Book gift ideas from the Contexts grad team

It’s the end of the year, and time for sociology grad students everywhere to buy last-minute gifts for their family and friends — who presumably love them but aren’t quite sure what they’re doing. A book is a perfect gift: even if they hate the it, it still sends the right message. You are a serious scholar concerned about important issues. And you’re an expert on society, so they should listen to you. Because sociology is the Science of Society. So here is a smattering of gift ideas off the top of the heads of the grad team. (Add your additional suggestions in the comments!)

Buttoned Up: Clothing, Conformity, and White-Collar Masculinity, by Erynn Casanova

Instead of another tie, what about a book questioning why ties are such a big deal? Casanova explains why white collar masculinity leaves so little room for difference in style of dress and why the privileges gained in the workplace seem worth the trade off in personal expression. –Nicole

Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg

A fun read filled with quotable lines (and more than a little research), this is a book to give to anyone whose resolutions for 2016 involve dating. It’s a particularly strong recommendation for those who have enjoyed Ansari’s new show “Master of None” on Netflix. –Carrie

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, by Jon Krakauer

A great introduction to why social institutions matter so much when it comes to college sexual assault. Krakauer follows rape victims through their tangles with their campuses, the criminal justice system, and the media after they report their sexual assaults. It’s the perfect gift for the person in your life who thinks campus rape is an overblown issue or for the sexual assault survivor looking for solidarity during recovery. –Nicola

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer

The number of people without cash incomes spiked when the federal government essentially ended cash welfare. Who knew? The results are not less devastating because they were forseeable. The only sociology book on the New York Times notable books of 2015, and well worth the read. –Philip

Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution, by Jo Paoletti

The revolution that almost was—the unisex fashion trend that, in hindsight, appears awkwardly sandwiched between the conservative, gender-conformist 1950s and the Disney princess tidal wave of the 1990s. It was a unique moment, and historian Jo Paoletti’s uncovering opens up a great window onto sex and gender in US culture. –Philip

Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done, by Susan Douglas

The media references are a little dated, but Douglas manages to convince her readers that gender inequality is well and alive while walking us through the media and top news stories we all followed in the 1990s and 2000s. Perfect for anyone who avidly watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a teenager. –Lucia

Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, by Victor M. Rios

This is a thought provoking and accessible book about the over-policing of Black and Latino boys. A great read for anyone who is trying to make sense of recent headlines and wants to understand the punitive turn in American society from the perspective of those who are most heavily policed. –Mo

Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, by Claude M. Steele

It’s been a rough decade for research on stereotype threat. While we wait for the dust to settle, this easy, engaging summary of research by Claude Steele still makes an excellent gift for the young person in your family who dreams of becoming a teacher. –Carrie

Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, by Michael Kimmel

Angry White Men have made headlines over the past year for everything from mass shootings to demands for paternity rights. Kimmel’s book explores the source of that anger in a modern masculinity crisis that forces White men to decide how they want to fit in an increasingly equal world. It’s a wonderful choice for that person in your family who reads the news each day, throws their hands up, and says, “What is the world coming to?” –Nicole

Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva

For your progressive-minded friend who is disturbed and baffled by the news right now, but doesn’t quite know how to wrap his/her head around what’s going on – Bonilla-Silva will explain exactly how we all know so many nice, colorblind people and why that’s a problem for the prospect of racial equality in America. –Lucia

Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, by Shamus Khan

This informative, yet easily digestible account of how young elites learn to navigate and justify their place in the world is sure to fascinate readers.  It’s a great gift for anyone who might want to peek behind the closed doors of one of the nation’s most prestigious boarding schools. –Joey

The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, by Joseph Stiglitz

Mainstream economists like to say Stiglitz has gone too far after winning the Nobel Prize — not a bad reason to come back to this book. Before Piketty’s Capital (and easier to read), Stiglitz helped focus our attention on the causes and consequences of rising inequality. (Good for the liberal family member who doesn’t understand why you’re a sociologist studying inequality.) –Philip

Comments 2

Letta Page

December 8, 2015

Adding my own list of favorites that show how engrossing, captivating, and hilarious science (social and otherwise) can be:

Read Widely

In case it’s hard to tell, that’s an imperative, not a descriptor. Today I plan to use my little soapbox to trumpet some fabulous writing, while also seeking submissions to what I lovingly call “Letta’s List.”

See, many authors ask me for examples of how to incorporate a lot of information into something that’s thorough, academically sound, and engaging. It’s a tough balance, to be sure, but over the years, I’ve collected a number of books (and this is by no means a list of all of them) I can hand off as representations of that ideal. They likely have nothing to do with your area of study, but watching the authors’ deft hands at work (and knowing there are surely unsung editor elves in there, too) can be a truly enjoyable homework assignment. Think of it as authorial excellence by osmosis. Absorb and emulate.

And then, leave me your list of rockin’ non-fiction in the comments, because Letta’s List is in no way complete. I want it to grow longer every year (which isn’t to say this isn’t already long; skip it if you just want the roundup!). Links go to the presses’ sites wherever possible. Note to those authors and presses prepping to send me book copies: please send paperbacks! Also: thank you.

Martha A. Sandweiss. 2009 (paperback out in 2010). Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. Penguin. Sandweiss usess demography, history, and Census data to trace a prominent man’s journey back and forth from the worlds of white luminaries (he was the playboy head of the National Geographic Survey) and black Pullman Porters (in which he was a simple man with a wife, kids, and a job that required a lot of travel). It’s a fascinating true tale that reveals the permeability of 19th and 20th century color lines.

Mary Roach. 2004. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. W.W. Norton. Roach has a particularly well-honed touch with science, and is the author of other notable Norton books Packing for Mars, Gulp, Bonk, and Spook. Each is packed with information you didn’t know you craved, but here you are, gobbling up the details of what cadavers have done for you lately, just how astronaut food is developed, and why it’s hard to describe tastes. Stiff is an excellent introduction into her excellent catalog, packed with participant-observation, rigorous research, in-depth interviews, and no shortage of good humor.

Adam Gopnik. 2010. Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life. Vintage/Knopf Doubleday. I like to think of Gopnik as the master of final sentences. He can close a paragraph, a chapter, or a book like no other. Doing it in the service of a parallel tale of Lincoln and Darwin, two surprising contemporaries, Gopnik shines. He gives us history, law, theology, and sociology and brilliantly renders a time of modern upheaval, in war and words.

Steven Johnson. 2007 (reprint edition). The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Cities, Science, and the Modern World. Riverhead Trade. Epidemiology, sociology, and mapping shouldn’t make for a gripping tale with life and death consequences, but that’s the talent of Steven Johnson. He traces the sleuths who mapped and interviewed and walked their way through London in search of a killer disease and finally put an end to a public health nightmare, and every bit of it feels vital.

Bill Bryson. 2003. A Short History of Nearly Everything. Random House. Bill Bryson could—and should—write the phonebook and make it into a hilarious, informative page-turner. His romp across Australia (and through its flora, fauna, and fascinating history), In a Sunburned Country, passes out of my hands with astonishing rapidity, but it’s A Short History that most highlights Bryson’s talent with insurmountable tasks. He explains scientific progress (and the unsung scientists who move it forward) with care and humor and a brisk pace that’s nearly alarming. His At Home is another classic packed with millennia of culture and human behavior, but I’d happily point anyone to any one of his books. Random House: do whatever you can to keep Bryson on your roster. I suggest Scrooge-McDuck-piles of money.

Susan J. Douglas. 1994. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. Three Rivers Press. A professor of communications, Douglas used her first book (named one of the year’s top ten by NPR in 1994) to take seriously all that pop culture others at the time were ignoring. ’50s girl groups, Gidget, vacuum cleaner ads, and beehives weren’t, in her view, the things that kept feminism at bay, they formed the incubator from which a new generation of feminism and social change would arise. Or: why shimmying to “Will He Still Love Me Tomorrow?” was—and remains—a feminist act.

Erik Larson. 2006. Thunderstruck. Broadway Crown Trade Group. A totally spellbinding book about the development of wireless telegraphy? That’s a tall order, but with Larson’s trademark ability to weave two stories together (in this case, the race to establish overseas telegraphy and to solve a London murder), Larson creates a coup. It’s a potboiler with morse code—even if you try to read it just for the sensationalist murder details, you’ll find yourself taking sides in scientific debate.

Florence Williams. 2012. Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. W.W. Norton. This book left me like a teenager: both fascinated by and terrified of breasts. In fact, the science surrounding this functional, titillating, contentious body part left me so utterly freaked out I forced myself to stop reading the book, out of the very real knowledge that continuing might lead me down a certain paranoid path wherein I could no longer look at paint or hold a water bottle. Williams is incredibly talented and I can’t wait to see what she takes on next. Also: the book may be worth the price of purchase for the aforementioned Mary Roach’s back-cover blurb alone.

Joshua Page. 2011. “The Toughest Beat”: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers’ Union in California. Oxford University Press. Full disclosure: not only am I married to the author of this book, I edited every word of it—and there are probably still typos lurking within. The reason I want it on this list, though, is not simply out of affection or pride, it’s because the author is a true demonstration of how to be edited in the service of a great book. That is, he cares more about the finished product than the first draft. And that finished product has won awards and created comment among policy makers, union leaders, lay readers, and even one of Rolling Stone’s Top 100 guitar players. It’s worth checking out.

Michael Pollan. 2008 (reprint edition). A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams. Penguin Books. [Originally published in 1998 as A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder by Dell.] Some books have seasons, and I return to this one every spring. Yes, Pollan’s much better known for his screeds on food—the history of it, the best ways to source it, the best way to eat it—but this elegant little book explores the traditions of culture, architecture, and the act of writing, letting readers dabble with shipbuilding and concrete construction, feng shui and barn-raising right along with him. The book itself is a dream made sturdy.

Roman Brown

October 26, 2020

It's very cool that such festivals are held and love for the book is maintained. I really love to read and have already read a lot of books, many of them have become my favorites. I recently came across a very interesting article about books of the 80s, it was a time of major cultural changes around the world. Now I want to read these seven books as soon as possible and replenish my library. I am sure that each of you will find something worthwhile for yourself.

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