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. 

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is readers supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

My America 1928-1938

By Louis Adamic,

Book cover of My America 1928-1938

Why 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. 


Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

By Matthew Desmond,

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

Why 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.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

By Jessica Bruder,

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

Why 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. 


The Plot Against America: A Novel

By Philip Roth,

Book cover of The Plot Against America: A Novel

Why 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. 


It Can't Happen Here

By Sinclair Lewis,

Book cover of It Can't Happen Here

Why 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. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in poverty, totalitarianism, and seniors?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about poverty, totalitarianism, and seniors.

Poverty Explore 39 books about poverty
Totalitarianism Explore 34 books about totalitarianism
Seniors Explore 14 books about seniors

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Origins of Totalitarianism, Joe, and Swastika Night if you like this list.