If you want to be outraged by something you read this year, you have far too large a choice of new books to accomplish this for you.
Both in nonfiction and novels, a lot of little-known and better-known American history has been revealed that will fuel your moral outrage. You will also meet, though, characters both real and imagined who will capture your heart and soul and help to focus your outrage and perhaps turn it into action.
Here are some books I recommend: Dark Money by Jane Mayer, Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Underground Railroad and The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, and Imbeciles by Adam Cohen.
In chronological order of my reading (to demonstrate how my outrage grew), Dark Money is about the rise of political nonprofits created by the likes of the Koch Brothers that fund local campaigns across the country to elect ultra-right conservatives to office and pass local initiatives that feed the libertarian/right-wing agenda. The donors to these nonprofits do not need to be identified thanks to Citizens United. The nonprofits take local names to deceive voters; for example, Greater Schools Massachusetts is not a Massachusetts nonprofit at all; it is trying to lift the cap on the number of charter schools that can be created in the state, taking billions of dollars away from public schools.
Gene outraged me when followed closely by Imbeciles. While Gene does mainly tell the story of the discovery of DNA and the human genome, it also goes into the history of eugenics somewhat and the shocking story of enforced sterilization of people thought unfit to procreate and spread their genes. Imbeciles tells the story of eugenics in the US through the sad fate of Carrie Buck, a young woman whose minders went to the Supreme Court in the 1920s to test Virginia’s sterilization law. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote the majority opinion.
The word “eugenics” was coined by Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, meaning “good gene.” It was the American Breeders Association that spearheaded the push for sterilization of the “feeble-minded” and epileptics in the US. The feeble-minded were determined by a mashed-up test created by two French scientists who were looking for a way to determine where students needed help in their education.
You will be shocked by the number of prominent US figures who were eugenicists, including Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger and Holmes. Cohen even writes that Hitler took a page from the American Breeders Association’s eugenics playbook.
The Intuitionist is Colson Whitehead’s first novel, and The Underground Railroad is his newest.
Both are set in somewhat alternative universes and offer wonderful African-American heroines who fight the odds of white supremacy to raise themselves up. Raising up is literal for The Intuitionist’s heroine, Lila Mae Watson, a “colored” woman in an unspecified city who is an inspector of elevators. She goes underground to expose corruption in the Guild of Elevator Inspectors.
Cora is the only name of the heroine of The Underground Railroad, an enslaved woman who dares to try to gain her freedom. She runs away with another slave, Caesar; it turns out that the underground railroad is, literally, a railroad underground. They arrive in South Carolina, where miracle of miracles they are welcomed to live free. Or so it seems. They are given housing and assigned jobs. Cora is also regularly examined medically and eventually urged to be sterilized voluntarily. Then it all goes sour and she barely escapes for another haven. Whitehead is unsparing in his descriptions of what happens to runaways who are caught and his portrayal of lynchings as entertainment for white folk.
Colson Whitehead is one of the authors I plan to hear and hope to meet at the National Book Festival on Saturday.