PACS news/December 9, 2020

PACS 2020 Faculty recommended reading list

Winter edition

If you, like everyone else, have been oscillating between the growing need to achieve personal growth during a pandemic and a desire to hide under a warm blanket with a good book, we’ve got you covered! 

With a wide-ranging purview, PACS faculty and leadership have curated a reading list to inform and enrich our work in the field while stoking the purpose and passion that fuel it. From history and political science to contemporary fiction and old-fashioned mysteries, our recommendations delve into topical themes like genetic testing and voter mistrust as well as endemic issues like race and equity. The result is a reading list that is unique to PACS and unique to you, our collaborators.

Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help, by Larissa MacFarquhar, a longtime writer for The New Yorker, is a fascinating yet unsettling book, recommended by faculty codirector Rob Reich. Through stories about extreme givers and “do-gooders,” MacFarquhar reveals the highs and lows of people determined to devote their lives to giving. From the publisher: “Strangers Drowning confronts us with fundamental questions about what it means to be human. In a world of strangers drowning in need, how much should we help, and how much can we help?” 

Another title recommended by Reich is Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, dubbed “an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far” by The New York Times, and named one of the ten best books of the year by the Washington Post. In this book, Isabel Wilkerson reveals a largely unseen — or unrecognized — phenomenon in America: a caste system. Going deep back in history, Wilkerson shows that a powerful caste system determines people’s fate, social mobility, health, life expectancy, and more. Wilkerson also shows how America can overcome divisions, picturing the world built on the premise of our common humanity.

Lucy Bernholz, Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford PACS, recommends Martha S. Jones’ Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Equality for All. Jones, an acclaimed historian, shares the untold story of how African-American women fought a parallel fight for their political rights in the shadow of the suffragettes movement in the United States. This powerful book details the stories of brave African-American women who challenged both patriarchy and racism to secure their own rights. 

The second title from Bernholz’s library will provide escape in the world of unsolved crimes, at least until you understand it’s more than fiction — it’s a warning about the dangers of genetic testing. In Michael Connelly’s thriller Fair Warning, a New York Times bestseller, a vicious killer has been hunting women, using genetic data to select and stalk his targets. A veteran reporter aims to track him down. 

The Overstory by Richard Powers, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, comes strongly recommended by faculty codirector Woody Powell. This book “is a stunning historical novel that intersects the lives of nine Americans through their experiences of nature and resistance,” says Powell. Another of Powell’s recommendations is Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, which hedescribes as “an intimate story of race, religion, science, really all the themes discussed above, about slavery, meritocracy, immigration, realized through the story of a doctoral student.” 

From  Paul Brest, faculty director of the Effective Philanthropy Learning Initiative at Stanford PACS and an expert on constitutional law, philanthropy, and impact investing, comes a recommendation for Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Rebecca Henderson, McArthur University Professor at Harvard University. “Reimagining Capitalism is a very readable and sensible prescription for changes in the behavior of corporations, investors, and regulators to move beyond the neoliberal model of shareholder primacy to corporate responsibility for a broad range of stakeholders and to the planet itself,” says Brest. “The book is optimistic without being utopian, though it suffers from the typical business book syndrome of having almost only success stories in a domain where there are many failures as well.” 

And as we are approaching the U.S. Presidential inauguration in January, Nathaniel Persily, faculty codirector of the Program on Democracy and the Internet, and an expert on American election law, recommends Edward Foley’s Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States, in which Foley reveals the underlying structural problem originating in the way the Founding Fathers envisioned the future when they were writing the constitution. As the main theme of the 2020 elections was voters’ mistrust in the integrity of the process, Persily also recommends Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy by Richard L. Hasen. In this book, Hasen highlights four factors increasing mistrust among the U.S. electorate and discusses steps necessary to restore trust in American elections.


Woody Powell

Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap 

David Goodhart, Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century 

Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good

James Scott, Seeing Like a State

Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death 

Louise Penny, Inspector Gamache series (all sixteen volumes)

Jean-Luc Bannalec, Commissaire Dupin series 

Richard Powers, The Overstory 

Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom

Rob Reich 

Larissa MacFarquhar, Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help

N.K. Jemisin, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” from her new collection of stories How Long ’til Black Future Month?

Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent

Lucy Bernholz:

Jill Lepore, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future 

Martha S. Jones, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Equality for All 

Michael Connelly, Fair Warning

Nathaniel Persily: 

Richard L. Hasen, Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy

Edward Foley, Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States

Paul Brest: 

Rebecca Henderson, Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire

For more reading recommendations, Stanford Social Innovation Review offers a wide-ranging repository of book reviews and excerpts exploring important and enriching themes from across the sector.