The best books to understand America in the 2020s

Dale Maharidge Author Of Fucked at Birth: Recalibrating the American Dream for the 2020s
By Dale Maharidge

Who am I?

How I grew up in Ohio informs my work: my raging war-ravaged father dreams of being his own boss; in our basement he grinds steel tools on massive iron machines, a side business after his day job in a factory; as a teen, I begin grinding with him; Dad is hit by a drunk driver and he cannot work for months; I am not old or skilled enough as a machinist to save the business; our mother who drives a school bus feeds our family with charity food. I fear I will grow up to be a blue-collar worker facing all the precarity that comes with this existence.

I wrote...

Fucked at Birth: Recalibrating the American Dream for the 2020s

By Dale Maharidge,

Book cover of Fucked at Birth: Recalibrating the American Dream for the 2020s

What is my book about?

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Dale Maharidge has spent his career documenting the downward spiral of the working class. Poverty is both reality and destiny for increasing numbers of people in the 2020s and, as Maharidge discovers spray-painted inside an abandoned gas station in the California desert at the height of the pandemic, it is a fate often handed down from birth. Motivated by this haunting graffito—“Fucked at Birth”—Maharidge explores the realities of being poor in America in the coming decade, as economic crisis and social revolution up-end the country. Part raw memoir, part dogged, investigative journalism, Fucked At Birth channels the history of poverty in America to help inform the voices Maharidge encounters as a narrative long-form documentarian. 

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The books I picked & why

My America 1928-1938

By Louis Adamic,

Book cover of My America 1928-1938

Why did I love this book?

I grew up listening to my elders about the 1930s. I’ve read dozens of books about that decade,  and this is the best in terms of the documentation of average Americans. We absolutely must understand the 1930s to deal with what faces us in the nation and world in the 2020s. Adamic was an immigrant who believed in the potential of America, and about half of this book is his reporting around America, with a focus on the working class. The other half is memoir. The reporting is deep, the writing beautiful. 

Book cover of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Why did I love this book?

I’d seen in my work over the years how housing costs impact lower-income Americans, like 60 percent of the nation. Rent and the cost of buying a home have risen far faster than wages—this is the number-one issue facing working-class people today. Desmond moved into a trailer park in Milwaukee and was embedded with both renters and a landlord. The publisher had sent me an advance review copyI get a lot of books sent my wayand I picked it up figuring I’d skim a few pages, then drop it. I was pleasantly surprised. I couldn’t put it down. An amazing read.

By Matthew Desmond,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Beautifully written, thought-provoking, and unforgettable ... If you want a good understanding of how the issues that cause poverty are intertwined, you should read this book' Bill Gates, Best Books of 2017

Arleen spends nearly all her money on rent but is kicked out with her kids in Milwaukee's coldest winter for years. Doreen's home is so filthy her family call it 'the rat hole'. Lamar, a wheelchair-bound ex-soldier, tries to work his way out of debt for his boys. Scott, a nurse turned addict, lives in a gutted-out trailer. This is…

Book cover of Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Why did I love this book?

This is the best book on the precarity facing American workers today—especially women. Bruder lived it, first in a tent, then in a van, following the itinerant workers of today, many of them older women. She embedded deeply, working in an Amazon warehouse and at the sugar beet harvest in North Dakota, mainstay jobs for these new itinerants. Two of the powerful women Bruder documented ended up appearing in the Oscar-winning film, Nomadland, which was based on the book. 

By Jessica Bruder,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From the beet fields of North Dakota to the campgrounds of California to Amazon's CamperForce programme in Texas, American employers have discovered a new, low-cost labour pool, made up largely of transient older adults. These invisible casualties of the Great Recession have taken to the road by the tens of thousands in RVs and modified vans, forming a growing community of nomads.

Nomadland tells a revelatory tale of the dark underbelly of the American economy-one which foreshadows the precarious future that may await many more of us. At the same time, it celebrates the exceptional resilience and creativity of these…

Book cover of The Plot Against America: A Novel

Why did I love this book?

I read this when it came out, when I was writing my own book, about the rising anger I was seeing in working-class America. It was so chilling that I had to put it down and could not finish it until years later. Roth reimagines history, Charles Lindbergh was elected president in 1940, signs a non-aggression pact with Hitler. It was based on Lindberg’s actual beliefs. Roth clearly anticipated what was coming in America, and the fact that a large number of Americans would like to follow an autocratic leader. 

By Philip Roth,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Plot Against America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'He captures better than anyone the collision of public and private, the intrusion of history into the skin, the pores of every individual alive' Guardian

'Though on the morning after the election disbelief prevailed, especially among the pollsters, by the next everybody seemed to understand everything...'

When celebrity aviator, Charles A. Lindbergh, wins the 1940 presidential election on the slogan of 'America First', fear invades every Jewish household. Not only has Lindbergh blamed the Jews for pushing America towards war with Germany, he has negotiated an 'understanding' with the Nazis promising peace between the two nations.

Growing up in the…

It Can't Happen Here

By Sinclair Lewis,

Book cover of It Can't Happen Here

Why did I love this book?

Lewis wrote this at a time when followers of fascism were becoming more powerful in the United States – forces that I document in a history chapter “If 20’s are 30’s” in my book. Some critics would later dismiss this novel as fantastical, but it’s full of verity about the country – there is a strong message in this story for us to learn from today. 

By Sinclair Lewis,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked It Can't Happen Here as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“The novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal.”—Salon

It Can’t Happen Here is the only one of Sinclair Lewis’s later novels to match the power of Main Street, Babbitt, and Arrowsmith. A cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy, it is an alarming, eerily timeless look at how fascism could take hold in America.

Written during the Great Depression, when the country was largely oblivious to Hitler’s aggression, it juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a president who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, sex, crime, and a liberal press.

Called “a…

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