A reading list to help billionaires understand average Americans

Ready to mingle.
Ready to mingle.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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No one struggles to convincingly imitate understand the human condition more than Mark Zuckerberg, creator of a site that once facilitated relationships through digital poking. Almost 1.8 billion global citizens have Facebook in common, but the social network isn’t exactly known for constructive conversations. Echo chambers? For sure. Fake news? Absolutely. All-caps rants at your uncle for dressing his dog in a “Make America Great Again” sweater? 100%.

Zuckerberg is sensitive to the charge that Facebook steeps us in opinions we already hold. That’s why he made a New Year’s resolution to meet and interact with people in all 50 US states. ”My work is about connecting the world and giving everyone a voice,” he wrote of the idea. “I want to personally hear more of those voices this year.”

It’s nice to see Zuckerberg join the ranks of Americans looking to better understand America (especially post-election), but not every billionaire has time for a US tour. Most are busy doing billionaire things, like eating ice cream for breakfast, colonizing Mars, and getting injected with the blood of young people. For them, Quartz has compiled a shortlist of books to help explain the average American citizen to the average American tycoon.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover to experience firsthand the difficulties faced by low-wage workers 

[This] is not a story of some death-defying ‘undercover’ adventure. Almost anyone could do what I did—look for jobs, work those jobs, try to make ends meet. In fact, millions of Americans do it every day, and with a lot less fanfare and dithering.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Legal scholar Michelle Alexander challenges the notion that America is past its racist history 

The superlative nature of individual black achievement today in formerly white domains is a good indicator that the old Jim Crow is dead, but it does not necessarily mean the end of racial caste. If history is any guide, it may have simply taken a different form.

Salvage the Bones
Novelist Jesmyn Ward offers a heartfelt look at a Southern black family struggling with its identity in the wake of Hurricane Katrina  

It’s summer, and when it’s summer, there’s always a hurricane coming or leaving here. Each pushes its way through the flat Gulf to the 26-mile manmade Mississippi beach, where they knock against the old summer mansions with their slave galleys turned guesthouses before running over the bayou, through the pines, to lose wind, drip rain, and die in the north.

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America
Los Angeles Times writer Jill Leovy explores homicide in America through one senseless murder

People talked a lot about crime in America, but they tended to gloss over this aspect—that a plurality of those killed were not women, children, infants, elders, nor victims of workplace or school shootings. Rather, they were legions of America’s black men, many of them unemployed and criminally involved. They were murdered every day, in every city, their bodies stacking up by the thousands, year after year.

There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America
Alex Kotlowitz tells the true story of two brothers trying to make it in a Chicago public housing project

One of every five children in the United States lives in poverty—an estimated 12 million children, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. In cities like Chicago, the rate is considerably higher: one of every three children. Many grow up in neighborhoods similar to Lafayette and Pharoah’s. By the time they enter adolescence, they have contended with more terror than most of us confront in a lifetime.

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town
Nick Reding spent four years in Oelwein, Iowa, reporting out meth’s effect on small-town America

Overnight, the American small town and methamphetamine became synonymous. Main Street was no longer divided between Leo’s and the Do Drop Inn, or between the [Morning] Perk and the [Hub City] Bakery: it was partitioned between the farmer and the tweaker. How this came to be—and what it tells us about who we are—is the story of this book. And this book is the story of Oelwein, Iowa.

Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools
Over two years spent visiting schools across the US, Jonathan Kozol discovered a widening gulf between education for the rich and for the poor 

The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education 37 years ago, in which the court had found that segregated education was unconstitutional because it was ‘inherently unequal,’ did not seem to have changed very much for children in the schools I saw, not, at least, outside of the Deep South. Most of the urban schools I visited were 95 to 99% nonwhite. In no school that I saw anywhere in the United States were nonwhite children in large numbers truly intermingled with white children.

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx 
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc uses two young romances to explore poverty, homelessness, addiction, and incarceration

A fog of despair so pervaded the ghetto that the smallest gesture of rebellion could seem like a bold, piercing light. ‘Bad,’ said with a fond expression, was almost always a compliment.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America 
New Yorker staff writer George Packer presents a history of the last three decades in the US through the lives of several Americans

Winning and losing are all-American games, and in the unwinding winners win bigger than ever, floating away like bloated dirigibles, and losers have a long way to fall before they hit bottom, and sometimes they never do.

Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink 
Katrina Alcorn interweaves research about work-life balance with her own experience on the edge of parental sanity

One day, I went home sick from work and never went back. I never even cleaned off my desk. I fell into a profound despair, plagued by panic attacks, insomnia, shame, and dread. After almost six years of ‘successfully’ balancing a job and family, I had completely maxed out. A yearlong journey through medication, meditation, and therapy began. As I learned over the months to heal my body and my mind, I sought the answer to one question: What the hell happened?

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City 
Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond argues that eviction is one of the most urgent issues facing America today

Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships. It begets school stability, which increases the chances that children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block. But poor families enjoy little of that because they are evicted at such high rates.