Some lessor known progressive books we should all be reading

This is a post about books. It is both easy and a mistake to forget about them in the digitized delirium of our internet world. First I want to tip my hat to the books that rile us up, get us to consider circumstances we need to understand and (if possible) change.

I’m thinking about books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim CrowAl Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? Elizabeth Warren’s A Fighting Chanceand many similar books that rally us to a cause, a movement, a candidate, a political stance. These books challenge us to pay attention to the facts, understand the situation, make decisions and take action. Or at least be better informed when policy choices are presented to us.

I’m not writing about those books. Instead, I want to commend you to some books that have helped me in my campaign to (a) know myself, (b) look carefully and compassionately at my fellow citizens and (c) appreciate the common ground on which we stand. These are books to rediscover and reread, or if you haven’t read, spend some refreshing time with them. How do they contribute to a “progressive” perspective on our world? They help me remember that human progress is halting, incremental, not always responsive to the application of policy or even common sense. We are, after all, just people.

I go back sometimes to read Wendell Berry. I admire his activism and his unwavering commitment to human improvement. His 1990 book What Are People For? is a collection of short pieces that capture his agrarian ethos, his impatience with “modern” living and his faith in our capacity to make things right.

progressive books, The Ordeal of ChangeDoes anybody remember The Ordeal of Change? Eric Hoffer said he thought it was his best book (and he wrote several). It’s a compact 120 pages of insight and understanding about why we are drawn to change and why we fear it at the same time. Really useful thinking from a longshoreman, migrant worker and college professor.

Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership got me to thinking about the uses and abuses of power in places where I worked and lived. It was probably this book that got me trying to wrap my mind around the concept of organic leadership vs. the kind that is imposed or ordained.

I don’t know how to explain why John McPhee is on this list. He’s a prolific writer, a wonderful journalist and an explorer of the human experience as seen through a very particular lens. I always learn stuff when I read McPhee. I always wind up thinking about things I didn’t know I wanted to think about. Freight transportation, for example: read his Uncommon Carriers and be introduced to worlds we know not of, but probably should.

The same gateway experience happened for me in Brian Payton’s Shadow of the Bear. The Vancouver-based writer roamed the world to find the remaining species of bear. In the process he raised essential questions about our own species, our survival and our inconsistent stewardship of wilderness.

I’ve also gone to Temple Grandin’s Animals Make Us Human to think about these questions of species and human behavior and what we share with animals. In the book she said something about novelty – it works best if animals can explore it, it works poorly if it’s shoved in our faces.

I like reading memoir and personal narrative. Not biography (“he was born in a log cabin. . .”) and not even autobiography (“this is the story of my life. . .”). Memoir is more selective, more specific, more revealing of the emotional truths that connect us as people.

The first one I want to mention is an odd one: John Barleycorn, by Jack London. If ever I need reminding that we humans often carry conflicting and contradictory impulses, this is the book. It’s London’s “alcohol memoirs” in which he encounters the saloon, the power of whiskey and the demons that are unleashed. He wrote relentlessly and successfully, pushed for workers’ rights and unionization and drank himself into fogs.

A few years ago I read Townie by Andre Dubus III. It’s a vivid account of a life headed in the wrong direction, pulled out of a tailspin by writing. Like I said, progress is halting and we are just people. Dubus (he went on to write House of Sand and Fog) brawled, drank and learned to like the feeling of hitting people, hurting people. His father, a talented writer and teacher, might have seemed like a rebuke but came to be a kind of model.

I have more but this is a good selection to recommend. It occurs to me that these are not books with answers so much as books with questions – about humans, about our world, about our capacities and incapacities. Good things to think about as we work for a better society.

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