Saturday, October 2, 2010

Three Great Books About Politics (And The Less Political Books They Go Well With)

Yes We Did by Rahaf Harfoush explores how the Obama campaign used social software to win the Presidency. Anybody who works in social software can learn a lot from this in-depth case study of a very successful effort which was led by one of the founders of Facebook. The broad survey, general principles, and inspired insight (and perhaps even the hand-wave-y futurism) in Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody make a great foundation for understanding the in-the-trenches specificity of Faroush's war stories from the frontlines of the Obama campaign's New Media team.

McMafia by Misha Glenny highlights the huge and growing role of organized crime in international politics. From the rebirth and transnational expansion which the KGB of Soviet Russia experienced when it became the Russian mob, to the staggering ways in which American attempts to prevent drug production in Colombia and Afghanistan actually made criminals there both richer and more politically significant, dramatic stories provide a fierce punch, while the thoroughness, depth, and compassion of the reporting balances it out. McMafia also goes disturbingly well with William Gibson's new novel Zero History; both books address the difference between the society we pretend we still live in, and the successor society that took root in its ruins.

The Prince, by Machiavelli, lays out a pragmatic, ruthless, and many would even say cold-blooded and/or cynical perspective on political power. This is not a book about how to attain peace; it's more about who to kill, when, and how. One of the classics of Western literature, it's only around 100 pages; like the Tao Te Ching or Economics In One Lesson, it's the type of book which you'll probably read very quickly, but which might nonetheless linger in your thoughts for years afterwards. However, the book to pair The Prince with is Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, a novel of over 1000 pages which does not present any explicit counterargument, necessarily, but operates from a much more open-hearted place. (Too much cynicism is bad for you.)

These aren't the only ones out there - I'm also a huge fan of Thomas Frank, and used to read his zine The Baffler, based out of the University of Chicago, before he ever published his first book - but I'll say that these three (or six, actually) are a trio of great main courses paired with very complementary wines, so to speak. I highly recommend everything on this menu.