My Personal Canon – Part 2


A slight change of plans. I was supposed to follow last week’s list of non-fiction books with a similar fiction list. That’s proving to be more difficult than I had anticipated, so I’m going to defer for another week. Instead, I’m posting an addendum to the non-fiction list. While scouring our bookshelves for fiction titles, I encountered more non-fiction books that I’m embarrassed to have skipped last week. Here they are:

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee – It’s more than fifty years since I first read this book, but its impact hasn’t faded. Fortune Magazine sent Agee and the great photographer Walker Evans to Alabama to document the lives of white sharecroppers. The story of this struggling family, captured by Agee’s elegant prose and Evans’ stunning photographs, is unforgettable.

The Power Broker by Robert Caro – This book arrived in my mailbox two years ago, a gift from my friend Peter Levavi. He insisted that I read it so we could discuss it. I usually avoid books of this length because they require a months-long time commitment, but I’m dutiful, so I complied, and I am eternally grateful to Peter. Caro’s book is an account of the life and works of Robert Moses, the man who built highways and public housing in New York City in ways that have affected the lives of millions, more for ill than for good.

There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz – We’re back in public housing here, this time in Chicago. Kotlowitz follows one family in the projects, with a particular focus on two boys whose lives are engulfed by the surrounding violence that deprives them of their childhood. The projects are gone now but, sadly, the violence persists.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the World of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery – All the books on my list changed the way I view the world, but none more than this one. Sy’s encounters with octopuses (yes, that’s the correct form; it’s Latin, not Greek), both in the wild and in The New England Aquarium contain convincing evidence of the intelligence of these strange and wonderful creatures and their ability to form deep bonds with their human counterparts. I have to add that Sy is a dear friend whose love of all living things shines through in her many books for adults and children. Check out The Good Good Pig too.

Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by John Dittmer – This is a book that should be better known by people interested in the Civil Rights Movement and by everyone curious about how change really happens. Dittmer challenges the constant focus on the icons of the Movement and instead introduces us to the courageous Black citizens of the many small communities who risked their lives to fight the right to vote and to get for their children the educations they deserve. He argues, convincingly, that they are the real engine that drove the Movement.

The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week by Eviatar Zerubavel –  This one is a real mind bender. The unit of time we call the week is a completely man-made construct. Days, months and years are anchored by natural phenomena in ways that are not true for the week. We learn that many cultures live by weeks of different lengths, usually tied to the economics of their market days.

The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela – this book was also a gift from a friend, Amy Schuman, who was so moved by it that she bought multiple copies to give away to fortunate recipients like me. The story of Mandela’s humble beginnings, his involvement in the struggle for freedom in South Africa, his 27 year-long imprisonment and his rise to the leadership of his new-born nation is well-known, but the details of the story are an inspiration. Our visit to Robben Island just days after Trump’s inauguration in 2017 imbues this book with a special resonance for me.

The Reawakening by Primo Levi – There are so many books about the Holocaust that I could include here, including Levi’s own Survival in Auschwitz or his The Periodic Table, but I chose this title because it made me aware of a period I knew nothing about – the years immediately following the end of WW II, when the continent was in complete chaos, all its institutions shattered and masses of people wandering across its landscape, attempting to return to homes that no longer existed and in search of relatives who were also likely dead.

Dark Money by Jane Mayer – This author, through her prodigious research, has exposed the many ways our political system has been corrupted by the flow of virtually untraceable money which infects everything from Congressional and Presidential elections to local school board battles. Many of us have suspected as much, but Mayer puts a face to it.

I promise I’ll stop now, although tomorrow I’ll regret my failure to include other seminal titles. I’ll borrow here the phrase that is often said of poems. Lists are never completed. They are abandoned.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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