From The Grapes of Wrath to Flash Boys & Capital – Good Books Reveal the Issues and Angst of the Age

CapitalIf Amazon’s top-sellers list is any indication, Americans are fed up with rising income inequality.
As of Thursday evening, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s new memoir, A Fighting Chance, is the number two best-selling book on Amazon, trailing only Thomas Piketty’s Capital In The Twenty-First Century. Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys, which exposes the world of high-frequency traders, is number five. Both Capital and A Fighting Chance are also among Barnes & Noble’s top five sellers.
While the three works come at the issue from different vantage points, they all arrive at essentially the same conclusion: the game is rigged against the middle class.
Mollie Reilly, from The Huffington Post

In “The Grapes of Wrath,” men are stunned. Women adapt.
America needs a Ma Joad in the White House.
Susan Shillinglaw, 75 years after ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ we need Ma Joad in the White House (from The Washington Post)


Book popularity sometimes has little to do with deeper meanings, deeper issues – sometimes book popularity is all about entertainment, or a host of other cultural factors.

But, sometimes, the popularity of a book is a signal about what is underlying the angst, or fears, or hopes, of a people.

I read the two articles quoted above, and thought about what the current popularity of certain books has to say about us – us, all of us — at this time.

Amazon updates its best seller lists hourly, so the position of Capital (Thomas Pikkety), Flash Boys (Michael Lewis), and A Fighting Chance (Senator Elizabeth Warren) could have been a quirky one hour snapshot. But I think it’s more than that. (At the hour I write this, they are #1, 3, & 6 on the Amazon overall best-seller list).

Flipping over to the “Business and Money” category for its best-sellers, Capital and Flash Boys, in its many versions (Hardcover; Kindle; Audio), sit at the numbers 1,3,4,5, & 8 positions. (Capital in two versions; Flash Boys in three versions). And Lean In, now more than a year old, is still in the top 15.

A thought, or two.

grapes of wrathFirst, The Grapes of Wrath has always been worth reading. From Wikipedia: At the time of publication, Steinbeck’s novel “was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national talk radio; but above all, it was read.”

But maybe the angst of this era – the uncertainty, the unease — makes it relevant in a new way. In case you missed the recent news, America’s middle class has now slipped to the point that Canada’s middle class has moved ahead of us. (Read US middle class no longer most prosperous in world: American dream fades as data shows middle classes falling behind Canadian counterparts for the details).

I am set to present my book synopsis on Lean In to yet another audience soon.  To say that we have not yet figured out, as a culture, how to view (and treat) women and men as true equals in the workplace is an understatement.

Flash Boys is a reminder that the game is rigged – and rigged in a way that only a select few have access to the advantages available in this rigged game. I think people are very uneasy, and maybe angry, about this, and that may help explain the huge popularity of Flash Boys. (And, it helps that Michael Lewis is a great story-telling writer).flashboys

And Capital, which is high on my reading list (I will tackle it after I present Flash Boys at the May 2 First Friday Book Synopsis), from what I read about it, raises a pretty all-encompassing set of questions about the current health of capitalism.

The angst of the age – the issues of the age. These concerns might explain the popularity of these books…

I don’t know how you decide what to read. I make my living reading books, and building presentations around what I read and learn. Sometimes, I’m a little on the utilitarian side of the equation in my selections. “Which titles will be useful to business leaders?” is always the question at the front of my mind.

But I think this: it’s insightful to pay attention to which titles capture the moment. What explains their popularity? Why are they received as they are? Why have they generated such controversy, such push back? I think these three books especially are clearly a threat to a current power structure – and any threat to any existing power structure is resisted mightily.

TheJungleSinclair(Quick history reminder, about how big a difference the right book can make: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle led to actual changes in the meat packing industry. Changes that might have taken many years to make had it not been for the popularity of this book. President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, after reading the book: “radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist.” — But, Sinclair himself was not pleased; he was actually more concerned about the plight of workers than he was about the condition of the meat they were packing. He stated: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Read about the impact of this book at Wikipedia.
And, John Kennedy read The Other America: Poverty in the United States, by Michael Harrington, and then lauchned an anti-poverty initiative continued by President Johnson after his assassination).Other America

Lean InFrom The Grapes of Wrath to Lean In to Flash Boys & Capital, books tell us what folks are thinking about, worried about, and wrestling with. They always have.  I think they always will.


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