The Reckonings by Lacy M. Johnson

The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here.

After reading Lacy M. Johnson’s memoir, The Other Side I couldn’t wait to dive into this essay collection, that was positioned as a sort of response to her kidnapping and rape that was documented in her memoir. The Reckonings is that response, and it is much more than that as well.

More on The Reckonings

In 2014, Lacy Johnson was giving a reading from The Other Sideher memoir of kidnapping and rape, when a woman asked her what she would like to happen to her rapist. This collection, a meditative extension of that answer, draws from philosophy, art, literature, mythology, anthropology, film, and other fields, as well as Johnson’s personal experience, to consider how our ideas about justice might be expanded beyond vengeance and retribution to include acts of compassion, patience, mercy, and grace.

She grapples with justice and retribution, truth and fairness, and sexual assault and workplace harassment, as well as the broadest societal wrongs: the BP Oil Spill, government malfeasance, police killings. The Reckonings is a powerful and necessary work, ambitious in its scope, which strikes at the heart of our national conversation about the justness of society.


The Reckonings is one of the most powerful books I’ve read. A well crafted meditation on justice and the roles that each of us, as humans and citizens, has in the greater picture and good of society. Johnson is a great thinker, who is subtle with her own intellect. She is wise. She is thoughtful. She is accessible. She sees the world in a more compassionate and realistic way than many. However she never forces her depth on her reader, instead she allows to understand her own processing, peppering her discoveries with “I think”. This isn’t done out of self doubt, but as a way to remember Johnson is trying to figure it all out, and figure out her role in it all.

This book is profound. It has something to say, about joy and health, and access, and vindication, and mercy, and grace, and privilege, and art, and the most base human desires. Johnson leans into the complex nature of sacrifice and healing. Honest and vulnerable each essay is willing to engage with the complexities of society, and in doing so, Johnson has to confront herself. Her biases and what they say about her ability to be compassionate or an ally, or whatever it is that comes up. The Reckonings has so much to say, that when I got to the end of the book, I went ahead and read all of the notes, in full, and then went back and re-read the first two essays. I couldn’t get enough of the words and what they had to say.

There are essays in The Reckonings that range from the Nigerian Girls captured by Boko Haram to Hurricane Harvey, from the justness of the death penalty to the cost of the BP oil spill. The essays seem like they wouldn’t belong in a book together, but somehow as you’re reading them, each one feels like it is in its perfect place. They all build on one another until we come to some resolution. I won’t tell you where that is, but know that it was fulfilling and bleak. The only way this book could have ended.

I think there is something to learn from this book for just about everyone. The writing is beautiful and the content matches. Johnson is a professional writer, something that we often times over look, but The Reckonings reminded me why people dedicate their life to the arts, so that they can create artwork that reminds the rest of us what it means to be alive.

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • PublisherScribner (October 9, 2018)
  • 5/5 stars
  • Buy onThe Reckonings Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Open City by Teju Cole

Open City was The Stacks Book Club pick this week on the podcast. We discussed the book with actor Behzad Dabu (How to Get Away with Murder, The Chi). If you want to hear that full episode, click here, but be warned there are spoilers (though I don’t think there is much to spoil in this book).

For more on Open City read here: 

A haunting novel about identity, dislocation, and history, Teju Cole’s Open City is a profound work by an important new author who has much to say about our country and our world.

Along the streets of Manhattan, a young Nigerian doctor named Julius wanders, reflecting on his relationships, his recent breakup with his girlfriend, his present, his past. He encounters people from different cultures and classes who will provide insight on his journey—which takes him to Brussels, to the Nigeria of his youth, and into the most unrecognizable facets of his own soul.


In Open City we are paired with a protagonist, Julius, that is our guide, though we never get to know him well enough to care for him. He feels a little unreliable, but mostly, just aloof. He is constantly musing about the world around him, his place in it, what all of that means. He examines art and trauma and humanity and more, through out the course of this book, and because of his thinking, we too are asked to go reflect along with Julius. There is no real plot in the book. It starts, things happen to Julius, he goes on a trip, he meets new people, but mostly life happens and Julius moves forward, and then the book ends.  

What I appreciated most about this book was the variety of issues that Cole asks his readers to engage with. We reflect on the Holocaust, and classical music, on 9/11 and shoe shining. There is a variety of consciousness that Cole presents and that is refreshing. He doesn’t do any deep dives into any one thing, instead, like many people, he scratches the surface of what is in the zeitgeist. In presenting this variety of topics for reflection, Cole brings up some of the most controversial and provocative issues, but right as the thinking gets good and complex he changes the subject. It can feel frustrating, but it also allows the reader to do some reflecting on their own. I also think, Cole is grappling with many of these ideas himself. 

There were times the book felt disjointed. The chapter breaks made no sense. The dialogue was presented without punctuation or paragraph breaks. As soon as a character would start discussing a topic, like Israel and its relationship to Palestine, the subject would abruptly change. The book left me wanting more. It also left me with a lot to think about.

Open City felt like Cole’s musings on life and the futility of life. Things happen and we try to engage and then at some point we carry on. It is simple really, but leads to a sort of frustrating book with beautiful prose. Something that is lovely and also boring and then ugly and then interesting, and then its all over. Perhaps a metaphor for life?

I enjoyed reading this book overall. There were moments I was bored. There were also moments that filled me with energy as I allowed myself to consider things that I had previously taken for granted, for example the role of political parties in The United States. If you’re someone who likes philosophical conversations about hot button issues, this might be a nice pick for you. But be warned, very little happens.

Don’t forget to listen to the The Stacks with Behzad Dabu discussing Open City

  • Paperback: 259 pages
  • PublisherRandom House Trade Paperbacks; 1 edition (January 17, 2012)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy onOpen City Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

Ep. 38 Open City by Teju Cole — The Stacks Book Club (Behzad Dabu)

This week actor Behzad Dabu (How to Get Away with Murder, The Chi) joins us again to discuss Teju Cole’s novel, Open City. The book is a meditation on borders, terror, and belonging set against the back drop of a post 9/11 New York City, and centers a Nigerian immigrant as our guide. This week we discuss the book in detail, there are spoilers, however this book is less about plot and more about big ideas. Listen at your own discretion.

Everything we talk about on today’s episode can be found below in the show notes. The Stacks participates in affiliate programs, and shopping through the links below (mostly Amazon) helps support the show, at no cost to you.

Connect with Behzad: Behzad’s Website|Behzad’s Instagram|Behzad’s Twitter|Behzad’s Facebook

Connect with The Stacks: Instagram|The Stacks Website|Facebook|Twitter|Subscribe|Patreon|Goodreads|Traci’s Instagram

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

Sponsors

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

When They Call You a Terrorist was much more than I expected. It isn’t only about the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is also a deeply personal memoir of family, survival, incarceration, mental health, feminism, community and more. It is a beautifully told story, that is as inspiring as it is disheartening. 

For more on When They Call You a Terrorist

Raised by a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, Patrisse Khan-Cullors experienced firsthand the prejudice and persecution Black Americans endure at the hands of law enforcement. For Patrisse, the most vulnerable people in the country are Black people. Deliberately and ruthlessly targeted by a criminal justice system serving a white privilege agenda, Black people are subjected to unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality. In 2013, when Trayvon Martin’s killer went free, Patrisse’s outrage led her to co-found Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.

Condemned as terrorists and as a threat to America, these loving women founded a hashtag that birthed the movement to demand accountability from the authorities who continually turn a blind eye to the injustices inflicted upon people of Black and Brown skin.


The central message and biggest take away from this book, is the power of community. Not only to activate, but also to heal, to inspire, to respond, and to nourish. Khan-Cullor’s community, one that she actively cultivates through out the book, shows us the power of marginalized people to stare down oppression and systematic abuses. To enact change, to create safety when there is none. When They Call You a Terrorist has no happy ending. Which is true for America’s Black folks. But the ending isn’t important in this book, it is about the journey of one woman, fortifying her life with like minded people and fighting like hell for her their voices to be heard, and listened to.

Championing human rights in the face of violent racism, Khan-Cullors is a survivor. She transformed her personal pain into political power, giving voice to people suffering inequality and a movement fueled by her strength and love to tell the country―and the world―that Black Lives Matter

Kahn-Cullors (along with bandele) lets us into her life. She uses her own unique experiences to contextualize a more general Black American narrative. Her own father’s incarceration is an avatar for the hundreds of thousands of Black men who were imprisoned along side him. The abuses her brother suffers as mentally ill man in prison, become a glimpse into the many men who are abused when proper medical help would have sufficed. She combines deeply personal experiences into something relatable. In the doing, she puts a face on mental illness,  mass incarceration, drug abuse, racism, and police brutality. She humanizes Blackness. 

Something that is often overlooked in society is the role of Black and Brown women, especially queer women, in the progress of society. This book calls out this erasure, and correctly credits them with much of the social progress we have all benefited from. Khan-Cullors, demands we acknowledge the contributions, both in her own life (her mother, her friends, her lovers) and in the bigger picture (the activists she works with, and the victims of police brutality #sayhername). Bravo, for calling out women who very much are and very much have been the center of the movements toward justice and equality.

The one part of When They Call You a Terrorist that I wanted more from, was the discussion of life inside the Black Lives Matter movement. Yes, of course we hear about BLM and its formation, from Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland, but it comes late in the book. There are moments in Ferguson, MO, as she helps organize around BLM, but there is not much about what life as a leader of such a powerful movement is like. I would have enjoyed more on that. 

I listened to this book, and Khan-Cullors reads it. She does a great job. Her voice is calming and direct. She tells her own story beautifully. It made me want to meet her. It made me want to fight alongside her. 

There is no doubt this memoir is moving. It is one woman’s story, and a slice of history. The book speaks to a bigger picture and moment, and I think we will look back on this book as one of the important texts of the decade. 

  • Audiobook: 6 hours and 29 minutes
  • Publisher: Macmillan Audio
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press; Reprint edition (January 16, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on When They Call You a Terrorist Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

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The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

This was possibly my most anticipated read of the year. I knew of Kiese Laymon’s essays, but had never read any of his books, and many people that I trust ad respect have nothing but the highest praise for him. So, I was eager to read his “American Memoir”.

Here is more about Heavy

In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to his trek to New York as a young college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, Laymon asks himself, his mother, his nation, and us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.


Complexity and vulnerability course through the pages of Heavy. Kiese Laymon never strays from a commitment to tell the truth of his story. As we read on, we understand his truth is painful. We learn how Laymon got to be the thorough, confrontational, relentless man that is writing this memoir. He allows himself to unfold page by page, until you feel as if you might actually know this man. Of course you don’t, but his brutal honesty gives a seeming closeness or understanding.

Laymon is a beautiful writer. He captures feelings and emotions in short and specific sentences. He creates worlds and moments with his words. In Heavy Laymon shows how his mother shapes him as a man, and also as a writer, and more importantly a thinker. In all of these things, her influence is not always positive, but it is obviously formative. She is herself a Black thought leader and academic who forces Laymon to confront the need to be excellent from a young age. We also watch as people come into Laymon’s life and influence his mind and his body. Quiet literally shaping him. We learn of his deep commitment to revision. We see how that compulsion towards excellence is pathological and often times destructive.

I knew very little about Laymon when I started reading, and within a few pages I understood that what I was reading was different than other memoirs. It was at once personal and a social commentary. Laymon would expose personal secrets, and also institutional deficiences. Heavy is a deeply intimate account of one man and his relationship to his own identity, and an examination of America and her relationship to her citizens. Racism, discipline, addiction, education, beauty standards and more are unpacked in Laymon’s memoir.

I was beyond impressed with this book.. I learned a lot and felt the wind knocked out of my sails at times. I have been calling it “Coates-ian” (a reference to author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates), except more intimate, more vulnerable, and less of a reflection on the broader racial questions of our time, more an examination of how one experience is inclusive of the larger picture. There have been some amazing reviews of Heavy, and I highly suggest one by Saeed Jones in The New York Times, Jones beautifully expresses the struggle for excellence and what that means for Laymon and all of us. Before I unequivocally suggest to you to read this book, I want to note there are some very graphic scenes of a child abuse in this book, and while that can be triggering for many, it is an important part of Laymon’s history. I couldn’t imagine this book without those scenes. Now, here it comes, go read this book.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • PublisherScribner; First Edition edition (October 16, 2018)
  • 5/5 stars
  • Buy on Heavy Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Black No More by George S. Schuyler


54CDB2F3-2C1C-4FB6-A29C-9B96A70731DEI picked up Black No More as part of a book club read with my all Black online book club. I wasn’t familiar with the book, and had only barely even heard of the the title, but was excited to read a satire written by a Black man from the 1930’s.

More information on Black No More

It’s New Year’s Day 1933 in New York City, and Max Disher, a young black man, has just found out that a certain Dr. Junius Crookman has discovered a mysterious process that allows people to bleach their skin white—a new way to “solve the American race problem.” Max leaps at the opportunity, and after a brief stay at the Crookman Sanitarium, he becomes Matthew Fisher, a white man who is able to attain everything he has ever wanted: money, power, good liquor, and the white woman who rejected him when he was black.

Lampooning myths of white supremacy and racial purity and caricaturing prominent African American leaders like W. E. B. Du Bois, Madam C. J. Walker, and Marcus Garvey, Black No More is a masterwork of speculative fiction and a hilarious satire of America’s obsession with race.


This book, like so many classic books that discuss the Black experience in The United States, feels relevant today. Schuyler uses Black No More to eviscerate Black and White people, intellectuals and hate leaders alike. He doesn’t hold back on bringing everyone to task. Depending on your own perspective on the world, this book could be interpreted in many different ways.

What I appreciated most about this book was that Schuyler seemed to have no fear about how the book would be received. If he did, he didn’t let that stop him. He created characters that mocked well known Black thought leaders (W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and more) and reduced the KKK to a complete scam. He minimized Black identity to something akin to crabs climbing out of a barrel, and showed that White people just need someone to kick around. He showed the American propensity toward violence, and the shame that so many people carry around due to their family’s history.

What I didn’t like about the book was the tone. It felt old-timey. It read like something from days gone by, and that took me out of the story. The jokes didn’t land. The writing felt dated. I never laughed out loud, and mostly felt detached from the work itself. I wondered if that had to do with the era, or with the genre, as I do not read satire often.

When I read classics, I save the introduction for after I’ve completed the text. In the case of Black No More, the introduction is by author Danzy Senna (Caucasia, New People), a mixed race woman who is very fair and often presumed white. She does an excellent job with the forward, and helped me put the book in context. It was worth it to go back and read her words.

In the end, I am glad I read this book. I haven’t read much from the 1930’s and Schuyler paints a searing picture of race in America that is prescient beyond belief. The book is a great work of speculative fiction, even if the satire didn’t work for me. I would love to see this book turned into a film, does anyone have Ava DuVernay’s number?

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher:Penguin Classics (January 16, 2018)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy on Black No More Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Hear Traci on The SSR Podcast

Guess what? I was invited on someone else’s podcast. That’s right, you can hear me on The SSR (Sh*t She Read) Podcast, hosted by Alli Hoff Kosik. The show is all about adults reading and discussing favorite books from their tween and teen years, mostly to see if they hold up and what they notice from their new (older) perspective. I’m on as part of “New Reads November” to talk about the modern classic, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

The book follows 16-year-old Starr Carter, a Black girl, as she navigates life after her friend, an unarmed Black boy, is murdered at the hands of a police officer, and she is the sole witness. The book engages with many topics that surround the Black Lives Matter Movement, code switching, racism, anxiety, and more.

We discuss the book in detail (yes, spoilers) and I give my honest critiques of why I liked, but didn’t love, this book that has become a “must read” for many. I THUG this book back in February of this year, and you can read my full review here.

Listen Now

Apple Podcasts|SSR Podcast Website

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

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Reading The Bluest Eye for The Stacks Book Club was my first time ever reading the work of Toni Morrison. I knew it would be great, simply because so many people told me so, but getting a chance to read her words for myself, I now understand. You can listen to my conversation with Renée Hicks (founder of Book Girl Magic) about The Bluest Eye right here on The Stacks.

Here is more about The Bluest Eye

Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl, prays every day for beauty. Mocked by other children for the dark skin, curly hair, and brown eyes that set her apart, she yearns for normalcy, for the blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will allow her to finally fit in.Yet as her dream grows more fervent, her life slowly starts to disintegrate in the face of adversity and strife. A powerful examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity, Toni Morrison’s virtuosic first novel asks powerful questions about race, class, and gender with the subtlety and grace that have always characterized her writing.


Morrison does an expert job of writing about the darkest parts of our humanity. The book is haunting. Her characters are real and simple and purely themselves, for better or worse. She uses her words to make sure we never look away, that we examine the humanity of these characters. She finds our own vulnerabilities and uses them, forcing the reader to confront pain and trauma in a three dimensional way. To extend our sympathy to the abusers and the abused. Even when it feels impossible.

As we follow the life of our protagonist, a young dark-skinned Black girl named Pecola Breedlove, we see the world she sees, and we flashback to how her 1940s Ohio world was created. Morrison is brilliant in setting the scene as we think it should be, and then showing how it really is, how we got here, and why it is more complicated than we could have imagined.

The Bluest Eye takes on much that ails our society. The book confronts racism, colorism, beauty, sexism, sexuality, sexual abuse, trauma, rage, toxic masculinity, and more. Instead of looking at each idea as an isolated problem, she folds everything together and dares us to unpack the mess. To see that none of these isms or societal failures works on its own, but rather that they are entangled. While the story itself is painful and bleak, Morrison’s writing makes it palatable, something her readers are willing to stick with and sift through.

I could have read more of this book, but Morrison says what she needs to say in about 200 pages. She is specific and direct. There is no extra fluff. She doesn’t give us time to wallow. That directness enhances the book. She shows us the evils of humanity, the tender moments of kindness and never allows one to take on more weight than the other. Never allows us to pick sides. We just have to keep moving forward.

This is Morrison’s first novel, she wrote it at age 39, which is hard to believe, but then again seems right. This book is a force of a debut and while I did sometimes find myself confused, especially during the ending, I was engrossed with her language and her characters. You can feel that there is room for growth in The Bluest Eye, which says more about Morrison’s potential to be one of the greats than anything else. For many authors, this would be their top, this would be the best they could do. I look forward to reading more Toni Morrison, and I am so glad I finally got started reading her at all.

Don’t forget to listen the The Stacks with Renée Hicks discussing The Bluest Eye

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (May 8, 2007)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on The Bluest Eye Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

 

Ep. 34 The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison — The Stacks Book Club (Renée Hicks)

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The Bluest Eye is the first novel of Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, it is also The Stacks Book Club pick this week. We dissect this American classic and discuss its many themes including race, beauty, love and abuse with Renée Hicks, founder of Book Girl Magic. Our conversation covers the entire book, which means there are a lot of spoilers. Go read the book and then come back and listen.

You can find everything we talk about this week in the show notes below. By shopping through the links you help support The Stacks, at no cost to you. Shop on Amazon and iTunes.

Connect with Renee and Book Girl Magic: Book Girl Magic Website|Book Girl Magic Instagram|Book Girl Magic Facebook|Book Girl Magic Twitter

Connect with The Stacks: Instagram|The Stacks Website|Facebook|Twitter|Subscribe|Patreon|Goodreads|Traci’s Instagram

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

Sponsors

Audible– to get your FREE audiobook download and FREE 30 day trial go to audibletrial.com/thestacks.

My Mentor Book Club – for 50% off your first month of new nonfiction from My Mentor Book Club go to mymentorbookclub.com/thestacks


The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

B2D1793F-316A-4CBD-BCD7-10949229785BAs we approach the midterm elections in the United States, I have been increasingly anxious about the state of the nation and what our future holds. Reading How Democracies Die for The Stacks Book Club was a helpful way for me to process what my anxiety is rooted in. I talk about the book on the podcast with Harris Cohn, and you can hear the full conversation here. No need to worry, there are no spoilers on the episode.

Here is a little more about How Democracies Die

Donald Trump’s presidency has raised a question that many of us never thought we’d be asking: Is our democracy in danger? Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America, and they believe the answer is yes. Democracy no longer ends with a bang—in a revolution or military coup—but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms. The good news is that there are several exit ramps on the road to authoritarianism. The bad news is that, by electing Trump, we have already passed the first one. 

Drawing on decades of research and a wide range of historical and global examples, from 1930s Europe to contemporary Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, to the American South during Jim Crow, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies die—and how ours can be saved.

I really enjoyed this book. I felt like I was learning so much as I read it. It breaks down differences between autocracies and democracies, it explains how democracies sustain themselves, and what institutions and norms preserve our democracy. The book is crash course in what makes our country run smoothly, and how those things can be eroded. I honestly couldn’t believe how little I know and how little I understand about the equilibrium of governments, both here in the US and abroad.

As the book dives deeper into the issues we’re facing in The United States Levitsky and Ziblatt do not shy away from institutional racism that has allowed America to stay a democracy. They call out the Southern Democrats disenfranchisement and remind us that Northerns were willing to look away while these suppression tactics were enacted. Better to preserve White rule, they thought, than to disturb the comfort Southern Democrats had due to the laws built to exclude Black Americans from participating in the democracy. Often times in books like this, the author won’t call out racism, instead they dance around the issue and find other euphemisms to explain what is going on. Not here. Ziblatt and Levitsky are upfront with the role that racism played and is still playing in our democracy.

This book doesn’t place blame completely on Donald Trump or any one person, but rather shows how certain actions (think the heist of Merrick Garland’s seat on The Supreme Court) have lead us in the direction where our country’s foundation is at risk. There is fair blame placed on both parties, but the authors seem to think the Republicans have been particularly cavalier and destructive with their power.

How Democracies Die ends by presenting a few options that The United States has to prevent a slip into an autocracy. They suggest solutions for both the Republicans and Democrats. They also caution that most countries that have fallen to a dictator had to hit rock bottom, before they could move toward democracy. It remains unclear if America, and her politicians, have the humility to compromise and move forward for the better of the country. I certainly hope so. Either way, I think you should check out this book. It is smart and if nothing else you will learn something. I would even say you will learn many things. It is worth your time.

Don’t forget to listen the The Stacks with Harris Cohn discussing How Democracies Die.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (January 16, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on How Democracies Die Amazon

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