6 Books from College that Changed My Life

It is back to school season! While I may not be returning to the classroom this year, I still want to get into the academic spirit. Here are the books that I read in college that totally changed the way I see the world around me.

1. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults”

Alexis De Tocqueville

Democracy in America is arguably one of the most quotable books about America ever published. Written shortly after the war for independence, this book takes a comprehensive look at the American experiment while it was still in its infancy. What Tocqueville finds is a society whose political, economic, social, and cultural life have been deeply altered by democratization. As he contrasts life in the United States to that of the aristocratic society in France, Tocqueville makes a powerful case for democracy.

Democracy in America remains one of the most heavily annotated books on my shelves, and I find myself continually referring back to its most stirring passages, long after I finished the class in which it was assigned.

2. Dark Money by Jane Mayer

“They introduced doubt into areas of settled academic and scientific scholarship, undermined genuinely unbiased experts, and gave politicians a menu of conflicting statistics and arguments from which to choose”

Jane Mayer

The biggest names in American politics are not who you think. Ultra-rich families like the Kochs, the Scaifes, the Olins, and the Bradleys have hijacked American democracy for their own profit, and they are not giving it back. Mayer’s book explores the underbelly of a massive network of legal and political institutions that have successfully pushed a radical libertarian ideology into the mainstream. By providing detailed portraits of the nations most secretive political actors, she reveals a new class of American oligarchs and exposes the threat they pose to our democracy.

This book pulled back the curtain of the policy making process for me, and showed me the hidden political forces that make debates around gun control, climate change, and income inequality so intractable in today’s politics. This is required reading for anyone trying to understand the political climate we are currently in.

3. Lifeblood by Matthew Huber

“…as crises attributable to oil intensify, a populist clamoring for cheap energy has less to do with American excess than with the eroding conditions of life under neo-liberalism”

Matthew Huber

The term, oil-state, is generally reserved for oil-producing countries like Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. But according to Huber, the term is also applicable to the United States. Huber argues that oil literally fuels the American Dream and that our cultural attachment to a carbon-intense lifestyle will make it especially difficult for Americans to kick the oil habit. From the rise of automobiles and suburbs to our ideas about entrepreneurship, oil plays both a direct and indirect role in many of our social, economic, and political interactions.

When thinking about the nation’s current struggles to address climate change and its addiction to hydrocarbons, this book helps explain how the U.S. got hooked in the first place.

4. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

“The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.” 

Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander’s seminal work on mass incarceration reveals a painful truth about America’s failure to fulfill the promises of the civil rights movement. Spanning from Nixon’s southern strategy, through the war on drugs, and into the present day, The New Jim Crow demonstrates how prison has become the dominant form of oppression for African Americans – stripping them of their rights and freedom at rates that far outpace their white counterparts. Complicated by the supposed “race-blindness” of the system, mass incarceration presents a particular challenge for civil rights advocates since its racism often lurks beneath the surface.

5. Justice by Michael Sandel

“To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably arise.” 

Michael J. Sandel

What does it mean to live in a just society? Harvard Philosopher, Michael Sandel breaks down the most popular responses to this question in Justice. Addressing issues like affirmative action, same-sex marriage, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, national service and the moral limits of markets Sandel brings high-minded principles of ethics down to earth in a way that is accessible and useful in a modern context.

I had to read this book as a part of a pre-college summer reading requirement, and while the book served as a temporary doorstop during orientation, I found myself constantly returning to Sandel’s ethical questions throughout my college career.

6. Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not “if only.” Not “as long as.” I matter equally. Full stop.” 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Any of Adichie’s books could have made it on this list, but this little treatise is probably my favorite. Written as a letter to a pregnant friend, Adichie gives the reader fifteen suggestions on how to raise a young feminist. I loved this book not only because it was a succinct and compelling guide to being a woman in the 21st century, but also because the forum for this manifesto – as a dialogue between mother and daughter – reflect so closely the process through which I learned to come in to my own identity. This tiny book is powerful in its intimacy, and a cherished member of my bookshelf.

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