24+ Books That Have Shaped My Understanding of the 20th and 21st Centuries

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Probably most people who know me through this website know me primarily as an arts and literature person. That is my profession, and that’s mainly the way I’ve oriented this website, but I’m also heavily into politics. My undergrad degree was in Political Science and Economics, and I still read a lot in those disciplines, even if that reading tends not to make it to this blog.

Well, with the state of the world as it is, maybe it’s time to feature a little more of those kinds of books on this site.

So, with that in mind, here’s a list of books that I think can go a long way toward helping understand exactly where we are now in the world, politically speaking, and where this all might be headed. This is not an exhaustive list; it’s a very idiosyncratic, personal, and probably incomplete list of the books that have shaped my vision of the world.

Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy by Barrington Moore

“Fascism” and “Nazi” are two words that are getting thrown around quite a bit right now. Well, this is basically the book on where fascism in Europe came from, why some societies went toward fascism, while others went toward democracy. In terms of understanding the contemporary drift toward authoritarian leaders, this is worth roughly a million thinkpieces on the Trump voter.

Postwar by Tony Judt

World War II was basically the Big Bang that exploded out into the world we live in today. You can’t understand our current globe without understanding what that war did, how the West recovered from it, and how the resulting global order evolved over the decades. Tony Judt’s Postwar is basically the single best text for comprehending this.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

I just gave you Postwar, and now this: what I consider the definitive novelistic response to the Second World War

Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty

I look at this as the essential companion volume to Postwar. Basically, the long European conflict now known as World War I and World War II opened the way for an economic regime unlike any that had ever existed in Europe. This is where the middle class and the postwar wealth, freedom, and (relative) equality came from. Piketty lays it all out, as well as explaining why this order looks to be regressing to something much more 19th-century.

Just and Unjust Wars by Michael Walzer

The decision to go to war is one of the gravest a society can make, particularly when said society has more destructive firepower than the next 10 combined. It’s hard to know just when war is warranted (if it ever is). Michael Walzer is one of our nation’s leading political philosophers, and this is his major statement on these questions. The thoughts here, as well as the discussion of major historical examples—including many from the signal conflicts of the 20th century—is essential.

Ryszard Kapuscinski

It’s hard to pick any one book by Kapuscinski, since he tended not to write large, all-encompassing volumes (maybe his “tyrant trilogy”—The Emperor, Shah of Shahs and Amin (unfinished) comes the closest). But in terms of understanding what was happening in the developing world in the 20th century his body of work is essential.

The Master Switch by Tim Wu

Knowledge is power, information is capital. Facebook spread more fake election news than real. If this rings true to you, then you want to know who’s controlling the information you get and how. Tim Wu has written a pretty definitive account of how the major media of our age—radio, TV, film, the Internet—have all pretty much taken a similar path in terms of who controls them and to what end.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer

Fascism, Nazis, Hitler, these are all common points of comparison nowadays. If you want to see what the genuine article was and how it came to exist and eventually be exterminated, this is the book you need. It’s very big, and also addictive.

Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

If The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is the nonfiction you read on Nazism, this is the fiction. How German is it? Where does radicalism come from? How deeply is fascism embedded in the West’s cultural DNA? This is the book to read on these and other related questions.

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

An essential text on the USSR. I’m not sure if the sell an unabridged edition any more (the link goes to an abridged, recent edition).

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

The essential novel of the totalitarian mind. This and Orwell’s 1984 go together like peanut butter and milk. And also, probably, The Captive Mind, which I’m reading right now, and of course the work of Hannah Arendt.

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

The key text on the struggles of the oppressed peoples of the 20th century.

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

One of Freud’s most famous texts, also very readable and probably one of his most relevant works today. Basically, what impulses led human beings to work together in communities, and what impulses are threatening to tear those bonds apart?

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Not a book about the 20th century per se, in explaining how the world map got to be as it stands is explains the deep roots of modernity and thus gives a very deep look into societies in general. A great, hugely illuminating read.

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy by Francis Fukuyama

Don’t be intimidated by the title: this book is very easy to read, ad hugely fascinating. Basically, it’s an authoritative account of what makes democracies tick, how they have been given stability and strength, and how these qualities have been detracted from. The sections on the U.S. are of great importance right now.

Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard

This is a key work for processing how the order of the early 21s century transformed in the years after the war and turned into the postmodern, heavily mediated present. Essential reading for figuring out how we process political realities at the moment.

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault

How does the modern nation-state enforce its values? How does it generate the power it uses to control its citizens? Where do these things come from (historically)? This is the book to read on those questions. Contains Foucault’s discussion of the “panopticon,” definitely one of the most famous pieces of writing Foucault ever made.

The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi

One of the core texts of Keynesian economics and a great education on where the industrialized world came from. Still one of the best cases against the “self-regulating” market.

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama

The French Revolution is basically the big bang of the modern values core to any Western-style democracy. This is the best single-volume popular account.

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand

This is the story of American thought in the post–Civil War era. Basically, Menand covers much of the groundwork for the various strains of thought that have come to dominate America thought in the realms of politics, science, education, and philosophy in the 20th century.

River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit

My favorite Solnit book, and a great read alongside the Menand. Basically, where to modern concepts of time and distance come from? (Photography, the railroads.) And how have they shaped the modern perception of the world and life?

Rise to Globalism by Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas G. Brinkley

How did America become a world power, and what did it to with that power once it had it? A very strong single-volume narrative of American foreign policy from the era of the Nazis through 9/11.

The Faith of the Faithless by Simon Critchley

A great book about how belief in God has become belief in State in the 20th century. Also about how authority is legitimatized in the modern nation-state. On these and similar questions I would also recommend Simone Weil. And you’d probably also want to have Sartre on existentialism in here, too.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

This book is so foundational to feminism in the 20th century that even if you haven’t read it, you’ve kind of already read it, because so many ideas that are now second-nature originally came from it.

Mark Danner

Mark Danner’s reporting on Bush-era war crimes and abuses in the NYRB was the best reporting I read on the subject. He’s published some volumes collecting these pieces, plus a lot of other reporting from all around the world. I recommend it.



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