The 10 Best Books of Social Concerns by Journalists

By Paterson, Judith | American Journalism Review, September 1994 | Go to article overview

The 10 Best Books of Social Concerns by Journalists


Paterson, Judith, American Journalism Review


At least as far back as the penning of Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" in 1776, American journalists have been trying to reform society as well as inform it. Here are my favorite books that aim to make a difference:

The Shame of the Cities

By Lincoln Steffens (1904)

This collection of essays first published in McClure's magazine by the leading turn-of-the-century muckraker exposes municipal corruption in St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and reviews the partial success at cleaning up Chicago and New York. With careful documentation and hightoned prose Steffens names names and castigates America for creating institutions based on "graft and lawlessness...profit, not patriotism; credit, not honor; individual gain, not national prosperity; trade and dickering, not principle."

The Other America: Poverty in the United States

By Michael Harrington (1962)

In a bold foreshadowing of President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, Harrington uses grim statistics and sound scholarship to reveal a volcano of poverty and desperation roiling beneath the surface of the affluent society. Though his big-government solutions and the tone of moral indignation are no longer fashionable, the problems he depicts still beg for solutions. His prediction that the black underclass would expand in the cities and its circumstances worsen makes him look like a prophet of doom crying in the wilderness.

The American Way of Death

By Jessica Mitford (1963)

In short sentences and purple prose this British-born, self-proclaimed child of the muckrakers throws the book at the funeral industry in America. Nobody escapes. Casket and vault makers, funeral directors, embalmers, cemetery and crematorium owners, trade associations, florists, clergymen: They're all a pack of knaves out to exploit and manipulate the bereaved out of their sanity as well as their savings. In the end, she provides a compendium of suggestions for outwitting the whole ghoulish tribe and returning to dust with dignity.

The Feminine Mystique

By Betty Friedan (1963)

Working from the New York Public Library and her dining room table, this little known housewife/magazine writer set the country on its ear by claiming that the post-World War II mystique that defined women solely as wives, mothers and housekeepers resulted in the crippling not only of women but of their children and husbands and the national economy as well. The women who read the book and said, "It changed my life," changed the face of American politics and family life for good.

Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape

By Susan Brownmiller (1975)

This groundbreaking study examines the practice of rape throughout history and condemns attitudes and laws the writer says condone it. Though her assertion that the threat of rape is "nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear" made many readers mad, her book changed both the way we punish the crime of rape and the way we treat and aid its victims. …

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