Understanding the United States Public

Created by Sean Bala

This is a list of books I've read over the years that I think are essential reading to understand the United States - its history, politics, economy, and society. I am purposefully making this a highly curated list with a few carefully selected works, most of which I have read or am very familiar with. It may contain a collection of non-fiction, philosophy, and fiction.

  1. Nixonland by 

    4 stars

    From one of America's most talented historians comes a brilliant new account of Richard Nixon--set against the violent passions of …

    Sean Bala says:

    Pearlstein seeks to answer a simple question: how did we go from the largest Democratic Party landslide in 1964 to the largest Republican Party one in 1972? At its heart is Richard Nixon and his ability to exploit anger over civil rights and the Vietnam War. One of my essential reads about the US.

  2. Sean Bala says:

    A continuation of "American Nations," the book looks at the tension in American identity between an Individualist and Communal impulse over the centuries.

  3. Sean Bala says:

    A shocking book that convincingly argues that race function like caste in the United States. As someone who has lived in India for an extended period of time, I think that Wilkerson is spot on in her observations. You won't look at the US in the same way after reading this.

  4. This Republic of Suffering by 

    No rating

    More than 600,000 soldiers lost their lives in the American Civil War. An equivalent proportion of today's population would be …

    Sean Bala says:

    One of the best histories I've ever read, this book looks at the American Civil War through America's evolving relationship with death. Faust convincingly argues that this transition is essential to understanding modern America.

  5. Warmth of Other Suns by ,

    No rating

    In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American …

    Sean Bala says:

    Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Wilkerson writes about the Great Migration, one of the largest mass-movements of people in history. The books follows black refugees from the South and their lives in Northern cities. A remarkable work.

  6. The Fire Next Time by 

    5 stars

    A national bestseller when it first appeared in 1963, The Fire Next Time galvanized the nation and gave passionate voice …

    Sean Bala says:

    One of the most insightful examinations of race in America that you will ever read. Baldwin was a interesting figure in US History - in neither Martin Luther King or Malcolm X's camp. These two essays are beautiful and insightful.

  7. Hillbilly Elegy by 

    3 stars

    Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The disintegration of …

    Sean Bala says:

    I am really torn about adding this one to the list. J.D. Vance's politics and his problematic view of poverty aside, I think the book does give an insight into a particular view about poverty, race, and class in the US. Just make sure you read other books on the subjects to get a fuller view.

  8. The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle by 

    No rating

    Between 1901 and 1907, a broad coalition of Protestant churches sought to expel newly elected Reed Smoot from the Senate, …

    Sean Bala says:

    An academic book but one that has stayed with me long after graduate school. It is one of the best books to help an individual understand the presence of religion in American politics, society, and culture.

  9. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by 

    3 stars

    The Inconvenient Indian is at once a “history” and the complete subversion of a history - in short, a critical …

    Sean Bala says:

    This book is FAR funnier than it has any right to be. A great, accessible examination of the position of Indigenous peoples in North America.

  10. What Are We Doing Here? by 

    No rating

    New essays by the Orange and Pulitzer Prize winning author of Gilead, Home and Lila. In this collection, Marilynne Robinson, …

    Sean Bala says:

    Robinson is one of America's foremost authors. Her novels are beautiful and brilliant. But she is also one of the most erudite commentators on American society and the interplay of religion, society, and culture. She is not easy to read but worth the time.

  11. Gilead

    No rating

    Gilead is a novel written by Marilynne Robinson published in 2004. It won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and …

    Sean Bala says:

    I think "Gilead" is an excellent, beautifully written work that captures something very deep about faith, place, and nation. Robinson is one of the US's most careful writers and you can see her ideas on display in this Pulitzer-Prize winning novel.

  12. Twelve Angry Men by 

    No rating

    A blistering character study and an examination of the American melting pot and the judicial system that keeps it in …

    Sean Bala says:

    A classic play based on the award-winning film. Even nearly 70 years after being written, it remains one of the best, most searing dramas examining questions of law and justice, and it showcases the best and worst of America.

  13. Winesburg, Ohio by 

    5 stars

    Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, is a classic collection of short stories that illustrate the peculiarities of life in a …

    Sean Bala says:

    Classic short story cycle that captures the alienation and desire for connection in small-town life.

  14. It Can't Happen Here by 

    3 stars

    It Can't Happen Here is a semi-satirical American political novel published in 1935. It's Plot centers around newspaperman Doremus Jessup's …

    Sean Bala says:

    Classic American novel centered around the rise of a crude, fast-talking politician to the US Presidency and the rise of fascism in the US in the 1930s. A biting, satire that looks at dark forces underpinning American life. Lewis was inspired by the rise of Louisiana politician Huey K. Long.

  15. All Our Relations by 

    4 stars

    In this vital and incisive work, best-selling and award-winning author Tanya Talaga explores the alarming rise of youth suicide in …

    Sean Bala says:

    Though this book is primarily centered on the Canadian experience for Indigenous peoples, I think that it is an excellent introduction to contemporary Indigenous issues. Good to read along with Thomas King's "An Inconvenient Indian."

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