The Book List

The year 2020 is almost upon us. 

We know there are tough times ahead.  But we need to remember we’re not alone.  Others much smarter than us have traveled this path and documented what they’ve learned.  They can offer insights to help us understand what we’re experiencing and if we’re smart (and lucky) avoid the disastrous mistakes other political leaders have made in the name of god and country.

I’m talking about books. 

If ever there was a time to learn what knowledgeable political scientists, historians and observers have to say it’s now. 

So, I’d invite you to send in the names of one or two books you’d recommend for the Soapbox Book List.

I’ll start by recommending Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, a piece of contemporary history that explores the rise of authoritarianism and populism in Russia, the UK and America.  To quote the blurb on the book flap, Snyder sets out the stark choices before us—between equality and oligarchy, individuality and totality, trust and lies—and offers a way forward.  

It’s well worth a read.

What would you recommend?

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68 Responses to The Book List

  1. Desiree Bauer says:

    “How Democracies Die” Levitsky and Ziblat. Do not take democracy for granted. If it is not honoured, protected and fought for it can disappear before your very eyes before the next election. Beware of those who think the rule of law does not apply to them (Conservatives, Republicans come to mind lately). They don’t play fair. Choose wisely.

    • Desiree, we in Alberta are particularly vulnerable to the erosion of democracy. Forty-four years of conservative rule made us too ideological, this prevents us from seeing what the government is doing right before our eyes.

  2. Carl HUNT says:

    Doubt is Their Product, How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health
    David Michaels. Apr 2008,
    ISBN13: 9780195300673ISBN10: 019530067X Hardback, 384 pages

    It started with Big Tobacco. In the 1950s, when epidemiologists showed that lung cancer was killing smokers, the cigarette companies launched a sophisticated public relations campaign to raise doubts about the increasingly definitive scientific evidence. The tobacco industry recognized that if they could limit the debate to whether the science was accurate, they could avoid the obvious policy discussion: how to stop people from buying their deadly product.
    The scientists and public relations experts who manufactured uncertainty for Big Tobacco saw that their strategy worked – do it well and you immobilize government regulators. Tobacco’s success has spawned a multimillion dollar industry. Now the strategy is deployed to defend drugs; and scores of pesticides and toxic industrial chemicals like asbestos, lead, and benzene. The oil and coal companies use this same strategy to question the existence of global warming.
    In Doubt Is Their Product, author David Michaels explains how many of the scientists who spun science for tobacco have become practitioners in the lucrative world of product defense. Whatever the story- global warming, toxic chemicals, sugar and obesity, secondhand smoke- these scientists generate studies designed to make dangerous exposures appear harmless.
    At its heart,Doubt Is Their Product documents the way in which scientists who specialize in “product defense” have manipulated the scientific literature, manufactured and magnified scientific uncertainty, and influenced policy decisions to the advantage of private interests, rather than in the interests of the public. Michaels explains how the current Administration has changed the rules under which federal agencies operate, limiting the government’s ability to reject mercenary science.
    Michaels lays out the “tricks of the trade” – exactly how these scientists produce studies designed to produce negative results. It begins with a study that seems scientific, except that researchers know ahead of time what the results will be. Then, public relations experts provide these scientists with contrarian sound bites that make the news because they’re so different from what most scientists and health professionals are saying. Reporters are happy to have contrasting views, but Michaels suggests in Doubt Is Their Product that one side has been bought and paid for. To prove it, Michaels produces the “smoking guns” – secret industry documents – that show exactly how product defense scientists manufacture doubt, and how they boast of their successes.

    • Dr Robert C Dickson says:

      Very well stated, Carl, thanks!
      However, I’m surprised that you (and possibly David Michaels) have left out water fluoridation, which is one of the big medical/dental/public health scams and frauds of the 20th, and now 21st, centuries.
      Fluoride is one of the most toxic substances on the planet, yet 74% of the Americans, almost 90% of Australians and 38% of Canadians are exposed to it in our public waters. Thankfully, 95% of the world, 97% of Europeans, and 98% of BC and Quebec residents, and 100% of Scottish are not fluoridated, and their dental health is as good or better than those who are.
      Mass medication without informed consent, with no control of dose and dosage, and without follow-up–not good medicine!
      Edward Bernays, the master propagandist of the 20th century, was gainfully employed by not only the tobacco industry, but also by those industries polluting the air and earth with hydrofluosilicic acid, scrubbed out of their waste stacks. He and others convinced us to dispose of this toxic scrubber waste in our bodies instead of in proper waste disposal plants!

      • Carl HUNT says:

        The book description was written by the publisher and I did not intend to plagiarize but I did edit because it was too long. I don’t remember fluoride but the author identified a number of other toxic substances. I should stick to fisheries issues but for me the important message was the description about how the public relations industry has manipulated science and govt regulators to benefit corporate profits rather than protecting the public and our environment.

      • Jerrymacgp says:

        Sir: I’m not sure what discipline your claimed “doctorate” is in, but I most certainly hope it is neither in dentistry nor public health. Fluoridation of municipal water supplies is a well-documented safe and effective public health measure, endorsed by professional societies in the field of dentistry — despite the fact that it goes against dentists’ own financial interests by preventing dental caries that they could make money treating.

        For a collation of all of the arguments in favour of fluoridation and debunking those against it, might I suggest readers of this blog start by consulting this RationalWiki page:

    • Carl, sounds like an excellent book, thanks!

  3. Jim McPhail says:

    I’d agree with “Dark Money” as one of the top ones and the short, pithy “Whose Water Is It Anyway?”

  4. J.E. Molnar says:

    Here’s two I thoroughly enjoyed:

    AMERICAN CARNAGE (On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump) (2019) – Tim Alberta, 678 pages
    Extensive research combined with personal interviews by the author pinpoints the beginnings of GOP internecine upheaval and the rise of populism in the Trump era.

    KOCHLAND (2019) – Christopher Leonard, 687 pages
    Reads like a John Grisham novel — educates like a PBS documentary. Outstanding effort by investigative reporter Christopher Leonard to unveil the sleazy underbelly of Koch Industries. A must read for political/environmental aficionados.

  5. John Warren says:

    Hi Susan, The end of ice by Dahr Jamail…Like no other book, The End of Ice offers a firsthand chronicle—including photographs throughout of Jamail on his journey across the world—of the catastrophic reality of our situation and the incalculable necessity of relishing this vulnerable, fragile planet while we still can.




  6. This book helped me understand much about the decline of critical thinking, civility and compassion in the USA.
    “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis: a memoir by J. D. Vance about the Appalachian values of his Kentucky family and their relation to the social problems of his hometown of Middletown, Ohio, where his mother’s parents moved when they were young.”

  7. CallmeHal2000 says:

    I still think novels teach a lot. If you haven’t read or re-read classics like Brave New World, 1984, Animal Farm and The Handmaid’s Tale, now’s a good time to check out these books. Cheap and readily available.

    I also recommend checking out Erich Fromm ( Too few people understand character/personality disorders. Fromm came up with the concept of malignant narcissism.

    Another good read is “In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People” by George K. Simon. A tiny tome it is, but helpful as a manual for the play-by-play of abusers.

    • CallmeHal, I have all three of the classics on my bookshelf. It’s been years since I read them but thank you for reminding us that they’re still very pertinent. The Simon book sounds intriguing. I can’t remember the last time I read anything by Erich Fromm…looks like his work is even more relevant now that we’re in the age of Trump.

  8. rubennelson says:

    Thanks, Susan,
    Given our world today I heartily recommend Mararget Heffernan’s “Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril.” (2011) She shows that willful blindness is endemic among human persons, communities and cultures. We all suffer from it. The task for all of us is to develop the quality of relationships with our own selves and others in which calling one ourselves and another to account in supportive ways is seen to be both required and welcomed.
    The distance between this state of being as an aspiration and our present states of being given us some indication of the work we have to do.
    A good step towards overcoming our willful blindness is to given up the common belief that truth and love are not only different but wholly independent from one another. This belief allows us to weaponize the truth. We hurl what we take to be “the truth” at one another in destructive ways. Soon, we are in a culture war that engages our deepest sense of identity. Better to fight to the death than to deny what we know to be true. As for love. It never enters the picture.

  9. Liane Sharkey says:

    All the selections so far are inspired and I plan to read them. I would recommend “Backlash: What we talk about when we talk honestly about racism in America”, and while perhaps a tad less severe, we do have similar issues in Canada.

    • Liane, I’ve read a few reviews of Backlash which were very favourable. I’ll check it out. As you said, we may think our issues here in Canada are less severe but with people like Jordan Petersen around preaching the value of liberating ourselves from “political correctness”, we’re not far behind the US.

  10. Dwayne says:

    Susan: Thanks for another great blog: I am an avid reader, and was taught to read and write, before I went to school. My books of choice for this decade included musician’s biographies. These include musicians I’ve met, and ones I have not met, but admired for many years. I have two of Jann Arden’s books. She signed two books for me at her booksignings this decade. The latest one was about her mom and dad having issues with dementia/Alzheimer’s. I told her I could relate, because my maternal grandad had Alzheimer’s and lived to be almost 97. He was a diabetic, and got Alzheimer’s when he was in his late 80s. His son in law, my uncle, and had diabetes, and had Alzheimer’s/dementia. He was actually around 87 when he died. (I gave her the wrong age of his passing.) Another musician’s biography I enjoyed reading, was Buddy Guy’s biography. It was amazing what he went through to become a blues guitar legend. Some of his band mates signed the book for me. Jeff Beck’s biography was a good read. I’ve admired his music for years. I saw him twice live and met him, after the second time seeing him live. Lastly, another musician’s biography that was an interesting read, was Ginger Baker’s life story. I admire his drumming. He was in the Graham Bond Organization, in Cream with Eric Clapton, and in another supergroup, Blind Faith, with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. He passed away fairly recently at age 80. I did not see him or meet him. Hope you have a Happy New Year.

  11. Dwayne says:

    Susan: I do have a book on Alberta politics, but it is from the previous decade before the last. It’s from Mark Lisac. I did meet him. As for your book recommendations, and the others who commented on here, they do look like they’d be good reads. Sorry for mentioning more than two books in my last comment.

  12. Wendy Armstrong says:

    I too found Heffernan’s “Willful Blindness’ well worth the read, however, Zuboff’s “Age of Surveillance Capitalism” is the most researched and enlightening book I’ve read in decades – and delves into areas that have gone unseen or understood over the past 30 years.

    • Wendy, thanks for this. We tend to ignore the detrimental impact of living in the digital world. I thought this quote in the book review was particularly apt. “…the problem with living through a revolution is that it’s impossible to take the long view of what’s happening. Hindsight is the only exact science in this business, and in that long run we’re all dead.” Yikes!

  13. RJ Pisko says:

    1. ANYTHING written by Noam Chomsky , but especially recommended is Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media Paperback – Jan 15 2002
    2. Limits to Growth – (the Club of Rome compilation of predictions by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, et al.), and
    3. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update
    (by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, et al. Jun 1 2004)
    Oldies – but oh so currently pertinent . . .

  14. Joan Riches says:

    Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs
    A dark age is a culture’s dead end. This book is an excellent study of how we got to where we are currently. At 83 I am old enough to remember things we seem to have lost already.

  15. John McWilliams says:

    Hi Susan,
    For Christmas, I got from my son and his partner, “The Ministry of Truth – The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984” by Dorian Lynskey, an English writer and journalist – a great read for the times!
    Very well reviewed.

    • Thanks John, I find George Orwell fascinating. In addition to the classics, Animal Farm and 1984, I’ve read some of his essays and short stories. His gift for writing is remarkable. I’m sure his biography will be enlightening.

  16. I just finished David Moscrop’s Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones. Interesting combination of political science and neuroscience, with some good advice on how we can guard against our own cognitive biases and some suggestions for improving our system to enable better decisions.

    • Madscramble, I too read Moscrop’s book. As you point out, it gives us some tools to help us recognize what’s happening all around us, and how to move past it. Something that we desperately need in UCP land.

  17. Mare says:

    Thanks, Susan and all the suggestions above as well.
    I asked for — and received — “Crime in Progress; Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump,” by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch (Co-founders of Fusion GPS)
    Haven’t read it yet but was so intrigued by an interview I heard with the authors. I also received Samantha Power’s book, The Education of an Idealist (a memoir). I had also appreciated an interview with her on Christopher Hayes’ podcast, “Why is This Happening.” Ms.Power’s served in the Cabinet of President Obama and as US Ambassador to the United Nations to mention a few noted positions. I would always recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates’ books.

  18. diamondwalker says:

    .. what a superb Christmas Present this post & comments are ! The gift of being able to read & access books has been one of the greatest things in life for me. I often mention to family or friends the books I have lent or given as gifts most.. always a significant sign. The list may surprise & is mainly fiction, though many are factual. Jon Krakauer for Into Thin Air of course, but it is Under The Banner Of Heaven.. and his book Missoula that truly shocked me. Those last two make rhe age of Trump more understandable. I gift The Silence Of Bonaventure Arrow to people, always hoping they will be as inspired as I was on discovering it. I gave a used copy to my daughter in law, years back and recently spotted in on her coffee table. She had forgotten who gave it to her.. and what my request or suggestion had been. As always I encourage people to share.. giving books away with the intent they be passed along after reading. I have also given away the original Huckleberry Finn many times. When I stall out on other books because I am just not connecting, I will put them aside till I am more open.. or clear to receive. Huck always is the passport that frees my resistance so I can travel into the challenging literary realm of books like The True History Of The Kelly Gang.. said another way.. Huck retriggers the young lad in me.. who also had no parents. These last two books exploded my shallow & flawed perception as a writer.. that spelling, punctuation and grammar were unbreakable rules of literature.. I do love that exploding feeling, hence my recommends ! ! !

    The White Bone must be pointed to as well. Barbara Gowdy’s simply astonishing book.. and for intrepid readers I also must mention Track Of The Grizzly by Frank Craighead

    • What a great list of suggestions. Like most people, I’d read Huck Finn as a child. What an excellent suggestion that we return to it. As you said, these old classics remind us of who we were when we read them the first time.

  19. Jerrymacgp says:

    The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis. This well-written and fascinating book examines the utter ineptness and incompetence of the Trump Administration in how it exercises the levers of governance in the United States, whose system is far more arcane than many of us realize.

    I also found it illuminating in describing how different their governmental system is from ours. When a new government is elected in Canada, the professional public service simply carries on implementing policy under the new government as it did under the previous one, and the only substantial staff changes with a change of government are political staffers in the PMO and ministerial offices. But in the States, a new President means a massive purge of the bureaucracy: even levels in departmental org charts well below the equivalent of an Assistant Deputy Minister change over. There a reason why transition in Canada can happen in a matter of two to three weeks, whereas in the US it is legislated at two and a half months.

  20. diamondwalker says:

    .. Jerrymacgp.. nails it.. The Fifth Risk is a knockout.. but then all his books are.. a ‘must read’ .. possibly the most in demand public library book I can recall

  21. Elaine Fleming says:

    One of the books I have read more than once, and is time to read again is Gandhi’s autobiography,
    “The story of my experiments with truth”. I think there is a lot that is relevant today. What is truth, and how it is being manipulated.

  22. AMY says:

    Just finished Underland by Robert Macfarlane. He writes, in different chapters, about his underground adventures in caves, mines, underground rivers and much more giving a perspective on the human impact on the planet. It is a marvellously well written book travelling from the past (Bronze Age burial chambers) to the future (a tomb being constructed in Finland to securely store nuclear waste for thousands of years). Macfarlane suggests the Anthropocene (epoch when humans shaped the earth on a global scale) “asks of us the question memorably posed by the immunologist Jonas Salk: ‘Are we being good ancestors?’ It is a thought provoking book.

    • Amy, what a great question “are we being good ancestors?” particularly when the focus today seems to be what’s in it for me, now, let someone else worry about tomorrow. I’ll check it out.

  23. MURRAY SHACK says:

    America the farewell tour by chris hedges. a powerful book by a great american thinker. a call to action with much practical advise. once I am done with my current career, I will honour hodge’s by hitting the streets.

  24. Phil Elder says:

    Try “A Warning”, by Anonymous (a highly placed official in the Trump maladministration), “The Education of an Idealist”, by Samantha Power.

  25. I’m blown away by these terrific suggestions and inspired by the range of recommendations submitted, everything from contemporary to classic, fiction and non-fiction. The list reflects our goal to make the world a better place, one characterized by hope and promise.
    I urge readers to continue to share their recommendations here where we can easily access them all year round simply by typing “Book List” into the search box on the right hand side of the page.
    I wish you all a happy and healthy New Year!
    Talk to you in 2020.
    NOTE: this was a general comment I made when this post was first published. I’ve gone back to add little comments to the individuals who’ve responded. Please note I did not publish comments from people who didn’t suggest a book (they simply wanted to debate with other commentators). I did this in an effort to stay on track, ie, give us your recommendations for a book worth reading,

    • Mare says:

      Great idea, Susan … though the piles of unread books on my bedside table are about to topple over, it will be wonderful to have an excellent reference tool on this website!

      Happy New Year to you and yours. I look forward to working beside you as we face the challenges this disastrous, dangerous and corrupt administration throws at us. (That goes for both sides of the border.)

  26. Trond Frantzen says:

    “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, from Yuval Noah Harari, is an exceptional look at how the past and present lead us to the opportunities (and threats) of the future. I particularly enjoyed, and learned from, his use of culture and politics as a window on the impossible-to-predict future.

  27. papajaxn says:

    Seasons Greetings  to you and your family.  Thank you for your request of books to read to awaken, challenge and clarify our context.  I am currently reading a book from a young former resident of Alberta now living State side. The Death of Democracy – Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimer Republic.      Author: Benjamin Carter-Hess   Comparing the 1920 – 1945 of Germany in the European context is very similar to the Alberta of the 1980 to 2019 within Canadian context.  The mix of anti – labor – Corporate Elites – and employment with “immigrants coming for opportunity or sanctuary” the current scenario in Alberta  With leaders trying to build a fable / narrative as Messianic leadership is quite chilling.  Weimar Republic  and the Ernest Manning  Peter Lougheed (Canadian Republicans) makes for startling similarities.            Benjamin who lived in Edmonton and U of A grad, a child of U of A Professors in the seventies and eighties. Sharing  his historical research makes for an informative – prophetic piece of literature which Albertans’ should consider.  May 2020 be a year of clear visioning and clarity of insight.  bruce jackson Sent from Mail for Windows 10 From: Susan on the SoapboxSent: Sunday, December 29, 2019 11:46 AMTo: papajaxn@gmail.comSubject: [New post] The Book List susanonthesoapbox posted: " The year 2020 is almost upon us.  We know there are tough times ahead.  But we need to remember we’re not alone.  Others much smarter than us have traveled this path and documented what they’ve learned.  They can offer insights to help us understand"

    • Thanks papajohn. There are a lot of books coming out about the death of democracy. It’s good to get personal recommendations from people like you so we focus on the ones well worth reading.

  28. Withheld says:

    Dear Susan on the Soapbox:
    You often quote historian Tim Synder. I would especially recommend his earlier book: “Black Earth, The Holocaust as History and Warning.”
    To my mind this book, among many things, is a take-down of globalization and Thatcher’s idea that society does not exist. Here is a quote from Chapter Six, The Greater Evil:

    “’The epoch of statehood has come to an end.’ So proclaimed the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt. Throughout Hitler’s career Schmitt had provided elegant theoretical support for his Fuhrer’s actions as Hitler mutated the German state and began to destroy its neighbours. Beyond manipulation itself there was no subject or object of politics. There was only the darkness that is consummate when gifted minds such as Schmitt’s cloak evil with unreason. Schmitt prepared the legal theory of statelessness.”

    Effectively Synder demonstrates that without a “home place” where reason, democracy, and the rule of law prevail, all sorts of evils are possible which is why the bromides of the “post-nationalists” accommodating the economic globalization so beloved by the oligarchs of this world leave me cold.

    • Withheld thanks for the recommendation of the earlier Tim Synder book. If the book is anything like the quote on greater evil, it will be well worth a read. Especially for people like me who can’t fathom how “gifted minds” fall under the spell of evil doers.

  29. Carlos Beca says:

    Well I already suggested one and I would rather post this URL

    Does this not make us so proud of our democracy. It really works does it not? and we keep voting them in. I wonder if the climate denier prime minister of Australia is also going to be voted in again. Would not be surprised for some reason they are rednecks and bully just like the majority likes them. Wow this is all a great example of how stupid we all are.
    I feel inspired 🙂 🙂
    It has been estimated that half a billion animals already died in the fires. There are concerns entire species of plants and animals have been wiped out.

    • Excellent article Carlos. I’ve worked with many CEOs over the years, there is simply no justification for any of them earning an average of 227 times more than the average worker. Particularly when you consider how many energy executives failed to develop Plan B to address the ongoing bust in oil prices. It’s not like they didn’t know it was coming.

  30. carlosbeca says:

    Anyway no worries – it is an act of God. He does not like Australians anymore.

  31. “Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth”, by Rachel Maddow, is classic Maddow story-telling and connecting of the dots between the US shale revolution, Trump, Tillerson, domestic terrorism, Putin and Ukraine. Many interesting threads in the book – all neatly tied together. The parallels between Oklahoma and Alberta were particularly disturbing as to what our province might become if there isn’t a push back.
    Another I’d recommend is, “Rivals for Power, Ottawa and the Provinces – The contentious History of the Canadian Federation”, by Ed Whitcomb. This book does a great job of going through 150 years of federal-provincial relations and should be read by anyone who wants to better understand the division of powers and money between Ottawa and the provinces.

  32. Oil’s Deep State by Kevin Taft. Clearly sets out how a democratic government SHOULD look & behave. It’s about Alberta, & Albertans (like me) will be shocked, but this is essential knowledge. Dark Money by Jane Mayer (you have pictured) is stomach-churning but makes all too clear how Americans got to the place they’re at. Ouch. Last, I’ve heard recommended but not yet read Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. Take HEART my friends! Connect for strength. The only thing that helped me was finding compadres.

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