Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO — I read so many books in 2019 that I had a miserably hard time trying to decide which ones to include in my “favorites” list this year.

Usually, I present a roster of books that are diverse, but not specifically about diversity — books that blur our differences while sharpening the issues that affect us all, regardless of our race, ethnicity or gender.

This year, the issues are as sharp as knives, and the books I’m suggesting could fit in the self-improvement category because they’re more educational than entertaining. In fact, most of these books will make you feel angry, sad or helpless.

But even informed helplessness is better than going through life being sure that things are one way, when in fact there are many forces at work — forces that either we never became aware of or that simply didn’t exist in the innocence of our younger years.

Get ready to learn.

First up is “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men,” by Caroline Criado Perez. This is not the type of book I would usually read — it’s common knowledge, at least to very petite women who shop for the latest fashions in the children’s section, that it’s a world designed for guys. But, oh boy, there’s so much more to it.

“’Invisible Women’ is the story of what happens when we forget to account for half of humanity,” Criado Perez writes. “It is an exposé of how the gender data gap harms women when life proceeds, more or less as normal. In urban planning, politics, the workplace. It is also about what happens to women living in a world built on male data when things go wrong.”

This book was genuinely painful to get through because the inequalities that are baked into every aspect of female life are both endless and mind-boggling. Statistical analysis and historical sleuthing combine to illustrate why “equality” leads to fewer bathrooms for women in public places, why cars are less safe for women (short people are especially in danger) and why medical trials of medicine and surgeries favor men’s experience over women’s.

You might be depressed, but you won’t be bored.

My next pick is “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes Or Breaks Us,” by author Paul Tough, a devastating portrait of how, after society promises our most vulnerable that college will be a ticket to economic security, the higher education apparatus chews young people up. By spitting them out either with a financially dodgy investment or with no degree and a mountain of unforgivable debt.

Tough follows several students’ paths into and out of college, the most memorable being young people who were the first in their family to attempt higher education. Their struggles — regardless of whether they were low-income, rural whites or black or Hispanic — are illustrated in both cold statistical data (it isn’t pretty) and through the harrowing experiences of students who were just trying to get a toehold in the middle class.

“The particular set of decisions we have made in creating our current higher education system — and those include individual decisions, institutional decisions, and public-policy decisions — have produced a mobility engine that functions incredibly well for a small number of people and quite poorly for many others ... the ones who benefit least tend to be from families that are deprived or isolated or fractured or all three,” Tough writes.

Last, I have to suggest you read the most challenging book I’ve ingested all year: “Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration,” by Michael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, both reporters at The New York Times.

Immigration is not a fun topic to read about, and it’s no fun writing about it either. The authors’ reporting reveal horrors and, surprisingly, bipartisan concerns. Both Democrats and Republicans do their best and their worst to fix long-standing problems. People of conscience in both parties strive to be humane to migrants, but others make — or pave the way for — policy choices that impose cruelty on people who are just trying to survive.

Whether you’ve been following the issue for a long time or are just interested in how the border became such a debacle, this book — like all the ones I’ve highlighted this year — will break your heart in a variety of ways.

Just remember that in a society in which we are all interdependent, ignorance is not bliss.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com or follow her on Twitter @estherjcepeda.

©2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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