Understanding Poverty: The Reading List

Understanding Poverty: The Reading List

This post is the first on the Understanding Poverty series.

 

For the past several months, my reading theme has been understanding poverty, particularly poverty in America. Some of the questions that driven me throughout this quest were: What are people’s lives like at the bottom of the market? What are the biggest struggles of their lives? How do they cope? What government policies help people’s lives? What policies worsen their lives? Where did the negative attitudes towards the poor come from (living in America, I sensed this from various sources)? From the religious standpoint, what should the role of religious institutions be? What should the attitude of a Christian be? What are the biblical perspectives on the poor?

 

Poverty, being such a complex subject, cannot be summarized neatly in a series of books. My quest hasn’t ended and I feel like this reading list has only skimmed the surface lightly. But I decided to begin a series of posts on my reflections throughout this journey to organize my thoughts, share learnings, and begin a conversation with you, readers of the blog. I am very much a blank slate on the topic–I do not know much. So I’m eager to learn.

 

As the launchpad for the essay series, I’m sharing my Understanding Poverty Reading List, which is likely to evolve further. If you have recommendations to add to my list, let me know!

 

1. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Evicted is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It deals with the deep struggle for housing for the poorest of the poor in America. One of the biggest points of the book is that eviction is not only caused by poverty, but it also causes poverty. Matthew Desmond wrote out his research brilliantly in a very engaging narrative nonfiction form. He followed the lives of several families and individuals for an extended amount of time and recorded their challenges every step of the way.

Desmond’s work has also been spotlighted in the news recently. His Eviction Lab at Princeton University just released a nationwide database on evictions. For the nerds out there, he has made the raw data available for you to crunch and analyze, and share with your communities.

 

2. $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

This book was what sparked my quest into the topic of poverty. I got it through a Kindle sale a few years ago because the title was very intriguing. Imagine, I got it for $1.99, the same amount some people live on for a day. $2.00 a Day also follows the lives of a few people, but also covers some policy background that has historically impacted–for better or for worse–the lives of the poorest in America. Several common themes emerge from this book and Evicted, especially on how people cope at this level of poverty.

 

3. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Hillbilly Elegy has been credited as one of the explainers of the protectionist movement that arises from those who feel left behind by globalization, modern economy, and society. I don’t think J.D. Vance set out to play this role–he was really just telling the story of his upbringing–but he certainly opened the eyes of many to a specific culture and community that doesn’t really get represented much in most media. I can’t really do it justice in this summary, other than to say, it’s an important read.

 

4. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Bryan Stevenson is my modern-day hero. In Just Mercy, poverty intersects criminal justice and race. While Hillbilly Elegy is about a poor white community, Just Mercy sheds lights on those who have historically bore the brunt of injustice in criminal law, the poor blacks. One of Stevenson’s main talking points is that in this country, you get treated better by the law if you were rich and guilty than if you were poor and innocent.

Stevenson’s work with the Equal Justice Initiative has also been spotlighted in the news very recently with the opening of the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice dedicated to African Americans terrorized by lynching in 19th and 20th century America.

 

5. Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service

Mary Poplin wrote about her experience working with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. This book is not about poverty in America, but it is about poverty and the heart of an immensely influential figure in human history. To me, Poplin becomes a vehicle that carries a common-to-me mindset and attitudes towards this radical social justice work, and how Mother Teresa’s approach challenges these mindset and attitudes.

 

6. Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption

Similar to Finding Calcutta, Katie Davis’ radical decision to live in Uganda and her mission to love, love, and love the children there is a challenge to a complacent, convenient, and comfortable involvement in social justice work, especially in the Christian context.

 

7. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

Greg Boyle’s work with Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program in Los Angeles that provides gang members with jobs and support, is simply incredible. But this book, and Boyle’s message, stands out to me in that he doesn’t focus much on how to help the poor. His main message is to be with the poor. He calls it kinship, something I will talk about extensively in the essay series, as it unlocks a profound way of thinking about altruism for me.

 

8. Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship

See #7 above.

 

9. The Other America – A Speech from The Radical King (Free)

This is Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on the lives of “the other America”, the part where rights are not fully realized. It’s a great reminder that there are lives out there that may be very dissimilar to ours, and we ought not to close out minds and hearts towards those “other people.”

 

To read

 

10. The Other America: Poverty in the United States

 

11. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

 

12. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

 

I think this initial reading list gives a glimpse on how complex poverty is. It intersects housing, race, crime, drugs, abuse, and many other big issues that are not easily summarized, let alone solved. But I don’t believe in a fatalistic view that says if you can’t do anything about it, why bother knowing at all. I think there’s value in understanding what’s going on, even if one still doesn’t know what to do with it at the moment.

I fully realize that the point of view I take here is one of privilege–everything about poverty in these books is foreign to me. Each of this book opens up a whole new world that I am not familiar with, or even aware of. But I guess there’s a first step for everyone. And this is mine.

 

Let’s Talk About Books: 3 Things I’m Doing

Let’s Talk About Books: 3 Things I’m Doing

Books, I find, demand not just to be read, but also to be talked about. They are keen for us to agree and disagree with their contents. They invite us to engage and complement their ideas, and thus enrich the greater dialogue that they are a part of.

 

Each book is a community. At least, it has the potential to be one. At its fullest realization, fellow readers gather to engage each other in conversations in book clubs, forums, or casual hangouts.

 

Finding communities in our modern lives, however, is not always easy (see Tribe: Home in Community). But how awesome it is to find one with kindred minds and spirits.

 

A Craving for Community

 

My reading has been quite consistent over the past few years, as my Goodreads account can testify. But as the knowledge and information piles one on another, book after book much without an outlet, my craving for a book community has peaked. I need to talk about what I’ve read!

 

Reading is great, but to have a conversation that goes along with it is superb. Conversations let you digest the books more deeply, exchange ideas and point of views, and probe more interesting questions. Thoughts become more complex. Differences in perspective emerge, and nothing sharpens and refines your views than sitting face to face with others who can challenge your thoughts.

 

Driven by this craving, I finally sought out my tribe. These are the 3 things I’m doing to talk about books these days.

 

3 Things I’m Doing to Talk about Books

 

1. The Next Big Idea Club

 

I’ve been seeing the Facebooks ads for The Next Big Idea Club that feature Adam Grant or Malcolm Gladwell for a few months. Spot on targeting there. What’s a bookworm to do but to click away.

 

The Next Big Idea Club is an online book club for nonfiction lovers, curated by Adam Grant, Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, and Daniel Pink. I mean, their nonfiction credibility is through the roof. If there’s any book club to join, this is the one. After all, I own each of the four’s books.

 

How it works: The curators pick the best nonfiction works of the year for the club to read together, one book a month. It’s a subscription service, so you can either get the quarterly mailing of the hardcover books, ebooks, or just the bonus materials. The bonus materials are author interviews by the curators, video lectures, and a closed Facebook group for discussions. There are also live Q&A sessions with the authors. For every subscription, book donations to students in under-resourced communities are made.

 

It’s all top notch. People post really thoughtful reflections and questions on the Facebook group. And the books are brand-new releases. We’re currently reading The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle.

 

If you’re a nonfiction lover, definitely check it out.

 

2. Business, Books, and Brews Meetup

 

This meetup in Boulder is awesome. What could be better than talking about books in a coffee shop for 1.5 hours? Everyone seems to be so pleased with finding the group and having an outlet to geek out about business books.

 

Our next meetup will be on Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant (who is mentioned three times already in this post). If you’re in the Boulder area, come join us!

 

3. My Reading Interview Podcast

 

It tickles me that I have to start a podcast to get to talk about books to long-time friends. So millennial. But these interviews are fantastic because it’s difficult to have an extended, focused conversation about books and reading when 1) they live far away, and 2) kids may interrupt in-person conversations.

 

There are self-motivated learners everywhere. Famous people get a lot of podcast airtime, but really, gems of insights are always nearby from people we interact everyday. I want to uncover these gems, somehow.

 

If you enjoy listening to conversations about books, check out my Reading Interview Series!

 

I actually have not decided whether to keep going indefinitely, or make this a finite project. I told myself to try 6 episodes first and then decide. If you have feedback or comments, please let me know!

 

How do you find ways to talk about what you read?

 

Best Books of 2017: Part 2

Best Books of 2017: Part 2

It’s time for the 2nd installment of best books of 2017. This year has been an especially good reading year for me, clocking at 54 books of different varieties. Part 1 of my 2017 favorites can be found here. For the whole reading list, check out this link below:

I read a lot of great books this year, but the ones that made this list were the ones that I felt were fantastic reads.

1. Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan

As a new parent, I found this book super entertaining. Gaffigan is one of my favorite comics, and these funny stories about his family of 7 (5 kids) and parenting are hilarious and refreshing, especially if you want to escape high-brow, too-intellectual topics for a while (anyone tired of politics this year?). I recommend the audio version, which Gaffigan performs himself.

 

2. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Deep Work is for anyone who’s looking for tips on working in a focused way and achieve excellence in a world where we’re dinged, pinged, alerted, and notified constantly. Newport’s advice is practical, but he also recommends different productivity strategies based on the nature of your work (i.e., this is not the type of book that offers a singular method and is adamant about it).

 

 

 

3. The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin

Nicely coupled with Deep Work. While Newport focuses mostly on the logistics of productivity, Waitzkin focuses on methods of mastering new skills. He taps into his deep experiences as a chess child prodigy and martial arts competitor. True to its title, the book teaches you how to surpass learning as a way to satisfy curiosity or to become more knowledgeable, into a realm of expertise where learning turns into art. I can’t recommend this book enough.

 

 

4. Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin

The discovery of gravitational waves shook the world, in a good way, when it was publicized in early 2016. The quest earned Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2017. But the search for these elusive waves began many decades before and involved numerous scientists with varying personalities and quirks. Their tireless toils lead us to understand a bit more the nature of our universe. This book tells the story of this quest, one of humanity’s most noble quests, I daresay, from the beginning. A marvelous story.

5. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

These days, it’s not outrageous to make the claim that Elon Musk is probably the world’s most interesting living person. His name has become synonymous with the most outrageous and audacious projects that Silicon Valley has ever undertaken. Yet Musk’s life story told in this book makes this man even more interesting, if that is even possible. He lives a gutsy life, which is such an understatement. This book was published in 2015, yet merely two years after, it feels outdated already simply because its subject has continued moving, creating companies, and undertaking out-of-this-world projects. It’s a fantastic biography.

 

6. Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wonder is a heartwarming story of a boy with facial differences who attends school for the first time. Making friends, being kind, facing bullies–all things character building, for kids and adults alike, are touched here. I’ll be reading this with my baby one day.

 

To see the previous best-of lists, check out these links below:

2017: Best Books of 2017 Part 1

2016: Best Books of 2016 Part 1, Best Books of 2016 Part 2.

2015: Best Books of 2015 Part 1, Best Books of 2015 Part 2.

What are your best reads in 2017?

The Reformers Timeline

The Reformers Timeline

The year 2017 marks the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. October 31, 1517 is traditionally believed as the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, which started the wave of theological movements all throughout Europe.

 

To commemorate this quincentennial, my church is doing a series on the Protestant Reformers, which syncs well with my current preoccupation with timelines. I was curious to see how the lives of the Reformers overlapped each other, since they certainly influenced each other’s work and ministry.

 

This Reformers timeline is based on the names mentioned in the book the Great Controversy. It’s by no means the most comprehensive list, but it transcends the 16th century Reformers to a few individuals who were precursors to the Reformation and to a few who influenced Christianity in the succeeding centuries. Here it is.

 

Reformers Timeline

(Click image to enlarge)

 

A few interesting things to note:

  • In 1517, Martin Luther was about 34 years old, younger than I initially imagined.
  • Most of the other Reformers were also in their 20s and early 30s. Their protests would continue for the rest of their lives.
  • From this chart, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were executed (burned at the stake) together.
  • These Reformers were in different countries, England, Bohemia, Germany, Switzerland, France, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Scotland. William Miller was in America. I probably should have differentiated these locations in the plot. Next time.

 

Now the interesting part for me, and the whole reason of doing these timelines, is to combine different historical narratives in one visualization. In the image below, I added William Wilberforce, the English MP who championed the abolition of the slave trade (a personal hero), to see who were his contemporaries. One of the last letters that John Wesley wrote was for Wilberforce, encouraging him in his work to abolish the slave trade. John Newton, a former captain of a slave ship, author of the popular hymn “Amazing Grace”, was also Wilberforce’s mentor (also on the plot).

Reformers and U.S. Presidential Timeline

Adding to the fun, here’s a combined timeline of the Reformers and the U.S. Presidential Timeline from the last post.

 

It’s interesting to see that William Miller, a preacher during the Second Great Awakening in America, lived through 12 presidents. He died during the short presidency of Zachary Taylor. William Wilberforce corresponded with some of America’s founding fathers. There are probably many more fun facts that can be unearthed from this timeline. If you know any, let me know!

 

 

U.S. Presidential Timeline

U.S. Presidential Timeline

Longtime readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of timelines. Timelines are a great visualization technique to see a “slice” of history–what events take place at the same time in different places? This time, my subject of choice is the U.S. Presidential Timeline.

 

As an immigrant who did not grow up in the U.S., and someone who pursues a STEM education through and through, it so happens that I have never studied American History in a classroom setting. But ever since I became a permanent–as opposed to alien–resident, and now have given birth to an American, my interest in this nation’s history has increasingly grown. It’s hard to fully engage and understand today’s sociopolitical and cultural conversations without proper background, something like walking into somebody else’s conversation, and the American conversation is often rapt with historical jargon.

 

Everything I’ve learned about American History is self-taught, from reading, watching, listening, basically consuming all kinds of media. Thanks to my friend, Amy, my current obsession is binge-listening to the Presidential podcast by Lilian Cunningham of the Washington Post. It’s a great first pass of the last 241 years of history. I’ve thought about reading one of each U.S. President’s biographies–sounds like a great education–but since they’re typically 1000 pages apiece, this will be slow going. (Anyone else interested? Let’s form a support group, maybe? By the way, the Presidential podcast has a great reading list here.)

 

In any case, it’s hard for me not to see data whenever I delve into history. I have a long term project of synthesizing everything I read into a big giant timeline, to gain perspective of how things relate, or don’t, across the globe. For the U.S., this is the start.

 

U.S. Presidential Timeline

(Click image to enlarge)

 

This U.S. Presidential Timeline has both each President’s lifespan and their presidency. The trivia masters among you can probably spit out the-most facts of presidential history, like the shortest presidency, the longest, the youngest to take office, the oldest, who died in office, etc. For the rest of us, maybe we can turn this timeline into a game.

 

One thing that jumps out to me though is the gaps in the Presidents’ ages between before and after Eisenhower, and before and after George H. W. Bush. It seems like the presidency skips a generation born circa early 1900s and 1930s (WWI and WWII? Is this real?). Internet, please enlighten me.

 

What do you observe from this timeline? Comment with your interesting observations!

 

As usual, if you’re interested in the source file for this timeline, let me know! There are more details there than displayed here.

 

Enjoy!

 

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