking to be powerful over anything except her own space and those who exist within it. It is a manifesto of living in harmony with the natural world and each other.

Circe

By Madeline Miller,

Why should I read it?

24 authors picked Circe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The international Number One bestseller from the author of The Song of Achilles, shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction

Woman. Witch. Myth. Mortal. Outcast. Lover. Destroyer. Survivor. CIRCE.

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. Circe is a strange child - not powerful and terrible, like her father, nor gorgeous and mercenary like her mother. Scorned and rejected, Circe grows up in the shadows, at home in neither the world of gods or mortals. But Circe has a dark power of her own: witchcraft. When her gift threatens…


The Matter of History

By Timothy J. Lecain,

Book cover of The Matter of History

Why this book?

I am recommending this volume because it shocked me with its ability to nestle humans into the world as an integral part of the natural world, not separate from it, not rulers over it, but clever animals that need the Earth more than the Earth needs us. It helps me to undercut the manufactured power of the divinely ordained rulers from ancient Egypt.

The Matter of History

By Timothy J. Lecain,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Matter of History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

New insights into the microbiome, epigenetics, and cognition are radically challenging our very idea of what it means to be 'human', while an explosion of neo-materialist thinking in the humanities has fostered a renewed appreciation of the formative powers of a dynamic material environment. The Matter of History brings these scientific and humanistic ideas together to develop a bold, new post-anthropocentric understanding of the past, one that reveals how powerful organisms and things help to create humans in all their dimensions, biological, social, and cultural. Timothy J. LeCain combines cutting-edge theory and detailed empirical analysis to explain the extraordinary late-nineteenth…


Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

By James C. Scott,

Book cover of Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Why this book?

The fifth book is Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott which teaches how the state makes people legible and controllable by naming them, giving them addresses, marking them, or moving them. 

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

By James C. Scott,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Seeing Like a State as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"One of the most profound and illuminating studies of this century to have been published in recent decades."-John Gray, New York Times Book Review

"A powerful, and in many insightful, explanation as to why grandiose programs of social reform, not to mention revolution, so often end in tragedy. . . . An important critique of visionary state planning."-Robert Heilbroner, Lingua Franca

Hailed as "a magisterial critique of top-down social planning" by the New York Times, this essential work analyzes disasters from Russia to Tanzania to uncover why states so often fail-sometimes catastrophically-in grand efforts to engineer their society or their…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in heroes, James Baldwin, and philosophy?

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