Great Summer Reads: Recommendations from New Dream's Board

by New Dream


Looking for a good beach or airplane read?

We asked New Dream board members for their favorite recent books on topics of consumerism, the environment, sustainability, community, and more. The result is the diverse and inspiring list below.

Feel free to add your own suggestions in our comments section at the bottom of the page!

A Paradise Built in Hell (Rebecca Solnit, 2010)

The most startling thing about disasters, according to award-winning author Rebecca Solnit, is not merely that so many people rise to the occasion, but that they do so with joy. That joy reveals an ordinarily unmet yearning for community, purposefulness, and meaningful work that disaster often provides. A Paradise Built in Hell is an investigation of the moments of altruism, resourcefulness, and generosity that arise amid disaster's grief and disruption and considers their implications for everyday life. It points to a new vision of what society could become—one that is less authoritarian and fearful, more collaborative and local.

"Despite its intimidating title, I found this to be a thoughtful and inspiring exploration of how 'ordinary people' seized the opportunity created in the aftermath of disasters to create more joyful, supportive, purposeful relationships within their communities. The larger question it poses is why it takes a disaster to upend the normal (often rigid and impermeable) structure of our communities to create openings for creative approaches to community design and engagement."—Mark Valentine

Citizenville (Gavin Newsom with Lisa Dickey, 2013)

Citizenville is the story of how ordinary citizens can use new digital tools to dissolve political gridlock and transform American democracy. As social networking and smart phones have changed the way we communicate with one another, these technologies are also changing our relationship with government. Newsom explores the many ways in which technology can transform government and empower citizens: Opening up vast troves of government data, then letting people create apps to use them wisely. Harnessing the popularity of online games to establish a kind of "Angry Birds for Democracy.” Inventing new feedback loops so people can take active part in every facet of governing.

"Former San Francisco mayor and now California Lieutenant Governor Newsom offers a compelling look into how online tools can increase the efficacy of public participation and boost the provision of government-led services."—Mike Lydon

Flight Behavior (Barbara Kingsolver, 2012)

Flight Behavior is a heady exploration of climate change, along with media exploitation and political opportunism that lie at the root of what may be our most urgent modern dilemma. Set in Appalachia, a region to which Kingsolver has returned often in both her acclaimed fiction and nonfiction, the novel's suspenseful narrative traces the unforeseen impact of global concerns on the ordinary citizens of a rural community. As environmental, economic, and political issues converge, the residents of Feathertown, Tennessee, are forced to come to terms with their changing place in the larger world.

"This fictional story of a working-class mother in Appalachia weaves together a love story, an investigation into the natural world, and gripping lessons about how to live at a time when the planet is changing in ways unseen for the past three million years." —Betsy Taylor

Give and Take (Adam Grant, 2013)

Give and Take is about why some people rise to the top of the success ladder while others sink to the bottom. For generations, we’ve assumed that excellence is achieved by people who are hardworking, talented, and lucky. This three-legged stool explains much of success, but it’s missing a fourth leg. In a rapidly changing world, our styles of interacting with other people are increasingly important drivers of success. Combining a decade of cutting-edge research with fascinating stories, the book opens up a fresh way of thinking about success and illuminates new choices people can make to achieve it.

"Grant, a Wharton professor, investigates the idea that in professional settings most people fall into three general categories—takers, matchers, and givers. We expect the takers to be the most successful, but Grant lays out evidence for givers at the highest levels of impact."—Eleanor Sterling

Sissinghurst, An Unfinished History: The Quest to Restore a Working Farm at Vita Sackville-West's Legendary Garden (Adam Nicolson, 2010)

Sissinghurst Castle is a jewel in the English countryside. Its chief attraction is its celebrated garden, designed in the 1930s by the poet Vita Sackville-West, lover of Virginia Woolf. As a boy, Adam Nicolson, Sackville-West's grandson, spent his days romping through Sissinghurst's woods, streams, and fields. In this book, he returns to the place of his bucolic youth and finds that the estate, now operated by Britain's National Trust, has lost something precious. It is still unquestionably a place of calm and beauty but, he asks, where is the working farm, the orchards, the cattle and sheep? Nicolson convinces the Trust to embrace a simple idea: Grow lunch for the 200,000 annual visitors. Sissinghurst is a personal biography of a place and an inspiring story of one man's quest to return a remarkable landscape to its best, most useful purpose.

"Nicholson's father had donated the property to the National Trust in the 60s, and the farm for various reasons had become a dead, chemical rotation of one or two crops from a lively, multifaceted farm that had cattle, made beer, and had an active workforce. The property restaurant served hundreds of thousands of guests a year on food sourced through food services. This is the story of rebuilding the farm to serve the restaurant. But it is about a lot more—about the connection we have to land and the passion that comes with growing up knowing its nooks and crannies and how important that connection is later in life when you have to fight for it."—Liz Barratt-Brown

Small Wonder: Essays (Barbara Kingsolver, 2003)

This essay collection brings to us, out of one of history's darker moments, an extended love song to the world we still have. Whether she is contemplating the Grand Canyon, her vegetable garden, motherhood, genetic engineering, or the future of a nation founded on the best of all human impulses, these essays are grounded in Kingsolver's belief that our largest problems have grown from the Earth's remotest corners as well as our own backyards, and that answers may lie in both those places. Sometimes grave, occasionally hilarious, and ultimately persuasive, Small Wonder is a hopeful examination of the people we seem to be, and what we might yet make of ourselves.

"This collection of essays was assembled shortly after 9/11 when the author was struggling with how to make sense of these dark events. This book points to the defiant act of loving our way through life and to the many daily wonders that will calm our hearts and soothe our fears."—Betsy Taylor

Tenth of December (George Saunders, 2013)

One of the most important and blazingly original writers of his generation, George Saunders is an undisputed master of the short story, and Tenth of December is his most honest, accessible, and moving collection yet. Writing brilliantly and profoundly about class, sex, love, loss, work, despair, and war, Saunders cuts to the core of the contemporary experience. These stories take on the big questions and explore the fault lines of our own morality, delving into the questions of what makes us good and what makes us human. Unsettling, insightful, and hilarious, the stories—through their manic energy, their focus on what is redeemable in human beings, and their generosity of spirit—not only entertain and delight; they fulfill Chekhov’s dictum that art should “prepare us for tenderness.”

"It's a powerful collection of short stories that deals with consumer culture and sci-fi futures of some of its more disturbing trends. It's about poverty and wealth, prosperity and loss, technological dystopias, and exploitation. I recommend it highly. It's one of the most innovative, thought-provoking, and well-written books I've read in a long time."—Juliet Schor

The Ascent of Humanity (Charles Eisenstein, 2013)

The Ascent of Humanity is about the history and future of civilization from a unique perspective: the evolution of the human sense of self. This book describes how all the expressions of our civilization—its miraculous technology as well as the pillage of earth, culture, goodness, and beauty—arise from our identity, our way of being, "the discrete and separate self." The gathering crises of our age demonstrate that this way of being is on the verge of collapse. And this collapse is setting the stage for a revolution in human beingness whose stirrings we already begin to feel.

"The book explores the origin, evolution, and resolution of human separation from nature, community, and the self. While the book is emotionally difficult at times, it is also hopeful. Eisenstein believes that a more beautiful world is possible if we can create a new human narrative, one of connection and interdependence."—Matt Stinchcomb

The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies (Scott E. Page, 2007)

The Difference is about how we think in groups—and how our collective wisdom exceeds the sum of its parts. The answer lies in diversity—not what we look like outside, but what we look like within, our distinct tools and abilities. Page explains why difference beats out homogeneity, whether you're talking about citizens in a democracy or scientists in the laboratory. He examines practical ways to apply diversity's logic to a host of problems, and along the way offers fascinating and surprising examples, from the redesign of the Chicago "El" to the truth about where we store our ketchup. Page changes the way we understand diversity—how to harness its untapped potential, how to understand and avoid its traps, and how we can leverage our differences for the benefit of all.

"This fascinating book explores how we think in groups and how groups that encompass a range of perspectives consistently outperform those of like-minded individuals."—Eleanor Sterling

The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture (by former New Dream board member Mary Pipher, 2013)

Every day we are hit by a tidal wave of information, including a great deal of traumatic information about the fate of the Earth. Yet our basic equipment—our bodies and brains—has not changed since the Neolithic Era. We simply are not built to respond well. The Green Boat posits a trauma-to-transcendence cycle that begins with awareness and leads first to resilient coping and then in many people to what Pipher calls a transcendent response. As our web of life becomes tattered and torn, it is easy to become disconnected from our emotions, our bodies, each other, and the truth. The Green Boat suggests that we can only be sane and healthy by reconnecting with these things. Healing ourselves will require us to reweave the web of life around us.

"This recently released book combines a therapist's wisdom with political storytelling about Nebraska's fight against the Keystone pipeline. A great read for those wanting to genuinely move from despair to hope."—Betsy Taylor

"I am inspired to use [The Green Boat] as a focal point for discussion circles—first with my colleagues with whom I am increasingly having conversations about climate grief/rage/despair—and then with our membership and via our regional library system."—Gay Nicholson

The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses (Eric Ries, 2011)

Most startups fail. But many of those failures are preventable. The Lean Startup is a new approach to changing the way companies are built and new products are launched. It fosters companies that are both more capital efficient and that leverage human creativity more effectively. It enables a company to shift directions with agility, altering plans inch by inch, minute by minute. Rather than wasting time creating elaborate business plans, The Lean Startup offers entrepreneurs—in companies of all sizes—a way to test their vision continuously, to adapt and adjust before it’s too late. Ries provides a scientific approach to creating and managing successful startups in a age when companies need to innovate more than ever.

"Ries shares his experience developing new software companies and products through low-cost and iterative development processes. While the subject matter is software, it is transferable to many other fields, including the wave of citizen-led, small-scale prototype projects increasingly found in America's towns and cities."—Mike Lydon

The Man Who Quit Money (Mark Sundeen, 2012)

The Man Who Quit Money tells the amazing story of how one man, Daniel Suelo, learned to live, sanely and happily, without earning, receiving, or spending a single cent. Suelo doesn’t pay taxes, or accept food stamps or welfare. He lives in caves in the Utah canyonlands, forages wild foods and gourmet discards, and accepts what is freely given him. He no longer even carries an I.D. Yet he manages to fulfill amply not only the basic human needs—for shelter, food, and warmth—but, to an enviable degree, the universal desires for companionship, purpose, and spiritual engagement. Sundeen retraces the surprising path and guiding philosophy that led Suelo, step by step, from an idealistic childhood through youthful disillusionment to his radical reinvention of “the good life.” 

"While Daniel Suelo's refusal to use money is certainly more extreme than many of us would be willing to adopt, I find that his philosophy and practice are definitely worthy of our attention."—Tim Kasser

Prosperity without Growth (Tim Jackson, 2011) 

Is more economic growth the solution? Will it deliver prosperity and well-being for a global population projected to reach 9 billion? In this explosive book, Tim Jackson, a top sustainability adviser to the UK government, makes a compelling case against continued economic growth in developed nations. No one denies that development is essential for poorer nations. But in the advanced economies there is mounting evidence that ever-increasing consumption adds little to human happiness and may even impede it. Unless we can radically lower the environmental impact of economic activity, we will have to devise a path to prosperity that does not rely on continued growth. Jackson provides a credible vision of how human society can flourish within the ecological limits of a finite planet.

"This is an unflinching, accessible look at why we need to abandon the dominant economic model of economic growth at all costs, and what the alternatives would look like."—TIm Kasser

What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution (Gar Alperovitz, 2013)

Never before have so many Americans been more frustrated with our economic system, more fearful that it is failing, or more open to fresh ideas about a new one. The seeds of a new movement demanding change are forming. But just what is this thing called a new economy, and how might it take shape in America? In What Then Must We Do?, Gar Alperovitz speaks directly to the reader about where we find ourselves in history, why the time is right for a new-economy movement to coalesce, what it means to build a new system to replace the crumbling one, and how we might begin. He also suggests what the next system might look like—and where we can see its outlines, like an image slowly emerging in the developing trays of a photographer’s darkroom, already taking shape.

"This book asks the really big questions about the future of the US economy, in a manner which is essentially readable, but still profound."—Liz Barratt-Brown