How we tell the story of America

40 books from 2019 that wrestle with what defines our country

The Post's Steven Levingston on
40 books from 2019 that wrestle with what defines our country

The two Americans, separated by more than a century, expressed identical sentiments in strikingly similar language. President Trump, who has characterized immigrants from south of the border as drug dealers, human traffickers and all manner of criminal, finally wanted to slam the door shut. "We can't take you anymore," he declared in April. "Our country is full . . . We don't have room."

Trump’s disposition is not that different from what we heard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when America closed off immigration by Jews, Italians and others from Europe, as Daniel Okrent eloquently shows in his new book, “The Guarded Gate.” Foreshadowing Trump’s rhetoric, Prescott Hall, a Harvard-trained lawyer who co-founded the Immigration Restriction League in 1894, composed a vile ditty:

Enough! Enough! We want no more

Of ye immigrant from a foreign shore

Already is our land o’er run

With toiler, beggar, thief and scum.

It’s a trusim of American history: What’s old is new again. America has grappled with intractable issues — immigration, crime and punishment, racism, political partisanship, and Supreme Court neutrality — across generations and has struggled to face them in different ways at different times. Today’s thinkers labor over the same questions, and this year alone they have produced dozens of books about what America has been, what it is now and what it will be for future generations. As we approach Independence Day — the celebration of which itself is contentious this year — here are 40 tomes we’ve covered in 2019 that help us understand these long-running debates.

The books on our list show the nation yearning for greatness in its bid to place a man on the moon and failing in its ideals to protect the rights of all Americans. They explore the ambitions of a top diplomat and the consequences of a devastating terrorist attack on American shores. They reach into history to assess America’s first presidential impeachment, in 1868, and probe the current realities of the Trump White House. Pressing contemporary issues fill the pages of these books: mass incarceration, domestic violence, school shootings, climate change, national crises.

The story of America is constantly being written, contested and rewritten. The way we tell it changes as our national narrative — and the myths behind it — shift and adapt over time. These 40 titles allow us to see ourselves in all our glory and disgrace.

Our national identity, as explored in 40 books The Washington Post has reviewed this year

(Simon & Schuster)

A Good American Family

The Red Scare and My Father

For a time, the man who raised David Maraniss, a veteran Washington Post journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, was a communist. Maraniss adores and admires his father but sees troublesome parts of his politics. He finds the contradiction worth exploring: How could his father have been a loving parent and a patriotic citizen — the head of a genuinely “good American family” — and at the same time have flirted with Stalinism?

Review by Beverly Gage


American Moonshot

John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race

With a mixture of granular detail and analysis of Kennedy’s decision-making and political savvy, Brinkley, a presidential historian and Rice University professor, transcends mere narrative to help us understand how America geared up for the astonishing feat of landing a man on the moon.

Review by Thomas Oliphant


Become America

Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy

This collection of essays exhorts Americans to love the nation they have by becoming the nation they want. Liu, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program, argues that our polarized, inequitable, dysfunctional polity needs “civic religion”: a collective change of heart, mind and habit.

Review by Trygve Throntveit

(Henry Holt)

The British Are Coming

The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777

In this first volume of a trilogy, Atkinson, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of the acclaimed World War II “Liberation Trilogy,” tells the story of the Revolutionary War with illuminating details about individual characters and military campaigns. For sheer dramatic intensity, swinging from the American catastrophes at Quebec and Fort Washington to the resounding and surprising successes at Trenton and Princeton, there are few better places to turn.

Review by Wayne E. Lee

(Random House)


The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration

Journalist Bazelon’s engrossing narrative exposes the wretchedness of the American legal process but also offers something that is missing from most other books about mass incarceration: hope. Her thesis is that prosecutors bear most of the guilt for dragging the country into the morass of mass incarceration, and they are the ones who can help bring us out.

Review by Paul Butler


The Chief

The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts

Although Chief Justice Roberts consistently maintains that the court is not a political body, and although he insists publicly that “the justices do not advance political positions,” Supreme Court biographer Biskupic concludes that, in his decision-making in the most important and ideological cases, Roberts has all too often “engaged in the partisanship he claimed to abhor.”

Review by Geoffrey R. Stone

(University of Chicago Press)


Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution

American journalist Gardiner travels the world to reveal the impact of poor air quality. She discovers that we constantly underestimate and under-regulate the public health menace of pollution. In Appalachia, for instance, fracking for oil and natural gas releases high levels of particulates as well as ozone from methane, resulting in a projected extra 200 to 800 deaths in the region by 2020.

Review by Florence Williams


Confirmation Bias

Inside Washington's War Over the Supreme Court, From Scalia's Death to Justice Kavanaugh

The neutrality of Supreme Court justices, a cornerstone of American democracy, seems to be slipping away now that political partisanship has overtaken the Senate’s advice-and-consent process for nominees. New York Times reporter Hulse describes the system as “corrupted to what appears to be the point of no return.”


The Conservative Sensibility

Will, a Washington Post opinion columnist, seems to have become less conservative as he has aged: He offers not so much a brief for conservatism as a learned and lengthy defense of classical liberalism. In the 1980s, he wrote a conservative book during the ascendancy of libertarianism, and today, he delivers a more libertarian book in an age when conservatives see more clearly how economic and social libertarianism combine to undermine conservatism.

Review by Patrick J. Deneen


Doing Justice

A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law

Fired by President Trump, this former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York positions “Doing Justice” as a treatise on “the rule of law and faith in the rule of law.” Bharara presents the justice system Trump disdains as a source of inspiration for a healthier politics.

Review by Quinta Jurecic


Fall and Rise

The Story of 9/11

In this remarkable and groundbreaking book, journalism professor Zuckoff says his intention is not to address the “why” of the 9/11 attacks by probing the mind-set of jihadists, but to offer a more intimate perspective of the tragedy for those who lived through it and to create “something like memories” for everyone else.

Review by Karen Abbott



Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

McKibben, one of the nation’s foremost environmental chroniclers, has seen nearly all his worst fears about climate change come true. In “Falter,” he takes us on a direct, attention-grabbing sprint through what we’ve done to the planet and ourselves, why we haven’t stopped it, and what we can do about it. His warning: The whole breadth of our existence — the “human game” — is in jeopardy.

Review by Meara Sharma

(Random House)


Sandra Day O'Connor

In this biography of the Supreme Court’s first female justice, Thomas vividly sketches the attributes O’Connor used to become the highest-ranking woman ever in American government: a knack for brushing past insults, relentlessness belied by a pretty smile, an almost superhuman level of energy and, not least, a heroically supportive husband.

Review by Julie Cohen


The Guarded Gate

Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America

This timely historical work traces the convergence of two movements just before the First World War: one to restrict immigration and the other to improve the human species through eugenics. In 1924, when Congress sharply cut the flow of immigrants into the United States, it acted on the basis of ideas about race and heredity known to be false. Readers who follow today’s debates about immigration may reflect on how truth suffers when powerful interests try to obscure it.

Review by David A. Hollinger


The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee

Native America From 1890 to the Present

By David Treuer, Riverhead

In American literature and historiography, Native Americans have long been seen as so compromised by disease, war and intermarriage that they were destined to disappear. Treuer, an Ojibwe and a professor at the University of Southern California, aims to revise that image. His perspective is one of Native American resiliency and survival.

Review by Paul Andrew Hutton


Honorable Exit

How a Few Brave Americans Risked All to Save Our Vietnamese Allies at the End of the War

Sanctioned by neither the White House nor the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, a handful of Americans at the close of the Vietnam War saved more than 130,000 Vietnamese men, women and children, many of whom resettled in the United States. These spouses, lovers and children of Americans, as well as interpreters, fixers, and upper-echelon government, military and intelligence personnel, all faced mortal danger if left behind. Clarke, a historian and novelist, expertly captures what constituted the biggest wartime evacuation since Dunkirk in 1940 and the largest humanitarian operation in American history.

Review by Pierre Asselin

(Oxford University Press)

The Ideas That Made America

A Brief History

An anomaly in the genre of lengthy intellectual history, “The Ideas That Made America” is blessedly brief at just 220 pages, yet it succeeds in doing a lot. Professor Ratner-Rosenhagen covers many schools in America’s life of the mind to highlight her central theme that, throughout American history, major thinkers have always wrestled with “the appropriate balance of power between self-interest and social obligation.”

Review by Carlos Lozada

(Random House)

The Impeachers

The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation

This absorbing account of the impeachment of President Johnson contains no mention of President Trump. But Wineapple has written a well-timed book on the question of the moment: Should we think of impeaching a lawless and toxic president as a vital matter of national principle — or as an affair of pragmatic politics?

Review by John Fabian Witt


Inside the Five-Sided Box

Lessons From a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon

Presented as a “user’s guide” for understanding the Defense Department, “Inside the Five-Sided Box” serves as a forum for Carter to air his frustrations about Congress and the media and to illustrate what he sees as President Barack Obama’s deft handling of some foreign leaders, such as Hamid Karzai, the mercurial Afghan president, who got a “richly deserved” tongue-lashing from Obama.

Review by Dan Lamothe

(Melville House)

The Invisible Killer

The Rising Global Threat of Air Pollution — and How We Can Fight Back

Fuller, a British scientist, paints an alarming picture: Decades of research suggests that the poisons and particles of bad air shorten lives, impair learning and increase the risk for dementia, and conditions are only getting worse. Across the globe, 95 percent of humanity breathes air that does not meet World Health Organization guidelines. In the United States, more than 40 percent of the population lives with unhealthy air.

Review by Florence Williams

(St. Martin’s)

The League of Wives

The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home

Discovering a new breed of forgotten heroines, Lee recounts the exhilarating tale of the wives of American POWs who broke the etiquette of silence and subservience and formed a strong coalition of “warrior queens” who fought the governments of the United States and North Vietnam “for their husbands’ freedom . . . and won.”

Review by Elaine Showalter


The Matriarch

Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty

This definitive biography portrays Barbara Bush, the wife of the 41st president and mother of the 43rd, as more than an acid-tongued truth-teller or a white-haired, grandmotherly figure. From HIV/AIDS to Cold War diplomacy to the 2003 Iraq invasion to political scorekeeping to character-judging, the first lady held forth with her husband, sons, senior government officials and foreign dignitaries. Having the ear of two presidents (and one presidential candidate) offered the matriarch the opportunity to influence policy and political strategy.

Review by Barbara A. Perry


No Visible Bruises

What We Don't Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us

In this compulsively readable book, Snyder takes us into the lives of the abused and their abusers. The stories are devastating, but Snyder keeps us going by pointing us toward possible solutions, showing how researchers and front-line interveners are creating practical, cost-effective, evidence-based ways to save lives.

Review by E.J. Graff


Our Man

Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

The late diplomat Holbrooke possessed heroic talents, achieved feats of strength and rose high. But his flaws were legion: He fought for status and recognition, leaked to hurt rivals, kowtowed to bosses, and terrorized subordinates. In his biography of this “almost great” man, Packer dwells on the sins but exhorts us not to judge Holbrooke by them.

Review by Adam B. Kushner



Birth of a Movement

Very little of “Parkland” focuses on the six-minute-and-20-second killing spree on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Instead, journalist Cullen tells us what came next: the students’ earnest activism that spread beyond the suburbs to the inner cities. In Cullen’s telling, the uprising was fast and organic. It’s a story touched by trauma, but it’s not a story of trauma. It’s the story of a carefully planned rebellion.

Review by Jill Filipovic

(Simon & Schuster)

The Pioneers

The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian McCullough portrays the settlement of the Northwest Territory in the years after the American Revolution as a story of the principled vs. the unprincipled, in which the triumph of virtue is assured. The heroes are so upstanding that, somewhat unexpectedly for a McCullough book, the villains are more compelling.

Review by Andrew C. Isenberg

(Anthony Bourdain/Ecco)


My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison — Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out

The Washington Post’s former Iran correspondent recounts his nearly year and a half in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. The Islamic republic first accused him of espionage and then, in the absence of evidence, charged him with trying to undermine the regime. His case, complicated by adversarial U.S.-Iranian relations, highlights the dangers that journalists confront while working and traveling overseas.

Review by James Mann


Putin's World

Russia Against the West and With the Rest

The United States and its allies won the Cold War but appear to have lost the post-Cold War “peace” to an internationally savvy Russia under Vladi­mir Putin. Once considered a declining regional power, Russia has changed perceptions through vigorous diplomacy. Stent expertly walks readers through Moscow’s relations with every region in the world and shows how Russia seizes upon a wealth of opportunities gifted again and again by U.S. blundering or inattention.

Review by Stephen Kotkin

(Little, Brown)

The Queen

The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth

Levin, Slate’s national editor, digs deep into the life of the Cadillac-driving, fur-draped woman who was demonized in the 1970s and 1980s as the “welfare queen.” This view of Linda Taylor hardened into a stereotype of leeches on the government dole and was deployed for years to erode benefits for poor people of color.

Review by Lisbeth B. Schorr


The Right Side of History

How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great

Shapiro, a conservative polemicist, believes that we’ve lost faith in democracy, social institutions and, worst of all, one another. But don’t panic; Shapiro has a fix. To restore meaning to American life, he contends, all we have to do is remember two big things that the ancients figured out. From Athens, we got the supremacy of reason over passion. And from Jerusalem, we got God’s wisdom, to satisfy a soul aching for deeper answers that reason alone can’t supply.

Review by Alice Lloyd

(Random House)

The Second Mountain

The Quest for a Moral Life

New York Times columnist Brooks takes us on a personal and national journey of transformation. For himself and for America, he urges a path away from the excesses of rampant individualism and toward redemption through purpose beyond the self. For Brooks, social transformation follows personal transformation.

Review by Marc Freedman



The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America's Journey From Slavery to Segregation

The 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, regarded by some as the worst high court decision ever, reestablished segregation, reversing gains that blacks had made during Reconstruction. In “Separate,” Luxenberg, an associate editor at The Washington Post, reminds us that our history is not simply a narrative of greater and greater freedom. Rights can be gained, and rights can be taken away. Constitutional guarantees like equal protection under the law can sometimes, with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court, be violated with impunity.

Review by Eric Foner



Trump Under Fire

Wolff’s new book is much like his last one — a sail through the Trump diaspora and inside the president’s head with Steve Bannon as cruise director. But also like the last book, “Siege” is ultimately crippled by three flaws: Wolff’s overreliance on a single character, now distant from the action; factual errors; and sourcing that is so opaque it renders the scoops highly suspicious and unreliable.

Review by Ryan Lizza

(Penguin Press)

Stony the Road

Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow

Harvard professor Gates charts the racist reaction to the rights and leadership that blacks gained during Reconstruction in this narrative of African American resistance to white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation. Gates takes the story through the Harlem Renaissance, the emergence of a “newer New Negro,” and the vigorous pursuit of the rights of equal treatment first promised by the Reconstruction Congress that passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.

Review by Howell Raines



Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope.

Woodfox’s account of his 40 years in Angola, a Louisiana facility that’s one of America’s most notorious prisons, is wrenching, sometimes numbing, sometimes almost physically painful to read. In and out of prison since his youth, Woodfox begins spreading Black Panther principles to inmates, which lands him in solitary confinement. He considered himself a political prisoner, and he was right to do so. America locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other nation in the world, a majority of them people of color, born poor and on a playing field so unequal they might as well have been shackled from birth.

Review by Rosa Brooks

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

This Land Is Our Land

An Immigrant's Manifesto

Mehta, a New York University professor of journalism whose family migrated to the United States from India in the 1970s, issues a defiant rallying cry in favor of immigration. His blistering and provocative argument contends that immigration should be reframed as a matter of global justice. Immigrants from poorer countries are creditors, he says, here to rightfully collect the debts owed to them by the richer nations of the West that have shattered their political and economic futures.

Review by Bilal Qureshi

(St. Martin’s)

The Threat

How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump

In this memoir, former deputy FBI director McCabe documents President Trump’s attempts to impair the Russia probe and recounts the president’s incessant attacks on the FBI, describing the stakes in sweeping, convincing language. His portrait suggests that the Trump administration’s reputation for baseness and dysfunction has, if anything, been understated.

Review by Greg Miller

(Sarah Crichton)

Unexampled Courage

The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring

After a white police chief in South Carolina beat and blinded a recently discharged black Army sergeant in 1946, Truman was forced to address inequality in America. Gergel, a federal judge, presents a deeply researched account of the tragic story, choosing as his core theme racial redemption rather than racial violence. But the book also explores the routine nature of horrific attacks in the South against returning black World War II veterans.

Review by Kenneth W. Mack

(Tim Duggan)

The Uninhabitable Earth

Life After Warming

“It is worse, much worse, than you think,” journalist Wallace-Wells begins his book on the scary scenario that lies ahead because of climate change. Nothing will be the same. Wherever we live, we will be flooded, engulfed by fires, plagued by new diseases, choked by toxic air, deprived of water or impoverished as a climate in chaos leads to an economy in meltdown. There will be climate wars. Nature itself will look like an enemy rather than a friend. Yet Wallace-Wells provides the right caveats. All science is provisional, he warns: “What actually lies ahead may prove even grimmer, though the reverse, of course, is also possible.”

Review by Fred Pearce

****HANDOUT IMAGE “Upheaval,” by Jared Diamond, (credit: Little, Brown) ***NOT FOR RESALE (Little, Brown/Little, Brown)


Turning Points for Nations in Crisis

Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, compares national crises to personal ones. In assessing the state of America, he lays out the country’s many advantages largely related to its democracy, wealth and geography (it’s virtually immune to invasion). Judged by the crises of the past 70 years, he contends, the current decade offers “the most cause for anxiety,” and while “the U.S. enjoys enormous advantages . . . countries can squander their advantages.”

Review by Moisés Naím

Steven Levingston

Steven Levingston is the nonfiction editor of The Washington Post. He is author of "Barack and Joe: The Making of an Extraordinary Partnership", "Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle over Civil Rights", “Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Époque Paris.