Five Important (To Me) Non-Fiction Books

Books that were not only interesting, but taught me something new that I also happen to think was important. In no particular order:

1) The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs: “It is easy to blame the decay of cities on traffic . . . or immigrants . . . or the whimsies of the middle class. The decay of cities goes deeper and is more complicated. It goes right down to what we think we want, and to our ignorance about how cities work. The forms in which money is used for city building — or withheld from use — are powerful instruments of city decline today. The forms in which money is used must be converted to instruments of regeneration — from instruments buying violent cataclysms to instruments buying continual, gradual, complex, and gentler change.”

2) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond: “The history of interactions among disparate peoples is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics and genocide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries, and that are actively continuing in some of the world’s most troubled areas.”

3) The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Paul Collier:The left needs to move on from the West’s self-flagellation and idealized notions of developing countries. Poverty is not romantic.

“The countries of the bottom billion are not there to pioneer experiments in socialism. They need to be helped along the already-trodden path of building market economies. The international financial institutions are not part of a conspiracy against poor countries. Rather, they represent beleaguered efforts to help.

“The right needs to move on from the notion of aid as part of the problem — as welfare payments to scroungers and crooks. It has to disabuse itself of the belief that growth is something that is always there for the taking, if only societies would get themselves together.”

4) The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan: “’Eating is an agricultural act,’ as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world — and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them.”

5) The World Without Us by Alan Weisman: “When you examine societies just as self-confident as ours that unraveled and were eventually swallowed by the jungle…you see that the balance between ecology and society is exquisitely delicate. If something throws that off, it all can end.

“. . . Two thousand years later, someone will be squinting over the fragments, trying to find our what went wrong.”

Bonus) The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White: “To achieve style, begin by affecting none.”

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