For many, the New Year is a time to reflect on the past 12 months, make resolutions (no more coronavirus variants, please), and read! If you need some inspiration, take a look at our editors’ favorite books this year, including some new finds and old classics rediscovered.
“The Education of an Idealist” by Samantha Power (2019)
How can we maintain hope in the face of grave human rights abuses? In The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power tells the story of how she became the youngest U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, urging the reader to stay idealistic in a world full of conflicting national security interests, hard power instruments, and slow foreign policy apparatuses.
Power takes the reader on her journey from a Dublin pub, where she spent much of her childhood reading next to her loving, but alcoholic father, to her immigration to the U.S., her work as a war correspondent in Bosnia, and the life-changing encounter with a young U.S. senator named Barack Obama that led to her role as a top national security official. Through it all, Power provides honest accounts of her victories and mistakes, showing herself as complex – but most of all – human.
Power’s story contains many lessons, including on how to start a career in policy writing (start with boring but essential facts), how boldness can help you achieve your dreams (like that time she forged a letter to obtain a press pass for the Balkans), and how to balance raising small children while working a demanding government job.
Earlier this year, Power assumed the role of the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), where she advances the organization’s mission in strengthening development and human rights. Her deep care for humanitarian causes and own frustrations with bureaucratic decision-making make her an excellent choice for the role. And the billion-dollar budget she now oversees at USAID is just one of the many reasons to pick up this well-written book and get to know this remarkable woman.
“All About Love: New Visions” by bell hooks (2000)
In a world full of tensions, shaken by a pandemic and global conflict, what role does love play? I have spent the past months learning more about love and compassion, inspired by All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks, American author, professor, feminist, and social activist who recently passed away. The book was recommended by a friend, and I had no great expectations, but soon found myself alert at my desk, pencil in hand, reading light switched on.
hooks’ work focuses on the intersectionality of race, capitalism, and gender, and the perpetuation of systems of oppression. All About Love is her attempt to provide a better understanding of a nebulous, yet much heralded sentiment. “The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun, yet […] we would all love better if we used it as a verb,” she writes as she delves into a scientific-philosophical exploration on how love can be better defined. She thereby traces a history from childhood experiences over divinity to a general love ethic.
What makes this book a worthwhile read is its applicability to all walks of life. As a foreign policy professional, I see how both domestic and international politics lack compassion and empathy, how strong trends are evident that we are on a path to a “eat or be eaten” kind of world. Even though “love” may seem too strong a sentiment in international affairs, diplomacy and foreign relations would benefit from more compassionate and cooperative approaches. And even beyond, as the pandemic has made evident the private, yet similar struggles of so many people across the globe, All About Love can help us personally in developing more understanding for our peers in other countries.
“Privacy is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data”
by Carissa Véliz (2020)
Every day we scroll through social media, make hundreds of searches on Google, and take our smartphones wherever we go. Do we realize just how much data we are giving away by performing our daily activities, both voluntarily and not?
In Privacy is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data, Associate Professor at Oxford University Carissa Véliz provides a concise, and at times frightening account of how much social media, Big Tech corporations, and governments know about the population. It is a particularly relevant issue in COVID-19 times, with different apps tracing all of our movements and contacts. Nothing new there, you might say. But have you thought about how these invasions of privacy affect citizens’ autonomy, gradually transforming them into “users and data subjects”?
Véliz draws our attention to how control over personal data provides power in the current digital economy, or “surveillance capitalism”, and argues that we need to regain power by protecting our privacy via small steps. While awaiting further regulation of data control, there are daily solutions to protect yourself and your personal data, for example opting for the good old ‘dumb’ technology instead of smart appliances or the Amazon Alexa.
If you have been hitting the “accept all cookies” button either by reflex or by belief that it is a normal practice in the modern digital world, let this book convince you that you need to reconsider some of your daily uses of digital technology.
“The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende (1982)
In 2022, Isabel Allende’s first novel The House of the Spirits turns 40. Visiting it again this year, I am struck by its timelessness: how valuable its lessons are for any student of history, politics, and power.
The book follows four generations of the Trueba family who live and die amid profound social and political transformation, including a socialist revolution and a violent, militarized backlash. Chile is never mentioned by name, but the parallels are clear. Allende is, after all, the niece of former Chilean President Salvador Allende.
But the book is more than a political allegory of “a half-forgotten country at the end of the earth.” It’s a story about chains of events: how the acts of previous generations haunt our presents and our futures like ghosts; how we inherit hardship and beauty; and how quickly societies come undone.
Speaking of the ghosts of previous generations may sound like a metaphor, but in this magical realist novel, it’s also literal. The family matriarch speaks to the dead; an eccentric uncle flies across mountains on a mechanical bird; a dog the size of a colt exhibits the tenderness of a kitten. The magic sometimes feels like respite from the story’s brutal events. And it struck me how retreating into dreams might just be the most rational response to cyclical and unceasing violence.
At the end of the book, the youngest daughter reflects on the memories passed down through generations: “…the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts.”
If that’s not one of the most important reminders for leaders and policymakers, I don’t know what is.