Understanding America: The new immigrant’s reading list

Two years and six months ago, I moved to America. I had one bag weighing 33 pounds, a stamped passport, a Dropbox account and a lot of excitement.

I first met with an American in Nairobi, Kenya. Kopo Kopo — the startup that I joined after undergrad in India — was founded by two Americans — an eagle scout from Arkansas and a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur from Washington state. Ben and Dylan embodied the best of America —staunchly principled, humorous and action-oriented. After ~3 years of working in Nairobi, I moved to Seattle, our newest office.

Ben (left) and I at a wedding in the Michigan countryside

Each country brings its unique history. America stands out as the most dynamic and willing-to-change. In a rapidly changing world, this spirit keeps America resilient and forward-looking. It also makes the country’s culture complex, layered and conflicted. Below are some books that helped me unpack the complexities. I hope you enjoy them.

Cities — Cities are humanity’s greatest living artifacts. A civilization of hunters and gatherers created a dense environment that catalysed the flow of ideas and information. American cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles bring their own local flavors mixed with the 1960s downtown. The American suburb quietly complements the vibrancy of cities with its sprawling expanse. For someone who grew up in a tiny, dense and crowded small town in India, American cities are like perpetual amusement parks.

Suburban Nation and The Life and Death of Great American Cities are great reads on how the American city and suburbs came to be.

Media and Journalism — America breathes on narratives — both founded and unfounded. Its media empires command global attention and dollars. Lately, there’s a backlash against media elites, who are accused of partisanship and being out of touch with the ‘real’ America. That isn’t new. Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism paints the partisan beginnings of American newspapers.

Also see: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business — a sceptical take on how high-fidelity forms of media (Radio, TV and Internet) are shaping national conscience.

Individual Liberty and Common Good — I grew up in a tribal society. In exchange for familial comfort, you prioritized community over individual ambition. America is different. Your American experience varies dramatically by the state you live in. From the liberal pilgrimage of the left coast to the libertarian frontiers of the South, America is eleven countries. They subscribe to varying levels between individual liberty and common good. American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good is a great read for those wanting to explore all eleven Americas.

The American Nations https://colinwoodard.blogspot.com/2012/04/presenting-slighty-revised-american.html

Also see:The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Democracy in America by Alexis de Toqueville, published 1831

Economics and Society— Like its political and ideological diversity, socio-economic life varies dramatically in America. Some seek inspiration from the upward mobility of meritocracy while others find themselves shackled by discrimination. In the last three decades, America has seen intensive economic polarization. Job growth statistics and median wages don’t add color to this issue. In The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New Americathe author spends time living with Silicon Valley VCs, Jay-Z, foreclosed homeowners in Florida and steel workers in Ohio. If there’s one book you read from list, it’s this.

Race relations — You cannot understand America without race. To this day, the remnants of slavery affect justice, law enforcement and the American experience. The Asian immigrant experience is tangential to such experiences. In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin paints a picture of his experience. His modern spiritual successor, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a painful memoir in Between the World and Me.

What books enhanced your understanding of America? I’d love to hear your recommendations in comments below or on Twitter.

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