Meghna Chakrabarti, cohost, “Radio Boston,’’ WBUR-FM
"The Road to Wigan Pier" by George Orwell
I was 17 years old and comfortable when I first read this book. When I finished it, I was 17 and uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because of Orwell’s uncompromising description of the difficulties of working life in pre-World War II Britain. This is the book that transformed my understanding of economic diversity (of poverty and of riches).
Orwell traveled to the coal mining towns of Northern England in 1936. He spent three months there, visiting industrial towns with “labyrinths of little brick houses blackened by smoke.’’ He describes the hellish working conditions of miners at the coal face. He witnesses how miners dragged themselves up from the coal pits, sat down to eat dinner with only the whites of their eyes and their red lips showing through the dust caked on their faces.
“The Road to Wigan Pier’’ is not an easy book to read. But it is an honest, deliberately provocative accounting of the working poor, and that is what makes it so essential. It’s a travelogue through a struggling economy. It is the book that brought me closer to understanding what it means to work hard, have very little, and still survive.
Barbara Ferrer, executive director, Boston Public Health Commission
"The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" by Anne Fadiman
Often as a public health practitioner, I am struck by how little we take into account the importance of spiritual healing when designing programs and interventions to promote health and fight disease. Anne Fadiman eloquently describes the devastating effect of this dissonance in her book. Until I read this book, I wasn’t really paying attention to the tremendous harm that results when a health care system fails to understand the primacy of cultural beliefs. The story of Lia Lee, a Hmung child with severe epilepsy, whose family comes from Laos, makes crystal clear that understanding diversity is about respecting life and being mindful of the healing powers that rest within our traditions.
Gish Jen,novelist, author of “World and Town’’
"A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America" by Leila Ahmed
I loved and recommend this provocative book to all. This Harvard Divinity School professor’s portrayal of immigrant Muslims and Islamism in America challenged more of my preconceptions than anything I’ve read in a while, and completely changed the way I see the veil - from a symbol of oppression to “a call for gender justice (of all things) and a call for equality for minorities.’’
Keith Jones, hip-hop artist, disability rights activist
"The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense" by Suzette Haden Elgin
When I was an African-American male teenager in the early to mid ’80s, self-preservation was a necessary skill and trait. There was a sense of urgency in that I also have a disability. The portrayal of young African-American males has never been one of a stellar upright citizen but a menace and a scourge. How was I to defend myself without reacting and reinforcing the negative stereotypes? The answer came in this book on my mother’s bookshelf.
At the time the city seemed to be a volatile place. Whether at school, where expectations were nonexistent, or being targeted by law enforcement (by virtue of my appearance), I needed a better way to defend and have pride in myself. “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense’’ resonated with me and honed my ability to advocate not only for myself but for my friends. This was pivotal, as there was a need to change not only perceptions of African-American males but even more so, perceptions of those with disabilities.
The techniques within the book showed me the persuasive power words have when used for a purpose of resolution versus conflict. Now, as an advocate for all communities to have fair and equitable access to the American “dream,’’ I am aware that the use of language is key in achieving that end.
Theodore C. Landsmark, president, Boston Architecture College
"The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson
Isabel Wilkerson’s incisive study of the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the South and into the Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1915 and 1970, captures both the large scope of this diaspora throughout America and the intimacy of individual stories that impart the challenges faced by migrating families. The work is an inspiring reminder (for me and others) of what followed the devastating conditions of American slavery and Reconstruction, and preceded the successes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement. Many of our parents and grandparents took part in this dispersion of African-Americans throughout the United States, and much of this spread made it possible for African-American political and cultural leaders to emerge throughout the United States in the last quarter of the 20th century, and not only in the South or along the East Coast. This triumphant book won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and is a deeply moving work of nonfiction from Pulitzer-Prize-winning Wilkerson, a Boston university professor.
Rishi Reddi, novelist, author of “Karma and Other Stories’’
"White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race" by Ian Haney Lopez
I read this nonfiction work long after I became a story-writer and also a lawyer, but it appeals to both sides of my personality. In it, Haney Lopez shows how our country describes the biologically indefinable notion of “race’’ through the artificiality of the law. He focuses especially on the court cases in the past hundred years that decided which foreign-born persons - solely because of their “whiteness’’ - were allowed to become citizens of the United States.
You might think the book is full of dry theory, but it’s not; through sociological insight and legal analysis, the author reveals how our society has tried, by considering skin color, facial features, body type, and even religion and culture, to regulate who is permitted to become American. Infusing the text is Haney Lopez’s assertion that defining “whiteness’’ in this simplistic way is not only unjust to “nonwhites,’’ it also undermines our appreciation of the rich diversity within European culture. A great read for anyone trying to understand why we look at race the way we do.
Reuben Reynolds , musical director, Boston Gay Men’s Chorus
"Before Night Falls: A Memoir" by Reinaldo Arenas
I just finished reading this vivid memoir in which Reinaldo Arenas narrates his life from growing up in rural Cuba to his oppression as a dissident writer and homosexual and on to ending his own life as an exile in New York rather than succumbing to AIDS. It is a story of growing up in a land where there is no diversity - if you are different you are an enemy of the state and are persecuted, even thrown in jail. After being allowed to leave Cuba in the Mariel boatlift, Arenas spent the rest of his life feeling like an outcast in a foreign land. The heartbreak he feels at being separated from his home and his family pulsates throughout the book, yet his spirit and the power of his voice shine through. For the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus concerts this month, we will be singing “Navidad’’ by contemporary Cuban composer Leopoldo Gonzalez. The song is about the wonderful memories of home and your mother, and how sad it is to be separated from the people you love. I think of Reinaldo, and all people ostracized because they are different, every time we sing it.