Three books to help you understand right now

I promised this year some book recommendations as part of my little blogging experiment, but I’m going to apologize in advance: a lot of what I read (and, in some cases, listen to) aren’t exactly cheerful, but they definitely end up being incredibly informative on a lot of levels. I’ve decided to start with the three books below because in many, many ways they help to frame the situation that we are currently living in today–in the case of one of them, have been living in since at least 2016 and in the case of the other two, since roughly March of 2020. If you prefer listening to these books rather than reading them, all are available via Audible and the voice performance on each is excellent.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

How Democracies Die is one of those books that I have not stopped recommending to people since I read it. Coincidentally, I read it as part of a political science class focusing on democracy and authoritarianism and the discussions my class had regarding this book were probably as good as the book itself was (which speaks highly of the quality of conversation that we had in the class). Levitsky and Ziblatt are political scientists who have written academically on competitive authoritarian regimes and the trajectory of governments in Latin America and the post-Soviet bloc, so they definitely know what they’re talking about as they approach the question of democracy–in this case, the threats faced by purportedly strong democracies like the United States, which is their primary focus for this work. They take time to explain the norms and practices of democracy in the United States, describing the “guardrails” of governance and the changes over time within American government. While some of the suggestions they’ve made at the end of the book do not seem to be as possible as they might have been when the book was released three years ago (January 2018), the book is chock full of explanations of how we got to where we’re at and insights onto how to fix at least some of the problems we’re facing.

Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

This is one of two books on the 1918 flu that I’ve listened to recently–coincidentally, the second book I started listening to on the subject and the first one that I finished. Because the 1918 flu is a research interest of mine, I had actually consumed this book well before the pandemic began, then returned to it this summer for a second time through. Pale Rider is extremely accessible for those who are maybe not as fascinated by the historical minutia of how the state of medicine changed in the early twentieth century, offering up the various theories on where the flu started, how it spread, why it came to be called “the Spanish Flu,” and how it affected ordinary people. It gives an incredible overview on the subject and represents an excellent entry-level book to the subject.

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

In contrast to Pale Rider, The Great Influenza offers a much deeper dive into the history of medicine in the early twentieth century, the science behind combatting the 1918 flu, and how the flu not only reshaped society, but reshaped medicine, especially in the United States. Barry has been in the news on and off throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (I remember reading a few articles he wrote for the Washington Post on the subject throughout 2020) because of his expertise. The Great Influenza is definitely a much thicker, more academic tome than Pale Rider, but it is just as fascinating, if not moreso. The information it provides, too, offers insights into the current behavior of a lot of people in the United States currently suffering major pandemic fatigue–and explains why so many have wanted to deny the severity of the illness in the first place.

All three of the above books offer insights into where we’ve been in the past year. I didn’t find them too depressing–the latter two were much more fascinating than depressing, but I also read both before the pandemic actually started. None of them are necessarily for the faint of heart, but I would suggest that all three are essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about the functioning of American democracy vis-a-vis competitive authoritarian regimes or about the 1918 flu.

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