“I read these books in the course of figuring out two recent books I was writing,” says Kurt Andersen, who co-founded Spy magazine with AIR MAIL editor Graydon Carter. Andersen, who has been editor in chief of New York, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and host of the Peabody Award–winning public-radio program Studio 360, is the author of several books, including You Can’t Spell America Without Me, a mock Trump memoir he wrote with Alec Baldwin, and Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, out now from Random House. “Each encounter excited and helped me, like being on a trek somewhere and meeting a generous, talkative companion who’d already traveled some of the same territory I was wandering,” says Andersen. “All four are intelligent, entertaining, and staggeringly resonant.”
The Stammering Century, by Gilbert Seldes
I discovered this book while writing Fantasyland, my history of America’s founding weakness for magical thinking and entertaining falsehoods, a book I finished just before we made an entertaining, magical-thinking liar our president. Seldes’s book is a serious and eccentric and witty history of the 1800s and early 1900s that no academic historian would’ve written, focused on Holy Roller Protestantism, pseudo-science, and other make-believe realities. He clearly thought he was memorializing a quaint past before it all disappeared in the new, modern America.
Drift and Mastery, by Walter Lippmann
Lippmann was only a couple of years out of college when he wrote Drift and Mastery, but the subtitle—An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest—makes you think the kid knew he was about to become Walter Lippmann, towering political columnist. It came out in the fall of 1914, just as World War I began, and the America he describes sounds uncannily familiar—unions impotent, newly independent and militant women, gossip its own media industry, a “general sense of conspiracy and secret scheming,” a fundamentalist-Christian presidential candidate who lacked “any vision of what America is to be,” and growing sentiment in favor of government intervention in the economy.
The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, by Sidney Blumenthal
In my new book, Evil Geniuses, I explain how the right and the rich and big business re-wrote the American social contract during the 1970s and 1980s. The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: The Conservative Ascent to Political Power, published in 1986, is a deeply reported and thoughtful account of part of that paradigm shift as it was happening. At the time, its author, Sidney Blumenthal, was an up-and-coming political reporter (including for the New Republic, which Walter Lippmann co-founded) but not yet famous—not yet (like Lippmann) an important adviser to a president (Clinton) and would-be president (Clinton).
Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut
I became a Kurt Vonnegut fan as a teenager, but I’d never read his first novel, Player Piano, until a couple of years ago when I started thinking hard about our super-automated, A.I. near future. Set in an America where advanced machines have rendered most workers economically superfluous, it’s dark and funny in the Vonnegut fashion, but the depiction is not, in 2020, some far-off, what-if future but a plausible, hmm, say, 2039. The reviewer in The New York Times in 1952, the ex-Communist professor Granville Hicks, contrasted it with earlier dystopian novels: “The important difference,” he wrote, “lies in the fact that Mr. Vonnegut’s oligarchs are not capitalists but engineers.” And here we are, 68 years later, where our oligarchs are capitalists and engineers.