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Craig's Grist

Help, Please

Running a graduate seminar at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, I ask students to select three books from an optional reading list. I would love to have your thoughts about strengthening that list.

My aim is simply to whet the appetite to read among graduate students by giving them a wider array of choices, and choices that are pleasurable.

In a study entitled “To Read or Not to Read,” the National Endowment for the Arts found that 65 percent of college freshmen read for pleasure less than one hour a week or not at all. In 1982, 82 percent of college graduates read literature (defined as novels, poetry, or plays); in 2002, that percentage fell to 67 percent.

Publishers Weekly finds that Americans spend 86 hours a year reading books, in contrast to 1,673 hours watching TV.

ParaPublishing.com (which I found through a Stephen King commentary in Entertainment Weekly), says that a third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and 42 percent of college grads similarly never read a book after college. That is simply astounding.

That may speak volumes about the painfulness of required texts in school, an avalanche of alternative means of filling leisure time, and/or nonchalance toward life-long learning and intellectual stimulation.

Below, I give you my current list of optional readings. I ask students to pick three books, one each from a different topic, and connect their key takeaways to their discipline, passion, talent, and personal and professional development. (In case you are interested, I have two required books: Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People.) Several students go beyond the minimum of three books; one assured me that he had managed to read every one within a year after graduation.

I want to refresh the list and I trust that many of you are willing to weigh in. Are you game for posting your additions or deletions? The easiest way is for you to post a note with your recommendation(s) and, in one sentence, tell me why a graduate student in public policy would enjoy it. You are free, too, to tell me that it is time to remove one or more titles.

I am looking for the longest thread in Dome’s history. Please don’t let me down!

Craig’s List of Optional Readings
Select three books from the following list, each from a separate topic.

Art, Mind and Brain; or Multiple Intelligences; or Frames of Mind (Howard Gardner)
No Excuses (Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom)
Ghosts From the Nursery (Robin Karr-Morse)

Health Care
Rats, Lice, and History (Hans Zinsser)
The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (John Barry)
The Social Transformation of American Medicine (Paul Starr)

Silent Spring (Rachel Carson)
Cadillac Desert (Marc Reisner)
Ruin To Recovery (Dave Dempsey)
State of Fear (Michael Crichton)

Culture of Narcissism (Christopher Lasch)
Out of Our Minds: Learning To Be Creative (Sir Ken Robinson)
The Great Disruption (Francis Fukayama)
The New Realities (Peter Drucker)
Guns, Germs and Steel (Jared Dimond)
Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)
The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)
Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (Stephen Jay Gould)
Democracy in America (Alexis de Tocqueville)
Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe)
Ragtime (E. L. Doctorow)

American Politics
Plunkitt of Tammany Hall (William Riordon)
Hardball (Chris Matthews)
Parliament of Whores (P.J. O’Rourke)
The Federalist Papers
All the King’s Men (Robert Penn Warren)
Primary Colors (Joe Klein)
Thank You for Smoking (Christopher Buckley)

Raving Fans (Ken Blanchard)
The Power Broker (Robert Caro)
The Prince (Machiavelli)

Again, please lend a hand. You number more than 6,000 of Michigan’s best and brightest. You have read or are now reading a powerful novel, a singularly outstanding biography, a collection of essays, play, or history. Please share the standouts among your reading that influenced your way of sizing up the world around you.

Students will be grateful for more and better choices of fare.


Craig Ruff is, among many things, a senior policy fellow and former president of Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants.

July 13, 2010 · Filed under Craig's Grist Tags: ,

31 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kimberly Johnson // Jul 19, 2010 at 4:15 am

    Under Society/Culture: “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

    American Politics and/or Leadership: Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World by Marie Wilson (the list is a bit light on female authors)

  • 2 David Price // Jul 19, 2010 at 5:34 am

    Amercian Politics:

    Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America by John Avlon

  • 3 David Price // Jul 19, 2010 at 5:38 am

    American Politics:
    1776 by David McCullough

  • 4 Doug Drake // Jul 19, 2010 at 6:08 am

    Quick response:
    I concur with David Price re 1776–even as a student of history, when I read it a year or so ago I was struck by the realization of the peril and fragility of the birth of our country…the uniqueness of our freedoms should always be in the forefront of our thoughts

    I’ll provide some more ideas later

  • 5 Lou Henkel // Jul 19, 2010 at 6:23 am

    American Politics: “Eyewitness to Power” by David Gergen

    re presidential politics

  • 6 joe garcia // Jul 19, 2010 at 6:30 am

    Absolutely agree with 1776. Also, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and McCullough’s book on Harry Truman.

  • 7 Luke Capizzo // Jul 19, 2010 at 7:05 am

    Another Paul Starr to add to the list:
    “The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communication”

    Critical reading both on the integration of technology and politics as well as the role of the media in democracy.

  • 8 William Harris // Jul 19, 2010 at 7:26 am

    “Left Back” by Dianne Ravitch.

    A review of a century of education reforms and how they went awry.

  • 9 Maxine Berman // Jul 19, 2010 at 7:33 am

    For health care: Demanding Medical Excellence, Michael Millenson. Basically, how things could be done better and cheaper. Eminently readable too.
    Politics: Gore Vidal’s Lincoln.
    I’ll have to peruse my bookshelves at home later to add more.

  • 10 Larry Beckon // Jul 19, 2010 at 7:39 am

    Suggestion for your Leadership list of books:
    Leadership by James MacGregor Burns. Dr. Burns is a Pulitzer Prize winner who is both a historian and a political scientist. He writes about transformation leadership. I have read books by Ken Blancard, Robert Caro and Machiavelli, but this is the most useful book about leadership that I have read. This book is considered by many as the seminal work in the field of leadership studies. Reading this book helped be become a better person.

    Suggestion for American Politics:
    True Compass by Edward M. Kennedy. I found this book very interesting – very difficult to put down. This book provides inside information about Ted Kennedy as a person and about many major players on the world stage in the past 50 years. The book reveals many relationships.

  • 11 David Palsrok // Jul 19, 2010 at 8:35 am

    Two biographies on Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro that I would add to your list: “Path to Power” (political) and “Master of the Senate” (legislative).

  • 12 Jean Eggemeyer // Jul 19, 2010 at 8:43 am

    Politics: Write It When I’m Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations With Gerald R. Ford by Thomas DeFrank for a well-written glimpse inside a president’s head.

    Environment: The Poisoning of Michigan by Joyce Egginton for what not to do as a public servant when faced with an environmental disaster.

  • 13 Christina // Jul 19, 2010 at 10:25 am

    “Lies My Teacher Told Me” is a favorite of mine that talks about how the American way of teaching American history and civics is a contributing factor to voter apathy and citizen engagement in government.

  • 14 Shawn // Jul 19, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Breakfast with Socrates, Robert Smith. With chapter titles like Playing Hooky and Going to a Party, this book plays on the need to connect everyday experience with lofty big ideas. It’d fit in each of your categories.

    Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power is an exceedingly accessible treatment leadership and politics.

    Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis. American Politics at its roots.

  • 15 Dave Lambert // Jul 19, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    1. “Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning” by Jonah Goldberg
    2. “The Road to Serfdom” by F. A. Hayek

  • 16 Rob van Ravenswaay // Jul 19, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Sun Tzu – The Art Of War (Leadership) – The Griffith translation has an excellent introduction. This is a fundamental text on leadership, strategy and tactics with particular attention to the role of intelligence.

    Ze’ev Chafets – Devil’s Night and Other True Tales of Detroit (Society/Culture) – This book outlines the tribal war elements of SE Michigan politics through insightful profiles and stories. Though written 20 years ago, judge for yourself whether much has changed.

    I agree that the 48 Laws of Power and The Road to Serfdom would be good additions.

    John Keegan – A History of Warfare (Society/Culture) – A book of staggering complexity, tracing themes through thousands of years of history. His discussions of the use of irregular troops through the ages foreshadow many of the problems the U.S. has faced in recent years.

  • 17 Kelly // Jul 21, 2010 at 8:06 am

    Well, I’d remove the Great Gatsby.
    I’d also add under leadership – The Speed of Trust by Covey. Potentially, also add Drive by Pink. I haven’t read it yet, but have heard good things.

  • 18 Pat // Jul 21, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Remove Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Influential, but from a scientific perspective – a bit hysterical.
    Add a book about Abraham Lincoln. (I’ve read so many, not sure which to recommend.)
    Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is excellent. I concur with adding David McCullough’s 1776 and/or Truman. Both excellent books on American history.

  • 19 Juli // Jul 21, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    I am public policy student at the Heinz school, so I’ve loved seeing some new book suggestions. I love to read, and I was shocked by how few graduates pick up books after college.

    Here are a few other books that would add to your list:

    Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough
    The Bottomless Well, by Peter Huber
    Sustainability by Design, by John Ehrenfeld

    First They Killed My Father, by Loung Ung
    Freakanomics, by Steven Levitt
    Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris

    American Politics:
    American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld
    1776, by David McCullough
    Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis
    1984, by George Orwell
    The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

    Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
    Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson

    The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, by TR Reid

    Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher
    Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
    The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, by Stephen Covey

  • 20 Maxine Berman // Jul 23, 2010 at 6:01 am

    A few more:
    Homegrown Democracy: Garrison Keillor
    What’s the Matter with Kansas: Thomas Frank (how conservatives win)
    The Wordy Shipmates: Sarah Vowell (how we are a country still influenced by the Puritans)
    Actually, anything by Sarah Vowel: Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot are also wonderful–and funnier than the Shipmates book.

  • 21 Walt Sorg // Jul 23, 2010 at 6:29 am

    Blind Ambition (John Dean) – The best inside account of how power can corrupt;
    Conscience of a Conservative (Barry Goldwater) – the book that started the movement, although quaint by what passes as conservatism today;
    Words That Work (Frank Luntz) – Best primer on political manipulation since The Prince;
    Dreams from My Father (Barack Obama)
    RFK: Collected Speeches (Robert F. Kennedy)

    Going Rogues (Sarah Palin). OK, I’m kidding about this one.

  • 22 Betty Howe // Jul 24, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    For starts, the one book that got the 2008 election results right–before the election and perhaps most timely still is Millennial Makeover by two Michigan natives Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais. Then, anything by the great Kevin Phillips, Bad Money is timely. What makes Phillips different from just about everyone already on the list is how he has personally responded to the changes affecting all of us (moving from strategizing for Nixon to brilliant use of demography and economics to capture our political environment today. This guy does real research!

  • 23 Craig Ruff // Jul 30, 2010 at 5:55 am

    To each and all, many thanks! So many terrific suggestions.

  • 24 Jody Vanderveen // Jul 30, 2010 at 7:11 am

    The Children by David Halberstam- a wonderful and moving book.

    Publisher Comments:
    The Children is David Halberstam’s brilliant and moving evocation of the early days of the civil rights movement, as seen through the story of the young people–the Children–who met in the 1960s and went on to lead the revolution. Magisterial in scope, with a strong you-are-there quality, The Children is a story one of America’s preeminent journalists has waited years to write, a powerful book about one of the most dramatic movements in American history.

  • 25 Bill Bobier // Jul 30, 2010 at 10:46 am

    A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

    U.S.A. by John Dos Passos circa 1930
    Actually a trilogy “The 42nd Parallel” ,”Nineteen Nineteen”, and “the Big Money”.It spans the Progressive Era, WW I, and the Great Depression. A great combination of fictional history, poetry, and biographical sketches. Portions of “The Big Money” seem especially timely given the current economy.

  • 26 Nancy McKeague // Aug 10, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    Health Care – Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande and Josie’s Story by Sorrel King.
    Society/Culture – Fast Food Nation

  • 27 Peter Eckstein // Aug 14, 2010 at 12:10 pm


    If you want to wander as far afield as Economics, the best current book is John Cassidy, How Markets Fail. It is three books tied together in one–an analysis of what markets can and cannot do, a history of the selling out by most of the economics profession over the past few decades, and an analysis of the financial crisis that brought on the Great Recession. All done in the style of a professional journalist rather than an obfuscator.

    I’m not sure I would include a novel by Michael Crichton over a more balanced treatment of climate change.

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