My Most Powerful Reads of the Decade

I love to read.

Curling up with a good book and getting lost in the story for hours is pure bliss for me.

Of course, adulthood prevents this from being a regular occurrence, but I still treasure the time I spend reading and the lessons I learn from the books on my shelves. 

I was struggling to come up with a topic for this week’s post and decided to look at my notebook of what I’ve read over the years.

Given that a new decade has officially commenced, I excitedly realized that I could reflect on my favorite and most inspiring reads from the past decade.

If Barack Obama and Bill Gates can share their lists of favorite books, why can’t I?

With much difficulty, I chose one book that I read each year that helped me understand the world – and why it is the way it is – with greater clarity and from other perspectives. 

2010: Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

This book by two acclaimed reporters focuses on how empowering women in developing countries can bring about a reduction of poverty and an economic boost for all.

Discussions on the impact of micro-finance – providing small loans to women (or men) to help them start a business, get an education, and/or support their families – and the stories of individual women who benefited it are compelling.

The authors show how even minor investments can have a tremendous return – economically and emotionally – for women who have been abused, disenfranchised, or simply undervalued. 

2011: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot 

As an alumna of Johns Hopkins and a longtime Baltimorean, the story of Henrietta Lacks intrigued me on many levels.

Rebecca Skloot’s book talks about how a black woman in Baltimore in the 1950s inadvertently became the foundation of widespread and landmark medical research.

Not only did I learn about the HeLa cells (which were removed from her when she was treated for cancer at Hopkins Hospital and used for research without consent) and the science they inspired, but I also got new insights into what Baltimore and Hopkins were like during segregation, how differently black patients experienced medical care than white patients, and how the Lacks family still struggles today. 

2012: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair 

I distinctly remember my 9th grade U.S. History teacher discussing this novel and its implication of the meatpacking industry in the early 1900s.

I didn’t think I could stomach Sinclair’s descriptions of “how the sausage gets made” then, but when I read this classic as an adult, I was astonished to learn that this book is about so much more than horrifying practices of Chicago’s meatpacking plants.

What struck me most were the immense challenges faced by immigrant communities at the time and the conditions they had no choice but to endure in order to support their families and survive.

2013: Fire in the Ashes by Jonathan Kozol

I would be remiss to not include a book by my hero, Jonathan Kozol.

His compassionate and candid discussions of poverty and the unacceptable conditions of educational systems in America have inspired me since I was in college, and I was lucky enough to hear him speak and meet him many years ago.

This book commemorates 25 years of his critically important work by following up with the children he befriended and wrote about through his impassioned research and storytelling. 

2014: Education and the Cult of Efficiency by Raymond Callahan 

Although this text was written in 1962, it is still incredible relevant to educational debates today.

Callahan reflects on how the “efficiency movement” of the early 1900s influenced the structure of schooling in America.

His book shares how the management of time and production efforts in American factories spawned everything from traditional school schedules and bell systems to accountability structures and the desire for measuring … well, everything.

Since schools are human-serving organizations and therefore quite different from factories, this book made so much sense to me as a partial explanation for how our educational systems developed in a misguided way. 

2015: Black Boy by Richard Wright

My college professor (and my friend and mentor to this day), Dr. Floyd Hayes, is a Richard Wright scholar and first introduced me to his work.

I’ve read many of Wright’s books over the years and in fact started 2020 with one of his masterpieces. Yet Black Boy stuck with me in a profound way.

This is Wright’s autobiographical work, and his profoundly moving descriptions of hunger as a child made that phenomenon clear to me in a way that nothing else had.

I am fortunate to have always had food on the table, but this book gave me a powerful understanding for those who struggle every day. 

2016: Five Miles Away, A World Apart by James Ryan

Ryan’s book about the differences between two large high schools – one in a suburb and the other in the neighboring city – and the political underpinnings of those differences was not a comfortable read.

He describes in detail the way that local, state, and national governments and courts have historically and systematically “saved the cities and spared the suburbs” through damaging, discriminatory policies.

These policies and legal decisions, made under the guise of being progressive and helpful, in fact helped to keep our schools and neighborhoods segregated and our non-white citizens disadvantaged.

This book, among others read at the same time, completely transformed the way I think about our government, public institutions, and society in general.

2017: We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates 

This novel follows the breakdown of a once tight-knit family after their only daughter experiences a significant trauma.

While I have enjoyed many of Oates’ novels, this one was a particularly compelling illustration of how trauma not only affects the person who initially experiences it, but how it also impacts the entire family system.

Told from the perspective of the youngest brother, this is a story that I could not put down and that kept me thinking.

2018: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Anderson argues that our country’s horrifying system of mass incarceration is the newest iteration of the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century.

She shares compelling parallels between the systems of control, containment, and oppression used during slavery, segregation, and in between, to maintain white superiority and the widespread incarceration of black men that began with the War on Drugs.

Her discussion of racism and social control is informative and eye-opening and is a critical read for understanding the dynamics of our current society. 

2019: $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer

​​This had been on my reading list for a few years, after hearing author Kathryn Edin speak at a conference.

I wish I had gotten to it sooner, as it was one of the most enlightening books I have read in a while.

Edin and Shaefer tell the stories of a number of families who, through circumstances often beyond their control, effectively live without any income.

In what seem like unfathomable situations, the parents highlighted in this book dispel stereotypes about people living in poverty or who receive/are eligible for public assistance.

I was blown away by the sheer resilience and persistence that these families continually demonstrated, and I learned so much about just how little is done to support those who need it most.

Which books inspired you the most over the past decade? Share your recommendations in the comments!