Quite frequently, I get people who ask me for recommended reading lists or a list of books they can read to be better informed about stuff going on in the world. After a number of friends from my study abroad program asked me to make a reading list for them so they could be more on top of politics and other news, I started thinking. While I do read a lot of nonfiction, the books I’ve read aren’t the only source of my knowledge about stuff. I spend at least as much time reading articles online, following people on Twitter and doing other things to stay informed. So rather than make a book list, I made this: Rachel’s Official Guide to Learning More About Shit Going on in the World. It’s a booklist with article links, recommendations for people to follow and stuff like that, vaguely grouped by topic, but generally sort of free form. It’s based on my personal experience and is thus completely subjective, noncomprehensive and biased. Hopefully this is helpful to everyone who wants to understand where my brain picks up the information it does. Comments, questions, criticisms and additions are highly appreciated/encouraged. I will also make additions as I encounter and remember more cool stuff. (Disclaimer: I am pretty damn far left of center, a fact which I make no apologies for, but which certainly informs my news sources and the things I choose to read. I think being better-informed is a nonpartisan activity, but my Twitter feed also doesn’t contain a single political commentator who self-identifies as conservative except the National Review Online. Just sayin’.)
a general note about finding cool stuff to read online
I get my online news primarily four ways:
1) Twitter. I follow a group of magazines, newspapers, journalists, bloggers, people who are paid to think, etc. My timeline thus usually somewhat reflects what’s going on in the world of lefty politics, environmental news and the like, without me having to individually check the websites of everyone cool who I try to pay attention to.
Some people I would highly recommend for having a well-rounded feed:
(a magazine covering a variety of topics, generally into highlighting cool stuff people are doing)
(author of The Shock Doctrine, commentator on various issues)
(they open governments, apparently)
. If you’re unaware, reddit is a social news site grouped by topic. Basically, users can subscribe to different sub-reddits focusing on different subjects, which can be general (politics, environment) or very specific (Occupy Wall Street, guerrilla gardening). Users submit links to different sub-reddits, which are then voted up or down by other users. So the front page of any given reddit displays links that are the most well-liked by the community as a whole. And your personal front page displays the same for all the sub-reddits you subscribe to. It’s a pretty cool way of finding weird articles you otherwise might not about stuff you’re interested in. Plus, you can comment on links and generate discussions with other interested people.
. These two sites collect submissions of longform journalism–generally articles that take at least 10 or so minutes to read. They both post a few new articles each day. Longform has articles organized by topic, so if you want to learn a lot about a particular country or issue, it can be a great source. Longreads lets you search all their articles for keywords of interest. Both sites will also post content that’s timely, such as collections of articles about Steve Jobs right after he died. In general, they’re best for going deep into interesting or random things, or for people who just appreciate good writing, and less good for keeping up on current events.
4) The New York Times
. While somewhat vanilla, it’s a damn good all-around general news source. If you’re not a subscriber, you can get access to something like 20 articles online per month free. Articles you click on links to (for example, via Twitter, Facebook, or email) don’t count against this limit. Another good daily general news sources is the BBC
. Also The Economist
One other thing: more than being about following the right people on Twitter or reading the best articles out there, being well-informed is mostly a choice. You have to decide that you’re going to dedicate a certain amount of time every day, whether it’s ten minutes or three hours, to figuring out what’s going on in the world. By all means, go for what you’re interested in. I follow reproductive healthcare issues very closely, because it’s something I care deeply about. I didn’t pay as much attention to the Arab Spring as I probably should have, because it just didn’t grab me. There are far too many things going on in the world for you to ever know all of them. Don’t let it stop you from getting started.
Now then, here are some specific topics I care about with books and articles that I think are especially helpful for understanding them.
food and food politics
The Omnivore’s Dilemma—Michael Pollan
The classic explaining what’s wrong with our industrial food system, especially industrial meat and corn, and how we might go about fixing it. Not a great analysis of some key food justice issues, like food deserts and access to healthy options, but a great introduction to what’s out there.
Fast Food Nation—Eric Schlosser
I actually like this a lot better than Omnivore’s Dilemma. It explores the history of fast food and looks at industrial potato farming, flavor additives, slaughterhouses and a whole bunch of other related issues. My favorite part is the fact that he looks at industrial meat production from a labor standpoint, not just from a this-is-gross-and-unethical perspective.
Animal Factory—David Kirby
For people interested in factory farms, this book is a nice break from the usual literature focused on animal torture and gross health violations. It focuses on the efforts of local activists in rural areas (all self-identified Republicans) to stop factory farms near their homes because of human health and odor concerns. It’s a refreshingly personal and unique perspective.
Stuffed and Starved—Raj Patel
This is an awesome book about global food politics. It’s a bit academic in tone, and has been criticized for being one-sided with regard to the causes of poverty in developing countries. But I think it has a ton of interesting perspectives about government food policy, genetically modified crops and a bunch of other important topics.
Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit—Barry Estabrook
The title of this book is somewhat misleading, because the majority of it is actually about the slave labor used to grow most Florida tomatoes and the way undocumented immigrants are exploited for cheap fruit (which, in my opinion, is even more interesting). Though it also talks about tomato genes, organic producers and a few other things. But anyway, it’s an awesome book, whether you’re into good food, social justice, immigrant rights, or whatever.
Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement—Janet Poppendieck
This is an awesomely thought-provoking book. The author essentially argues that food banks and other food giveaway things have done more harm than good in addressing food insecurity in the US. She discusses how American values, such as not wasting food, inform the kinds of actions being taken to address hunger, and how the concept of “poverty” has been almost completely redefined as an issue of “hunger”.
Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda—Carolyn de la Pena
A great cultural history of artificial sweeteners, including where they came from, how they were marketed, how gender and a desire for “control” played into their popularity and how efforts to regulate or control them have been resisted.
My own blog post
from this summer: what I learned about food justice and food “choice” during two years behind a checkstand.
3) blogs and sites for news
In general, there are a few great journalists who have covered the collapse very well from different angles.
at Rolling Stone has some great articles explaining how we got here and ranting about the moral bankruptcy of Wall Street. He’s also written a few books about the crash, most recently Giftopia, which would be good for further reading. Among his articles, these are my favorites:
-Is the Securities and Exchange Comission (SEC) covering up Wall Street crimes
Michael Lewis of Vanity Fair has also written extensively about the collapse, focusing more on the Euro Zone. His article on Greece, “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds“, is a great explanation of the state of Greece’s economy. He’s also covered Ireland and what all these failing Euro countries will mean for Germany. He’s written several books as well–The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, which explores the housing market/derivative crisis through the eyes of people who saw it coming; and Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, which looks at the economies that have been collapsing around the world.
Bethany McLean, also with Vanity Fair, has covered investment baking for a while (she was one of the journalists who broke the Enron story). She has an excellent article exploring the disconnect between how we see Goldman Sachs and how the company sees itself, post-crash, and another piece on the history of Merril Lynch and how its corporate culture contributed to the mortgage crisis.
A German paper, Spiegel, did an excellent, if somewhat dry, series explaining the collapse of the Euro Zone very clearly. (Parts one, two and three.)
Mother Jones, my favorite magazine ever, has a timelinefrom 2008 tracing the history of the housing/financial crisis.
Reefer Madness—Eric Schlosser
By the Fast Food Nation guy, this book explores the underground economy in the US by looking at three markets: marijuana, porn, and illegal immigrant labor. It’s a fascinating history of drug wars, obscenity laws and a bunch of other random things.
One of my favorite books ever. It explores what the meth epidemic has done to small-town America, which means that in addition to being about drugs, it talks about the crippling effects that job loss and industrial agriculture have had in rural areas.
Nickle and Dimed—Barbara Ehrenreich
A classic from the mid-90s. The author goes “undercover” and works a variety of minimum-wage jobs to see how hard it is to survive. Not the most eye-opening today if you pay attention to the real world, but it puts a face on problems that can seem abstract.
The Working Poor—David Shipley
Kind of a more modern updated of Nickle and Dimed, the authors goes around and interviews a bunch of working poor people. It’s a nicely balanced book—the fact that some of the individuals he profiles have made bad choices or have problems like drug addiction isn’t glossed over, but Shipley also looks at structural factors that have kept working people in poverty.
The single best summary
I’ve ever read of Ayn Rand’s crazy libertarian/”Objectivist” philosophy, why the right is infatuated with it, and why it’s completely wrong.
Cadillac Desert—Marc Reisner
A classic looking at the history of dam building in the US, mostly the American West. It examines the politics that led to so many stupid dams getting approved and some of the financial and environmental ramifications.
Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming and the Future of Water in the West—James Powell
A more updated book about Western water politics, looking at the future of the Colorado River Basin as global warming starts diminishing water supplies.
Chasing Molecules—Elizabeth Grossman
An environmental chemistry exploration of biologically pervasive molecules (like flame retardants and dioxins) and the health effects they’re having on people. Informative and easy to read.
Endgame (Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization and Volume 2: Resistance)—Derrick Jensen
This is by one of my favorite authors, the anti-civilization activist Derrick Jensen. He’s very radical, and I disagree with him on several key things, but his writing does a beautiful job of tying together seemingly disparate problems like pollution, sweatshop labor, the prison-industrial complex and rape. Other good books of his to check out are A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe and Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos.
If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front
An awesome documentary about ELF which raises great questions about what kinds of activism are effective, what should be considered terrorism, etc. Available on Netflix Instant as well.
FLOW: For Love of Water
A documentary looking at corporate privatization of the world’s water supplies. Also on Netflix Instant.
The Devil’s Highway—Luis Alberto Urrea
The story of the Yuma 14, a group of 26 Mexican migrants whose story started with a journey across the Arizona desert and ended with fourteen of them being flown home in bodybags. A great examination of the way US border policies contribute to deaths in the desert, beautifully written.
Amexica: War Along the Borderline—Ed Vulliamy
The most comprehensive border book I’ve ever read, tying together the drug trade, illegal immigration, the rise of maquilas, the effects of free trade agreements, the murders and violence in Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere, poverty and everything else you can think of. He’s also written an article for The Nation, As Juarez Falls.
Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields—Charles Bowden
Bowden has covered the border for at least 20 years, and his latest book looks at the violence in Ciudad Juarez as a phenomenon that has gone beyond a simple explanation, like drug wars. He argues that Juarez has reached a tipping point where violence is part of the social order and that the breakdown of Juarez tells us a lot about the future of global capitalism.
The New York Times Magazine looks at the relationship between the border cities of Ciudad Juarez, the murder capital of the world, and El Paso, Texas, one of the safest cities in the US.
Business Week examines the labor market in the US in the wake of Alabama’s strict immigration laws. Turns out a lot of Americans don’t want to do the jobs left behind.
development, aid, international relations, global issues
The Shock Doctrine—Naomi Klein
If you want to read one book to learn as much as possible about the world, read this one. It’s a history of the way neoliberal economic theory (privatization, deregulation, etc.) has been applied all over the world by the US, the IMF and the World Bank, for the benefit of private corporations and wealthy/powerful individuals, usually with disastrous consequences for the people actually living in these countries. Even if you believe that neoliberal policies have benefited these countries in the long run, it sheds light on the complete lack of democratic process which often accompanies Chicago School economic policy.
Half the Sky—Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
A look at the ways women are oppressed around the world, from sex slavery to maternal mortality, which highlights NGOs and initiatives that are making a difference. Focuses more on local, grassroots groups than on big NGOs like CARE and Heifer International, which I like (though those guys are in there too).
An awesome interview with Michael Maren, a former Peace Corps volunteer and aid worker, analyzing why aid has been completely useless for developing countries. (Another book, The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly, also argues this thesis. I haven’t read it personally, but it’s supposed to be pretty good.)
GQ has an awesome three-part series on the international sex trade. Part one is about sex clubs in the Philippines, part two is about sex trafficking and part three looks at sex tourism in Costa Rica.
My hometown paper, the Seattle Stranger, has a series investigating why cocaine showing up in Seattle was being cut with levamisole, a cattle deworming drug that can kill you. On the way, the author uncovers a bunch of interesting information about the global cocaine trade. Part one looks at the levamisole-tainted cocaine in Seattle, part two investigates the global trade and part three looks at the death toll from the last 100 years of US drug policy and argues for legalization as the best solution.
Although I often take issue with his conclusions, Malcolm Gladwell’s essay Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted is a great look at the limits of social media inspired activism.
Generation Why? One of the best essays I’ve ever read. It’s a review of The Social Network, a critique of Facebook and a plea for our generation to do something better without being condescending.
How Google Dominates Us: a much-needed synthesis of the most recent books about Google exploring privacy, their search algorithms, and the ubiquity of Google in our lives
Wired on Amazon’s increasing domination of the Internet.
A profile of Sheryl Sandberg, the Google VP who left to become the Chief Operating Officer for Facebook. Also one of the few women in Silicon Valley.
The Great Tech War of 2012: Apple vs. Amazon vs. Facebook vs. Google.
I read way too much about the future of journalism on the internet, but this Columbia Journalism Review piece is one of my favorites. It calls into question many of the agreed-upon solutions for the future of news, like that news organizations will become less prominent and we’ll see more “citizen journalism”. It argues that specialized knowledge and expertise is still important for news to serve its watchdog function.
feminism, gender, sex, LGBTQ
Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape—edited by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It goes way beyond rape to look at the ways society constructs female sexuality, issues of consent, and how we can go about building a better model of sexuality that will help everyone have more fulfilling sex lives and relationships.
The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science—Julie des Jardins
Using Marie Curie as a starting point, the author looks at the role women have played in scientific discoveries, and the ways narratives of women in science are constructed to fit in with society’s standards for “acceptable” roles for women.
Dan Savage, America’s sex columnist, on the virtues of nonmonogamy for saving marriages.
Teaching Good Sex: a novel sex ed class at a high school in Pennsylvania.
A good overview of feminism and its history from Bitch magazine.
Savior vs. Savior: Looking at the murder of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider by Scott Roeder, an anti-abortion activist.
Schrodinger’s Rapist: A Guy’s Guide to Approaching Strange Women Without Getting Maced
Queering Ecology: Orion Magazine looks at queer behavior in the animal kingdom
Feministing: general feminist news and commentary
Feministe: general feminist news and commentary
Savage Love, Dan Savage’s sex advice column, which is awesome
Microagressions, a Tumblr which looks at people’s daily experiences with sexism, racism, etc.