If representative democracy requires informed citizens, a crop of new books is here to help with the informing. This week’s recommended titles include Jill Lepore’s expansive new history of the United States, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s consideration of four presidents who weathered national crises, a memoir about growing up in a Kansas farming family and a treatise about the importance of public spaces like libraries or parks. There’s also a look at the nature of authoritarian leaders, a reappraisal of Wendell Willkie’s 1940 run for president, and Adrienne Rich’s “Essential Essays” — a posthumous collection from a towering poet whose nonfiction drew in equal measure on her capacious heart and mind to engage with art, culture and politics. Let’s give her the last word, from an essay she wrote after refusing the National Medal for the Arts in 1997:
“In the long run art needs to grow organically out of a social compost nourishing to everyone, a literate citizenry, a free, universal, public education complex with art as an integral element, a society honoring both human individuality and the search for a decent, sustainable common life. In such conditions, art would still be a voice of hunger, desire, discontent, passion, reminding us that the democratic project is never-ending. For that to happen, what else would have to change?”
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ESSENTIAL ESSAYS: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry, by Adrienne Rich. (Norton, $27.95.) “Essential Essays” brings together a sampling of the poet Adrienne Rich’s influential criticism, personal accounts and public statements. Rich was sometimes charged with being more polemicist than poet, but “these essays tell a different story,” our critic Parul Sehgal writes. “We see how frequently, and powerfully, she wrote from her divisions, the areas of her life where she felt vulnerable, conflicted and ashamed.”
THESE TRUTHS: A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore. (Norton, $39.95.) This one-volume history of the United States is the latest from the prolific Lepore, a professor at Harvard and staff writer at The New Yorker. It begins in 1492, with Columbus’s arrival, and wends its way through the next five centuries, leavening some of the essential textbook material with stories that are lesser known. The book is “elegant, readable, sobering,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes. “It extends a steadying hand when a breakneck news cycle lurches from one event to another, confounding minds and churning stomachs.”
HOW FASCISM WORKS: The Politics of Us and Them, by Jason Stanley. (Random House, $26.) Looking across decades, Stanley argues that Donald Trump resembles other authoritarian nationalists, and places him in global and historical perspective to show patterns that others have missed. “Stanley is trying to spark public alarm,” Peter Beinart writes in his review. “He doesn’t want Americans to respond to Trump’s racist, authoritarian offensives by moving their moral goal posts. The greater danger, he suggests, isn’t hyperbole, it’s normalization.”
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