YUTOPIA’s Favorite Books – 2019

Last year when I moved my annual “Favorite Books” recap from social media to a blog post, I thought it would be a nice way to keep an archive and write a little more about more books. Unfortunately this year I have a little less to say. It’s not that I haven’t read as much. On the contrary, according to my Goodreads log, I’ve read 106 books this year which is about double my average from the past few years.1

The trouble is, while I read a lot of books I didn’t enjoy as many this year as I have in the past. In fact, out of those 106 books, I can only really recomend two.

For the honorable mentions, I was pleasantly surprised by James Loeffler’s Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century. From the title, I was expecting a hagiographic narrative of how Jews helped define human rights but what I read was a far more engaging and morally complex narrative about the evolution of human rights. I also give an honorable mention to Thomas Chatterton Williams’s Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, a introspective meditation on race as a parent of a mixed-race daughter.

And now, my top two for 2019:

Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy Baumeister
Despite any first impressions from the title, this is not a sensationalist book, though it is intellectually provocative. Baumeister is a professor of social psychology and this work approaches the concept of “evil” from the perpsective of a social scientist as opposed to a moral philosopher. As such, Baumeister does not focus on what is good or bad per se, but how people define and perceive evil.

For example, one of Baumeister’s essential observations is what he calls “the magnitude gap” between the hurt suffered by a victim and the intent or perspective of the perpetrator. That Baumeister would even consider the mindset of perpetrators in a dicussion of evil may seem radical but as Baumeister explains, “I concluded that appreciating the victim’s perspective is essential for a moral evaluation of such acts—but it is ruinous for a causal understanding of them” (Location 483 Kindle edition).

There is obviously more to the book, and I would highly recommend it to anyone invovled in questions of morality or ethics, be they philosophers, policy makers, or anyone interested.

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade
I first became aware of Arnade through his poignant photojournalism on poverty, an particularly with communities in decline. Many pundits bemoan various “divides” in America such as racial, economic, and political. These divides undoubtedly exist, but as Arnade demonstrates they may not be the most critical in terms of understanding.

Instead, Arnade introduces a classroom metaphor of “front-row” and “back-row” where the attentive front-row advances and the back-row gets left behind. More importantly, the front-row sets the rules and policy for how the back-row is supposed to live, despite rarely engaging with them on their terms.

I’m not sure how else to describe Dignity other than to say it’s less about politics than it is about humanity. For this alone, I think it should be read by everyone and why Dignity also gets my nod for favorite book of the year.

Notes

  1. The main reasons for the increase are due to access to a library’s ebook repository and signing up for BookBub. If you do any amount of e-book reading, I highly recommend looking into both options.

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