Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963: Let’s put it this way: this book changed my life. I don’t think that any other single book that I have read, aside from the Bible, has had so much impact on the way that I think about the world. It opened up an entirely new world to me as I watched the Civil Rights Movement unfold over the course of Taylor Branch’s narrative. The African American religious tradition, the theology and politics of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders, the intricate federal politics, the terrible violence, the tensions within the movement, and the courage of ordinary people are vividly portrayed. If you’re not familiar with the history of race relations in America in general and the Civil Rights Movement in particular, I can’t imagine a more compelling introduction than this book.
King Leopold’s Ghost: Journalist Adam Hochschild describes the brutal exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium and his private company in excruciating detail, and then turns to the missionaries, activists, and others who finally exposed the horrors of the “Congo Free State.” It’s a powerful and disturbing look into the history of one of Africa’s most troubled countries and gives the reader a good window into European imperialism in Africa by looking into one of the most extreme cases. I was so impressed by the way that Hochschild kept asking the right questions, even about the activists themselves. Hochschild won an award from the American Historical Association in recognition of the quality and impact of this book.
All Quiet on the Western Front: Erich Maria Remarque makes a powerful critique of war in this novel. The author served in the German army in World War I, and he tells the story of Paul Bäumer, a young German soldier who joined the army with his friends. Remarque takes the reader into trenches, hospitals, the home front, and a poison gas attack. Written in the 1920s and banned in Nazi Germany, it seems to me that this classic sheds light on the roots of Germany’s terrible 31 years from 1914-1945.
Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: In this collection of essays from the early 1990s, farmer and writer Wendell Berry champions the local, sustainable economies and communities against the changes being wrought by industrialization and the emerging global economy. Thrilling, right? But Berry’s unique perspective and his unwillingness to fit comfortably into the established lines of debate on these issues (as the excerpt from Kirkus Reviews points out on the back) make his ideas compelling. He also issues a clarion call for Christians to care deeply about peace and the environment. And the title essay features a great exploration of community values and the freedom and responsibility of expression in relation to those community values.
Not for Sale: David Batstone writes an eye-opening introduction to the global slave trade, which is surprisingly strong. Unlike the Atlantic slave trade that was abolished in the 1800s, it can’t flourish in the open. But in places like Thailand, India, Uganda, and even the United States, it thrives on exploiting economically vulnerable people for sex and labor. It’s not just a chronicle of suffering, though. Batstone intends it to be a tool for those who would work to abolish these networks around the world.