Summer reading

A large email list I’m on recently started a discussion about summer reading. It always seems like there’s a little more time to sink your teeth into a good book or two (or twenty) during the summer months, and the contributors debated the merits of Faulkner versus Roth, Phillippa Gregory versus Antonia Fraser, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez versus William Styron, and others. Needless to say, it’s a pretty nerdy list.

Besieged by fictionophiles, I threw out a few nonfiction favorites, and I thought it might be worthwhile to share a few here, and I’d love to hear your recommendations (from any genre) in the comments. I read a lot of policy books, but whenever I’m interested in a topic, I always start with something relatively light to ease my way in. So these aren’t like textbooks or anything, but rather something like beneficial gateway drugs for their respective subjects.

My favorite of all may just be The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. An astonishing, interesting, and funny look up and down the food chain, and one that will change the way you read food labels, dig into a steak, or decide whether to buy organic. It’s not preachy, just great, and it reveals the awful corporate structures and incentives behind the food industry. It also inspired my personal fascination with food policy. (Bonus food book: Mindless Eating, by Brian Wansink. Omnivore’s Dilemma tells you you’re eating crap; this tells you why you eat so much of it. Here’s a hint: it’s not because you’re really that hungry. Full of fun food study stories in the course of a breezy narrative.)

Last summer I decided to learn about health care policy, and there’s no better place to start doing so than Jonathan Cohn’s Sick. A painless but highly educational read, and Cohn deftly combines the stories of real people with a discussion of the decline of American health care, including where it is (as well as where it should be) headed. (Advanced level bonus book: Understanding Health Policy by Bodenheimer and Grumbach. It’s the only textbook on the list, but really really worthwhile if you’re willing to put in the time.)

For a brilliant introduction into economics and globalization, there’s Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, by Pietra Rivoli. It’s a super easy read that literally tracks the construction of a t-shirt, from Texas cotton to Chinese factories to US consumers to used re-sale in Tanzania. (Next level: Globalization and its Discontents, by Joseph Stiglitz. A persuasive argument that globalization has not benefited as many people as it could, due to structural flaws in international financial institutions as well as limited information and imperfect competition.)

From my usual topic, foreign policy, it’s hard to find good overview books — as the market it dominated by coverage of specific issues or regions — but Anne-Marie Slaughter recently crafted a fantastic intro text, a remarkable book titled The Idea that is America. Clocking in at just over 200 pages, it’s an insightful but digestible exploration of American foreign policy goals throughout history, with a focus on the values of the modern era. (And although I certainly don’t agree with it all, Kissinger’s Does America Need a Foreign Policy?, while much more dense, is absolutely worth reading as well.)

And finally, to read to your kids after they’ve exhausted themselves playing outside are a couple of my favorites from my (much) younger years. Good Night, Mr. Tom, by Michelle Magorian, in which an adorable and terrified kid is evacuated to the English countryside to live with a gruff — but ultimately lovable! — old dude. Also, Bert Breen’s Barn, by Walter Edmonds. They don’t write ’em like this anymore (published in 1975); it’s a simple plot (kid sees barn, wants to buy it to help his family) but amazing writing, and one of relatively few “kids” or “young adult” books that doesn’t condescend to the reader.

So enjoy, and let me know what else we should be checking out in the comments!

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