10 books to understand the world today

Everyone likes to be informed and up-to-date. In the age of the incessant news feed, people feel cut off from the world if they don’t consume news in a form or another for a few hours. An article on a website (or more often, a title) which we have found by chance can strongly influence our perception of the events around us. I do not think that people are stupid, like many enlightened personalities have come to believe to understand the most recent development in the democratic process. Most of us just do not have time to make up their minds about something very general and abstract, because there are more pressing needs in our everyday lives, so somebody else must do the thinking for us. A news item or an article on a website is often very explicit and immediate, at least on the surface: “Trump is a sexist/a fascist/the new Hitler” (whatever the hell it may mean), “Reagan destroyed/rejuvenated the American economy”. The world is, however, much more complex than a 600-word text or to be condensed in another damn alarmed Tweet.

There are two sorts of books, I believe, independently of their quality: the books that tell a story and the books that tell facts. The distinction is not just between fiction and non-fiction. Books that tell a story can be non-fiction books too. They often make a more gripping read than “naked facts” books, and living in an age where everything needs to be extremely exciting makes it sometimes very difficult for the written word in the contest for the somebody’s attention. But the narrative needs of the story line often require for a story to be all too much simplified, marginalizing equally relevant facts for the main story to maintain a facade of internal coherence. Books that tell facts are books that are not bound by those requirements of style, where everything is not always so clear cut, and very often it is difficult to distinguish the good from the bad characters.

Like all such lists, this is, while pretending to have a resemblance of objectivity, in fact very subjective. It reflects my interests and my studies. This is a pretty “conservative” list, I have to admit. In fact, there are only books published by major publishers and I included only works by English or American authors. There are certainly very fine books written in other languages too, but they often tend to be too “country specific” and not be widely known internationally. Many of these books are written by journalists, a profession which I have attacked strongly in many of my last articles. It seems to be a proof that without time or editorial constraints, some journalists are still capable of honest talk. There are no books on sciences or IT, because, in fact, I don’t give a damn about new technologies and I could not possibly care about the certainly coming AI revolution, but that’s a story for a different article. But I want to cut this short now, so here is the list:

Andrew Marr, My Trade: A History of British Journalism – Andrew Marr is one of the most recognizable faces on the BBC. Not just a “history” of journalism in Britain, but a reflection on the role and (excessive) power of political journalism in our times.


Steve Coll, Ghost Wars – The story of the events that led to 9/11. Precious insights in the workings and failings of intelligence agencies during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton eras.


Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes A History of the CIA – Particularly relevant in the mess that followed Trump’s election. You think you should believe everything the CIA wants the public to know, because they only have the best interest of the country at heart after all? Think again.

John Simpson, Unreliable Sources – Another book on journalism, another very important BBC man. Another testimony of the very mainly failings of a very fallible, but very narcissistic profession.


Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest – I don’t like much of what Niall Ferguson stands for in politics, but one has to admit, his books in general are replete with interesting facts and thoughts, this one in particular.

Sebastian Bellamy, More Money Than God – A history of financial genius, megalomania and crashes. Just for people with a textbook-like and idealistic conception of “the Market” to become familiar with the realities of high finance capitalism. On a side note: the character of George Soros appears in several chapters.


James T. Patterson, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (Oxford History of the United States) – A history of the United States from Carter to 9/11.

Gregory Mankiw, Principle of Economics – I could have taken any economics manual, I just chose the one I was using at university. Because without some basic knowledge of the dismal science, anything you may think about politics, economics, social justice or else is mere wishful thinking.

George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America – America is a broken country, plagued by monstrous levels of income inequality and other injustices. Written by the New Yorker editor George Packer. For all those who accused Trump of intentionally portraying an all too bleak picture of contemporary America for populist purposes.


Joseph Stiglitz, Globalization and its discontents – As a remainder that there was a time, not too long ago, when taking a critical stance towards globalization and international capitalism was not immediately equated with being a fascist or a racist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s