Q of the Week: What Book Should Congress Read?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Congress returned to Capitol Hill this week, and Candice and I posed a new question to our Politics & Policy Daily readers: What book should be required reading for every senator and representative? We got an overwhelming number of responses, but here are a few of our favorites:

Martha Allen was the first of many to suggest Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson’s widely acclaimed memoir detailing his career as a young lawyer, fighting against injustice in America’s criminal-justice system.

Another popular submission was The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli’s 16th-century manual on manipulating your way to power. Thanks to Jerry Purmal for being the first to suggest it.

In case you’re curious: Michael Ignatieff examined The Prince more closely in his piece for The Atlantic back in December 2013, asking whether President Obama is “Machiavellian enough.”

One particularly thoughtful response came from Briauna Barrera:

If I could assign one book for every member of Congress to read (and perhaps everyone period) it would be Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

The book explores the current state of food systems in the US, and to a lesser extent the world, and the historical events that led up to its current status, its successes, and more importantly, its failures, shortcomings, and problems. However, Foer approaches the issue from the lens of being a new father and simply wanting to do what's best for his newborn son. He also grapples with being a son himself, and a grandson, and dealing with the emotional implications that meat has for him and his family (his grandmother was a Holocaust survivor who wastes nothing and shows her love through food).

I think if Congress would read this book, it would show that what we are doing with agriculture—the way we get our food, the way we interact with animals—isn’t sustainable and that something needs to be done now. This is connected to climate change, it’s connected to resource management, land use, population growth, the economy, everything. Food touches most—if not every—aspect of our lives. Beyond that, it’s deeply ingrained in our cultures, our nationalities, our religions, our lifestyles, our very psyches. This isn’t some writer preaching against meat, this is a data-rich narrative with plenty of complementary and opposing perspectives discussing this complex and complicated subject. This book is filled with just as much hard facts as it is feeling.

I’ve been grappling with my own ethical issues with eating meat for a while now and this book gave me words and concepts and facts for a lot of the feelings and abstract thoughts I’ve had. This isn’t a liberal issue or a conservative issue or a moderate issue or what have you. Ironically enough, eating meat, farming, our food systems, animal rights, they are all human issues. We are forced to confront our humanity and what we consider what it means to be human when dealing with eating animals. As hard as it is to face that, to confront it and name it and come to terms with it, it needs to happen and it needs to happen from all of us.

And finally, Dirk Bloemendaal—a repeat Question-of-the-Week winner—suggested Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

From Dirk:

The first number of maxims are worth passing on to our esteemed members of Congress:

1. Share everything

2. Play fair

3. Don’t hit people

4. Put things back where you found them

5. Clean up your own mess

6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours

7. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody

8. Wash your hands before you eat

9. Flush

Let’s move these members up from preschool and up from the sandbox!