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Off the bookshelves; preparing your reading list for the New Year

January 02, 2020
By: SSTI Staff

If reading more is on your list of New Year’s resolutions, SSTI has you covered as we bring you some thoughts from the staff on books we read in 2019. There are those we enjoyed and would recommend, as well as those you may want to skip. Also, feel free to drop us a line and let us know if you have any recommendations to share with us. Perhaps they’ll show up on our list next year!

Dan Berglund, president and CEO

  • Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll (West Virginia University Press, 2019). JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis became a surprise bestseller powered, in part, by those looking for an explanation for how Donald Trump won the presidency and a powerful personal narrative. Appalachian Reckoning responds to Vance's book with essays grounded in the academic literature and personal stories of those who live or have roots in the region. The essays underscore an important truth for those involved in public policy and economic development: those peddling simple solutions and presenting themselves as the spokesperson for a region or a people should be avoided. In an age where we all want easy answers and quick fixes, Appalachian Reckoning is a reminder that the world is far more complex than that and that our work should begin by listening to those we're trying to help and tap into the knowledge of those that have been working on the issues for decades.

Cathy Coldiron, policy analyst

  • Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World -- and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, with Osa Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund (Flatiron Books, 2018). In a world awash with "alternative facts" and continual disinformation campaigns, Factfulness offers genuinely good news and information based on evidence and facts. Hans Rosling and his son and daughter-in-law have developed captivating data charts and graphics to better depict the reality of the world in which we are living. A theme throughout the book is how truly ignorant most people are of the state of human beings in the world. This is the story of their mission to enlighten us to the actual condition of the world's people utilizing statistics such as how many girls finish primary school, how many years of education children are getting, how many people have access to electricity, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty, life expectancy, deaths due to natural disasters, and more. 

Colin Edwards, policy analyst

  • Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang (Knopf, 2019). This collection of short stories examines the nature of humanity’s multi-faceted relationship with technology while also grappling with issues of fatalism and self-determination. Reading the stories told from perspectives ranging from an “Arabian Nights”-styled time traveler to a parrot anticipating the extinction of its species to a self-dissecting and introspective robot, the reader must contemplate their role in promulgating the use of new and experimental technologies, the ethical boundaries associated with these advances, and the wide-reaching consequences of ubiquitous technological exploitation. Exhalation reminds us of the complexity of our daily interactions not just with technology, but also with each other and with our environment, warning that without caution, humanity may join the Great Silence of the universe broadcasting a final message to the planet that once sustained us; “You be good. I love you.”

Laura Lacy Graham, research analyst

  • Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed by Lisa Duggan (part of the University of California Press’ American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present series, 2019). Whether you love her or hate her, there is no denying the influence that Ayn Rand has had on America’s cultural, intellectual, and political landscapes. Mean Girl is a short (136 pp.) primer on Rand that provides concise, albeit arguable, analysis of how the objectivist writer came into her beliefs and explores how her works (predicated on Rand’s philosophy of selfishness) became the foundation for modern American libertarianism and its unyielding faith in neoliberal capitalism. Duggan argues that part of Rand’s enduring appeal and influence stems from her cinematic background in which she gives her readers surly and cruel heroes that succeed because of their looks, intellect, or some other superior quality that, when finally recognized and is unencumbered, becomes the virtue of the self, and is never complicated by one’s surroundings or the messiness of ordinary lives. While Rand's disciples will find much in Mean Girl to take issue with, Rand’s detractors may be also be wanting more since Duggan does not delve deeper into her criticisms of the writer. Still, the work itself provides a solid entry into or quick refresher of both Rand’s writings (Fountain Head, Atlas Shrugged) and influence (in particular Rand’s modern political appeal).

Ellen Marrison, content strategist

  • The Job: Work and its Future in a Time of Radical Change by Ellen Ruppel Shell (The Crown Publishing Group, 2018). Shell examines the history and future of work and challenges our assumptions on its meaning. The author, a journalist and academician, tells the stories of laborers and where they find joy in their work and calls the reader to examine both their own responsibility in their happiness in a chosen career or job, as well as the role of the government, business and labor in the economy. She invites readers to reimagine work for the twenty-first century outside of a traditional employment context and also examines the role of education in employment. Shell weaves her findings through others’ narratives and experiences in a well-documented and richly-written story.
  • Good Economics for Hard Times by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (PublicAffairs, 2019). Two Nobel Prize winning economists turned their attention from their usual study of developing countries to the United States after they saw public conversation about core economic issues getting “more and more off-kilter.” They seek to bring some balance and perspective to the challenges facing the country, and reopen a dialogue based not on partisan loyalties, but on facts and research. The economists, firmly rooted in experiment- and evidence-based approaches, ask readers to consider such a measured approach in tackling the big issues facing the country, including the growth rate, climate change, automation, social mobility, tax policy and inequality. In their call to action the authors cast a wide net, noting that change cannot be left just to the academic economists. “Good economics alone cannot save us,” they write. “But without it, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of yesterday.” It is a timely and thought provoking read.

Susan Niple, administrative assistant/member services specialist

  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (Biblioasis, 2019). The single character of this fiction novel offers the reader a strikingly raw window into the mind of a middle-aged mother in present day Ohio. In one long stream of conscious thought and subconscious emotion she explores everything from the current state of politics to sexual assault to grocery store items at a frenetic pace, as if the details are taken from a social media newsfeed. Current, relevant and almost too authentic to stomach if you already happen to be a busy mother prone to overthinking.

Jason Rittenberg, policy and development director

  • The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff (PublicAffairs, 2019). This book has been well-praised and with good reason. Zuboff’s presentation of a dominant economic model built around monetizing user data is thorough, thoughtful, and likely to raise concerns for the vast majority of readers. Parts I and II of the book develop the rise of IT companies that have encouraged the world to accept free services in exchange for detailed, personal information. These sections accessibly connect the development of this economic model to standard capitalism and earlier perspectives on consumer agency and privacy. Part III of the book may be more esoteric, as this section has a shift in emphasis toward academic discussions about power and economics (Wiley has published a 7,200-word review that gives this context considerable attention). I highly recommend the book. Practitioners working with technology companies should — regardless of their stance — consider the concerns raised in this book and how they may affect business models or regulation in the future. Technology users, from student to adult, should also be exposed to at least excerpts, in order to make sure they completely understand the trade-offs they are agreeing to when using Google, Facebook, or TikTok.
  • $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). Edin and Shaefer offer a kind of post-Great Recession follow-up to the older and more popular Nickle and Dimed. The authors use interviews and data to help explain how 1990s reforms left the social safety net ill-equipped to provide support for millions of Americans who are struggling in the face of low-wage work and mechanization. Although the book, published in 2015, is a few years old now, the questions it raises remain relevant to ongoing discussions of policy affecting commerce, labor and economic development.

Mark Skinner, vice president

  • The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties by Paul Collier (HarperCollins Publishers, 2018). While a number of books focused on economic inequality and the current period of transformation spend most of their page length describing the problems through the author’s particular lens, Collier concisely outlines why we should all be anxious in the opening chapter. Those 20 pages are alone worth reading. The final 200 pages are dedicated to solutions, beginning with restoring ethics and morality to all aspects of society from the individual and family to the community and firm to the state and world. He uses classic economic constructs to update the novel suggestions of 19th century American journalist and political economist, Henry George, to outline a way to fairly redistribute the advantages gained in urban innovation centers among areas victimized by the same technology and innovation.
  • Losing Earth: A Recent History by Nathanial Rich (MCD Books, 2018). Not unlike revisiting any Shakespearean tragedy in which you already know the outcome is dire for everyone involved, Rich presents an enthralling page turner focused on the cooption of the messaging and policy response to the environmental issues that have become the climate crisis. Through extensive research Rich follows the story during the decade of 1979-1989 on personal and societal levels to show how we blew it – intentionally.  This is a quick read, albeit one that may/should leave even the most mildly engaged reader checking in on personal groundings and moral integrity, and beginning a conversation deeply questioning the purpose and value of our perpetuating the Western capitalist tradition so fervently.  New York Times Magazine dedicated an entire issue to the book earlier this year.
  • Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben (Henry Holt & Company, 2019). This is a hopelessly depressing book if you've followed the environmental movement during any of the last five decades. Well researched and timely, the call to urgent action is unable to hide the despair and defeat in McKibben's written voice and the anguish readers with a similar ilk might feel with each page and each new decision of the Trump Administration to undo the small steps toward environmental progress made since the initial Earth Day in 1970. Bill McKibben has been in the trenches and in Falter he articulates the intricacies and complexities of the challenges in a manner that is both accessible and devastating. In reading the book I was reminded of the Lorax at the end of the eponymous Suess classic of 1972. Tired, broken, and defeated, all the Lorax and McKibben seem to have left to offer is a desperate "unless".
  • Midnight at Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham (Simon & Schuster, 2019). This book lived up to all of the descriptive adjectives in the New York Times review: thrilling, horrifying — and important. Higginbotham presents the reader an engaging and minutely researched telling of the history of the political and technological development of Soviet nuclear power-based electricity generation. He also humanizes the story with intimate profiles of the key individuals involved in Chernobyl’s development and in the events leading up to, during (completely enthralling), and after the disaster, including its potential role in the dissolution of the USSR. The book closes by bringing us to the modern day challenge of determining what role nuclear power can serve in a global society hungry for electricity and increasingly subject to a climate crisis brought on by sustained and growing fossil fuel dependency. How many Chernobyls and Fukushima Daiichi disasters will we considerable tolerable in the future? 
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