5 HOT BOOKS: Jill Abramson on News, a Racist Supreme Court Landmark & More


1. Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts by Jill Abramson (Simon & Schuster)

Is there a future for quality news? Abramson set out to answer that question in her history of four news companies – BuzzFeed, Vice, the New York Times, and the Washington Post – that provided her with “a passport into the newsrooms on the front lines” to investigate the dramatic transformation of American journalism. Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times and now a senior lecturer at Harvard University who writes a column for the Guardian, used as a model David Halberstam’s 1979 classic The Powers That Be, which focused on the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, CBS News, and Time Inc. at a transitional moment. Lucidly written and deeply reported, Merchants of Truth points out the costs of reliance on metrics today, and as Abramson writes: “The climate for creating the kind of journalism the First Amendment was intended to protect, the stories that held powerful people and institutions to account, [has] grown noticeably chillier.”

2. Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation by Steve Luxenberg (W.W. Norton)

When a light-skinned black New Orleanian refused to leave a whites-only train car in a challenge to Louisiana’s Separate Car Act, the result was the landmark 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which set forth the “separate but equal” doctrine. As Luxenberg argues in his important, panoramic book, this single case snakes through more than a century of history. Impressively researched and ambitious, Separate vivifies characters in this drama, such as columnist Albion W. Tourgée, who argued the case for the plaintiffs and nurtured it “with the care of a horticulturist tending a prized set of orchids.” Luxenberg explains that the Plessy ruling “gave legal cover to an increasingly pernicious series of discriminatory laws in the first half of the twentieth century” and, in spotlighting the birth of the Jim Crow era, highlights that “unresolved struggle between an exhausted North and a bitter South.”

3. Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe by Roger McNamee (Penguin Press)

“I am really sad about Facebook,” wrote McNamee in an essay he sent to “Zuck and Sheryl” (Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg) in October 2016 after he noticed a series of bizarre, hate-filled, divisive posts involving the U.S. election originating from Facebook groups. A self-described tech investor and evangelist, McNamee explains in his book how he became convinced that despite the compelling personal experience that Facebook provides to its users, bad actors can exploit its design to harm society. He argues that “unregulated capitalism, addictive technology and authoritarian values” have been an unmitigated disaster for democracy, privacy, public health, and the economy, and that there is an urgent need to encourage Facebook’s management to reform and be more socially responsible.  “The importance of Facebook’s role in our culture and politics cannot be overstated,” exhorts McNamee.

4. If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might Be Saved by Michael Tomasky (Liveright)

 In the introduction to this sharply argued, cogent book, Tomasky contends that red-blue type enmities have been present since the dawn of the republic, but that what makes it worse today is that while disagreements between parties existed, there used to be disagreement within parties which made coalitions possible. Tomasky, columnist for the Daily Beast and regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, writes with clarity about political polarization, determined to reach not politics junkies and insiders but rather “the schoolteacher in Akron, the bank vice president in Chattanooga,” and his narrative history succeeds. His 14-point agenda to reduce polarization is smart in its recommended political fixes – end the electoral college and partisan gerrymandering and introduce ranked-choice voting to congressional elections, for instance. And his other recommendations focus on education – such as a “foreign” student exchange program between red and blue states, reducing college to three years with the fourth a service year – that would have an important, socially unifying impact.

5. Someday We Will Fly by Rachel Dewoskin (Viking)

Book boundaries are blurring these days – think of all those adults reading Harry Potter – and while there’s the Alex Award for adult books with special appeal to the young, here’s a nomination for the reverse: Someday We Will Fly is marketed for the 12-plus set but should be admired and savored by discerning adults. With a keen sense of narrative momentum and a deep understanding of the little-known history of Jewish refugees to Shanghai during World War II (when the city was under Japanese occupation). Dewoskin tells this story through a 15-year-old girl, who escaped Warsaw with her father and weak 18-month-old sister, and whose scrappy survival skills include selling her hair and dancing for wealthy Japanese men to earn money for food. Dewoskin vividly captures this fraught time of dislocation and turmoil, and deftly connects the anguish of Jewish refugees and the agony of the Japanese occupation, elevating this beautiful novel into a clarion call for peace.