From DAVID BANKS, assistant commentary editor:
I sometimes imagine — because I’m the sort of person who lives in his head — that I’ve woken one morning as host to a visitor from some distant past. My task is to explain everything I benefit from in my daily routine: how it functions, how it came to be. It’s an interesting experiment, showing what I take for granted but don’t truly understand.
Bill Bryson has made a career out of explaining how things came about. Everything he writes is wittily informative, but it’s one of his books on the English language that I’m recommending here. In “Made in America,” he brings both our words and culture down to their earthier origins. A takeaway: If you’re measuring your expectations for society against a purer past, they may be too high.
Whereas Bryson is an Anglophile, Will and Ariel Durant spent their lives producing voluminous accounts of everything that happened on Earth, ever. “The Lessons of History” is an approachable distillation of their efforts and a template for understanding human circumstance. Extrapolation: As inscrutable as today’s events may seem, they’re happening for the same basic reasons things always have.
The Durants are straightforward writers. Marilynne Robinson, however, can give your ruminations a workout. Robinson is a Calvinist lauded for her 2004 novel “Gilead,” about a dying pastor journaling a philosophy of living to a young son he never expected to have. Among the topics she explores in “The Givenness of Things,” a recent book of essays, is how the impact of religious belief — I’d extend it to any belief system — changes when it becomes an identity, not an inspiration.
Finally, I’d like to break the rules with a music recommendation. “If we can’t be happy, then you can’t be, too” is a sample lyric from “Entitlement,” by Jack White. The song is about what its name implies; I don’t interpret it as targeting anything but a complicated bit of psychology within us all. Listening will require four minutes of your time on Spotify or YouTube — or you could pay for access somehow, if you think White is entitled to be compensated for his talents.
From SCOTT GILLESPIE, editorial page editor:
As President Trump held forth on the “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” during his dark inaugural address in January, I immediately thought of “Mamaw” and “Papaw.”
The grandparents of author J.D. Vance played critical roles in his life and his illuminating 2016 book “Hillbilly Elegy,” the much-discussed exploration of poverty, disenfranchisement and prescription drug and alcohol abuse in rural America.
Vance mostly grew up in and eventually escaped from Middletown, Ohio — a city that itself grew up around a steel mill and Rust Belt economy whose struggling survivors were some of Trump’s biggest supporters. To fully understand the “tombstones” reference — and Trump’s November victory — it’s important to understand Americans like Vance’s Mamaw and Papaw, who came to distrust the news media, traditional politicians, universities and the digital economy, among other things.
Only when he leaves Middletown for Ohio State University does Vance fully realize the depths of his hometown’s “cynicism of the community at large.” Trump capitalized on that cynicism.
He also managed to win 80 percent of the white evangelical vote despite his divorces, the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape and his flip-flop on abortion. Oh, and he rarely attends church.
That’s a difficult personal story to square with “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” author Thomas Frank’s fascinating 2004 look at how religion and social issues aligned so many working-class and low-income white Americans in the heartland with the Republican Party.
So why Trump?
Gun rights. The U.S. Supreme Court. Hillary Clinton. Those are among the reasons, but the Kansans whom Frank described more than a decade ago have faced the same headwinds Vance encountered in Ohio and no doubt felt some of the same detachment from Barack Obama’s America.
Maybe that’s why Trump and his speechwriters added this line to his inaugural address: “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
From JILL BURCUM, editorial writer:
Vladimir Putin is no relation to the Romanovs — Russia’s former royal family — but he certainly rules like one. That insight, with its implications for modern geopolitics, is well worth the effort to plow through 784 pages of a dense, meticulously-researched book on the dynasty that held power from 1613-1917.
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s tome, “The Romanovs,” is nevertheless a compelling read. Using newly available personal correspondence and other records, Montefiore weaves a tale of how heirs both capable and incompetent managed to hang onto power for centuries. The story is peopled with hundreds of courtiers, mistresses, ministers and military commanders, with details that humanize historical figures. Peter the Great, for example, rather endearingly dubbed his drinking buddies “The All-Joking, All-Drunken Synod of Fools and Jesters.”
The Romanovs loved their drink. But they loved power, too, and they were utterly ruthless in keeping it. Killing family members was not off limits. Expanding their boundaries by absorbing neighboring nations was standard operating procedure. So was installing puppet rulers — at least one of which was Catherine the Great’s cast-off lover.
The Romanovs were empire-builders and extremely status-conscious when it came to their rival ruling regimes in Western Europe. Throughout their history, the czars strived mightily to dispel perceptions of a backwater fiefdom reputation by besting their western rivals culturally and militarily.
All this should sound familiar in 2017. Putin, who ruthlessly wields power at home, has leveraged despotism’s tragic location in his nation’s governance comfort zone. His maneuvering abroad reflects lingering notions of empire and an age-old hunger to be a player on the world stage.
Putin’s methods may be new, but his playbook is an old and self-serving one that might as well have “Romanov” stamped on its cover. One of the conclusions from this sprawling book: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
From LORI STURDEVANT, editorial writer:
Want to better understand why voters in Greater Minnesota have taken to Republicans so strongly in the last two elections? University of Wisconsin political scientist Katherine J. Cramer can help. Her 2016 book, “The Politics of Resentment: Rural consciousness in Wisconsin and the rise of Scott Walker,” is the result of Cramer’s listening sessions throughout rural Wisconsin from 2007 to 2012. My hunch is that she would have heard much the same from rural Minnesotans.
A distinct rural consciousness has arisen in the last several decades, Cramer reports. It’s a sense of identity whose elements include pride in self-reliance and hard work, disappointment in the small reward that work often brings, and resentment of urban dwellers, some of whom they believe benefit from undeserved government support at their expense.
Cramer describes how prolonged economic struggle has shaped political thinking. People tell her they simply cannot afford higher taxes, especially to pay for government spending that they doubt will help them. Decades of perceived government neglect have produced a deep cynicism that seems unlikely to be quickly reversed. That attitude may be benefiting Republicans now, I’d submit, but it’s bad for all in the long run.
Two other tomes came to mind as I rooted for a productive finish to the legislative session. They’d make fine reading for anyone trying to navigate today’s partisan divide.
“Getting to Yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in,” a 1983 classic by Roger Fisher and William Ury, describes how to reach “win-win” agreements that serve more than self-interest. And a 1992 essay by the wise first president of the modern Czech Republic, Václav Havel, “Politics, Morality and Civility,” reminds those in elective office that they “bear a heightened responsibility for the moral state of society.” Havel was at work on state-building when he wrote his uplifting essay. Minnesota’s elected officials have much the same mission.
From D.J. TICE, commentary editor:
“War and Peace” may be the greatest creative work ever produced, and it says almost everything that needs to be said, about almost everything — especially Russia.
But if Count Tolstoy isn’t to your taste, pithier, more contemporary books still explore the timeless mystery his masterpiece investigated. Is the course of human events determined by vast, impersonal social forces, or do individual hearts and wills and moral choices direct humanity’s fate?
As regards today’s economic anxieties, the “forces” side of the debate is advanced in Robert J. Gordon’s “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” which argues that today’s frustrations will last because a miraculous burst of economic progress between 1870 and 1970 is unlikely ever to be repeated.
Choices matter more in Thomas Sowell’s study of the causes of prosperity and want, “Wealth, Poverty and Politics.” Geography, climate, history and happenstance all affect the economic destiny of nations and groups, Sowell writes. But cultural attitudes are decisive.
Why does our historical moment seem uniquely fraught? In “The Fractured Republic,” Yuval Levin argues that both conservatives and liberals are paralyzed by clinging to nostalgia for the consensus of the post-World War II era. In the rediscovered and much-discussed “The Fourth Turning,” Neil Howe and William Strauss theorize that disorienting swings between unity and disharmony are just part of history’s hidden pattern of endless repetition.
And what is the origin of today’s venomous social divisions? David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed” and Colin Woodard’s “American Nations” say our fault lines run as deep as the nation’s founding by discordant colonial populations. Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” and Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” find the cause in a post-1960s ideological transformation that estranged left and right on nonnegotiable cultural/moral priorities.
The one thing settled is that the duel of forces and choices endures.
From JOHN RASH, editorial writer:
Journalism is “the first rough draft of history,” said Philip L. Graham, former Washington Post publisher, whose paper, along with the New York Times and other news outlets, is rewriting the draft of these rough times at a dizzying, daily (sometimes hourly) pace. But beyond the headlines, historical accounts of previous presidents also help decipher this era.
For instance, increasing inequality, entrenched politics and corporate overreach were also blamed for stalling of the progress of the early 20th century. So progressives, led by President Theodore Roosevelt, didn’t demean but often partnered with an aggressive press for reform. That’s the theme of “The Bully Pulpit,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s sweeping take on TR, William Howard Taft and heroic muckrakers who advocated for government as a force for good.
Teddy’s cousin Franklin also marshaled the force of the federal government in grappling with the Great Depression. But a conservative, controversial counternarrative to FDR’s activism is compellingly argued in Amity Shlaes’ “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression” (uniquely well-told in a groundbreaking graphic-edition version), which posits that too much intervention made employers feel forgotten, too.
From the forgotten man to “the silent majority,” Richard Nixon tapped some similar sentiments, and the seminal “The Selling of the President 1968” presages presidential politics since. Most of the focus of Joe McGinniss’s account is on Nixon’s innovative, edgy ads and overall media strategy, in part led by a savvy young producer of the “Mike Douglas Show,” Roger Ailes, who recently passed away. Ailes helped found Fox News, which has influenced politics to an extraordinary degree. And Nixon’s legacy, long shunned by Republicans, was resurrected by Donald Trump, who openly admired some of Nixon’s themes. As for other Nixonian comparisons, that’s for history — and journalism’s rough draft — to write.
From DENISE JOHNSON, editorial writer:
There is a lot of frustration, mistrust, anxiety and downright despair out there among Americans. Some of that shows up in the angry, twisted faces at demonstrations and town halls on a variety of issues. It shows up at candlelight vigils for the last of a series of young men killed by gunfire. And some of it, frankly, helped so many voters choose Donald Trump to be American’s 45th president.
With that in mind, two books offer some insight about how those visceral feelings developed.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” is an emotional letter from the African-American male author to his 15-year-old son. He relates stories about growing up in a rough neighborhood in Baltimore, of fearing violence from both peers and police, and about how it feels for black boys and men to have little or no control over what happens to their bodies — a brutal truth from slavery to present times. It’s a dad’s ruminations on the impact racism and discrimination has on black boys and men — and on the entire American culture.
Coates is an award-winning writer and one of the nation’s leading essayists. He attended Howard University, a historically black college that he calls his “Mecca’’ and part of his salvation. His moving memoir helps readers understand the pent-up anger that fueled movements like Black Lives Matter after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo.
In “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” J.D. Vance tells his story of growing up in a family with hillbilly Kentucky roots that moved to raise him in a small industrial town in Ohio. His family didn’t deal with racism, but he did have a drug-addicted mother, a revolving door of mom’s boyfriends and husbands, and gun-toting, cursing relatives. As his town declined and jobs were lost, he writes, his tribe came to often blame big business and government for poverty, addiction and just about all their other problems.
Vance grows up to reject his birth culture’s defeatist attitudes by enlisting in the Marines and graduating from Yale Law School.
Both authors take readers inside of what relentless physical, emotional trauma does to children, families and cultures. And each man credits specific adults who cared for and nurtured them and describe college experiences that made huge differences in their lives.
There aren’t full answers in either book about turning around the national angst out there. But they do offer explanations about the sources of the most volatile, divisive mind-sets.
From PATRICIA LOPEZ, editorial writer:
A slim little volume written by a legislator who spent his career urging others to rise above pure partisanship, “Finding Common Ground: The Art of Legislating in an Age of Gridlock” is the book we all need right now.
My dear colleague and friend Lori Sturdevant, in the forward to Dave Bishop’s book, called him “endearingly outspoken.” That’s a great description of Bishop, a lanky, Republican extrovert who made it a practice to know the other side’s arguments as well as his own.
In plain language punctuated by revealing anecdotes drawn from his own experience, Bishop shows readers how government is supposed to work, how it has worked and how it can do so again. He reminds us of what too many have forgotten: That our political structure is built on the presumption that conflict will, at some point, yield to compromise, that sharing power and building relationships across party lines are essential ingredients of good government and healthy civic discourse.
One of the benefits of a newsroom is access to advance copies of books, and I’ve hit on a good one that qualifies as juicy summer reading. “The Hidden Lives of Tudor Women,” by Elizabeth Norton, is an absorbing look not only at the powerful women of that era, but everyday life for women throughout Tudor society. Details about what it was like to give birth, the courtship process, and the danger for the old or outspoken of being labeled witches will have you sharing morsels with your friends. The book will be released this summer.