From Post-Punk to Piketty: Summer Reading Recommendations from Policy Professors

Alexandra Steindorff

With the school year coming to an end, I put out a call to University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance faculty asking them to share some reading suggestions for the summer. The response was enthusiastic and, as there were no guidelines or rules to follow, professors responded with single titles or more ambitious lists. Not surprisingly, the list compiled is long, challenging at times (it was inevitable that someone would recommend Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century) and diverse, with a rich mixture of fiction, non-fiction, and even some film recommendations. Collectively, the titles assembled provide intellectual stimulation, while also showcasing the SPPG faculty’s love of reading. If you need some inspiration for your summer reading list, or if you just want to know what books are on the respective night tables of SPPG faculty, read on!

Pam Bryant:arrival city

Doug Saunders,  Arrival City.  Focuses on migration as one of the most important global trends in the 21st century, with impacts ranging from governance systems to climate change to challenges of social inclusion.

 Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything:  Capitalism vs. The Climate.  This book questions the fundamentals of our economic model, making linkages between environmental  destruction and inequality (amongst others).

buried gint

 Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant. A compelling fantasy and fable about memory lost and found. It is set in the mythical King Arthur’s England, leaving the reader to draw implications regarding today’s challenges across personal, societal, and global relationships. 



David Cameron:

Chris Matthews, Hardball: How Politics Is Played Told by One Who Knows the Game. Chris Matthews from the MSNBC talk show. Really great summer reading, the book is filled with penetrating insights on politics and power. And he doesn’t yell like he does on TV; I can’t stand that. 

US conductorsMel Cappe:

Mel Cappe recommended a trio of books. He is currently in the middle of The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis. Included in his suggestions was also Us Conductors, the debut novel and Giller Prize winner by Sean Michaels, and Head of State by Andrew Marr, which Cappe says is “a misnomer since it is about the Head of Government in the UK”.

Ian Clark:TonyJudt

 Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land. This book contrasts the intellectual and ideological world that SPPG graduates are entering with that which we baby boomers entered. As the Penguin promo states, the little book is a “a gift to the next generation of engaged citizens from one of our most celebrated intellectuals.”

Jonathan Craft:

G.B. Doern, A. Maslove, and M. Prince, Canadian Public Budgeting in the Age of Crises.
This award-winning book takes a complex subject and makes it accessible. It usefully combines theory with contemporary context in a rich comparative treatment across policy domains. Readers will gain an up-to-date appreciation for Canadian budgeting in the era of fiscal crisis.

Geoff Mulgan, The Art of Public Strategy: Mobilizing Power and Knowledge for the Common Good. This account from a former senior Tony Blair adviser provides an excellent account of the role of strategy in the public sector.  The book provides insightful examples and a practitioner-focused assessment for those interested in understanding how to get things done in government.

Josh Hjartarson:

Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action. This is the classic text on interest groups and why some interests have more influence on policy outcomes than others. It is also a required reading for my Achieving Change course.

Barrington Moore, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Another classic text that is a macro sweep of why some countries evolved into liberal democracies and some did not. It is fraught with methodological/conceptual problems. But, it is a great read and provokes many “a ha” moments. download

Guilty pleasure:

Kim Gordon, Girl in a Band. Sonic Youth was my formative band. She, as Bassist, defined 90’s chic and was at the epicenter of “no wave” cool. The book is also an interesting, although slightly depressing, treatise on relationships.

Kory Kroft:

Kory Kroft’s two books he would recommend for preparing for his class are: 1) Public Finance and Public Policy, 4th edition by Jonathan Gruber (although most editions should be fine) and 2) Mostly Harmless Econometrics by Joshua Angrist and Jorn-Steffen Pischke.

mastering metrics mostly harmless econ Author’s side note: I recently purchased Mastering ‘Metrics: The Path From Cause to Effect to help me in Gustavo Bobonis’ International Development Economics class (PPG2002H) and it is a fabulous, clear, and practical manual. It is the follow up book to Angrist and Pischke’s Mostly Harmless Econometrics and presents five approaches on how to answer questions about causality:  randomized trials, regression, IV/2SLS, regression discontinuity design, and differences in differences. Although the book is not exactly light summer reading (and uses an odd Kung Fu theme to try to make it more approachable and fun), it mainly uses verbal explanations with a minimum of equations and has a great appendix.

Ito PengCapital_in_the_Twenty-First_Century_(front_cover)

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century. It’s an excellent read, talking about the current political economic condition we are living in. It’s a bit long – almost 700 pages – but well worth reading.  

Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. It’s about the lives of people who live in a slum beside the Mumbai international airport. Most of them live by picking and sorting garbage. It’s a non-fiction, but it is written and told like a fiction. Beautifully written. I just finished the book about a week or so ago. Couldn’t put it down. It is an amazing and heart wrenching observation into the nature of poverty, globalization, and human capacity.

Carlos Ruis Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind. A fascinating mystery shadow of the windfiction about mysteries surrounding an obscure book called The Shadow in the Wind. Story takes place in the 1950s Barcelona. It’s a very sophisticated mystery within a mystery; lots of discussions about nature of memory – personal and collective, love, death, and the beauty of human spirit; lots of interesting characters; beautiful story telling; and writing that reminds you of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but more real than magic realism. I am still reading this book. 

James Radner:

Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty.  As the SPPG community probably already knows, I think this little book about how systems – public and private – perform is brilliantly creative.  It provides an unusual take on problems of efficiency, democracy, development, and much else besides.

belcantoAnn Patchett, Bel Canto.  (If you’ve already read it, try her State of Wonder.)  higherambLuminous novel that uses an imagined high-stress hostage crisis to explore themes of conflict, beauty, love, and our common humanity.

Beer, Eisenstat and coauthors, Higher Ambition.  Best book I know about leadership, though I’m biased – it’s by friends and colleagues of mine.  Based on case studies of corporate CEOs, it’s about how profit and social value can fruitfully combine, and how leaders can successfully focus on both performance and people.

Mark Stabile:unwinding

George Packer, The Unwinding. Earlier this term I read The Unwinding by George Packer. I had the chance to interview him about the book. It’s an amazing book about the effects of growing inequality, the decline of middle class jobs, and the financial crisis on the American way of life. It is both full of public policy and not a policy book. Instead it is told through the personal stories of a handful of characters and one city: Tampa.  

Andrew Stark

Naguib Mahfouz, Respected Sir. I’d recommend Naguib Mahfouz’s short novel Respected Sir. It’s the story, in part, of a bureaucrat who rises through the ranks of the Egyptian public service. The book makes many astute observations about the functioning of government organizations and the way in which people succeed or fail within them.

Phil Triadafilopoulos:

Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust. Bauman argues that the Holocaust was not a breakdown of modernity but an act that could only happen in a modern context marked, above all, by the ascendancy in Germany of a highly sophisticated administrative state.  A wonderfully written book that combines social theory, history, philosophy and ethics and makes clear the stakes of bureaucratic action in morally turbulent contexts. Usefully paired with Errol Morris’s documentaries: The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure, and The Unknown Known.utopia of rules

David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. Asks why bureaucracy can be so idiotic.  His answers are sophisticated and entertaining.  Might be paired with Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Especially parts 1 and 2, chapters 4-10. A must read for all students of public policy.  Still highly relevant and, though dense at times, entertaining.  Can be accompanied by Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.

Some students might also be interested in:

Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Especially chapters 3-5. A well-argued polemic that offers a trenchant critique of neoliberal governance. Pair it with Pedro Almodovar’s film Biutiful.

ThePlagueAnd the following novels:

 Albert Camus, The Plague. A consideration of personal responsibility and ethical conduct in times of  upheaval.  Moving and beautifully written.  Pair it with Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line.

 Cormac McCarthy, The Road. A rethinking of social relations in the state of nature (in the wake of nature’s obliteration) that touchingly portrays a father’s love for his son.  Be sure to see the excellent film adaptation by John Hillcoat.

Carolyn Hughes Tuohy:

For those starting a career:pleasuresand sorrows

Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. In this engaging and insightful book, de Botton takes the reader’s imagination into the work lives of individuals in ten occupations as diverse as biscuit manufacturing, transmission engineering, art, accountancy, and entrepreneurship to explore the satisfaction, stress, tedium, exhilaration, and perspective on life that these different pursuits offer. De Botton himself is a somewhat controversial figure, but you don’t need to buy in to his broader project to enjoy this book. It may provoke reflections on what you expect from your own career.

For policy wonks:

blunders Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, The Blunders of Our Governments. Two leading British political  scientists retrace the course of about a dozen major policy initiatives that went badly wrong. King and Crewe  dissect these blunders to identify their causes, and find them in features of the British political system – many of  which are shared by Canada. This is not government-trashing: their critique springs from a conviction that  government can be a force for good, and is aimed at drawing lessons to improve the chances that it will succeed.  Both witty and trenchant, this cautionary analysis suggests both institutional changes and policy strategies to avoid the pitfalls that these cases illustrate.

Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Bob Putnam, putnama Harvard political scientist recently described in the New York Times as “the poet laureate of civil society,” gave the 2014 Cadario lecture at SPPG, in which he presented an outline of the argument and the research contained in this just-published book. The passion and evidence base that informed the lecture are also hallmarks of the book, which is receiving broad attention and acclaim in academic, media, and political circles in the US and abroad. Putnam’s research shows a stark divide in the extent to which children in upper and lower-income families in the US are being equipped with the skills and resources to succeed. It is likely to be one of the principal contributions to the emerging agenda of inclusive prosperity in the US and across the globe. 

For fun:bestlaidplans

Terry Fallis, The Best Laid Plans. If you haven’t yet read this comedic novel about Canadian politics (especially those of the federal Liberals), or the follow-up The High Road, give yourself a treat. The humour can be a bit broad at times, and it helps to be Canadian to appreciate it, but it is fun for political junkies.

George Vegh:

simpler Cass Sunstein, Simpler:  The Future of Government. Sunstein has a rare combination being an academic and a practitioner of policy.  His diagnosis of the problems facing policy decision-making and proposed approaches are influential and interesting.  They are important for any student to appreciate.

 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn’s book addresses how paradigms develop, function, and change. While written about changes in understanding physics, it can inform other paradigms as well, including the social sciences and concepts of the public good.

Student and Alumni can also subscribe to journals, I think the most interesting are:  Critical Review, National Interest (which will soon be out of circulation) and Foreign Affairs.  All of these address the importance of ideas in policy.

Linda White:enlightenment-20

As soon as I finish Cadario speaker Atif Mian’s book, House of Debt, I want to read Political Bubbles by Nolan McCarthy et al.  for a political science take on the housing market and Wall boothStreet  financial crisis in 2007. I have also put at the top of my to read list Joe Heath’s book,  Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives, because of course it just won the Shaughnessy Cohen prize and made the short list for the  Donner Prize, and Mowat Director Matthew Mendelsohn tweeted that he’d read it and  loved it. Samara Executive Director Alison Loat recently tweeted about the book Detroit: An American  Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff and she described it as a “sad and searing read.” Finally, because I just returned  from Sweden, I have on my list journalist Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth  of the Scandinavian Utopia, which apparently is a humorous critique of Scandinavian society and is a best seller in Sweden.

Dan Zuberi:

fine balance Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance. I could not put down this book once I started reading it; a moving book  about life in India with fundamental lessons about life.

 Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. A powerful and well-written work of  narrative non-fiction on urban poverty and life in Mumbai that will move you and change  the way you see the world. 

  Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything:  Capitalism vs. The Climate. An urgent and important book about the need to advance social justice and tackle climate change now.

Alexandra Steindorff is a 2015 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Global Development Studies, German and French from Queen’s University. Alexandra recently worked at the City of Mississauga in Compliance and Licensing (Enforcement Division). Her policy interests include local and economic development, trade, immigration, social and foreign policy.


One Comment Add yours

  1. LadyRaconteur88 says:

    Reblogged this on Polymnia Blues.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s