The best books on social issue

3 authors have picked their favorite books about social issues and why they recommend each book.

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In Praise of Idleness

By Bertrand Russell,

Book cover of In Praise of Idleness: The Classic Essay with a New Introduction by Bradley Trevor Greive

Published in 1932, this essay hails from an era long before side hustles, smartphones and social media. And yet it still feels fresh and relevant today. Russell saw the cult of work as a form of social control – you keep people down by keeping them working. His view that more time for leisure would create a kinder, gentler society chimes with the Slow philosophy. In Praise of Idleness is a delicious paean to the art of doing things – or nothing at all – for the sheer joy of it.

Who am I?

Writer, broadcaster, speaker. I used to be stuck in fast forward, rushing through life instead of living it. I finally realised I needed to slow down when I started speed reading bedtime stories to my son: my version of Snow White had just three dwarves in it! I went on to slow down – and became, in the words of CBC Radio, “the world's leading evangelist for the Slow Movement.”

I wrote...

In Praise of Slow: Challenging the Cult of Speed

By Carl Honoré, Carl Honoré,

Book cover of In Praise of Slow: Challenging the Cult of Speed

What is my book about?

Our compulsion to hurry and the global trend towards slowing down everything from work to food to parenting. The core message: In a world addicted to speed, slowness is a superpower. In Praise of Slow is a global bestseller published in over 35 languages. The Financial Times said it is “to the Slow Movement what Das Kapital is to communism.” 

While researching In Praise of Slow, I got slapped with a speeding ticket….

The Age of Acrimony

By Jon Grinspan,

Book cover of The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915

And now to nonfiction. For anyone who savors the study of history as a prelude to the present, this is the book to read. The Gilded Age, rife with economic and technologic disruptions and the clash between the ever-richer and the always-poor, driven by industrial juggernauts and riven by raucous, violent politics—to understand the era and see the roots of many of today’s issues, this book is a must.

Who am I?

I write historical fiction based on the lives of my ancestors: Agnes Canon’s War is the story of my twice-great grandparents during the Civil War. An Irish Wife is based on their son. I write about the Gilded Age, which is only now drawing the attention of historical novelists and the wider public: the vast wealth of industrialists contrasted to the poverty of the lower classes, scandalous politics, environmental degradation, fear of and prejudices about immigrants. My ancestors lived through those days; I want to imagine how that tumultuous society affected them, how they managed, what they lost and gained, and to memorialize those stories as a way to honor them.

I wrote...

An Irish Wife

By Deborah Lincoln,

Book cover of An Irish Wife

What is my book about?

In the brilliant society of 1880s America, King Coal fuels fortunes and drives prosperity for the privileged—and destroys the dreams and the lives of the unfortunate. Harry Robinson is the hope of his family for the next generation, expected to ride Gilded-Age momentum to the American Dream. When Harry meets Niamh, an Irish Catholic wife of a miner, he begins to understand the extent of the prejudices that stalk local immigrants. As he undertakes the job of tutoring her younger brother, he finds himself falling in love for the first time. When Niamh shows up one day bloodied and bruised, Harry is determined to take her away, despite her religious scruples and the disapproval of his family. But Niamh and her brother disappear.  

We the Presidents

By Ronald Gruner,

Book cover of We the Presidents: How American Presidents Shaped the Last Century

Having spent over eight years in the White House, I was very interested to read We the Presidents: How American Presidents Shaped the Last Century. The book is exceptionally well written. Author Ronald Gruner uniquely relates the various issues and challenges faced by select presidents and then details how those issues and their outcomes impacted and influenced America. I found the book to be very well researched, and applaud Gruner for how he painted a sobering reality of Presidents, especially the seven that I had personally met. I highly recommend this book!

Who am I?

During my twenty-nine nears in the federal government, I maintained a Top Secret clearance while being a CIO, Chief Architect, & Director of various things with the White House, US Congress, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice, where I served in a senior management role for the National Security Division, the agency responsible for serving as the liaison between the Attorney General and the Intelligence Community. Today, my passion is writing about my White House experiences, in both fiction and non-fiction,

I wrote...

White House Usher: "Who Killed the President?"

By Christopher Beauregard Emery,

Book cover of White House Usher: "Who Killed the President?"

What is my book about?

White House Usher: “Who Killed the President?” is a historical fiction mystery novel that takes place in one of the more unique settings in existence: the White House executive residence, home of the First Family. Murder, romance, deceit, and a suspenseful struggle all ensue as the main character struggles to solve the case. The author uses his in-depth knowledge of White House history and the inner workings of the private residence to create a thrilling murder mystery from an insider’s perspective.

Sojourner Truth's America

By Margaret Washington,

Book cover of Sojourner Truth's America

Find a performance of Truth’s speech, “A’rn’t I a Woman,” and the actress inevitably slips into a southern accent. Margaret Washington’s book, along with Nell Irvin Painter’s Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol, will tell you that Truth actually spoke with a Dutch accent and that the more famous version of that speech was a revision by a white abolitionist woman. Truth was born and raised in New York, not the south, and she slipped through the cracks of the state’s Emancipation laws, remaining a slave well into adulthood. Her life tells a national story of slavery and shows the complicated relationships of religion, abolition, women, and class.

Who am I?

Little House on the Prairie, Roots, the Bicentennial, family vacations, and an early childhood in New Orleans all shaped my perception of the world as a place overlaying history. Although I could not have completely articulated this then, I specifically wanted to know what women before me had done, I wanted to know about parts of the story that seemed to be in the shadows of the places where I consumed history, and I wanted to know “the real story.” The intensity of recreating a person’s world and their experience in it made me question how historians know what we know, and how deeply myth, nostalgia, or even preconceptions guide readings of the evidence. The authors here all show an awareness that re-telling a person’s life can move it away from the evidence and they try to return to that evidence and find the “real story,” or as near to it as possible.

I wrote...

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

By Leigh Fought,

Book cover of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

What is my book about?

In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought illuminates the life of the famed abolitionist off the public stage. She begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave: his mother, from whom he was separated; his grandmother, who raised him; his slave mistresses, including the one who taught him how to read; and his first wife, Anna Murray, a free woman who helped him escape to freedom and managed the household that allowed him to build his career. Fought examines Douglass's varied relationships with white women-including Maria Weston Chapman, Julia Griffiths, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ottilie Assing--who were crucial to the success of his newspapers, were active in the antislavery and women's movements, and promoted his work nationally and internationally.

By examining the circle of women around Frederick Douglass, this work brings these figures into sharper focus and reveals a fuller and more complex image of the self-proclaimed "woman's rights man."

Season of the Witch

By David Talbot,

Book cover of Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love

David Talbot, another New York Times bestseller, wrote this book about the 70’s, and the dark times in San Francisco, including the story of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones. It reads like a noir mystery novel even though it’s nonfiction. His book is the best for getting the context of the times, the hopeful 60’s melding into the dark 70’s. Peoples Temple and Jim Jones were a large and tragic part of that story.

Who am I?

I taught English and creative writing for 37 years in San Francisco, California. In 2018, Ron Cabral and I published And Then They Were Gone, which tells the story of the People’s Temple teenagers we taught. Many of them never returned after the Jonestown massacre and died there. We hope this story about our young students—their hopes, their poetry, their efforts to help make a better world—will bring some light to the dark story of Jonestown.

I wrote...

And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown

By Judy Bebelaar, Ron Cabral,

Book cover of And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown

What is my book about?

Of the 918 Americans who died in the shocking murder-suicides of November 18, 1978, in the tiny South American country of Guyana, a third were under eighteen. More than half were in their twenties or younger. And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown begins in San Francisco at the small school where Reverend Jim Jones enrolled the teens of his Peoples Temple church in 1976. Within a year, most had been sent to join Jones and other congregants in what Jones promised was a tropical paradise based on egalitarian values, but which turned out to be a deadly prison camp. Set against the turbulent backdrop of the late 1970s, And Then They Were Gone draws from interviews, books, and articles. Many of these powerful stories are told here for the first time.

Progressive New World

By Marilyn Lake,

Book cover of Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform

Australia, like Canada, the United States, and New Zealand, was settled as a White Man’s land, where the inequities and corruption of the Old World would be replaced by the egalitarianism and democratic commitments of New World progressivism. But there was no place for Indigenous peoples who were deemed backward and primitive. Lake explores the links between American and Australasian reformers at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century and the way they combined racial self-confidence with a commitment to forging an ideal social order. Lake shows that race and reform were mutually supportive as Progressivism became the political logic of settler colonialism.

Who am I?

I'm a political historian who writes for my fellow citizens and I have chosen books by writers who do the same. Books which are written with passion and purpose: to shift political understanding, to speak truth to power, to help people understand their country and the world, and to inspire a commitment to improving them.

I wrote...

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting

By Judith Brett,

Book cover of From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting

What is my book about?

Australia is the only English-speaking democracy to make voting compulsory. Australians do not see this as a contradiction of democracy but its embodiment, that the government is selected not just by the majority of people who turn out but the majority eligible to vote, and turnouts are regularly above 90%. Compulsory voting is accompanied by compulsory voter registration, preferential voting, the non-partisan administration of elections and voting on Saturdays, with barbeques and cake stalls at polling stations, and election night parties that spill over into Sunday morning. The benefits are immense. Compulsory voting brings to the polls the poor and marginalised, young people and new citizens, and busy people with no axes to grind who dilute the impact of polarising zealots and moral crusaders.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible

By Peter Pomerantsev,

Book cover of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia

Not a traditional history or political-science book, the London-raised Pomerantsev provides a series of telling vignettes, culled from his ten years of working as a television executive as part of the Kremlin’s state-run media. Through these stories, he conveys how the Russian state utilizes television propaganda to convey the image of competent political leadership, while smearing the opposition. The public largely understands that they are subjected to pro-Kremlin propaganda, leading people to adhere to different public and private notions of themselves. By convincing people that everything is “spin” or “PR”—either for or against the Kremlin—the entire notion of objective, knowable truth is cast into doubt, creating a gullible cynicism that is most useful to the state.

Who am I?

I’ve lived, learned, and loved Russian politics since before the collapse of communism. My Vodka Politics book takes a deep dive into Russian history but is ultimately focussed on better understanding contemporary social, economic, and political developments in Russia, where Putin and Putinism are at the core. Having taught graduate and undergraduate courses on Russian and post-Soviet politics for the past fifteen years, I find it essential to keep up-to-date on the latest scholarship. There are many great works out there by gifted journalists, writers, and scholars, many of which illuminate perhaps only part of Russia’s personalized autocracy. The ones I’ve listed here I feel present the most well-rounded picture, from a wide variety of perspectives.

I wrote...

Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State

By Mark Lawrence Schrad,

Book cover of Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State

What is my book about?

Vodka Politics is a history of Russia through the bottom of the vodka bottle, from Ivan the Terrible through Vladimir Putin, and beyond. Rather than just a series of drunken vignettes, the book tries to better understand that persistent stereotype of the drunken Russian—an important reality that has serious ramifications for the economy, politics, and societal health and well-being. Ultimately the book argues that societal alcoholism isn’t some deeply ingrained, almost genetic predisposition; but rather the consequence of centuries of autocratic political and economic decisions that put state finances and political expediency ahead of the physical well-being of society.

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