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:
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.
-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.
Mother Jones, my favorite magazine ever, has a timelinefrom 2008 tracing the history of the housing/financial crisis.
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.
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.
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.