Why you should care
Because there’s an introspection among readers about where America has been and where it’s headed.
Over the past few months, we’ve asked OZY readers to share with us the books you’ve been reading. Responses have been wide-ranging — from history to science fiction to self-help. But one common theme surfaced: an expressed concern for the state of the world.
Almost two-thirds of the books highlighted were nonfiction, with history books, biographies and memoirs being the most popular. The history titles spanned time and place, from Ancient Rome through World War II and present day, but most notable were many suggested books on America’s Revolutionary War. These included 1776 by award-winning historian David McCullough; Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham; and Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick.
And in the wake of the deadly rally last August in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was a flurry of recommended books on the legacy of slavery in America and the civil rights era: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist and At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L McGuire. Post “Weinsteingate” came the recommendation of What Smart Women Know by Steven Carter and Julia Sokol.
Turning from nonfiction to novels, we found in your recommendations the same underlying concern for the current state of things. One reader who listed William Faulkner’s Light in August, tagged it as: “Set in Jim Crow Mississippi in 1932, it conveys the depth of racism at that point in history and explains, to my point of view, why it is so difficult to get beyond it 85 years later.” And the most recommended book of all was another “state of the nation” depiction: Pulitzer prize-winning epic The Grapes of Wrath by the Nobel laureate John Steinbeck.
Though written almost 80 years ago, The Grapes of Wrath has obvious contemporary resonances. It’s the story of a family of sharecroppers who, in search of better opportunities, join a wave of migrants moving West. The novel begins with an apocalyptic vision of drought and dust in Middle America and ends with floods in California. Steinbeck’s wrath is directed at those who hold and wield power over others:
“The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out. The changing economy was ignored, plans for the change ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in anxious times, several books on well-being were recommended: America We Need to Talk: A Self-Help Book for the Nation by Joel Berg and The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, co-authored by Nobel laureate Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel.
We also noted that only a third of the recommended novels were written by women, and that number dropped further among the nonfiction titles. Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the gender imbalance — well-documented by recent VIDA counts and others — within literary media. Fortunately, OZY Books is committed to gender parity and excited to bring you great books by and about women.
OZY readers are clearly immersing themselves in facts as well as fiction, through which they can be transported into other people’s shoes. Or to paraphrase Steinbeck’s fellow laureate Nadine Gordimer: If you want to know the facts of history, read a history book, but if you want to get a feel for people’s lives and for how they dealt with life’s situations, try a novel.