My goal this year is to read 40 books (might try a last minute boost up to 52 depending on how ambitious I get later in the year).
Below are my thoughts on my favorite things I’ve read so far. For now it’ll be books but expect to see some articles as well in the future.
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On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King
Read on January 2
I’ve actually never read a Stephen King book or read a “how to do ___” or any sort of skill improvement book before, but I feel like I can safely say that this one isn’t like the others. I have no authority to make such a claim, but this book does not read like a manual, it is unconventional and witty, and most importantly, fun to read.
I love writing. I love it more than talking and this book gave me a new approach to doing it. In the two days it took to read this book I couldn’t help but feel regret for everything I had written previously.
Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, Juan Gonzalez
Read on February 2
This book is a must read to learn about the role of corporate imperialism in South America. After reading Harvest of Empire you’ll understand how a series of racist foreign policy decisions led to mass instability south of our border and drove people out of their homelands. These policies are ongoing, and their impact continues to grow. If you want to understand the present day “border crisis” start here.
Additionally, this book gave me a deeper understanding of my heritage and newfound perspective on my responsibility as a first-generation Mexican-American who now lives in a new world of privilege.
Fun fact: When I worked at Microsoft I was able to meet Professor Gonzalez after inviting him to speak at a Hispanic/Latino event I organized.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo
Read on February 25
Although this book is primarily intended for white folks on how to become allies in the fight to dismantle racism, there’s substantial learning for any person of color as well. This is especially true if you are also a white passing person of color like I am.
The Cesar Ruiz litmus test of what makes a great book boils down to a couple of points. Did this book make me think of a subject in an entirely new way? Additionally, did this book give me a new vocabulary and understanding to speak about it? White Fragility did both things and more.
The most important takeaway from this book comes from understanding the complexities and nuances of racism as a structure and not event. Only after learning that racism is a structure weaved into every aspect of our lives we can begin to deconstruct how how it manifests and maintains itself over time.
We don’t live in a post-racial era. We are far from it. Any attempt to discredit the influence of racism in 21st century America only makes it more prevalent and difficult to dismantle.
We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights, Adam Winkler
Read on April 2
Super dense and filled with legalese. I honestly wouldn’t recommend this anyone unless you’re interested in law or corporate history. You REALLY have to love these things to be able to power through this book.
I’m not really into law, nor have an outstanding interest in corporate history. HOWEVER, I am a nerd and above all else patient. If you’re willing to hunker down and dive into this book it’ll blow your mind (mostly in angering/frustrating bad ways).
This book tells the story of how corporations fought and won their legally entrenched privilege in America. You’ll learn about how many of the rights we as flesh and blood humans enjoy now were given first to other humans that only exist on legal paper. It all goes back to the original sin of our founding. This country started as a corporation. America was never anything else but a for profit enterprise.
On top of that, this unique legal-historical lens will point out many more moments of our country’s history that will give you that sense of “this explains so much” for the present day.
Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela
Read on April 27
This is one of the few books I’ve read that felt like it was never going to end. I took my time with this one. I waited to read this book until I was at a point where I was comfortably ahead of my reading goal so I could appreciate this free from anxiety. Living in a time of political instability, this book filled me with hope and determination.
No other book will make you feel more angry, inspired, sad, grateful, and hopeful all at once.
So many more people have written better reviews on this book and I want to highlight one that particularly resonated with what I thought.
“Neglected and abandoned by the superpowers of the world, the people of South Africa never lost hope and Mandela is a fascinating and shining example of a man, stripped of everything, who, no matter what life threw in his way, maintained his dignity and his sight not only on the problems, but also on the solutions.” – Henry on Goodreads
Parting the Waters: Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement 1954-63, Taylor Branch
Read on July 29
I think Beto said it best (1:33). I only picked up this book because of that video. This is a book that makes you appreciate a whole era of time under a completely fresh perspective. The fight for civil rights was ~50 years ago and I think we’ve let ourselves become so far removed from the triumphs and sacrifices from that period. We take this period of American history for granted. I constantly felt myself thinking “I can’t believe this actually happened” as I read through Parting the Waters.
Understanding the harsh reality of the civil rights movement will fill you with awe for not just the icons of the era, but the everyday people who put their lives on the line to secure better, not full civil rights. LBJ, MLK, JFK, and other icons of the time may be remembered as the heroes, but they are only a small part of the story.
Inside the Five-Sided Box: Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon, Ash Carter
Read on September 4
Remember the good old days when you didn’t know the names of cabinet secretaries?
I try my best not to be a labels guy. I do this because labels lead to tribalism. Once labels come out we back into our corners and shut everyone who’s not in, out. Tribalism is the ugliest part of our politics and it’s taken over both the left and the right. Tribalism won’t let us question our deepest held beliefs. Tribalism stops us from being pragmatic. Tribalism removes our ability to think critically.
All this is to say, being someone who strongly identifies as a liberal, my natural inclination is to be angry at the military industrial complex and feel anger towards the failures and unwarranted destruction this military industrial complex has caused. The pacifist-optimist in me could never justify an atrociously high defense budget at a time when children in this country go hungry and sleep on the streets. The pragmatist in me can’t justify it as well. However, in keeping an open mind I couldn’t help but see things in a different light after reading this book. The ongoing theme of American politics is few things are as black and white as others make them to be. (Not to justify the condition of the underprivileged or approve of an inflated defense budget. The point is that I accept arguments and see reasons why such an atrociously high defense spending may be more justified than I could previously imagine)
Ash’s book gave me a nuanced and deeper understanding of what the Department of Defense IS and DOES. He’s the only SecDef who’s held all three top positions in the agency. Through his wide ranging experiences, he humanized a whole group of people that would otherwise be immediately labeled as blood-lusted future war criminals from those in the far left camp. In my political bubble, few people have a non-partisan gratitude and appreciation for servicewomen and men.
I could go on and on about the countless ways Ash provides a counterbalancing perspective towards the worst of tribalism from the left. Parts of our military ARE broken and in need of reform (as acknowledged by Ash). But there are many parts that work incredibly well and do so much good for people around the world. There are also people serving our country who disgrace the United States with their behavior. The vast majority are honorable and proudly represent our values at home and abroad.
Ash’s biggest lesson is taking things for what they are at face value and responding appropriately. If we had more values driven people like Ash continuously leading the Department of Defense, I think the more “liberal” Americans would be more supportive of the decisions made by our military.
How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi
Read on September 23
Bumping this to the top because if there’s anything you should learn from my website, it’s that this book exists. How to Be an Antiracist has easily become the most important book I have ever read. As I work on processing and reflecting on this book, expect this review to evolve. These are just my immediate fresh thoughts. I’m writing this right after turning the last page and I want to start off with why this is book is so important.
If you are looking for a book to read on racism start here. This is a book that is written for everyone. The problem with most other books on Racism is the insistence of using unquestioned esoteric language. “Institutional”, “Systemic”, etc racism have gone mainstream and become meaningless. Ibram provides a remedy through simple and specific language on what racism is, what is racist, and how to be anti-racist. Most importantly, he challenges the long held convention that people of color cannot be racist. Any person who supports a racist policy, i.e a policy that creates inequity between races, is a racist.
Through this simple idea, Ibram explores the intersectionality of racism among gender, class, sexuality, color, and more. Take your time and you’ll see soon enough with every chapter how you are a part of “the” problem. More important than realizing ones own wrongdoing or changing opinion, you’ll learn what to do in order to be a part of “the” solution.
Know My Name, Chanel Miller
Read on October 16
I wish I was 1/1000th of the writer Chanel is so I could do this review justice and articulate how powerful of an experience it was to read this book.
I can’t accurately put into words how inspired I feel after reading this book. It’s been a few months since I’ve read Know My Name and I keep coming back to this review. I am still filled with awe for the courage it took to put all of her words on paper and show it to a world that was so cruel to her.
As painful as her story is, Chanel’s writing is warm, honest, and human. Reading this felt like Chanel has been one of my best friends forever and she trusted me to know her complete story without holding anything back. I shared in her pain, anger, sadness, and joy. No other book has ever given me such a visceral experience. You will cry, laugh, and finish this book feeling hopeful for a better future. I encourage you to read other reviews for more personal accounts of how powerful this book can be.
There is something to be said about this book to all the guys out there who have yet to read this or put in the effort to understand the trauma of survivors of sexual assault. I want this review to be inspirational, triumphant, and heroic because I feel like it really captures how I’ve come to see Chanel. But this book is honestly not a feel good hero’s journey. There’s a harsher reality that can’t be articulated with words outside of Chanel’s and other survivors, but are so important for us to hear.
For us, it’s a story you won’t hear unless you intentionally choose to seek it out. When these stories occasionally enter our bubble of experience by chance, they are framed in terms that protect our privilege in the world. Men are the victims. Men are the biggest losers. Everything is framed as lost potential to ourselves. As the victims, women are dehumanized.
Men can go their whole lives ignorant of this trauma. You can go your whole life without intimately understanding the ways in which the life of a sexual assault victim can be totally and completely upended. You can go your whole life without knowing the ways in which that upending extends beyond just victims.
For most of us, you WILL go your whole life not understanding these things unless you make the choice to listen and allow yourself to live a fraction of this experience through someone else’s writing. Chanel’s story isn’t important for men to read because it’s about a woman who was raped and against all odds emerged triumphant. It’s important because the majority of women don’t get any justice. Most women don’t get that ending.
It’s on us.