“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead
“Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.” Bertrand Russell
These fraught times in American society – divisiveness, insurgency; police murders and militarization; still unequal rights and protections, escalating poverty, and accelerated climate change – can seem stultifying. Yet, in the beloved words of British poet Salena Godden, “Pessimism is for lightweights.” In this respectful discussion group, we’ll read recent non-fiction about complex issues challenging our society, our nation, our planet, in which all fact-based viewpoints are welcome.
As Sir Francis Bacon asserted, and discussion participants agre, “Knowledge itself is power”. More to the point, comprehension creates choices, and choice is a powerful thing. Yet raising “controversial” issues has been considered impolite or inflammatory – it can also get you surveilled, injured, criminalized, or killed. For decades, debate, and discourse have been going the way of ethics and personal responsibility. We are losing the ability to care about, and learn from, those who seem different from us, to question why we think what we do. This group is for those who are concerned and curious, who are willing to rethink, willing to truly listen to each other, especially when we disagree. Each month brings a different topic to challenge our current thinking and to learn how some change agents are taking action on these issues.
This reading group meets in the Athenæum’s Bound on the first Wednesday of each month from 5:30-7pm, September 2023 to May 2024.
Wed, September 6: Communicating Across Divides
The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy, Anand Giridharadas
“America is suffering a crisis of faith in persuasion that is putting its democracy and the planet itself at risk. Americans increasingly write each other off instead of seeking to win each other over. Debates are framed in moralistic terms, with enemies battling the righteous. Movements for justice build barriers to entry, instead of on-ramps. Political parties focus on mobilizing the faithful rather than wooing the skeptical. And leaders who seek to forge coalition are labeled sellouts. In Persuasion Anand Giridharadas takes us inside these movements and battles, seeking out the dissenters who continue to champion persuasion in an age of polarization.”
Wed, October 4: Supreme Court Ethics
The Scheme: How the Right Wing Used Dark Money to Capture the Supreme Court, Sheldon Whitehouse, Jennifer Mueller
“Whitehouse chronicles a hidden-money campaign using an armada of front groups, helped by the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, using the Federalist Society as an appointments turnstile, and with the same small handful of right-wing billionaires and corporations enticing the Senate to break rules, norms, and precedents to confirm wildly inappropriate nominees who would advance the anti-government agenda of a small number of corporate oligarchs. Every indication is that the justices’ assurances were knowingly and strategically false, cover for the day when―like sleeper agents―they would number a majority and could act on their real intentions.”
Wed, November 1: Economic Disparity
Poverty, by America, Matthew Desmond
“Desmond draws on history, research, and original reporting to show how affluent Americans knowingly and unknowingly keep poor people poor. Those of us who are financially secure exploit the poor, driving down their wages while forcing them to overpay for housing and access to cash and credit. We prioritize the subsidization of our wealth over the alleviation of poverty, designing a welfare state that gives the most to those who need the least. And we stockpile opportunity in exclusive communities, creating zones of concentrated riches alongside those of concentrated despair. Some lives are made small so that others may grow. Elegantly written and fiercely argued, this compassionate book gives us new ways of thinking about a morally urgent problem. It also helps us imagine solutions.”
Wed, December 6: Religion in Politics
The Psychology of Christian Nationalism: Why People Are Drawn In and How to Talk Across the Divide, Pamela Cooper-White
“How do we overcome polarization in American society? How do we advocate for justice when one side won’t listen to the other and cycles of outrage escalate? These questions have been pressing for years, but the emergence of a vocal, virulent Christian nationalism have made it even more urgent that we find a way forward. In three brief, incisive chapters Pamela Cooper-White uncovers the troubling extent of Christian nationalism, explores its deep psychological roots, and discusses ways in which advocates for justice can safely and effectively attempt to talk across the deep divides in our society.”
One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Kevin M. Kruse
Wed, January 3: Police Reform
No More Police: A Case for Abolition
Mariame Kaba, Andrea J. Ritchie
“New York Times bestselling author Mariame Kaba and attorney and organizer Andrea J. Ritchie detail why policing doesn’t stop violence, instead perpetuating widespread harm; outline the many failures of contemporary police reforms; and explore demands to defund police, divest from policing, and invest in community resources to create greater safety through a Black feminist lens.
Centering survivors of state, interpersonal, and community-based violence, and highlighting uprisings, campaigns, and community-based projects, No More Police makes a compelling case for a world where the tools required to prevent, interrupt, and transform violence in all its forms are abundant.”
The End of Policing, Alex S. Vitale
Wed, February 7: Entrenched Racism
How We Win the Civil War: Securing a Multiracial Democracy and Ending White Supremacy for Good, Steve Phillips
“Phillips charts the way forward for progressives and people of color after four years of Trump, arguing that Democrats must recognize the nature of the fight we’re in, which is a contest between democracy and white supremacy left unresolved after the Civil War. We will not overcome, Philip writes, until we govern as though we are under attack—until we finally recognize that the time has come to finish the conquest of the Confederacy and all that it represents.”
How the South Won the Civil War
Heather Cox Richardson
Wed, March 6: Women’s (Non)Equity
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, Rebecca Traister
“In the year 2018, it seems as if women’s anger has suddenly erupted into the public conversation. But long before Pantsuit Nation, before the Women’s March, and before the #MeToo movement, women’s anger was not only politically catalytic—but politically problematic. The story of female fury and its cultural significance demonstrates the long history of bitter resentment that has enshrouded women’s slow rise to political power in America, as well as the ways that anger is received when it comes from women as opposed to when it comes from men.”
Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, Kristen R. Ghodsee
Wed, April 3: Climate Change
Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility, Rebecca Solnit (Editor), Thelma Young Lutunatabua (Editor)
“Not Too Late is the book for anyone who is despondent, defeatist, or unsure about climate change and seeking answers. As the contributors to this volume make clear, the future will be decided by whether we act in the present–and we must act to counter institutional inertia, fossil fuel interests, and political obduracy. These dispatches from the climate movement around the world feature the voices of organizers like Guam-based lawyer and writer Julian Aguon; climate scientists like Dr. Jacquelyn Gill and Dr. Edward Carr; poets like Marshall Islands activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijner; and longtime organizers like The Tyranny of Oil author Antonia Juhasz.”
Wed, May 1: Gun Rights
Loaded, A Disarming History of the 2nd Amendment
“Loaded is like a blast of fresh air. She is no fan of guns or of our absurdly permissive laws surrounding them. But she does not merely take the liberal side of the familiar debate.”–Adam Hochschild, The New York Review of Books “If . . . anyone at all really wants to ‘get to the root causes of gun violence in America,’ they will need to start by coming to terms with even a fraction of what Loaded proposes.” — Los Angeles Review of Books “Her analysis, erudite and unrelenting, exposes blind spots not just among conservatives, but, crucially, among liberals as well. . . . As a portrait of the deepest structures of American violence, Loaded is an indispensable book.”— The New Republic
Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA, Tim Mak
Samanthe Sheffer finds challenges to her perceptions stimulating and expansive. She is excited by new discoveries that alter well-established ideas, and believes in the health of – and need for – discussing “controversial” topics; learning about viewpoints and experiences different from her own. Primarily a New Englander, for decades she was a director and public speaker/educator for large social and environmental non-profits in NYC and Seattle, tasked with “thinking outside the box”. Since the pandemic began, she has been making up for her myth-education by seriously studying true American history and institutions with an amazing group of anti-racist allies. Her favorite question is, “Why?” followed by, “What can an ordinary person do?’ Last session’s What’s Going On? reading group was such eye-opening fun, let’s continue in a similar vein.
This group has reached capacity. To be added to a waitlist, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with CHALLENGES as the subject line.
The Athenæum is deeply grateful to our wonderful volunteer leaders. Please note library reading groups are not classes or courses, but rather a way for individuals to discuss readings together, guided by both expert and amateur enthusiasts. Participants should expect discussion-based, not lecture-style meetings.