Oscar Wilde said, “It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it,” and lately that quote has been on my mind. We are living in an era where we have more access to one another than ever before, while simultaneously going through a season of seemingly endless political debate. America is more divided along political lines than any time since 1968, and everyone has an opinion about everything.
In my misadventures in social media, I come across a lot of people making shoddy arguments and sometimes just repeating outright lies as long as they support their perspective. This is a dangerous thing, because there’s no problem with arguing how to tackle an issue. There’s a problem when we can’t even agree on whether or not the issue exists.
In this reality warping realm of political and cultural discussion, it can get difficult to find your bearings. Not long ago, Kanye West blurted out that slavery was a choice for Black people in the United States. Now, you don’t have to be a historian to understand how grossly misinformed, naive, and harmful this viewpoint is. Any normal person could poke a million holes in that statement…Or so I thought. To my surprise, there were an alarming amount of people agreeing with Kanye’s feverish outburst. Something in me got a little sick when I realized that while we were tucking ourselves away in our echo chambers, we stopped reading and understanding the world we came from.
It was recently discovered that 22% of Millennials in the US either haven’t heard of, or aren’t sure if they’ve heard of the Holocaust. This is according to a study commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. That same study found that 11% of ALL US ADULTS fell into these categories. While it’s easy to be horrified by the fact that some of the greatest crimes against humanity in world history are being slowly sanitized and forgotten, we have to take measures to make sure the human story carries on and is remembered correctly.
It’s easy to spit at someone, “Look it up!” or “Read a book!” but usually that never actually comes with recommendations. That’s why I came up with a Reading List For America. Most of them are quick reads, I promise. There are only one or two massive works on this list, and all of them relate to things we really ought to know.
The Warmth of Other Suns— Isabel Wilkerson. A gorgeous narrative about the great migration of Blacks fleeing the south and getting to the rest of the country. It’s a stirring account of the consequences of America’s Original Sin, and you feel all 15 years of research that went into the book.
Team Of Rivals— Doris Kearns Goodwin. A book on cooperation and compromise that has been the guideline for Presidents, CEOs, and countless other leaders. Team of Rivals gives us a look at how Abraham Lincoln took the best people for the job, friend or foe, and put their talents to use in order to tackle the greatest calamity in American History. The film “Lincoln” is based on this book, and Goodwin frequently quotes LBJ on the benefits of learning to cooperate with our rivals, “Better to have them in the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”
A People’s History of the United States— Howard Zinn. Exactly what it sounds like, Zinn weaves and glides all the way from Columbus to the 2000 Presidential Election in brilliant fashion. The lion’s share of what you need to know about American History that you won’t learn in Social Studies is right in these pages.
A Brief History of Time— Stephen Hawking. It’s short, it’s brilliant, and it will give you a basic grasp of larger scientific concepts that every adult should have. This will definitely pique your interest in the Universe around you. Knock this one out or your next long car ride or flight.
Night— Elie Weisel. The most important and profound firsthand account of the Holocaust. This book helped put a face and a reality to the 20th century’s greatest crime and the affect it had on people in real time. Another quick read, but brace yourself, because it’s as dark as it gets.
The Autobiography of Malcolm Xas told to Alex Haley— Malcolm X, Alex Haley. In my personal opinion, one of the five greatest autobiographies/memoirs ever written. If you want to understand the rage and the sadness and the joy and the strength of being Black in America, look no further.
13 Days— Robert Kennedy. A memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis from one of the men right in the middle of it. This gives weight to the threat of nuclear power and the importance of compromise in negotiation. Conflict Resolution 101.
Common Sense/The Rights of Man— Thomas Paine. If you can get these two in the same book, do it. These writings were a beacon for both the French and American revolution and are the foundation for our most basic values of liberty and the republican system.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich— William L. Shirer. A history of Nazi Germany, Shirer puts a very human face on the most evil of evil empires. Showing us that monsters never look that way at the beginning, and demagogues rise to power when people are at their most vulnerable and unsure. It’s a beast of a book, but if you’ve ever wondered how people give themselves to these movements, this is where you find out.
The Soul of America— Jon Meacham. This title was just released and was written in the aftermath of Charlottesville, and it could not have been more timely. We are in a dark period in American History, and one of our most talented historians walks us through the long arc of conflict in the US between darkness and light. How in times of demagoguery or oppression or outright domestic terror, great leaders and the People went to work to set thing right. It’s a great read to use as a torch to light the way forward.
Take the time and grab these books, recommend them to a friend, learn something new. Books are conversations by other means, and we could all use a fresh perspective. Remember what the man said, “You can never be over-educated or over-dressed”
Willis Gordon is a musician, stand up comedian, actor, author, essayist, activist, and veteran of the War on Terror. Gordon is committed to quality entertainment and the improvement of our communities through art, action, and inclusion. He organized the “Rock the Block” voter registration concert in 2016, and continues to register voters and fight for civil rights across Stark County. He is the author of The Long Road Home and The Empty Boulevards. His live album, Willis Gordon: Live! is available anywhere you stream music. He wrote the monthly column "The Road Forward: Practical Discussions on Seeking a Better World" for Unlikely Stories Mark V.