From 2000 to the start of the pandemic we made strong progress on health and other goals. The pandemic is a huge setback.
As I was putting together my list of suggested reading for the summer, I realized that the topics they cover sound pretty heavy for vacation reading. There are books here about gender equality, political polarization, climate change, and the hard truth that life never goes the way young people think it will. It does not exactly sound like the stuff of beach reads.
But none of the five books below feel heavy (even though, at nearly 600 pages, The Lincoln Highway is literally weighty). Each of the writers—three novelists, a journalist, and a scientist—was able to take a meaty subject and make it compelling without sacrificing any complexity.
I loved all five of these books and hope you find something here you’ll enjoy too. And feel free to share some of your favorite recent reads in the comments section below.
The Power, by Naomi Alderman. I’m glad that I followed my older daughter’s recommendation and read this novel. It cleverly uses a single idea—what if all the women in the world suddenly gained the power to produce deadly electric shocks from their bodies?—to explore gender roles and gender equality. Reading The Power, I gained a stronger and more visceral sense of the abuse and injustice many women experience today. And I expanded my appreciation for the people who work on these issues in the U.S. and around the world.
Why We’re Polarized, by Ezra Klein. I’m generally optimistic about the future, but one thing that dampens my outlook a bit is the increasing polarization in America, especially when it comes to politics. In this insightful book, Klein argues persuasively that the cause of this split is identity—the human instinct to let our group identities guide our decision making. The book is fundamentally about American politics, but it’s also a fascinating look at human psychology.
The Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles. I put Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow on my summer books list back in 2019, but I liked this follow-up novel even more. Set in 1954, it’s about two brothers who are trying to drive from Nebraska to California to find their mother; their trip is thrown way off-course by a volatile teenager from the older brother’s past. Towles takes inspiration from famous hero’s journeys and seems to be saying that our personal journeys are never as linear or predictable as we might hope.
The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson. When I was promoting my book on climate change last year, a number of people told me I should read this novel, because it dramatized many of the issues I had written about. I’m glad I picked it up, because it’s terrific. It’s so complex that it’s hard to summarize, but Robinson presents a stimulating and engaging story, spanning decades and continents, packed with fascinating ideas and people.
How the World Really Works, by Vaclav Smil. Another masterpiece from one of my favorite authors. Unlike most of Vaclav’s books, which read like textbooks and go super-deep on one topic, this one is written for a general audience and gives an overview of the main areas of his expertise. If you want a brief but thorough education in numeric thinking about many of the fundamental forces that shape human life, this is the book to read. It’s a tour de force. Bonus: You can download a free chapter from How the World Really Works on the full review page.