Gifts for the Wonk in Your Life

by Jonathan Cohn | December 21, 2011

Maybe you’ve been too busy following the Republican presidential campaign to shop. Maybe you were waiting to make sure Congress passed the payroll tax break. Or maybe, like me, you’re just a chronic procrastinator. Whatever the reason, you still have time to buy gifts for the policy wonk in your life, particularly if they like books.

Below are a few recommendations. I know most of these authors, so I may be biased. But the books come highly recommended by independent sources, too.

Obamacare as history: Today’s home page features an article by Paul Starr, a professor of sociology at Princeton. His 1982 tome, the Social Transformation of American Medicine, is the definitive history of health care in America. His new book, Remedy and Reaction, starts with that history but ends with the Affordable Care Act. For the big picture of view of how the law came to be, what the law seeks to do, and how it’s likely to play out, you can’t do much better.

Obamacare as Policy: But you’re a wonk, so you want all of the details, right? For that, I highly recommend John McDonough’s Inside National Health Reform. McDonough is a true insider: He played a key role in the Massachusetts health reforms. In 2008, the late Senator Ted Kennedy recruited McDonough to join the staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee – where he helped craft the legislation that President Obama eventually signed.

Obamacare as Cartoon: Jonathan Gruber’s graphic novel (official title: Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It’s Necessary, How It Works) is basically health care reform for dummies, although it isn’t really for dummies. It’s for anybody who wants a more visual, and more entertaining, guide to the law. Like McDonough, Gruber is an insider: He was an advisor and technical consultant to reformers in Massachusetts and Washington. He’s also a character in the book, thereby achieving cartoon book immortality -- something public intellectuals rarely achieve.

Between Black and White: In the 19th Century, some light-skinned African-Americans were able to assimilate into white society – to cross what author and legal scholar Daniel Sharfstein calls The Invisible Line. What was that experience like? What does it tell us about race in America? Sharfstein answers those questions via a meticulously researched, vividly related narrative of three families. A Boston Globe review calls the book a “spellbinding chronicle of racial passing in America.” Slate named it one of the year’s ten best.

The Civil War Revisited: Is it wrong to recommend a book I haven’t yet read? Under normal circumstances, yes. But Adam Goodheart is an extraordinary writer and 1861: The Civil War Awakening is, by all accounts, an extraordinary book. Few topics have been covered more relentlessly, and more thoroughly, than the Civil War. Yet Goodheart gives the subject fresh treatment by bringing readers back in time, so that they can experience it rather than merely learn about it. It got a gushing review in the New York Times, as it did virtually everywhere else.

A Story of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, and William Halsted, father of surgery, had at least one thing in common: Addictions to cocaine. In Anatomy of Addiction, historian and physician Howard Markel tells the story of the two men – and how cocaine affected each man’s work. (Freud appears to have beaten his addiction, while Halsted did not.) It’s a fascinating book about fascinating men, but even more interesting for those of us who want a glimpse of modern medicine when it was just starting to develop.

Winning the War on Poverty: I first encountered the writing of Paul Tough a few weeks ago, while working on an article about the long-term effects of adversity in the first two years of life. Tough had written a New Yorker article on the subject. But recently I discovered that he had, years ago, written a terrific book on a related subject. Whatever It Takes focuses on the Harlem Children’s Zone and Geoffrey Canada, the man who created it. The Zone is an effort to create a seamless system of social supports for low-income children within Harlem. The book is uplifting and depressing, hopeful and pessimistic. In short, it is complicated, just like public policy in the real world.

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