2017: Books of the Year

What a year, eh? 2017 was a long, challenging year for many people –- myself included. That said, there were some great things that happened this year: Ray and I were able to buy our first home, I made new friends and grew closer to old ones, and I actually exceeded my book goal! Last year, I wrote a post about my top three books of 2016. This year, I’m continuing the tradition. All of these books get the Official Ryan Stamp of Approval. I’m not claiming they’re the best books I read this year, but they are the books that made an impact and stuck with me, and that I would wholeheartedly recommend to others. It’s a very politically-oriented list this year – a sign of the times, I suppose. Without further ado, here are the three books, alphabetically by author.

Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

For many years, I’ve wanted to start the journey of reading a biography of every US President. This year, I finally started with Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin about the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. It was a great start, and it gave me the momentum I needed to read two more.

Team of Rivals tells the story of Lincoln’s ascension and presidency through the eyes of several of the men in his cabinet (the “Rivals” referenced the title), many of whom he beat out for the presidency. Lincoln’s first act as president was assembling a cabinet not of yes-men, but of his former rivals who he knew would challenge him every day. This book is a remarkable study in leadership and communication.

I found it to be immensely readable. Goodwin pieces together historical accounts and quotes to create a biography more engaging than I would have thought possible for such well-trodden ground. Some will complain that it was long, and it’s true; Goodwin does go off on tangents throughout the book, but in my opinion the meandering nature of those sections painted a more immersive picture of the times. Did I need to know all about Salmon Chase’s daughter’s marriage? Maybe not, but it further developed his character, and it helped me understand the relationships between the major players.

I knew how it was going to end, yet I found myself hoping Lincoln was going to make it out alive up to the last pages. I don’t have much to say about Honest Abe that others haven’t already said better than I can. Reading this book at this particular time was in some ways an escape. It was nice to immerse myself in a world where Abraham Lincoln was president for a while, and to imagine his hand gripping the rudder in a tumultuous time.

Bonus recommendation: If you’re going to read about Civil War and Reconstruction-era politicians, I’d suggest also reading the works of Frederick Douglass. This year I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave along with it. It’s not often that a book brings me to tears, but I wept when Douglass described receiving his first pair of trousers. He tells of the time he was sent to a new overseer in the city as a child, and because he would be around other people in town he was given a pair of trousers – something he’d never had before. He described the fervor with which he washed the grime and mange from his skin before putting on the trousers so not to dirty them. So much of this book is so heartbreaking, and a necessary reminder of our shameful (and not-so-distant) past.

The Healing of America, by T.R. Reid

After the last election, healthcare policy was something that was really stuck in my mind. It’s an issue that dominates our discourse and activates constituencies all across the political map, but the truth is I didn’t know much about any of it. I didn’t understand the insurance markets, the structure of healthcare systems, how we measure the success of healthcare, or what the systems are like in other countries. At the end of last year, I was perusing the internet, trying to find a book that could help me start to wrap my head around it all. I came across a few recommendations for Reid’s book, ordered it, and it was the book I rang in the new year with. Let me say, it was exactly the book I was looking for. It was engaging, well-organized, and mostly jargon-free. All of which are rare qualities in a public policy book.

He organizes his book around four different Health Care System prototypes: Bismarck Systems (private insurers, private providers. Some examples: Germany, Japan), Beveridge Systems  (public insurers, mostly-public providers. Examples: UK), National Health Insurance Systems (public insurers, private providers. Examples: Canada, Taiwan), Out-of-Pocket Systems (India, most of the developing world.) Reid walks through many different implementations of these models, describing how they’re structured, and what is working well or poorly for them. He looks at these implementations through the lenses of Coverage, Quality, Cost, and Choice. He also weaves his personal story throughout: he has a chronic shoulder issue and he describes his experience with many different health systems around the world.

Lurking in the background of all these discussions is the system in the United States, where we have one of the most expensive systems, some of the worst quality outcomes, very poor coverage, and on top of all that it’s really darn complicated. In fact, Reid points out that our system in the US is actually all of the above systems combined into one incoherent mish-mash.  He describes some of the things we could learn from these other countries, and cites examples of countries which have recently overturned their existing health care system to make way for universal coverage (Switzerland being the most similar to the US.)

Reid believes that we are approaching this problem all wrong  – we are beginning the conversation as an economic one instead of a moral one. He borrows from renowned healthcare economist Bill Hsiao when he says that the first thing we must wrestle with is a question: is healthcare a human right that we have a moral obligation to provide? His thesis is that our healthcare systems are a reflection of their moral priorities, and we have to get those in line first.

The way Reid organizes this book is a real treat. It makes it so easy to digest, read, and reflect on later. I find myself referencing his four prototypes on a regular basis.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein

“Half a century ago, the truth of de jure segregation was well known, but since then we have suppressed our historical memory and soothed ourselves into believing that it all happened by accident or by misguided private prejudice. Popularized by Supreme Court majorities from the 1970s to the present, the de facto segregation myth has no been adopted by conventional opinion, liberal and conservative alike.” – pp XII, Preface

This book is thoroughly researched, logically constructed, empathetic, and easy to read. Rothstein makes the case that the idea of de facto segregation is a myth, and that segregation – yes, even today – exists largely due to organized social and governmental efforts. He walks through several of the mechanisms used to segregate people, includingWW2-era federal mortgage insurance restrictions, withholding funding for housing projects that were not in segregated neighborhoods, restrictive covenants in deeds, state-sanctioned violence, and many others.

It’s not just facts and figures. Rothstein tells the stories of autoworkers in the San Francisco Bay area, prevented from living near their white colleagues due to discriminatory housing policies. The way Rothstein interweaves specific, empathetic tales with statistics is a master class in good social science writing. So many books try to do this, but few do it as well as The Color of Law.

I was so engrossed in this book that I couldn’t put it down even while I was eating, as demonstrated by the braised beef soup splatters that dot chapter 10.


What books stuck out for you this year? Any recommendations for my reading list next year?

If you’re interested in any of the other books I read this year, you can check out my Goodreads profile.

Comments for "2017: Books of the Year"

  1. Ryan says:

    The Life and Advenures of Jack Engle. Although it wasn’t particularly impactful or impressive, it was fun to see Uncle Walt’s hand at fiction.

  2. Brendan says:

    I’ve only read one presidential biography but it’s my favourite. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. I didn’t like his Jobs biography much but I enjoyed this one many years ago.

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