An Incomplete Reading List for an American Citizen


While I and many people I know, in recent literature and in real life, still refer to the presidential election of 2016 as The Election™, the campaign of primaries and the general over the last year or so is shaping up to be equally as memorable. And if The Election is the one that changed the trajectory of my adulthood by pushing me to be more immersed in the political world I should have been paying attention to already for (at least) the previous eight years, This Election has been the one that fully cemented my goal to continue striving for personal, long-term civic engagement.


I’m sure that’ll look different over time, as during the first election that exists on the other side of the pandemic, I’d hope to spend more time canvassing on-foot. For now, it meant writing postcards to potential voters, watching the debates, pushing friends and family to make voting plans, and more broadly, catching up on quite a few things I didn’t know. (Note: is it just me or did you also learn about America’s Revolutionary War over and over, the name Archduke Franz Ferdinand is branded in your memory even if you’re not sure why, but everything that came before/after/in-between is pretty hazy?)


Now, I buy memoirs and essay collections like some people breathe so I had plenty of relevant titles already waiting for me on my shelves and within the Libro.fm app on my phone. I could embark on a reading journey to re-learn much of what was, in school, likely steralized or totally glossed over due to time constraints. I could be my own teacher now. I could take advantage of the diverse range of voices passionately writing about the issues that most interest me. I could, I would, be better.



What I’ve read so far



What You Need to Know About Voting and Why by Kim Wehle– a great place to start, this brief book has a plethora of charts that will give you the answers to frequently asked questions and will give you the vocabulary you need to dive a little deeper.


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The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Barack Obama– Obama ran his first election on hope and returning to his words here was a salve to my aching heart (also perhaps a good time for a reread before his new memoir comes out in November).


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Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America by Cass R. Sunstein– a play on the title of the novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, this anthology works toward answering the question many of us were thinking when we found out that Trump had won The Election™, as we wondered, like Lewis did in his book, how or if our democracy would survive his presidency.


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Facism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright– written by a former United States Secretary of State, this was a wonderful perspective to have access to.


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What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson– the title really says it all. All of Dyson’s books could be on this list.


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The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism by Steve Kornacki– Though I lived through the 90s I was far too young to have been following the policy and scandals of the decade so I geeked out hard over this book. It was a kind of wakeup call for me to know for sure that the division we see today is nothing new.


Buy it in our Bookshop - US.



Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women by Rebecca Traister– while not The Election™, Traister wrote here about the 2008 election and all of the women working toward shattering the highest glass ceiling.


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Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean– this provided a good opportunity to learn a little about how libertarianism came about (even as it disgusted me) and more of the catalysts that propelled Republicans farther right.


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Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics by Lawrence O’Donnell– reading more like a novel (great context for The Nix actually, which should be an honorable mention for this list), this trip back in time was quite a ride.


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The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson– this hulking, wondrous work that paints the life stories of three Black Americans who uprooted their lives in the mid-20th century by leaving the Jim Crow south for big cities in the north and west.


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Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein– written as a bridge between the preset chaos and some of the events that likely got us here, I so appreciated Klein’s use of statistics to emphasize just how stark party lines has become.


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What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism by Dan Rather– a lifelong journalist, Rather is such an eloquent, composed individual who has, for decades, been at the heart of politics in America. His book is bursting with memorable content and warm reminders that patriotism isn’t dead at the hand of nationalism, that we can still come back from the division we’re currently living with.


Buy it in our Bookshop - US & UK.



The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior– I really liked Kendzior’s attitude, outlook, and honest writing style here. Her essays, originally published individually between 2013-2014, all respond to events happening then, which are all still making waves today. The issues of racism and income inequality especially remain especially prevalent.


Buy it in our Bookshop - US.



Nothing is Wrong and Here is Why by Alexandra Petri– a collection of short, satirical pieces in response to real events under the Trump administration. She does NOT hold back.


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Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen– born in Russia, Gessen fled in 1981, returned to post-USSR a decade later, only to be forced out again in 2013 by prominent politicians there. They bring a unique perspective to reporting on American democracy as it morphs into something more reminiscent of their homeland. This book is an expansion on the essay Gessen published just after The Election™ titled “Autocracy: Rules for Survival”.


Buy it in our Bookshop - US & UK.



Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami– part memoir and full of passion, this is a must-read for any naturalized or undocumented Americans who’ve ever questioned their identity.


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Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen– the author made a great point about how even though some towns or states are vehemently working against the LGBTQ+ communities with them (like Indiana, under Mike Pence), it is still where they call home and they’d like to feel safe and flourish regardless of the narrow-minded people in charge of some local governments.


Buy it in our Bookshop - US & UK.



Say It Louder!: Black Voters, Voices and the Shaping of American Politics by Tiffany Cross– another necessary read for the antiracist reading list you may have been adding to all year, this book is so smart and insightful, digging into the intersection of media, politics, and race, it rips open several uncomfortable truths.


Buy it in our Bookshop - US.



War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence by Ronan Farrow– simply a wonderfully constructed account of America and where it’s going because of how it has treated the other nations of the world thus far in the 21st century, all from Farrow, himself a former diplomat.


Buy it in our Bookshop - US & UK.




How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon– this is another one full of painful truths, like racism in policing to name one, which we must keep our eyes open to. Laymon is one of my favorite writers, and while I also loved his most recent memoir, Heavy, these essays were my first experience with his powerful writing.


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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarcerations in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander– The tenth anniversary edition has a fabulous, scary preface detailing the changes and lack there of that the US has seen (or not) in intervening years. It’s not just the jarring statistics that outline the myriad ways that the federal system is unjust, regarding prison quotas and glaring prejudice in policing, but also the accounts included that point to how little has changed legally or within society itself since reconstruction.


Buy it in our Bookshop - US & UK.



Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America by Maria Hinojosa– a personal story that so pointedly exposes how poorly the US handles and has handled immigration… it’s exemplary.


Buy it in our Bookshop - US.





Extra credit, topical young adult novels:




  • Running by Natalia Sylvester– from the POV of a teenage Cuban-American girl whose father is running for President on the Republican ticket, and who’s tired of being told to get in line with his beliefs. Buy it in our Bookshop - US & UK.




  • The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert– two teens with very different attitudes about voting, for the first time, become fast friends as Marva dedicates her entire Election Day to make sure that Duke gets to cast his ballot. Buy it in our Bookshop - US & UK.




  • Most Likely by Sarah Watson– focuses on a group of four best friends, one of which will be the first Madam President in 2049. Buy it in our Bookshop - US & UK.




  • Internment by Samira Ahmed– this book is the answer to the hypothetical question: what if we reach a point in America where we deem the American Muslim population enough of a threat? Much like in WWII, the solution is of course to ship them to internment camps. The story broke me. Buy it in our Bookshop - US & UK.




  • Dear Martin by Nic Stone– so sad and moving, simple and sharp, this a must-read on how racism is affecting all aspects of young lives–and ending far too many too soon. Buy it in our Bookshop - US & UK.




Nonfiction I’ll be reading next:




And because young adult novels have a lot to teach us, I’ll read these too:




For anyone who ever tells you that reading is only an escape, politely remind them that reading may also be the most subversive act you take in the face of tyranny, injustice, and hatred. One book, or dozens, can build community in shared knowledge, can peel away shrouds of lies, and can show you what empathy is and why we need more of it. Why not use the books you read to strengthen your own voice? In turn you can galvanize others, inspire widespread change… you’re what we need right now. More readers, thinkers, as citizens who know our history and have an idea of where to steer our future.