News & Opinion

Inside the Longlist: The Best Narrative & Biography Books of 2017

Rebecca Schwartz

December 20, 2017


Our CEO and President, Rebecca Schwartz, takes us inside the best Narrative & Biography Books published in 2017.

From as early as I can remember, my father’s favorite book was E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, a long and spirited examination of not only the way late 18th and early 19th century English working folks were acted upon by the more powerful, but of the ways they actively defined themselves. It wasn’t until I read this doorstopper in college that I understood why my dad was so effusive in his celebration of Thompson: like all good histories, his masterwork is a social history, one that focuses on the effects of power on actual people. In the pen (or laptop) of a skillful writer, this approach offers the most compelling kind of insight into how people live in the world. Indeed, it is through social history—as it is through well-crafted literature—that the stories of how cultural, economic, and societal forces press on a citizenry that teaches us both empathy and perspective. Without seeing into the lives of those on the ground floor of an historical moment, all we are left with is the official version, one often whitewashed to flatter those officials and obscure their impact. The books that make up this year’s short list in our Narrative and Biography category are all, in their own ways, outstanding social histories. Though their spheres and styles are varied, they all reveal the impact of particular forces on those who find themselves, happily or no, in the crucible of history.

The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse by Tom Verducci, Crown Archetype

A good baseball book is as a good a book there is, and The Cubs Way by Tom Verducci is just such a work: part biography of irreverent but revered manager Joe Maddon, part primer on how Theo Epstein—a wonk weaned on Bill James’s Baseball Abstract—came to Chicago from Boston as president of operations and with insight and patience rebuilt a team from the ground up, part delicious story of the heart and hope that lived in a storied, if cursed, baseball franchise. Interlacing the process by which Epstein rebuilt the Cubs, player by player, with the nail-biting front office and playing field narratives of each game in the 2016 Series, Verducci weaves a suspenseful, good-humored, and captivating drama. And while we might not associate baseball, a goat’s curse, and a manager’s devotion to his father’s sullied hat elements of a social history, this tale makes us think again. We come to understand the players on the field and the collective fans in the stands, the impact of managerial decisions on the way the games were executed and the way players felt playing those games, Maddon’s sensible and very human leadership lessons that affected all his Cubs, and the legacy of all those teams that believed and failed year after 108 years—each of these factors (and more) make The Cubs Way a sly kind of social history. It’s one that enlightens and entertains as surefire as Kris Bryant’s throw to Anthony Rizzo at first to win game 7 and the 2016 World Series—and end the curse of the Billy Goat at last.

Double Bind: Women on Ambition Ed. by Robin Romm, Liveright

The collection of essays in Double Bind: Women on Ambition, edited by Robin Romm, offers another take on what social history can look like, in this case a multi-faceted sample of the way women think about and pursue their ambitions. We come to understand the effects of not only the larger, and largely male-dominated, world on women negotiating it, but also of what happens when women define themselves according to their own sense of ambition. As our current moment is perhaps (finally) encouraging a cultural examination of the enormous costs of women curtailing their own ambition in response to others’ behavior, this collection makes for particularly timely reading. In each brief but deeply thoughtful, honest, and generous essay, we are invited to understand each woman’s experience, and the way their desires and expectations intersect with the reality they encounter in the quest for purpose and fulfillment. For one woman, ambition is the “desire to do good work … and have that work recognized”; for another ambition is about “wanting something”; and for still another, it is “less about being loved for the work you do and more about getting to do the work you love.” Ultimately, this collection of varied voices—we meet, among others, a dog sled racer and more than one writer, a psychologist and a few teachers, a butcher and an actress and a playwright –makes clear that, as novelist Ayana Mathis writes, finding a way “to understand ambition on [her] own terms” and believing that she has “a right to [those] ambitions” is essential for women to write their own full stories—and so contribute with their whole selves to all our shared history.

The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School. the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite by Duff McDonald, Harper Business

If social history typically focuses on those at the mercy of the forces around them, it’s useful to spend some time with the people and institutions that provide that force, that are that force. A great place to start is with Duff McDonald’s The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School. the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite. As is evident in the subtitle, this fat, compelling, frank examination is a fiery indictment of one of this country’s august institutions, as well as of the economic philosophy that’s become, according to McDonald, its raison d'être. Tracing the history of the School from its founding as a way to extend to prominent sons in a burgeoning industrial nation a vaunted imprimatur—another Harvard degree!—all the way through the migration to Silicon Valley of its alumni, this critique argues that while Harvard University was founded to teach students how to live “worthy lives,” HBS rarely does so. Persisting in using the century-old approach of the backward-looking case method rather than forward-reaching experience, conflating the teaching of leadership with formal authority and hierarchical supervision (HBS dean Nitin Nohria should read Joe Maddon’s lessons in The Cubs Way!), and substituting a focus on “quarterly capitalism” for true, external stakeholder purpose, the School abdicates its responsibility and fails to fulfil its possibility. At a time in which the chasm between the haves and the increasingly have nots is coming to resemble that of the Gilded Age (about when HBS was founded), McDonald presses us to expect that the School use its vast resources, its faculty, its curriculum, and its graduates to turn the focus from profits to the things that really matter, which, as McDonald argues, “is not money or metrics, but people.”

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America by Michael Ruhlman, Abrams Press

Michael Ruhlman’s latest book is a personal, detailed, and wide-ranging reflection on one of the central institutions in American life. Viewing the grocery store as more than a place to purchase food but as symbolic of our culture (and therefore ourselves), his is both a social history of the forces that converged to bring us the supermarket we now know—the cultivating of land and growing of food to the invention of the tin can, the cardboard box, and electric refrigeration—as well as a blunt critique of just what is in the contemporary grocery store, why it’s there, and what it’s doing to us.  Using the twin devices of shepherding a reader around a store (“Breakfast: The Most Dangerous Meal of the Day” is one of his chapter headings) and viewing the business through the eyes of a Cleveland family-owned chain of shops called Heinen’s, Ruhlman manages to be alternately damning and celebratory. Stripped carbs, 41 different flavors of Oreos (!), avocados costing three times more than Wonder Bread—American grocery stores, he says, tell us much about the critical health issues (read: crisis) of our day. But they are also places of nostalgia for Ruhlman and with that comes hope and even love, for his childhood Saturdays were spent going shopping with his father, an enthusiast of supermarkets who infectiously marveled at the sheer possibility they represented. So Ruhlman can’t help but cheer on the Heinen brothers as they establish their boldest location yet, in the abandoned former bank where his dad used to deposit his paychecks, a Beaux Arts structure that he calls a “cathedral of food.” Well-researched, chatty, specific, Grocery is a filling and well-balanced treat.

Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein, Simon & Schuster 

Amy Goldstein’s Janesville is social history at its most E. P. Thompson-esque, an intimate portrayal of one Wisconsin town as well as a broader American story of what happens when the most economically important element of a community closes its doors. When the last GM Tahoe rolled off the assembly line two days before Christmas in 2008, the plant that had manufactured automobiles since Coolidge left behind not only GM employees, but also people at the freight yard who unloaded the GM parts, folks at the Lear company who made the seats for the GM trucks, shopkeepers no longer patronized by those who had lost their jobs, construction workers no longer needed to build new houses, tradespeople who didn’t have houses to plumb, electrify, plaster, or carpet. It is the stories of these people that Goldstein masterfully weaves together to present an urgent, searing tale of the domino-decline of a proud and industrious community. Indeed, Goldstein’s portrait reverberates through a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from late 2017 about the ladder of downward mobility in Janesville: the closing of a supermarket that once served the factory workers’ families has left a food desert in its wake, while the broader community has the state’s highest level of childhood trauma and one of the country’s most extreme drug epidemics. Through Janesville we see the very human toll of what we as a country too often characterize as “just business,” and the consequences of decisions made by those Duff McDonald urges to do better.

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