2019: These books changed my thinking

Jeff vonKaenel

I spend a crazy amount of time reading books in print and listening to audio books, maybe more than 20 hours each week. I read a lot of wonderful books this year, including the following five books. Each one also challenged my thinking and let me see the world from a different perspective.

Shanna Zuboff, in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, demonstrates brilliantly how a small number of people controlling a small number of internet companies have significantly changed power relationships in our society, using individuals’ emotions as raw materials. Unlike traditional capitalism that made profits by providing goods and services, the winners in the new tech world accumulate obscene amounts of wealth and power using technology to modify what we think and what we do. Zuboff provides the road map to where we are and where we need to go. It is a remarkable book.

As is No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know about Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, by Rachel Louise Snyder. She explains how domestic violence is part of a bigger problem with male social roles. Using reporting from men’s anger management workshops, Snyder shows us how difficult it is for men to change. It was a real joy to see her speak at this year’s Family Justice Center gala in Sacramento.

While humans had the speaking roles, trees were the major characters in Richard Powers’ novel, The Overstory. The novel is a tale of interlocking character development of trees and humans; each human has a tree that plays a major role in his or her life. For example, a scientist was mocked for her early work showing how trees communicate with each other, and then later, it was proven to be true.

I went on a John Steinbeck binge this year. I read a biography and many of his novels. I re-read The Grapes of Wrath, a book full of universal truths, one of which is that we are part of a larger social and political framework that shapes us, as we shape it. Some of the language used against the “Okies” eight decades ago resembles current attacks on undocumented immigrants from Mexico. It has been 83 years since the Great Depression, yet only one fourth the life of an oak tree.

George Will and I differ politically. But thanks to his excellent audio book, The Conservative Sensibility, I have now spent 24 hours in Will’s head. This experience left me with a much greater appreciation for real conservative thinking. His book delivered steady punches against progressive views, as well as the current Republican party. Frankly, I would not want to go into the ring with Will. I’d send Steinbeck instead.

Other books I recommend from this year’s reading include Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind, Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Steven Greenhouse’s Beaten Down, Worked Up and Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind.

In fiction, please check out Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, Richard Russo’s Chances Are, Karen Russell’s Orange World and Other Stories and Yukiko Motoya’s Lonesome Bodybuilder.

Every year, my reading is possible because of our local public library. A special shout-out to its ever-improving audio books section. I am putting together my 2020 book list and would love to hear your suggestions.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.