by David McCullough, 2001
In this second presidential biography, David McCullough provides a sweeping narrative of John Adams’s life. History seems to have largely forgotten Adams – there are no monuments to his name, his birthday is not a national holiday, his face does not appear on any form of currency. McCullough’s biography attempts to correct that mistake, giving modern readers a thorough account not just of his presidency, but all that he accomplished in the years leading up to it. If, at times, I felt a bit fatigued by the extent of McCullough’s detail, this was made up for by the fact that his life contained as much drama as, well, an HBO miniseries.
by Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2017
“Required reading” is a phrase I’ve been using a lot these days, but it’s still the phrase I would use to describe the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was with bated breath that I placed a hold on his new book a month prior to its publication and I gleefully picked it up from the library on the day it was released. I had thoroughly enjoyed Between the World and Me and was excited to get my hands on this collection of essays. Now, perhaps because I had just read Michael Eric Dyson, whose dynamism cannot be matched, or perhaps because I had such pent up anticipation, which never leads to anything but disappointment, I found I was less enamored of this book than I expected I would be. I hadn’t realized this wouldn’t be new material and, accordingly, it did not attack the subject manner in the way I had assumed it would. I don’t read The Atlantic, so while the material was new to me and I was glad to be able to access it in a collected volume, I felt that they didn’t quite come together to paint a cohesive picture. But, there is still so much to be gained from Coates’s words and I will argue with anyone that his voice is a necessary one in our world today.
by Michael Eric Dyson, 2017
narrated by the author
It may seem difficult to determine to whom, exactly, Michael Eric Dyson is addressing his sermon in Tears We Cannot Stop. The subtitle may be, “A Sermon to White America,” but I have to doubt that many white Americans will be interested in his words. This is not because I believe that the majority of white Americans are uncaring or lack compassion, but the truth is that we tend to gravitate toward things with which we directly relate. In fact, that’s the whole spirit of the Read Harder Challenge – to get us to read material that is vastly different from what usually occupies our minds. (I’d add to this that part of the problem is that most people don’t read, but that’s another argument for another day.) So, in addressing his book to an audience that it likely won’t reach, is Dyson simply preaching to the choir?
by W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903
There is a certain sense of wonder – or is it chagrin? – when reading a hundred-year-old book that exemplifies the adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Such is the case with W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays published at the turn of the 20th century that are, sadly, as poignant today as they were a mere 40 years post-Emancipation. Race relations have no doubt improved greatly since then, yet not so much as to prevent the reader from sitting slack-jawed and wondering if Du Bois were writing these words today. He and his ideas are far from obsolete.
by Richard Beeman, ed., 2012
You may wonder why I’m reading this. How can you not know the D of I and the Constitution? you might ask. Sure, I took AP Government like any good high schooler and I’m bound to have studied these documents then, but that was nearly 20 years ago and I’ll be damned if I remember anything other than who my teacher was and who I used to pass notes to. As Richard Beeman notes in his introduction to this first book in the lovely Penguin Civics Classics series, “There is…[a] large body of evidence suggesting that Americans’ knowledge of their history and of the way in which their institutions have worked over the course of history is embarrassingly meager.” And, really, I’m just trying not to be one of those Americans. I had a conversation with a friend recently where I relayed an ignorant comment I’d heard in regards to The Underground Railroad. The reviewer in question erroneously believed the literal railroad, as depicted in the book, to be true and I wondered how someone could lack that basic understanding of American history. “The question is,” my friend said, “how responsible are we, as people of color, to seek out and educate the ignorant?”
“Is it our responsibility to educate? Or is it their responsibility to seek education?” I countered. “After high school, is not the onus on the individual to educate themselves?”
by Ron Chernow, 2010
I’ve never been much for reading biographies, so when I saw an acquaintance pledge to read a biography for each president last year I thought, that’s nice, but not for me. It wasn’t until I read this Book Riot piece, in the midst of our political upheaval, that I started to understand the reasoning behind the challenge. I, too, have felt woefully uneducated about our country’s history and, if the “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” aphorism has any truth to it – and I believe it does – then I need to learn me some history stat. That’s how I came to decide that I, too, would embark on the challenge to read a biography of each American president and hopefully offer a little less ignorance to the world.
I have mixed feelings about All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (Rebecca Traister, 2016). On the one hand I see the importance of shining light on a traditionally marginalized group, for that is what single women are. On the other hand, I’m not entirely certain who the intended audience is. Is it for married women, wishing to understand their unmarried daughters, sisters, and friends? For men, wishing to gain some insight into the opposite gender? Or is it for people like me, who can’t help but see themselves reflected so sharply? My guess is that it’s a bit for all – there’s as much to gained by reading about people whose lives are vastly different from yours as there is comfort to be found in discovering that you are very much not alone. For that may indeed be Traister’s theme – although we may be single, we are not alone.