Summer Reads 2023

Need something new on your nightstand? Looking for a summer escape? Or need your next book club selection? We've got you covered. It's all the pleasures of a reading list, without the book report.

We asked some of Duke's most admired faculty members to contribute to our popular Lifelong Learning summer reading list. Each book includes five questions to consider while reading, direct purchase links, and an introduction video from the author.

In A Death in Harlem, famed scholar Karla FC Holloway weaves a mystery in the bon vivant world of the Harlem Renaissance. Taking as her point of departure the tantalizingly ambiguous “death by misadventure” at the climax of Nella Larsen’s Passing, Holloway accompanies readers to the sunlit boulevards and shaded sidestreets of Jazz Age New York. A murder there will test the mettle, resourcefulness, and intuition of Harlem’s first “colored” policeman, Weldon Haynie Thomas.

In the Gone Missing in Harlem sequel, the Mosby family migrates from the loblolly-scented Carolinas north to the promise of Harlem. After Daddy Iredell dies and son Percy is sent back to the South to keep him out of trouble, DeLilah and daughter Selma meet difficulties with resolve. Selma’s baby, Chloe, is born against the backdrop of the kidnapping and murder of the infant son of the nation’s dashing young aviator, Charles Lindbergh. Then Chloe goes missing—but her disappearance does not draw the same attention. Weldon Haynie Thomas, the city’s first Black policeman, takes the case. 


5 Questions to Consider While Reading

1. What are the cues that seem important to solving the mystery?
2. For Gone Missing in Harlem - Consider the many relationships between mothers and children. What do you think is most important about these relationships?
3. For A Death in Harlem: Why do you think the author gave only slight attention to the "other" death in Harlem that happened on the night of Olivia's death?
4. What impression do you have of Weldon Thomas? Why is his character important?
5. How do the lives of the Black bourgeoisie figure into contemporary Black "society" and how important are they to the novel's focus?


Karla FC Holloway is James B. Duke Professor Emerita of English, African & African American Studies, Professor of Law and former Dean of the Humanities & Social Sciences. Her research and teaching focused on Black cultural studies, bioethics, and law. She has authored over 50 essays and 8 books including Passed On: African American Mourning Stories and BookMarks: Reading in Black & White. Her eclectic tweets can be found @ProfHolloway. In 2017 she turned her full attention to writing the kind of novels her book club of 30+ years would enjoy. Her mantra is “readers also want to have fun.” Gone Missing in Harlem '21, was awarded a Publisher’s Weekly Starred review and joined her first novel, A Death in Harlem, published on her 70th birthday. This spring she joined the Arrow Rock Writers & Artists Residency at Persimmon Creek, MO to work on a “very-near-to-present-day" novel where concerns about contemporary politics move from fiction to fact in a group of elderly DC book club members.

This personal and professional memoir recounts the author's formative years and the family influences that propelled him forward. The experience of anti-Semitism in grammar school and college played a major role. The centrality of music and family were especially influential. His partnership with Carol Meyers allowed him to have a successful career in academic archaeology and in teaching at Duke University. Other endeavors, however, kept him grounded and focused on everyday matters: singing, golf, social activism, teaching, and writing. But it was teaching most of all that imbued his life with special meaning as both student and teacher confronted the riches of the past in a search for a better future.

5 Questions to Consider While Reading

1. What was the role of family in Eric Meyers's early education?
2. How did Eric Meyers encounter bullying and anti-Semitism?
3. How did Eric Meyers get ready for a career and graduate school?
4. What does this book illuminate about the importance of a good marriage?
5. What insights does this book provide into the academic life and Duke University?


Eric M. Meyers is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Emeritus Professor of Religious and Jewish Studies at Duke University. He founded the Center for Jewish Studies at Duke in 1972. His specialties include biblical studies and archaeology. He has directed or co-directed digs in Israel and Italy for over forty years and has authored or co-authored hundreds of articles, reviews, reports and 20 books. Together with his wife, Carol Meyers, he co-authored commentaries on Haggai and Zechariah in the Anchor Bible Series. He served as editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East (1997). His most recent excavations at Sepphoris were fully published in 2018 by Penn State University Press under the Eisenbrauns imprint. He also served for three terms as President of ASOR (The American Schools/Society of Overseas Research).

Discussions of racial difference always embody a story. The dominant story told in our society about race has many components, but two stand out: (1) racial difference is an essential characteristic, fully determining individual and group identity; and (2) racial difference means that some bodies are less human than others.

The church knows another story, says Luke Powery, if it would remember it. That story says that the diversity of human bodies is one of the gifts of the Spirit. That story’s decisive chapter comes at Pentecost, when the Spirt embraces all bodies, all flesh, all tongues. In that story, different kinds of materiality and embodiment are strengths to be celebrated rather than inconvenient facts to be ignored or feared. In this book, Powery urges the church to live up to the inclusive story of Pentecost in its life of worship and ministry. He reviews ways that a theology and practice of preaching can more fully exemplify the diversity of gifts God gives to the church. He concludes by entering into a conversation with the work of Howard Thurman on doing ministry to and with humanity in the light of the work of the Spirit.

5 Questions to Consider While Reading

1. When was the first time you realized that you were of a certain “race”?
2. This book makes a distinction between “race” and “racialization”—how would you describe the difference between those two terms?
3. Who is the Spirit to you? How do you experience the Spirit?
4. When was the last time you thought about your mortality? How can it help?
5. For situations in your life or in the news does this book provide helpful concepts/language?


The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is the dean of Duke University Chapel and professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. He also holds a faculty appointment in Duke’s Department of African and African American Studies. He is the author of “Becoming Human: The Holy Spirit and the Rhetoric of Race;” “Spirit Speech: Lament and Celebration in Preaching;” “Dem Dry Bones: Preaching, Death, and Hope;” “Rise Up, Shepherd! Advent Reflections on the Spirituals;” and “Were You There? Lenten Reflections on the Spirituals.”

Broadway Bodies: A Critical History of Conformity

Broadway has body issues.

What is a Broadway Body? Broadway has long preserved the ideology of the "Broadway Body": the hyper-fit, exceptionally able, triple-threat performer who represents how Broadway musicals favor certain kinds of bodies. Casting is always a political act, situated within a power structure that gives preference to the Broadway Body.

In Broadway Bodies , author Ryan Donovan explores how ability, sexuality, and size intersect with gender, race, and ethnicity in casting and performance. To understand these intersectional relationships, he poses a series of Why did A Chorus Line , a show that sought to individuate dancers, inevitably make dancers indistinguishable? How does the use of fat suits in musicals like Dreamgirls and Hairspray stigmatize fatness? What were the political implications of casting two straight actors as the gay couple in La Cage aux Folles in 1983? How did deaf actors change the sound of musicals in Deaf West's Broadway revivals? Whose bodies does Broadway cast and whose does it cast aside?

In answering these questions, Broadway Bodies tells a history of Broadway's inclusion of various forms of embodied difference while revealing its simultaneous ambivalence toward non-conforming bodies.

5 Questions to Consider While Reading

1. If you were casting a production of your favorite musical, who immediately comes to mind? Why?
2. How do you feel about hiring someone based on their appearance? Does this happen in your industry? Has it happened to you?
3. How would you suggest a creative industry like Broadway navigate questions of identity when it comes to casting? Is it “just acting?”
4. Where is the line between discrimination and artistic license?
5. This book frames casting Broadway musicals—or, who plays whom—as a labor practice. Did this change how you see Broadway musicals? If so, how?"


Ryan Donovan is Assistant Professor of Theater Studies at Duke University and the author of Broadway Bodies: A Critical History of Conformity (Oxford) and Queer Approaches in Musical Theatre (forthcoming from Bloomsbury/Methuen Drama). He is co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Musical Theatre and a special issue of Studies in Musical Theatre. He danced in musicals across the country before earning his PhD at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. At Duke, he teaches seminars on musical theater history and performance, among others. He has also taught the Duke in New York semester-long program on the arts and culture of New York City.

In this extraordinary collection, the award-winning poet Crystal Simone Smith gives voice to the mournful dead, their lives unjustly lost to violence, and to the grieving chorus of protestors in today’s Black Lives Matter movement, in search of resilience and hope.

With poems found within the text of George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo, Crystal Simone Smith embarks on an uncompromising exploration of collective mourning and crafts a masterwork that resonates far beyond the page. These poems are visually stark, a gathering of gripping verses that unmasks a dialogue of tragic truths—the stories of lives taken unjustly and too soon.

Bold and deeply affecting, Dark Testament is a remarkable reckoning with our present moment, a call to action, and a plea for a more just future.

Along with the poems, Dark Testament includes a stirring introduction by the author that speaks to the content of the poetry, a Q&A with George Saunders, and a full-color photo-insert that commemorates victims of unlawful killings with photographs of memorials that have been created in their honor.

5 Questions to Consider While Reading

1. What is the intrinsic value of human life in America?
2. How does poetry interpret the world in ways prose cannot?
3. Journey back to the pandemic shutdown, the killing of George Floyd, and the subsequent BLM protests that flooded streets across the world, what were your thoughts about our nation during that time?
4. In an unhealthy racial climate that dates back to slavery, is a racial reckoning, reparations, and the hope for equal rights of life and liberty for all, possible?
5. According to Christopher Waldrep and Michael Bellesiles, authors of Documenting American Violence, “Violence forms a background for all American history, toppling British rule, creating and ending slavery, frustrating Reconstruction, and promoting civil rights.” In our current political climate, is a better world within our grasp?


Crystal Simone Smith is a poet, indie-publisher, and educator. She is the author of Dark Testament (Henry Holt, 2023). She also authored three poetry chapbooks and co-authored, One Window’s Light, A Collection of Haiku, edited by Lenard D. Moore (2017), which won the Haiku Society of America’s Merit Book Award for Best Haiku Anthology. Her latest collection of haiku, Ebbing Shore, won the 2022 Haiku Foundation Touchstone Distinguished Book Award. Her work has appeared in numerous journals including Prairie Schooner, POETRY Magazine, African American Review, Frogpond, and Modern Haiku. She writes poetry about the human condition and social change. Look for her forthcoming book, Moonlit Map, Spring 2024, Duke Press.

Force explores how humans interact with the material world in the course of their everyday activities. This book for the general reader also considers the significance of force in shaping societies and cultures.

Celebrated author Henry Petroski delves into the ongoing physical interaction between people and things that enables them to stay put or causes them to move. He explores the range of daily human experience whereby we feel the sensations of push and pull, resistance and assistance. The book is also about metaphorical force, which manifests itself as pressure and relief, achievement and defeat.

Petroski draws from a variety of disciplines to make the case that force—represented especially by our sense of touch—is a unifying principle that pervades our lives. In the wake of a prolonged global pandemic that increasingly cautioned us about contact with the physical world, Petroski offers a new perspective on the importance of the sensation and power of touch.

5 Questions to Consider While Reading

1. How do we sense when something is resisting the force being applied to it?
2. Do forces exist independent of their effects?
3. Why might a force produce an effect contrary to a law of nature?
4. Can a force be distinct from our sense of it?
5. Why is force such a powerful metaphor in the poem, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower?


Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering Emeritus at Duke. He has written broadly on the topics of design, success and failure, and the history of engineering and technology. His books include To Engineer is Human and The Pencil. His most recent book is Force: What It Means to Push and Pull, Slip and Grip, Start and Stop.

Editor's Note: Professor Petroski passed away shortly after contributing to this list. We are grateful to celebrate his legacy with you all. Learn more about his wonderful life and contributions to engineering and history here

Made-Up Asians traces the history of yellowface, the theatrical convention of non-Asian actors putting on makeup and costume to look East Asian. Using specific case studies from European and U.S. theater, race science, and early film, Esther Kim Lee traces the development of yellowface in the U.S. context during the Exclusion Era (1862–1940), when Asians faced legal and cultural exclusion from immigration and citizenship. These caricatured, distorted, and misrepresented versions of Asians took the place of excluded Asians on theatrical stages and cinema screens. The book examines a wide-ranging set of primary sources, including makeup guidebooks, play catalogs, advertisements, biographies, and backstage anecdotes, providing new ways of understanding and categorizing yellowface as theatrical practice and historical subject. Made-Up Asians also shows how lingering effects of Asian exclusionary laws can still be seen in yellowface performances, casting practices, and anti-Asian violence into the 21st century.

5 Questions to Consider While Reading

1. What do you think of a non-Asian actor playing an Asian character onstage or onscreen?
2. Why do you think the convention of yellowface has persisted into the twenty-first century? Why do you think it keeps happening?
3. What do you think white actors gained while performing in yellowface makeup during the Exclusion Era?
4. When you think about who is included as an American, do you think of an Asian person? Why or why not?
5. With the recent rise in anti-Asian violence during the global pandemic, how do you think images of Asians onstage and onscreen impact how they are treated in real life?


Dr. Esther Kim Lee is a Professor in the Department of Theater Studies, the International Comparative Studies, and History at Duke University. She is also the Director of Asian American & Diaspora Studies Program. Dr. Lee teaches and writes about theatre history, Asian American theatre, Korean diaspora theatre, and globalization and theatre. She has authored three monographs: A History of Asian American Theatre (2006), which received the Outstanding Book Award given by the Association for Theatre in Higher Education; The Theatre of David Henry Hwang (2015); and Made-Up Asians: Yellowface During the Exclusion Era (2022). She edited Seven Contemporary Plays from the Korean Diaspora in the Americas (2012) and the four-volume collection, Modern and Contemporary World Drama: Critical and Primary Sources (2022), which challenges the prevailing Eurocentric reading of modern drama.

Policing Gun Violence: Strategic Reforms for Controlling Our Most Pressing Crime Problem

In many U.S. cities, gun violence is the most urgent crime problem. High rates of deadly violence make a city less livable, dragging down quality of life, economic development, and property values. The police are the primary agency tasked with controlling gun violence, yet advocates for gun violence prevention either ignore the police or only reference them as a part of the problem. But in fact, more effective policing is key to the success of any comprehensive effort to reduce community gun violence.

The stakes are high--gun violence is concentrated in low-income Black communities, and consequently these communities bear the brunt of the associated economic, social, and psychological burdens. Any successful strategy must overcome the current impasse where the residents of high-violence neighborhoods do not trust the police, having experienced both abuse and neglect in their dealings with officers. How can police departments find the right balance between over- and under-policing of high-violence areas? What are the best practices for police to preempt and deter gun violence, while engendering support and cooperation from the public?

Drawing on fifty years of research and practical experience, Policing Gun Violence argues that it is possible for the police to create greater public safety while respecting the rights of individuals and communities. While gun violence can be attributed to various systemic causes that should remain on the public agenda--from widespread gun availability to poverty and racism--Anthony A. Braga and Philip J. Cook make the case that violence is itself a root cause of social disparity and future violence. Effective law enforcement is a vital component of a just society. They review and synthesize the evidence in several key areas: enforcement of gun laws, policing hot spots, controlling high-risk groups through focused deterrence, enhancing investigations to increase the arrest and conviction rate, preventing officer-involved shootings, and disrupting underground gun markets. Policing Gun Violence serves as a guide to how the police can better utilize their considerable resources to make cities safer.

5 Questions to Consider While Reading

1. How does gun violence affect you and your family’s peace of mind, voting, routine activities, where you live?
2. One view is that police agencies are imperfect but essential. In that respect they are like schools, hospitals, the armed services, and so forth. The best way forward is reform, not abolish. What do you think? Imperfect? Essential? Both?
3. It is often said that we should treat gun violence as a “public health” problem. What does that mean to you? Do you agree?
4. About half of all gun homicides go unsolved, and that rate is still higher for non-fatal shootings. Is it important to increase the arrest and conviction rate for criminal shootings? How could that be done?
5. Thinking about your state and community, how have gun regulations changed during your lifetime? Is there any future for gun control, given recent court rulings?


Philip J. Cook has been a member of the Duke faculty for 50 years, and is currently Professor Emeritus of Public Policy and Economics. He was a founding member of the Sanford School faculty, and served as director for a total of 7 years. He is one of the first scholars to undertake research on gun violence prevention. In 2020, his contributions in this area were recognized by the award of the Stockholm Prize in Criminology. Earlier, in 2001, he was elected to membership in the National Academy of Medicine. His research has focused on the costs and consequences of the widespread availability of guns, and what might be done about it. His most recent book, with Anthony A. Braga, is Policing Gun Violence (Oxford University Press 2023). Previous books on gun violence prevention include Gun Violence: The Real Costs (Oxford University Press, 2000, co-authored with Jens Ludwig), and The Gun Debate (Oxford University Press 2014, 2020, co-authored with Kristin A. Goss) which is intended for a general audience seeking an objective assessment of the relevant issues. He is currently the scientific director for a multi-faceted project to improve clearance rates for shooting cases in Chicago.

Beautiful to behold and extremely sensitive to its environment, the snake is nonetheless stigmatized as a serpent, a creature that almost universally inspires fear. At a time when so many animals are endangered, who will speak up for the snake?

Snake populations are declining precipitously around the globe, but calls for their conservation are muted by fear and prejudice. Saving Snakes offers a new approach to understanding snakes and preserving their populations—an approach built on respect. Nicolette Cagle has traveled the world in search of snakes, from the Midwest and the southeastern United States to Cuba, Nicaragua, and Australia, and spent decades conducting natural science research on the patterns of snakes in regions where urban development encroaches upon the natural world. Her book offers a firsthand account of the strange and secretive lives of snakes, and reveals their devastating losses.

Beautifully and accessibly written, Saving Snakes entwines Cagle’s personal narrative with deep scientific and historical research. Through the author’s exploration of her evolution as a field naturalist, it provides a blueprint for developing a conservation consciousness among young people and paves the way for increased inclusivity in the male-dominated field of herpetology. While fundamentally a book about snakes, this is also the story of one woman's pursuit of her passion as she searches for, studies, and advocates up for these enigmatic creatures.

5 Questions to Consider While Reading

1. What is the predominant cultural attitude in your community towards snakes? What attitudes have you seen in other communities?
2. How does land use change and development impact snakes and biodiversity more generally?
3. What tensions do you see between the work of scientists and the work of educators, particularly in the fields of environmental science and ecology?
4. Many areas of science, like herpetology, have not been inclusive demographically. What effects do you think that has had on what is studied and how?
5. What role do you think expanding our sense of empathy and compassion has in addressing major environmental issues, including species extinctions and climate change?


Dr. Nicolette Cagle is field naturalist with deep roots in academic ecology and environmental education. As faculty in Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, she teaches courses in natural history and communication. Dr. Cagle also serves as the Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the Nicholas School and was the founding Director of the NSOE Communications Studio. She was a fellow in Duke’s Thompson Writing Program and has conducted research in both ecology and environmental education, using an innovative combination of multivariate statistics, GIS, traditional field observation, and qualitative methods. As a certified environmental educator and NC Environmental Educator of the Year in 2021, Dr. Cagle also teaches and consults for a number of organizations in the Durham area. Dr. Cagle received her Doctorate in Ecology from Duke University in 2008 and a B.S. in Natural Resources and Environmental Science from the University of Illinois - Urbana in 2002.

Imagine a world where your brain can be interrogated to learn your political beliefs, your thoughts can be used as evidence of a crime, and your own feelings can be held against you. A world where people who suffer from epilepsy receive alerts moments before a seizure, and the average person can peer into their own mind to eliminate painful memories or cure addictions.

Neuroscience has already made all of this possible today, and neurotechnology will soon become the “universal controller” for all of our interactions with technology. This can benefit humanity immensely, but without safeguards, it can seriously threaten our fundamental human rights to privacy, freedom of thought, and self-determination.

From one of the world’s foremost experts on the ethics of neuroscience, The Battle for Your Brain offers a path forward to navigate the complex legal and ethical dilemmas that will fundamentally impact our freedom to understand, shape, and define ourselves.

5 Questions to Consider While Reading

1. Do you use wearable devices to track your health? Would you use a brain sensor?
2. How would your life change if even your brain could tracked?
3. Should people have a right to enhance their own brains? To diminish it?
4. How do you feel about the use of brain sensors in the workplace? What limits should be placed on it?
5. We stand at a crossroads, where our last fortress of privacy -- our brains -- is at risk. Will cognitive liberty be enough to secure our rights to self-determination over our brains and mental experiences in the digital age?


Nita Farahany, is the Robinson O. Everett Distinguished Professor of Law & Philosophy and Founding Director of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society. She is a widely published scholar on the ethics of emerging technologies, including the critically acclaimed book, The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology. She is a frequent commentator for national media and radio and keynote speaker at events including TED, the Aspen Ideas Festival, the World Economic Forum, and judicial conferences worldwide. From 2010-2017, she served as a Commissioner on the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. Farahany holds an AB (Genetics), an ALM (Biology), and is also a Duke alum, where she was awarded a JD, MA, and Ph.D. (Philosophy).

The Marvel Cinematic ​Universe (MCU) is the most expansive and widely viewed fictional narrative in the history of cinema. In 2009, Disney purchased Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion, including its subsidiary film production company, Marvel Studios. Since then, the MCU—the collection of multimedia Marvel Studios products that share a single fictional storyline—has grown from two feature films to thirty interconnected movies, nine streaming Disney+ series, a half dozen short films, and more than thirty print titles. By 2022, eight of the twenty-five highest grossing films of all time are MCU movies.

The MCU is a deeply political universe. Intentionally or not, the MCU sends fans scores of messages about a wide range of subjects related to government, public policy, and society. Some are overt, like the contentious debate about government and accountability at the heart of Captain America: Civil War. More often, however, the politics of the MCU are subtle, like the changing role of women from supporting characters (like Black Widow in Iron Man 2) to leading heroes (like Black Widow in Black Widow). The MCU is not only a product of contemporary politics, but many of its stories seem to be direct responses to the problems of the day. Racial injustice, environmental catastrophe, and political misinformation are not just contemporary social ills, they are also key thematic elements of recent MCU blockbusters.

In The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, more than twenty-five leading scholars examine these complex themes. Part one explores how political issues are depicted in the origin stories; part two examines how the MCU depicts classic political themes like government and power; and part three explores questions of diversity and representation in the MCU. The volume’s various chapters examine a wide range of topics: Black Panther and the “racial contract,” Captain America and the political philosophy of James Madison, Dr. Strange and colonial imperialism, S.H.I.E.L.D. and civil-military relations, Spider-Man and environmentalism, and Captain Marvel and second-wave feminism.

The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the first book to look expansively at politics in the MCU and ask the question, “What lessons are this entertainment juggernaut teaching audiences about politics, society, power, gender, and inequality?”

5 Questions to Consider While Reading

1. Why do scholars of politics care about entertainment media and popular culture?
2. On balance, do the political lessons in the MCU do more good, or more harm?
3. What is the right benchmark for judging the political content in MCU films and shows (and other entertainment media)? Should we hold these kind of shows to high standards, or is at all just harmless entertainment?
4. Entertainment companies often try to avoid political controversy in order to avoid alienating audiences. Does the MCU side-step important issues? Should it?
5. Can entertainment companies like Marvel Studios be a force for positive social change?


I'm a political scientist in the Sanford School of Public Policy. I grew in Kansas, and I have BA in political science from the University of Tulsa and PhD in Politics and Social Policy from Princeton. I've joined faculty in the Sanford School in 2011, and I teach the core gateway course for the Public Policy major. Most of my research focuses on why so few working-class citizens (people employed in manual labor, service industry, and clerical jobs) go on to become politicians and how their virtual absence from our political institutions affects public policy. Outside of work, I'm a lifelong fan of Marvel comics and movies. In 2019 I got involved in a Twitter conversation with a diverse group of political scientists about how politics and society are represented in Marvel films, and that conversation grew into a mini-conference and eventually an edited volume. I hope this book will serve as an engaging window into the study of politics and political theory.

Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy Is Flawed, Frightening—and Our Best Hope

Americans across the political spectrum agree that our democracy is in crisis. We view our political opponents with disdain, if not terror, and an increasing number of us are willing to consider authoritarian alternatives. In Two Cheers for Politics, Jedediah Purdy argues that this heated political culture is a symptom not of too much democracy but too little. Today, the decisions that most affect our lives and our communities are often made outside the political realm entirely, as market ideology, constitutional law, and cultural norms effectively remove broad swaths of collective life from the table of collective decision. The result is a weakened and ineffective political system and an increasingly unequal and polarized society. If we wish to renew that society, we’ll need to claw back the ground that we’ve ceded to anti-politics and entrust one another with the power to shape our common life.

5 Questions to Consider While Reading

1. Two Cheers for Politics observes that we use the word “democracy” in many different ways—to mean elections but also equality, voting but also conversation. What do you think of “democracy” as meaning? One way of thinking about this is to ask what you think of as the opposite of democracy: what makes you say, “That’s undemocratic!”?
2. Purdy argues that the problem with American democracy is that we have too little of it. Does this resonate with you? When you think of democracy’s problems, what comes to mind? Do you think of institutions, like the senate and the electoral college, more cultural phenomena, such as like voter ignorance and misinformation, or something else? What could it mean to address these problems with greater democracy?"
3. Two Cheers argues that the Supreme Court and the Constitution, which are often described as cornerstones of American democracy, are actually major problems. How do you view the Supreme Court? Has your view changed over your lifetime? Has it changed recently?
4. Two Cheers argues that to make democracy work, we need a more democratic economy, one that provides greater security and power to ordinary people in everyday life. What do you think of this idea? How do you think about the relationship between politics and the economy? Do you think there is such a thing as a “democratic economy,” and do you agree with Purdy about what it would be?
5. Purdy argues that democracy can’t work if citizens are afraid of one another, and that a certain amount of trust is necessary for a healthy democracy. Are you willing to trust majorities of your fellow citizens with power over important public questions? If not, why not, and what are the alternatives?


Jedediah Purdy began teaching at Duke Law School in 2004. He was tenured in 2009. He has also taught at Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, and Columbia, and from 2019-22 was William S. Beinecke Professor at Columbia Law School. His books include two on environmental law and politics (After Nature and This Land Is Our Land), three on American politics in global, historical, and theoretical context (For Common Things, Being America, and A Tolerable Anarchy), and his scholarship has appeared in the Yale Law Journal, Harvard Law Review, and many others. He has written for the New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, and many other publications. Born and raised in West Virginia, he attended Harvard College and Yale Law School and clerked for Judge Pierre N. Leval of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. He lives with his wife and two children outside Durham at the edge of the Duke Forest.