In a year marked by disruption and uncertainty, this holiday season is the perfect time to read and reflect. We’ve selected a list of seven titles – from nature to biographies, from history to current events and re-imagining capitalism itself – these works are original, enjoyable, and provocative.
1. Becoming Wild by Carl Safina
What it’s about: Safina, the ecologist and author of many books about animal behavior, delves into the world of chimpanzees, sperm whales and macaws to make a convincing argument that animals learn from one another and pass down culture in a way that will feel very familiar to us.
An excerpt: “Change is the only constant, true enough. Change that comes too rapidly, however, brings the end of adaptation, the end of the line. That is the message whispered to us by many extinct species who’d thrived but could not cope with change that hit too fast, bit too hard.
2. The Man Who Ran Washington – The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser
What it’s about: This fascinating biography of the former secretary of state and consummate insider, who was once called “the most important unelected official since World War II,” reveals both Baker’s accomplishments and the compromises he had to make.
An excerpt: “Washington loves the ones who grease its gears. But history only remembers the ones who shift them,” the late Washington Post writer Marjorie Williams wrote of Baker. The man she profiled in the Post’s Style section upon his ascension to secretary of state in January 1989 was confident in this stature in the imperial capital at its twilight-of-the-Cold-War apogee, yet insecure enough to wake up each morning ready for battle to prove it. He represented the city’s ideal of itself, a relentless but nonetheless patrician competitor willing to drink a Scotch with his rivals after hours, an Ivy League country-clubber equally at home in tennis whites or toting a shotgun to a duck blind in predawn Texas.”
3. The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz byErik Larson
What it’s about: Larson’s account of Winston Churchill’s leadership during the 12 turbulent months from May 1940 to May 1941, when Britain stood alone and on the brink of defeat, is fresh, fast and deeply moving.
An excerpt: “Late that night Churchill lay in bed, alive with a thrilling sense of challenge and opportunity. ‘In my long political experience,’ he wrote, ‘I had held most of the great offices of State, but I readily admit that the post which had now fallen to me was the one I like the best.’ Coveting power for power’s sake was a ‘base’ pursuit, he wrote, adding, ‘But power in a national crisis, when a man believes he knows what orders should be given, is a blessing.’ He felt great relief. ‘At least I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial…Although impatient for the morning I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.’
4. Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Rebecca Henderson
What it’s about: With the world both literally and metaphorically on fire right now, just about everyone is desperate to figure out how to save the situation, including capitalists. They might want to pick up this book by renowned Harvard professor Rebecca Henderson, which attempts to outline how making a profit can be reconciled with a healthier society and a healthier earth.
An excerpt: “I am convinced that we have a secret weapon. I spent twenty years of my life working with firms that were trying to transform themselves. I learned that having the right strategy was important, and that redesigning the organization was also critical. But mostly I learned that these were necessary but not sufficient conditions. The firms that mastered change were those that had a reason to do so: the ones that had a purpose greater than simply maximizing profits. People who believe that their work has a meaning beyond themselves can accomplish amazing things, and we have the opportunity to mobilize shared purpose at a global scale.”
5. The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
What it’s about: Cornejo Villavicencio was one of the first undocumented students to be accepted into Harvard University. In her captivating and evocative first book, she tells “the full story” of what that means — relying not just on her own experience but on interviews with immigrants across the country.
An excerpt: “This book is not a traditional nonfiction book. Names of persons have all been changed. Names of places have all been changed. Physical descriptions have all been changed. Or have they? I took notes by hand during interviews; after the legal review, I destroyed the notes. I chose not to use a recorder because I did not want to intimidate my subjects. Children of immigrants whose parents do not speak English learn how to interpret very young, and I honored that rite of passage and skill by translating the interviews on the spot. I approached translating the way a literary translator would approach translating a poem, not the way someone would approach translating a business letter. I hate the way journalists translate the words of Spanish speakers in their stories. They transliterate, and make us sound dumb, like we all have a first-grade vocabulary.”
6. The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War by Michael Gorra
What it’s about: Gorra’s complex and thought-provoking meditation on Faulkner is rich in insight, making the case for the novelist’s literary achievement and his historical value — as an unparalleled chronicler of slavery’s aftermath, and its damage to America’s psyche.
An excerpt: “Faulkner’s South seems as if it can’t forget anything. It accepts reunion only insofar as it can recall itself as a place apart, and yet that memory, paradoxically, is also a form of forgetting. For in the first decades after the war the white South remembered its defeat above all; it saw itself as the victim of a rapacious conqueror, forgot its own acts of aggression and indeed atrocity, and thought of slavery only as something now lost. And the white North had its own ways of forgetting too….”
7. A Promised Land by Barack Obama
What it’s about: The former president’s memoir — the first of two volumes — is a pleasure to read, the prose gorgeous, the detail granular and vivid. From Southeast Asia to a forgotten school in South Carolina, he evokes the sense of place with a light but sure hand. His focus is more political than personal, but when he does write about his family it is with a beauty close to nostalgia.
An excerpt: “What I can say for certain is that I’m not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America – not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all of humankind. For I’m convinced that the pandemic we’re currently living through is both a manifestation of and a mere interruption in the relentless march toward an interconnected world, one in which people and culture can’t help but collide. In that world – of global supply chains, instantaneous capital transfers, social media, transnational terrorist networks, climate change, mass migration, and ever-increasing complexity – we will learn to live together, cooperate with one another, and recognize the dignity of others, or we will perish. And so the world watches America – the only great power in history made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race and faith and cultural practice – to see if our experiment in democracy can work. To see if we can do what no other nation has ever done. To see if we can actually live up to the meaning of our creed.”
Question: What books are on your Christmas wish list this year?