History 101 In September: TPM’s Favorite Non-Fiction Reads

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It’s truly a trip to turn on the TV over the last few weeks and see all the back-to-school commercials inundating the airwaves as if this is a fall like any other. Corona-who?

Growing up, I was one of those kids who thoroughly enjoyed going to Staples with my mom for back-to-school shopping, picking out new, colorful notebooks with just the right margins, and seizing my favorite pack of animal print and celebrity icon folders. (Young Jackie was particularly partial to N*Sync and Britany Spears). Now, I can’t imagine being a parent or a teacher or even an ambitious young student tasked with shopping for the new school year amid a grueling pandemic. Are there masks with Britney Spears on them now instead of folders? Who am I kidding — there most definitely are.

As we say goodbye to summer and hello to arguably the best season, fall, the TPM staff has gathered some of our favorite non-fiction books to share this month. I never got around to learning a new language or picking up a new useful skill during the quarantine, but I figure the next best thing is expanding my brain through some light, or heavy, reading. Want more suggestions than we’ve outlined here? I highly recommend giving Josh Marshall’s epic list of books a look. The history buff knows his non-fiction reads.

Be sure to check out the list below and comment with some of your favorite non-fiction and historical books. If you like what you see, you can always purchase any of the books below by visiting our TPM Bookshop profile page. Be sure to check back again next month for some new staff recommendations, and if you’ve missed any, you can find all of our reading lists here. Happy reading!

Tierney Sneed, Investigative Reporter

“With all the current turmoil around the USPS, journalist’s Devin Leonard charming history of the U.S. Postal Service is perfect read for this particular fall. While there’s plenty in there that helps set the table for the crisis USPS faces now, it’s also an inspiring reminder that the Postal Service has faced plenty of other trying — and strange — episodes in its 200-plus year history. (Did you know that when USPS first started offering package delivery, enough customers sent their young children through the service that the agency had to explicitly ban the practice?).”

David Taintor, Senior Editor

“This Pulitzer Prize-winning look at the devastating effects of manmade climate change is a gripping and important read. Few writers are able to translate complex — and terrifying — climate science as well as Kolbert. Don’t just take my word for it: Ta-Nehisi Coates calls Kolbert ‘the best nonfiction writer going.'”

Jacob Harris, Front-End Developer

“So much history writing places ‘Great Men’ — political leaders, titans of business, generals — at the center of it’s narrative. ‘A People’s History’ takes the opposite approach, surveying U.S. history with an emphasis on black Americans, women, native Americans, workers, the poor and others who don’t usually get the spotlight.”

Joe Ragazzo, Publisher

“‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ is one of the greatest adventure and revenge stories of all time. However, most people are unaware that the Count —Edmund Dantes — was in fact based on a real-life person: Author Alexandre Dumas’ father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. The elder Dumas was born to a French noble and a black slave in Saint Domingue (now, Haiti), but rose to become a general under Napoleon before being imprisoned. ‘The Black Count’ is a truly remarkable story that touches on the history of slavery, revolution, and betrayal.”

Josh Kovensky, Investigative Reporter

“This book gave me a completely new perspective on World War Two in Europe. It offers an economic history of Nazi Germany, showing how and why fanatics in Berlin were able to focus the resources of a poor country on preparing for, prosecuting, and prolonging a horrific war, inspired in part by a distorted view of American prosperity and the desire to mimic it in Europe. It’s a chilling but fascinating read that offers real insight for today, demonstrating how people completely unmoored from reality can shape history.”

John Light, Managing Editor

“‘The Jakarta Method’ recasts the Cold War battle for the Third World as a series of mass-killing events, carried out by the U.S. or its proxies — a pattern much of the world witnessed but could do little to stop. It sounds like a grim read, and it is, but it’s also a gripping one, interweaving recently declassified documents and interviews with people around the globe.

“Vincent Bevins, a foreign correspondent for The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, shows how these paroxysm of violence in the name of anti-communism — in Latin America, in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East — played off and fueled one another, a pattern apparent both at the highest levels of the State Department and to people watching nervously around the globe. One particularly bloody episode, in which hundreds of thousands, and perhaps as many as a million people, were murdered in Indonesia in 1965, gave a name to Washington-backed extermination network: The Jakarta Method. Post columnist Ishaan Tharoor accurately describes it as ‘a history most Americans never learned or would rather forget.'”

Matthew Wozniak, Director of Technology

“So many of the products and services that now dominate our lives have been built on top of technologies originally conceived to aid U.S. imperial interests of domination and subjugation. ‘Surveillance Valley’ exposes the military influence and objectives of a technology typically associated with ideas like freedom and liberation: the internet.”

Derick Dirmaier, Head of Product

“It’s been awhile since I’ve read it, but this book is full of remarkably insightful anecdotes about Mao you won’t soon forget. In one telling scene, Mao attends a circus where a child acrobat falls off the trapeze and gets badly hurt. The crowd gasps while Mao breaks out into laughter. 800 pages of stories like this definitely paint a picture.”

Nicole LaFond, Special Projects Editor

“Perhaps I’m feeling nostalgic for home as I prepare to take a trip back to Illinois later this month. I first read ‘Devil in the White City’ as part of an undergrad journalism course assignment, where we explored the, at the time growing genre, of non-fiction novels birthed out of news stories — long form pieces of literature that began as simple investigative journalism assignments. ‘White City’ taught me more about the city of Chicago and my home state than I’d care to admit as a nearly-lifelong Illinoisan. And the gritty murder mystery at the heart of the story is the least shocking component of the narrative.”

Kate Riga, Reporter

“Fulfilling my white woman stereotype, I’m very into true crime. As much as it pains me to promote a Ted Bundy book — a serial killer who has already been given the glamorized, Hollywood-ized treatment despite murdering dozens of women — this book is great. It’s written by Ann Rule, who worked with Bundy at a Seattle crisis center, and it gives his victims more personalized treatment than most of the reams of Bundy content.”

Jackie Wilhelm, Associate Publisher

“A glamorous and frothy glimpse into the spoiled and, at times tragic, life of Princess Margaret that reads like your favorite tabloid. Having been only nine-years-old when she died I never knew all that much about Princess Margaret, but let me tell you the tea is piping hot.”

Matt Shuham, Reporter

“This brick of a book may take some time, but Myra MacPherson’s biography of the most well-read, independent, obsessive journalist of the 20th century is a triumph. Stone’s globetrotting life and work both reflected the century’s tumult and shaped it. After a successful (if often contentious) career in the mainstream press, Stone was known for I.F. Stone’s Weekly, the devoted readership of which provided a model for later independent publications. Stone is a quote machine, but one line of his sticks with me, if only as an aspiration: ‘I’m having so much fun I ought to be arrested!’”


TPM partners with Bookshop, a non-profit bookseller whose objective is to help independent bookstores survive. TPM and independent bookstores both earn a small percentage of revenue for each book sold. You can learn more about Bookshop here, and on this episode of the Josh Marshall podcast.

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