The best public policy books

2 authors have picked their favorite books about public policy and why they recommend each book.

Soon, you will be able to filter by genre, age group, and more. Sign up here to follow our story as we build a better way to explore books.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission (learn more).

The Color of Law

By Richard Rothstein,

Book cover of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

When I was trying to figure out how the city of Charlotte became segregated, this book was a godsend. Rothstein explodes the myth that segregation in America grew primarily from individual choices, such as White people fleeing a neighborhood when a Black family moved in. He shows how local, state, and federal governments passed laws and made policies that created the housing and school segregation that much of the nation lives with today.  


Who am I?

I grew up in a mostly white town in Ohio, where, as a White woman, I didn’t have to think much at all about race. During college in North Carolina, I first began to consider racism. As a journalist, I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) that you can’t write in a meaningful way about social justice issues without connecting them to history. The books I’ve recommended provide that connection. Once you make it, you’ll never be able to see the world the same way. 


I wrote...

Money Rock: A Family's Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South

By Pam Kelley,

Book cover of Money Rock: A Family's Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South

What is my book about?

Money Rock is a riveting social history, by turns action-packed, uplifting, and tragic, of a striving Black family, swept up and transformed by America’s 1980s cocaine epidemic. As a young man, Belton Lamont Platt, known on the streets of Charlotte as Money Rock, was hard-working, charismatic, and generous, sometimes to a fault. In the 1980s, those qualities helped make him one of the city’s most successful cocaine dealers. Pam Kelley first met Money Rock when she was a young Charlotte Observer reporter covering his trial. Decades later, the two reconnected, and Kelley dug deeper. As she researched the story of his family, she also discovered a New South city that hadn’t escaped its Jim Crow past. 

Failures of State

By Jonathan Calvert, George Arbuthnott,

Book cover of Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain's Battle with Coronavirus

The authors work for the Sunday Times Insight team and the book they have produced is, you might say, a public inquiry of the kind we won’t be getting from any government, now or in the future. We’ve all been living through this nightmare and the concept of journalism being a first rough history of events is more than adequately demonstrated by this excellently researched text.

Unless you’ve been asleep, or visiting another planet during the past 15 months, you’ll be painfully aware of how badly the pandemic has been handled in the UK. Coming on the back of Brexit, the big event that caused the Government to never have its eye on the Coronavirus ball at the critical moments in January and February, 2020, the pandemic was at first ridiculed, then fatally downplayed by Boris Johnson.

Worse, as we all know to our personal and collective cost, was to…


Who am I?

Tim Madge is a well-established award-winning published author, historian and former journalist of over 45 years standing. He has written on a wide range of subjects, a cultural history of cocaine being one, resulting in White Mischief. It’s a fascinating story involving a murky mix of politics and race, as well as criminals and Sigmund Freud.


I wrote...

White Mischief: A Cultural History of Cocaine

By Tim Madge,

Book cover of White Mischief: A Cultural History of Cocaine

What is my book about?

Starting with the Incas, who used coca leaves to stimulate the brain, alleviate high altitude sickness, and to stay alert and awake, the innocuous Coca plant was transported to Europe where it was revved up, a thousand times, into the chemical we know, love and hate, as cocaine. The story is beyond parody as the new-found stimulant was heavily pushed by Sigmund Freud, and used early on by Coca-Cola (the name’s a giveaway) who, in effect, stole the drink idea from an Italian entrepreneur.

White Mischief concentrates on cocaine, but inevitably and necessarily ranges across the wider history of drugs and drug-taking, from historical times until the present day. It delves into the relationship between drugs, race, and racism, particularly apposite where the USA is concerned – to this day.

Mining the Sky

By John S. Lewis,

Book cover of Mining the Sky: Untold Riches From the Asteroids, Comets and Planets

This book is about the positive side of Near-Earth Objects – that is, they can benefit mankind as well as threaten it. Lewis explains how asteroids are chock full of valuable minerals – iron, nickel, platinum, iridium, and so on – that are either rare or difficult and messy to extract on Earth. Lewis persuasively argues that it’s not just possible but almost inevitable that Earthlings will eventually start extracting those space rock riches -- not so much to bring them back to Earth but to use them for manufacturing industries in space, thus sparing our planet from much of the pollution that threatens our world. It’s not just futuristic day-dreaming; already private companies are spending big money to develop space-mining technologies. The bottom line of this fascinating book is that there’s gold in them thar hills – or rather, in them thar far reaches of space. And sooner than…


Who am I?

In 2016 I was enjoying an early morning cup of coffee on my back porch in Arizona when an eerie red light lit up the dark sky, followed seconds later by a tremendous distant explosion that rattled my cup and set my dogs howling. As a soldier and journalist, I had seen all kinds of human and natural catastrophes and mayhem, but never anything like this. Later I was astonished to learn that this event, which was seen as far away as Texas, was caused by a small asteroid the size of a refrigerator that had exploded in the atmosphere with the energy equivalent of a million pounds of TNT. I wanted to find out more – and I did.


I wrote...

Fire in the Sky: Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and the Race to Defend Earth

By Gordon L. Dillow,

Book cover of Fire in the Sky: Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and the Race to Defend Earth

What is my book about?

From its earliest formation our planet has been routinely bombarded by space rocks large and small. In fact, collisions between small asteroids and Earth are a daily occurrence. Fortunately, most of the small ones burn up in the atmosphere, and the big ones don’t come around very often. But the question isn’t if another large asteroid or comet will strike the Earth with catastrophic consequences -- the only question is when. It could be a thousand years from now, or it could be next Tuesday. Fire in the Sky takes an accessible and sometimes light-hearted look at the history of these space invaders -- including the six-mile wide asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago -- as well as the ongoing efforts to identify, and if possible deflect, large asteroids that may threaten our planet in the future.

American Dementia

By Daniel R. George, Peter J. Whitehouse,

Book cover of American Dementia: Brain Health in an Unhealthy Society

This book explains the tight connection between Alzheimer’s disease and education, health, income, and environment, and why the rate of Alzheimer’s disease in the population actually decreased in the decades following the most important societal changes enacted after World War II. Social safety, environmental protections, and income inequality have had far greater impact than any of the pharmacological approaches ever attempted. The authors make the compelling case that brain health is intimately connected to societal health.


Who am I?

I am a professor of neurology at the University of Cincinnati, interested in the many ways in which we acquire impairments in movements, in cognition, or in both. I have sought to measure these behaviors, quantify their responses to different pharmacological treatments, and determine how they inform the biology of the aging brain. In publications along the way, I have increasingly questioned how we classify neurological diseases and treat those affected.


I wrote...

Brain Fables: The Hidden History of Neurodegenerative Diseases and a Blueprint to Conquer Them

By Alberto Espay, Ben Stecher,

Book cover of Brain Fables: The Hidden History of Neurodegenerative Diseases and a Blueprint to Conquer Them

What is my book about?

The narratives we have chosen to understand abnormal brain aging have shaped what we have done to improve it. Among the most important narratives is this one: proteins become toxic to the brain and cause disease. Billions of dollars and dozens of randomized trials later, not one of the promising anti-protein therapies have slowed the progression of neurological symptoms. This book reviews the milestones of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s stories from the sources, with fresh eyes. When the data are reviewed without our age-old biases, a different story emerges. This book's ideas inspired the first biomarker study of aging (the Cincinnati Cohort Biomarker Program or CCBP), designed to match people affected with neurodegenerative disorders to available therapies from which they are most biologically suitable to benefit, regardless of their clinical diagnoses. 

Canada and immigration

By Freda Hawkins,

Book cover of Canada and immigration: Public policy and public concern

This book, which was written when serious questions were being asked about Canadian immigration, is a gold mine of information on this delicate and emotional subject. The research is both extensive and meticulous. Moreover, the author does not just cite and explain facts about events and circumstances, she also provides clues as to what she feels constitutes an immigration policy.


Who am I?

I am a Canadian freelance writer, who has a BA in honours history from Smith College, an MA in history from McGill University, and a Bachelor in Journalism from Carleton University. As I have a special interest in Canadian history and Canadian biography, I have authored books in these subject areas. These include an award-winning biography of Sir William Van Horne, a polymath and railway general who pushed through the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and Cairine Wilson. Canada’s first woman senator, who was celebrated for her work with refugees in the 1930s and 1940s, and a best-selling survey of Canadian immigration and immigration policy, Strangers At Our Gates.


I wrote...

Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2015

By Valerie Knowles,

Book cover of Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2015

What is my book about?

Immigrants and immigration have always been central to the development of Canada and to Canadians’ perception of themselves as a country and a society. In this crisply written history, Valerie Knowles describes the different kinds of immigrants who have settled in Canada and the immigration policies that have helped to define the character of Canadian immigration over the centuries. Key policymakers and shapers of public opinion also figure prominently in this colourful story.

Border Wars

By Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Michael D. Shear,

Book cover of Border Wars: Inside Trump's Assault on Immigration

Although Trump is out of the White House (for now) and the pandemic has taken center stage politically, this book by two New York Times reporters remains invaluable. It analyzes the origins of the xenophobic immigrant-bashing that paved the way for Trump’s election in 2016, as well as the ways in which his administration systematically sought to restrict both unauthorized and legal immigration. Hirschfeld Davis and Shear document in chilling detail the machinations of Stephen Miller, a senior Trump advisor and the administration’s point person on immigration policy. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the power of populist anti-immigrant politics in the U.S. as they unfolded in the 2010s, a phenomenon that may well re-emerge in the years to come.


Who am I?

I first got seriously interested in immigration when I moved to L.A. in the late 1980s. I had been a sociologist of labor for over a decade already, and now found myself in a city whose working class was overwhelmingly foreign-born. I was amazed to discover that L.A.’s immigrant workers, even the undocumented, were actively organizing into unions and community-based organizations. Trying to understand how this came about, my fascination with the larger dynamics of migration grew, and immigrant labor became central to my research agenda.


I wrote...

Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat

By Ruth Milkman,

Book cover of Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat

What is my book about?

This book challenges the immigrant threat narrative that blames foreign-born newcomers, especially the undocumented, for the deteriorating living standards of American workers. It argues that low-wage immigration is a consequence rather than a cause of growing economic precarity and skyrocketing inequality, drawing on case studies of key industries. Starting in the late 1970s, employer attacks on labor unions, along with neoliberal policies like deregulation, degraded many good-paying jobs held by non-college-educated U.S.-born workers. As a result, workers increasingly abandoned those now-undesirable jobs, which in turn led employers to hire immigrants to replace them. The justifiable anger of American workers at the reversal of fortune they have suffered in recent decades, I argue, should be directed at the employers and political elites whose actions degraded their former jobs, not at immigrants.

The New Climate War

By Michael E. Mann,

Book cover of The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet

Enough science to understand the problem and see that the solution is eminently doable. But it's really about politics, how the fossil fuel industry and its paid lackeys are blocking climate action, but in a new way. The old climate war was straight-up science denial. Since that won't fly anymore, the industry has retreated to its fallback position: acknowledging that climate change is real but finding ways to defer action by deflecting responsibility on consumers or dividing the movement against itself, like vegans vs meat-eaters. Once we know the con, we can avoid it and push for real climate solutions by the government that will keep fossil fuels in the ground and build clean energy capacity as quickly as possible.

Who am I?

Drawing on my own experience as a local elected official and citizen lobbyist at all levels of government, I write books to help get citizens involved in the biggest challenges of our day. As an activist for clean energy, I wanted to write an easy-to-use guide to help ordinary citizens to become effective champions for more solar power in America. The Solar Patriot is my third book and my second on solar power. For two decades I have worked as a communications consultant and advocate for solar power, renewable energy, and climate solutions. Now, I’m writing a call to action for America off of fossil fuels as soon as possible to meet the urgent challenge of the climate crisis.


I wrote...

The Solar Patriot: A Citizen's Guide to Helping America Win Clean Energy Independence

By Erik D. Curren,

Book cover of The Solar Patriot: A Citizen's Guide to Helping America Win Clean Energy Independence

What is my book about?

In the spirit of 1776, The Solar Patriot aims to recruit citizens from Florida to Alaska as champions for homegrown, all-American clean energy. If you think that solar power should become America's top energy source, and you'd like to help make it happen, then this is the book you've been waiting for.

Even if you don't have solar panels on your own roof, The Solar Patriot will give you ideas to join the revolution to free America from the tyranny of fossil fuels and make our nation cleaner, safer, and more prosperous. Enlist now!

Nationalizing the Russian Empire

By Eric Lohr,

Book cover of Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign against Enemy Aliens during World War I

A variety of factors in the 1990s (most notably the break-up of the Soviet Union and the war in Yugoslavia) saw historians re-evaluate both nationalism as a concept and nationalism within the Russian context. Several historians working in the field of Russian and East European history observed that World War I was a particularly important period for the evolution of Russian nationalism. Lohr’s book is critical for this re-evaluation. It focuses not only on the (mis) treatment of foreign subjects in Russia during the war, but also the large political consequences of the “nationalization” of the empire in terms of eroding concepts of personal inviolability and property rights.


Who am I?

I’m a professor of history at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and I’ve been studying Russia ever since visiting the Soviet Union as a college student in 1990. I’ve been particularly interested in seeking connections between violence and other dimensions of historical experience. My first book (Drafting the Russian Nation) explored connections between political ideologies and violence, Imperial Apocalypse is in part a social history of violence, and my current project is examining the connection between literary cultures, professional communities, and the violence of the Cold War.


I wrote...

Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire

By Joshua A. Sanborn,

Book cover of Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire

What is my book about?

Imperial Apocalypse describes the collapse of the Russian Empire during World War One. Drawing material from nine different archives and hundreds of published sources, this study ties together state failure, military violence, and decolonization in a single story. I examine the individual lives of soldiers, doctors, nurses, politicians, and civilians caught up in the global conflict along the way, creating a narrative that focuses both on actual people and on large historical processes.

The Hamlet Fire

By Bryant Simon,

Book cover of The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives

Though this book is not a study of movement organizing, it shows just how necessary the task of political and economic empowerment remains, if people are to escape cycles of low wages, dangerous work, persistent racism, and public neglect. This book inspired me, and even more so my students, for the connections it uncovered in a declining North Carolina railroad town: a growing, fiercely competitive, and radically unsafe poultry processing industry; persistent neighborhood segregation and racial disrespect, despite the widespread integration of Blacks and women into workplaces; the exclusion of Blacks and poor whites from local political power; the growth of mother-only and time-pressed poor families increasingly reliant on low wages and cheap food to get by. These are only a few of the topics Simon compressed into his lucid and readable portrait of the tragedy of chicken and the unfinished business of our time.


Who am I?

Growing up middle-class, white, progressive, and repeatedly exposed to the mediated crises and movements of the Sixties left me with a lifelong challenge of making sense of the American dilemma. My road was long and winding–a year in Barcelona as Spain struggled to emerge from autocracy; years organizing for the nuclear freeze and against apartheid; study under academics puzzling through the possibilities of nonviolent and democratic politics. My efforts culminated in the publication of a volume that won the Organization of American Historians Liberty Legacy Award, for the “best book by a historian on the civil rights struggle from the beginnings of the nation to the present.”


I wrote...

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice

By Thomas F. Jackson,

Book cover of From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice

What is my book about?

When I joined the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University in the 1980s, I knew that most Americans remained ignorant of King’s sharp challenges to the Vietnam War, to urban racial segregation, and to the halfhearted federal War on Poverty. What escaped me was how much King's nonviolent opposition to racism, militarism, and economic injustice had deep historic and communal roots, in the struggles of Atlanta’s Black community with the Great Depression and his extended encounter with the Christian Social Gospel. I learned that the southern civil rights movement was also a movement for economic and political empowerment. We can learn much from his understanding of America’s unfulfilled dreams for "a radical redistribution of political and economic power" in American cities, the nation, and the world.

In the Name of Terrorism

By Carol K. Winkler,

Book cover of In the Name of Terrorism: Presidents on Political Violence in the Post-World War II Era

While not a book about the Middle East per se, Winkler’s In the Name of Terrorism traces the rise of terrorism as a concern in U.S. politics and charts the narratives, frames, metaphors, and rhetoric used by presidents to make sense of terrorism to the American people. Focusing specifically on the evolution of “terrorism” as a concept in the leadup to the 9/11 attacks, this book provides vital background for those who wish to understand, as George W. Bush put it, why “they” hate “us.” A wide-ranging volume that effectively bridges the Cold War and the War on Terror, readers will better appreciate the importance of the president’s language choices after finishing this captivating book.


Who am I?

I'm a Communication professor at Fresno Pacific University and former Fulbright grantee to Jordan. Growing up in west Texas I was always fascinated with other countries. I encountered Arabic in college, and I quickly fell in love with a language and society that reminded me so much of my home—in fact, the word “haboob” is used by Texas farmers and Bedouin herders alike to describe a violent dust storm. While I was teaching English in Amman, I realized how much I enjoy learning how different cultures come to understand one another. My driving passion is to explore the centuries-long rhetorical history tying Americans and Middle Easterners together in mutual webs of (mis)representation, and this topic has never been more relevant than today.


I wrote...

More Than a Doctrine: The Eisenhower Era in the Middle East

By Randall Fowler,

Book cover of More Than a Doctrine: The Eisenhower Era in the Middle East

What is my book about?

Nowadays, the Middle East can seem a quite complicated place. Between ISIS and Iran, Arabs and Israelis, Kurds and Turks, Yazidis and Druze, not to mention oil, Islam, terrorism, Judaism, and Christianity, the issues and conflicts that divide the region often appear bewildering to the average American—much less the ever-changing question of what U.S. foreign policy should be in the region.

My book cuts through those issues to directly explain the origins of American intervention in the Middle East during the Cold War. I use the lens of presidential rhetoric to trace the arguments, fears, and actions that drove U.S. policymakers to get involved in this important region in the first place. I show that many of the anxieties commentators currently voice about the Arab Muslim world are rather similar to the worries felt by Eisenhower and his team. My book demonstrates how major events like the Suez Crisis, Eisenhower Doctrine, coup in Iran, and the 1958 marine landing in Lebanon are still quite relevant to us today. 

Or, view all 39 books about public policy

New book lists related to public policy

All book lists related to public policy

Bookshelves related to public policy