Do Books Matter?

The best-seller list is dominated by volumes on race but there’s an important distinction between the works that are enduring and those that are just for putting on shelves.

One of my best friends, Richard Rothstein, has had a book on the New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list for almost a year. The Color of Law is an account of how government at all levels promoted racial segregation across the country. Although he’s won prizes and the book is widely read in law schools, Richard is aware that he owes his bestseller status to the Black Lives Matter movement and heightened awareness of racism. Other books on racial justice and racial history have been on the paperback and hardback bestseller list, including Caste by Isabel Wilkerson on entrenched inequality, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo on white responses to racial injustice, How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander on mass incarceration. Memoirs by Barack and Michelle Obama have also been bestsellers.

In June 2020, twelve of the fifteen books on the Times paperback bestseller list dealt with race—a leading indicator of the impact of public events.

The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and the nationwide protests led by BLM produced a sea of change, at least among book-buying white liberals— recognition that systemic racism is real and a desire to learn more about the Black experience and the reasons for racial injustice and what to do about it. It’s a positive sign that so many books about race are being read, but that doesn’t mean all books about race are equal. Some of these, like Rothstein’s The Color of Law and Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, analyze and explain deep seated aspects of American racism, and offer policies and pathways for reform. Others,  like Kendi’s or DiAngelo’s, examine the psychology of racism and focus on the individual behavior of whites. In effect, they play on white guilt and are, in my view, much less effective at addressing racial injustice. Reading them is less likely to promote meaningful political action while Rothstein and Alexander’s work has already motivated activists dealing with housing segregation and with criminal justice reform.

The book currently on the Times bestseller list that is most likely to motivate and inform activism is The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by policy expert Heather McGhee. Her book is a fact-based argument for the Big Tent political strategy adopted by the Biden-Harris administration. She shows how a multiracial political coalition can fight for policies that will provide a “solidarity dividend” for society—win-win outcomes. I admit to a bias in McGhee’s favor, since I share her politics.

Of course, books by themselves rarely bring social change. Sometimes a book such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom Paine’s Common Sense, Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring appear at an historical moment ripe for change, while books such as Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Whole Earth Catalog reflect and inform social movements—but these are exceptions. Most of the time, people read books for entertainment or self-improvement (and for required courses) but books, fiction and nonfiction, can still sometimes inform and inspire.

I have a simple belief that reading books is good for people and can influence life choices. I was raised to have a stack of books by my bed to read. One of the books that I read in high school, diplomat George F. Kennan’s Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, spurred my interest in diplomacy and led me to study Russian. Reading the novel Bridge on the Drina by Nobel Prize winning Bosnian author Ivo Andric, stimulated my interest in history and international affairs.

A former student of mine from Occidental, Trevor Fey, came to lunch recently and told me that while taking long walks during the pandemic, he’s been listening to Taylor Branch’s magisterial three volume history of the civil rights movement—Parting The Waters, Pillars of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge. Taylor’s a friend, so I was curious how a student in his late 20s had discovered these books. It turns out that when singer/activist Harry Belafonte visited campus, Trevor approached him at a reception and asked if he’d meet with the Black students group. Belafonte replied that he would, but only after they’d read Taylor Branch’s work. The pandemic finally gave Trevor the chance to follow Belafonte’s admonition.

Branch’s books describe in wonderfully human detail the progress of the modern civil rights movement. His work is inspirational—for example, the story of how activist John Lewis conquered his stutter by preaching to the chickens on his family’s farm and later risked his life by marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge—and educational—how leaders in a social protest movement interact with those in power—Martin Luther King’s complex relationships with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson—to bring about change. Taylor’s trilogy also shows how social change is messy and not linear; it proceeds in advances and retreats, informed by human frailty, making history but often not in circumstances of one’s choosing.

I first met Taylor in 1968 when he organized a conference on the US and China at the University of North Carolina and I was one of the student ‘leaders’ invited to participate. Taylor would go on to register voters in the McGovern campaign with a young Southerner, Bill Clinton, a friend we would have in common.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, in addition to being a policy advisor to Bill Clinton, I was also his book bag man. It was my job to find books on economics and history for him to read on the plane and in hotels at night. Asked by reporters what he was reading during the campaign, Clinton mentioned You Gotta Have Wa, by Tokyo-based journalist Robert Whiting about the experience of American major leaguers playing baseball in Japan. A photo of Clinton in his seat on the plane with a book by liberal economist Lester Thurow on his lap appeared in national newspapers. Did reading these books affect Clinton’s foreign or economic policies? I doubt it. Clinton was more influenced by talking with Wall Street investment banker Robert Rubin than he was from Thurow’s work, but these books reminded voters that the Governor of Arkansas was a Rhodes Scholar who valued reading.

Because Clinton and I share a love of good mysteries, I alternated non-fiction books with detective fiction set in the cities in which we were campaigning. I gave him Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley featuring a Black WWII veteran turned private investigator in LA (played by Denzel Washington in the movie version). It didn’t hurt us with Black voters that Mosley would tell reporters that he was Bill Clinton’s favorite detective author.

After Clinton was elected President, I wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times on what books should be read to prepare for being president—the list included Branch’s civil rights trilogy– but that was the end of my role as Clinton’s literary advisor. Knowing that he was a voracious reader, authors sent him books without my assistance.

When I served as US ambassador to Finland, I made good use of a program from the United States Information Agency that provided embassies with books published in the US. Rather than flowers, I regularly brought books to diplomatic dinners. Henry Kissinger’s historical work Diplomacy was a popular gift that I gave other ambassadors. I gave Finnish counterparts books about my home state—California: The Great Exception and Southern California: An Island on the Land by Carey McWilliams as well as The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin to explain America’s racial politics. When I hosted prominent guests like economist John Kenneth Galbraith or author Daniel Yergin, I would ask them to sign copies of their books that I could give to the President of Finland and other leading Finns. Book diplomacy was part of my ambassadorial toolkit.

I no longer advise politicians on what to read but in my role as a professor of diplomatic practice at Occidental, I still give LA-based diplomats books which explain the US. My favorite gift of the past year, one that recipients seem to appreciate, is Joe Biden: The Life, The Run and What Matters Now by Evan Osnos, political correspondent for The New Yorker. It’s the best single guide to the personality and politics of the President. During the Trump years, my go-to gift for diplomats was On Tyranny by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, which highlighted the dangerous spread of authoritarianism.

These days I require my students to read books for my courses. I share mysteries with family and friends, and I buy books for our 13 year old grandson Viggo and our 16 year old granddaughter Jasmine, and for the children of colleagues. My favorite books to give young readers as gifts are John Lewis’s March, a three-volume graphic novel of his life and the civil rights movement, and Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg’s No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference.

Viggo devoured the John Lewis trilogy and Jasmine read Thunberg’s book. My hope is that these books might be educational and inspirational for them and for other young readers. They get enough entertainment from their iPhones.

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Derek Shearer

Derek Shearer, former US ambassador to Finland, is the Chevalier professor of Diplomacy at Occidental College and directs the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs.