Here’s a message you won’t often hear from us at POLITICO: We’re giving you our blessing to tune out the news, just for a moment, so you can settle in with a good book.
Every year, we ask cultural icons, philosophical thinkers and political changemakers — from novelists and journalists to military generals and politicians — to share the books that are fueling them this summer.
This year, we asked them for two recommendations: a book they’re showing off in their Zoom backgrounds and a book they’d like to kick back with at the beach or by the pool.
A famous artist’s love story, a biography of Nic Cage, a history of Black nuns and so much more — this year’s list will have you reading away all summer.
Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation and author of She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World
By Timothy Snyder
I’m reading Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands to better understand the horrors of war and violence across Hitler and Stalin and to better understand our world today. I’ve already learned so much from his analysis and perspective in On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom, so reading Bloodlands is going further into Snyder’s work.
The Candy House
By Jennifer Egan
The book I am looking forward to reading on the beach is The Candy House, by Jennifer Egan. I try to read everything she writes, and the Guardian positioned this as the companion novel to A Visit From the Goon Squad, which I absolutely loved. Also, as the right to privacy continues to be under threat and assault, from our legislatures to our courts, I am looking forward to Egan’s reflections — through her story — on what that could mean for our future.
Author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington
Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy
By Erich Schwartzel
I’m touring the country promoting my own book this summer, and having the opportunity to read anything is a rare privilege. But I will be making time for my friend Erich Schwartzel’s Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy. It’s a long overdue account of how the Chinese Communist Party seduced those paragons of conscientious global citizenship and peerless moral courage: Hollywood executives and celebrities.
Tracy Flick Can’t Win
By Tom Perrotta
I can’t wait to read Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta. Living in a city full of actual versions of Perrotta’s eponymous student body politician, I can attest that nobody has ever captured the pettiness and vanity of American politics as well as Perrotta did in Election (adapted by Alexander Payne into one of the greatest films of the past quarter century). Tracy might never win, but she’ll always have a place in my heart.
Washington Correspondent, New York Magazine
Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy
By Erich Schwartzel
Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy, by Erich Schwartzel. I don’t think I’ve read a single book from a Wall Street Journal investigative reporter in the last five years that has been anything less than excellent. Billion Dollar Whale, Bad Blood… Here, Schwartzel reports with cinematic flair on the deeply strange and alarming story of China’s increasing control over America’s internationalized entertainment industry and often the entertainment products themselves.
By Jennifer Clement
Widow Basquiat, by Jennifer Clement. There is a passage in Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father that I think of from time to time. He is describing a woman he loved in New York, and before he gets to the sad parts, he says this: “You know how you can fall into your own private world? Just two people, hidden and warm. Your own language. Your own customs. That’s how it was.” This book is like that the whole way through. It is a portal to a private world that existed between Jean-Michel Basquiat and Suzanne Mallouk, his longtime girlfriend. The book is told in novella style from Mallouk’s point of view, filtered through the prose of her close friend, Clement. It would be wrong to call it a love letter, but it is a portrait of an artist by an artist who respected him as a human being, and so, whether a passage describes him at his very best and kindest or his most destructive and infuriating, it is inflected all the same with a deep love and acceptance. It is a remarkable document, I think, in its generosity to its subject and its readers. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished it.
Opinion Columnist, New York Times
Life and Fate
By Vasily Grossman
Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman. Bob Gottlieb, the editor and writer and most well-read human, has been recommending it to me — and the world — for over a year, calling it the best novel of the post-war era, and more recently, saying simply, of Grossman, “He IS Ukraine.” I am drawn to the idea of a novel offering insight into global conflict — Dean Baquet once passed along a recommendation of Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad to help understand the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Hadji Murad is a novella less than 200 pages long. Life and Fate is 871 pages. I have my copy! I just need to read it.
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I recently started Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a decade late. I’m such a fan of Adichie as an essayist, a public intellectual, a critic and a person that it’s slightly insane that until now, I’d never read any of her fiction. She writes with warmth, appreciation and humor about complicated characters caught up in human situations we can all understand — and yet also with such specificity about Nigerians and Nigerian Americans. I’d like to squeeze in one more recommendation: Hernan Diaz’s Trust — the best novel I’ve read so far this year.
Former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives
Never Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England
By Michael Livingston
I am reading Michael Livingston’s Never Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England.
The Rise and Reign of the Mammals
By Steve Brusatte
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and host of Ernie’s Secret, an investigative podcast about civil rights photographer and FBI informant Ernest Withers
Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation
By Linda Villarosa
Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation, by Linda Villarosa. I’m midway through this, and it’s truly a remarkable piece of research and journalism, exposing in clear language the ways in which racism still determines which Americans live and which of us die.
Keya Das’s Second Act
By Sopan Deb
Like basically every journalist whom I know, I’m convinced that one day I’ll write a novel. And so I’m extremely envious that Sopan Deb actually did it. I really can’t wait to dive into Keya Das’s Second Act.
Chair of the KKR Global Institute
The World According to China
By Elizabeth Economy
The Gotti Wars
By John Gleeson
Author of The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars
The Last Days Of Roger Federer: And Other Endings
By Geoff Dyer
I try to avoid having books in the Zoom background because I don’t want to be quizzed on them if I haven’t read them yet, but if the camera somehow drifted to my bedside table it would capture Geoff Dyer’s The Last Days Of Roger Federer: And Other Endings. Dyer is both a brilliant critic and a hilariously trenchant and unapologetic observer of the human ego — including his own. This book is about that question that most egos can’t bring themselves to answer: How do we know when our best days are behind us? Dyer ponders that puzzle via treatises on figures and phenomena ranging from Beethoven to Burning Man.
Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism
I’m also about to start reading Joanna Scutts’ Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism. It tells the story of a band of “unruly and individualistic” first-wave feminists that came together in 1912 not because they agreed on everything but because they disagreed. They are, according to Scutts, “Democrats, Republicans, Prohibitionists, socialists, anarchists, liberals and radicals of all opinions.” That’s my kind of beach read.
Associate Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and author of Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drugs Laws and the Politics of Punishment
Criminal (In)Justice: What the Push for Decarceration and Depolicing Gets Wrong and Who It Hurts Most
By Rafael Mangual
The book that will be in my Zoom background is Rafael Mangual’s Criminal (In)Justice: What the Push for Decarceration and Depolicing Gets Wrong and Who It Hurts Most. In this critical moment in this era of criminal justice reform, I’m looking for fresh thinking about crime and punishment in the United States. I can’t wait to read this, argue with it and digest its rich empirical findings.
The Ruin of Everything
By Lara Stapleton
I’m taking Lara Stapleton’s The Ruin of Everything to the beach. I love reading intricate fiction about race, and Stapleton’s complex narrative structure will undoubtedly bedevil and enchant while wrestling with fundamental questions about identity.
Author of Hell of a Book
Moral Man and Immoral Society
By Reinhold Niebuhr
Moral Man and Immoral Society, by Reinhold Niebuhr. This isn’t a new book, but it’s a very important one — arguably, even more important right now. Moral Man and Immoral Society attempts to explain why individuals can be good, but once they’re clustered together into groups, societies can commit terrible actions. In my opinion, it should be required reading, if only as a reminder not to lose hope in humanity. And after the recent Supreme Court decision(s), isn’t that something we all need?
Age of Cage
By Keith Phipps
What book am I taking to the beach? Age of Cage, by Keith Phipps. My love of Nic Cage is no secret. I haven’t read it yet, but the premise alone — a macro view of Nic Cage’s career and how it relates to Hollywood as a whole over the last 40 years — is the type of book that may have been written specifically with me in mind. I can’t wait to read it.
Keisha N. Blain
Professor of Africana Studies and History at Brown University and author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom
Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle
By Shannen Dee Williams
Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle, by Shannen Dee Williams. This eye-opening, inspiring and thoroughly researched book unearths a history that few Americans know: the challenges and triumphs of Black Catholic nuns in the United States. It’s one of the most exciting new books in Black women’s history and powerfully captures the interconnections between race, religion and politics.
Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Life and Times of a Caged Bird
By Gene Andrew Jarrett
Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Life and Times of a Caged Bird, by Gene Andrew Jarrett. I’m immersed in reading this fascinating and beautifully written biography of the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. It’s an intimate portrait of a complex and complicated literary figure who deserves more recognition.
Min Jin Lee
Author of Pachinko
By Anand Giridharadas
The Persuaders, by Anand Giridharadas, is coming out in October, and I think it will be on every smart and cool person’s shelf. It’s an important book because Giridharadas is calling on us to think and care about important issues in utterly original ways, even if it means that we will not always stay in our safer lanes. I can’t think of a more urgent book for our times.
In the Country of Others
By Leila Slimani
Just got In the Country of Others, by Leila Slimani. She wrote the compelling and propulsive novel, The Perfect Nanny, and because she’s such a beautiful writer, I am certain this historical novel will be a literary winner that I will savor.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University and host of Finding Your Roots on PBS
The Trayvon Generation
By Elizabeth Alexander
Elizabeth Alexander’s The Trayvon Generation is a stunning meditation on our young people’s constant exposure to and experiences with racial violence, both physical and verbal, on the streets and in print or video. Alexander’s book is devastating and raw, but also beautiful and hopeful, a story of Black persistence and expression through the universal language of art.
Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy
By Wolfram Eilenberger
Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy, by Wolfram Eilenberger. It’s a riveting book, actually, so well-written, offering us still one more way to think about the remarkably fecund decade called the Jazz Age. To think that these bold innovations in philosophical discourse were unfolding precisely in the same decade in which Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were inventing an entirely new genre of music is endlessly fascinating. The only thing missing in this book is a list of albums each thinker owned!
Secretary of Education
Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem
By Amanda Gorman
Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem, by Amanda Gorman.
Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero
By David Maraniss
Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, by David Maraniss.