I’ve noticed I seem to have a different take on politics and people than most people do. I think there are a few books that I’ve read which have shaped my thinking. I wasn’t necessarily trying to learn about politics when I read them, I didn’t read them in any specific order, and they’re not really political books either. The ideas in them just seem to come up a lot.
The first book is Society of the Spectacle, which is a mind-blowing book. It was written in 1967. I don’t read French, so I read the English translation. It’s the sort of book where you make it through a sentence and you genuinely have to stop and think about what you read, not just because the ideas themselves are interesting, but you constantly have to stop and think about how it was written in 1967 and you think about the past 50+ years. There’s a digested version if you want.
Society of the Spectacle practically predicts social media, Instagram, cable news, “fake news”, and more. I think it goes beyond that in predicting things we can’t see like the phenomenon of clickbait headlines, information/filter bubbles, and addictive technology like that described in Hooked (and also predicting the followup, Indistractable). I think it’s worth really considering how these things affect politics and how we talk with each other as a nation.
On the “fake news” subject, Amusing Ourselves to Death nails it. I read this in 2003, and I know this because I liked the book so much that I looked up the author, Neil Postman, only to find out that he had died the week before. It’s never cool to find out about a new band right before they break up.
If you’ve spent any amount of time thinking about fake news and the problems with entertainment-as-news, you should read Amusing Ourselves to Death. It’s similar to Society of the Spectacle, but is much easier to read.
This next one isn’t exactly a book, but more of a subject area: Semiotics. This is some of the most mind-bending stuff of all. The official explanation is that semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, but this doesn’t do it justice. The best way I can explain it is that it’s about how Sherlock Holmes sees the world. It’s almost like a book that’s not about the meaning of things, but how things could mean anything in the first place.
I think semiotics is a foundation for Society of the Spectacle and Amusing Ourselves to Death. Knowing how we create meaning for ourselves seems useful in thinking about how the media affects us. I personally bought an introductory textbook, but there could be better books out there. For me, a big part of the point is about how people interpret the same thing differently, which happens all the time in politics. It seems to require a very careful separation of opinions and facts, and semiotics seems like a way to unwind these.
Onto a different subject with Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s a book written by psychologists that won a Nobel Prize in Economics. That’s like winning in two sports at the same time — not easy. I think it even dips into being a sociology book in a way with discussions about what the authors call WYSIATI — our brains do a bad job at remembering, and I think this is worth keeping in mind when thinking inside our own heads, as well as when dealing with other people as individuals and as groups.
Another sort-of-a-book-but-really-a-subject recommendation is systems thinking. I personally read a book called Thinking in Systems, which covered the subject from an environmental angle, but is really useful when thinking about social programs and how we should think about trying to change things.
I’ll end this with one of my favorite things Obama ever said. This is solid, level-headed advice.
“Once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them,” Mr. Obama said.
“And you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position,” he continued. “The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then to start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved.”
“You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there’s going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment,” he said.https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/24/us/obama-says-movements-like-black-lives-matter-cant-just-keep-on-yelling.html