It’s officially summer! In the spirit of the season and the upcoming Independence Day weekend, we at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute invite you to join our first annual Civic Arkansas Democracy Reading Challenge. The following ten books are recommendations from Institute staff, our supporters, and a few former governors of Arkansas. These books were selected to be nonpartisan and focus on expanding your knowledge of American democracy and avenues for civic engagement. Each listing includes the recommender, a synopsis, and links to purchase the title on Amazon or find it in your local library. Click here to view the Library Directory for Arkansas.

We are inspired by Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller’s famous quote: “Every citizen has the duty to be informed, to be thoughtfully concerned, and to participate in the search for solutions.” We hope these books encourage you to be a more thoughtfully concerned Arkansan and to consider your role in civic engagement opportunities within your local communities. We challenge you to read at least two books from this list and to participate in one of our suggested forms of engagement.

The Civic Arkansas Democracy Reading Challenge is part of our Civic Arkansas program. Civic Arkansas is the Institute’s initiative to improve our state’s civic health by leveraging a network of civic organizations across the Natural State and empowering communities to practice collaborative problem solving at the local level.

How to Join the Civic Arkansas Democracy Reading Challenge

  • Post about the book you’re reading on social media using #CivicArkansas
  • Join or start a Civic Arkansas Democrat Reading Challenge book club
  • Reach out directly to let us know which book(s) you’re reading or what you’ve learned

Former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, Mrs. Betty Tucker, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe recommended this book.

An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960s by Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of America’s most beloved historians, artfully weaves together biography, memoir, and history. She takes you along on the emotional journey she and her husband, Richard (Dick) Goodwin, embarked upon in the last years of his life.

Dick and Doris Goodwin were married for forty-two years and married to American history even longer. In his twenties, Dick was one of the brilliant young men of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier. In his thirties he both named and helped design Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and was a speechwriter and close advisor to Robert Kennedy. Doris Kearns was a twenty-four-year-old graduate student when selected as a White House Fellow. She worked directly for Lyndon Johnson and later assisted on his memoir.

Over the years, with humor, anger, frustration, and in the end, a growing understanding, Dick and Doris had argued over the achievements and failings of the leaders they served and observed, debating the progress and unfinished promises of the country they both loved.

The Goodwins’ last great adventure involved finally opening the more than three hundred boxes of letters, diaries, documents, and memorabilia that Dick had saved for more than fifty years. They soon realized they had before them an unparalleled personal time capsule of the 1960s, illuminating public and private moments of a decade when individuals were powered by the conviction they could make a difference; a time, like today, marked by struggles for racial and economic justice, a time when lines were drawn and loyalties tested.

Their expedition gave Dick’s last years renewed purpose and determination. It gave Doris the opportunity to connect and reconnect with participants and witnesses of pivotal moments of the 1960s. And it gave them both an opportunity to make fresh assessments of the central figures of the time — John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and especially Lyndon Johnson, who greatly impacted both their lives. The voyage of remembrance brought unexpected discoveries, forgiveness, and the renewal of old dreams, reviving the hope that the youth of today will carry forward this unfinished love story with America.

Nate Coulter, executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System and former state legislator, recommended this book.

Evangelical Christians are perhaps the most polarizing — and least understood — people living in America today. In his seminal new book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, journalist Tim Alberta, himself a practicing Christian and the son of an evangelical pastor, paints an expansive and profoundly troubling portrait of the American evangelical movement. Through the eyes of televangelists and small-town preachers, celebrity revivalists, and everyday churchgoers, Alberta tells the story of a faith cheapened by ephemeral fear, a promise corrupted by partisan subterfuge, and a reputation stained by perpetual scandal.

For millions of conservative Christians, America is their kingdom — a land set apart, a nation uniquely blessed, a people in special covenant with God. This love of country, however, has given way to right-wing nationalist fervor, a reckless blood-and-soil idolatry that trivializes the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Alberta retraces the arc of the modern evangelical movement, placing political and cultural inflection points in the context of church teachings and traditions, explaining how Donald Trump’s presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated historical trends that long pointed toward disaster. Reporting from half-empty sanctuaries and standing-room-only convention halls across the country, the author documents a growing fracture inside American Christianity and journeys with readers through this strange new environment in which loving your enemies is “woke” and owning the libs is the answer to WWJD.

Accessing the highest echelons of the American evangelical movement, Alberta investigates the ways in which conservative Christians have pursued, exercised, and often abused power in the name of securing this earthly kingdom. He highlights the battles evangelicals are fighting—and the weapons of their warfare — to demonstrate the disconnect from scripture: Contra the dictates of the New Testament, today’s believers are struggling mightily against flesh and blood, eyes fixed on the here and now, desperate for a power that is frivolous and fleeting. Lingering at the intersection of real cultural displacement and perceived religious persecution, Alberta portrays a rapidly secularizing America that has come to distrust the evangelical church and weaves together present-day narratives of individual pastors and their churches as they confront the twin challenges of lost status and diminished standing.

Sifting through the wreckage — pastors broken, congregations battered, believers losing their religion because of sex scandals and political schemes — Alberta asks: If the American evangelical movement has ceased to glorify God, what is its purpose?

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson recommended this book.

A timely collection of speeches by David McCullough, the most honored historian in the United States — winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among many others — that reminds us of fundamental American principles.

“Insightful and inspirational, The American Spirit summons a vexed and divided nation to remember — and cherish — our unifying ideas and ideals” (Richmond Times-Dispatch). Over the course of his distinguished career, McCullough has spoken before Congress, the White House, colleges and universities, historical societies, and other esteemed institutions. Now, at a time of self-reflection in America following the bitter 2016 election campaign that has left the country divided, McCullough has collected some of his most important speeches in a brief volume that celebrates the important principles and characteristics that are particularly American.

The American Spirit is as inspirational as it is brilliant, as simple as it is sophisticated” (Buffalo News). McCullough reminds us of the core American values that define us, regardless of which region we live in, which political party we identify with, or our ethnic background. This is a book about America for all Americans that reminds us who we are and helps to guide us as we find our way forward.

Dr. Jay Barth, director of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, recommended this book.

Donald Trump’s presidency has raised a question that many of us never thought we’d be asking: Is our democracy in danger? Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America, and they believe the answer is yes. Democracy no longer ends with a bang—in a revolution or military coup—but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms. The good news is that there are several exit ramps on the road to authoritarianism. The bad news is that, by electing Trump, we have already passed the first one.

Drawing on decades of research and a wide range of historical and global examples, from 1930s Europe to contemporary Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, to the American South during Jim Crow, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies die. Now the question is, can our democracy be saved?

Dr. Robert C. Richards, Jr., associate professor and co-director of the Open Governance Lab at the Clinton School of Public Service, recommended this book.

“Don’t talk to strangers” is the advice long given to children by parents of all classes and races. Today it has blossomed into a fundamental precept of civic education, reflecting interracial distrust, personal and political alienation, and a profound suspicion of others. In this powerful and eloquent essay, Danielle Allen, a 2002 MacArthur Fellow, takes this maxim back to Little Rock, rooting out the seeds of distrust to replace them with “a citizenship of political friendship.”

Returning to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and to the famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, being cursed by fellow “citizen” Hazel Bryan, Allen argues that we have yet to complete the transition to political friendship that this moment offered. By combining brief readings of philosophers and political theorists with personal reflections on race politics in Chicago, Allen proposes strikingly practical techniques of citizenship. These tools of political friendship, Allen contends, can help us become more trustworthy to others and overcome the fossilized distrust among us.

Sacrifice is the key concept that bridges citizenship and trust, according to Allen. She uncovers the ordinary, daily sacrifices citizens make to keep democracy working — and offers methods for recognizing and reciprocating those sacrifices. Trenchant, incisive, and ultimately hopeful, Talking to Strangers is nothing less than a manifesto for a revitalized democratic citizenry.

This title is unavailable through the Central Arkansas Library System.

Shana Chaplin, chief program officer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, recommended this book.

There is no question that the United States faces dangerous threats from without; the greatest peril to the country, however, comes from within. In The Bill of Obligations, bestselling author Richard Haass argues that, to solve our climate of division and safeguard our democracy, the very idea of citizenship must be revised and expanded. The Bill of Rights is at the center of our Constitution, yet the most intractable conflicts often emerge from cases that, as former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out, “are not about right versus wrong. They are about right versus right.”

There is a way forward: to place obligations on the same footing as rights. The ten obligations that Haass introduces here reenvision what it means to be an American citizen, to commit to our fellow citizens and counter the growing apathy, anger, and violence that threaten us all.

Through an expert blend of civics, history, and political analysis, this book illuminates how Americans across the political spectrum can rediscover how to contribute to and reshape this country’s future.

Janet Harris, executive director/CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, recommended this book.

From the author of Bowling Alone and Our Kids, a “sweeping yet remarkably accessible” (The Wall Street Journal) analysis that “offers superb, often counterintuitive insights” (The New York Times) to demonstrate how we have gone from an individualistic “I” society to a more communitarian “We” society and then back again, and how we can learn from that experience to become a stronger more unified nation.

Deep and accelerating inequality; unprecedented political polarization; vitriolic public discourse; a fraying social fabric; public and private narcissism — Americans today seem to agree on only one thing: This is the worst of times.

But we’ve been here before. During the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, America was highly individualistic, starkly unequal, fiercely polarized, and deeply fragmented, just as it is today. However as the twentieth century opened, America became — slowly, unevenly, but steadily — more egalitarian, more cooperative, more generous; a society on the upswing, more focused on our responsibilities to one another and less focused on our narrower self-interest. Sometime during the 1960s, however, these trends reversed, leaving us in today’s disarray.

In a “magnificent and visionary book” (The New Republic) drawing on his inimitable combination of statistical analysis and storytelling, Robert Putnam analyzes a remarkable confluence of trends that brought us from an “I” society to a “We” society and then back again. He draws on inspiring lessons for our time from an earlier era, when a dedicated group of reformers righted the ship, putting us on a path to becoming a society once again based on community. This is Putnam’s most “remarkable” (Science) work yet, a fitting capstone to a brilliant career.

Aaron Keith Kennard, program officer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, recommended this book.

“I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history,” Arthur Miller wrote of his classic play about the witch-hunts and trials in seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts. Based on historical people and real events, Miller’s drama is a searing portrait of a community engulfed by hysteria. In the rigid theocracy of Salem, rumors that women are practicing witchcraft galvanize the town’s most basic fears and suspicions; and when a young girl accuses Elizabeth Proctor of being a witch, self-righteous church leaders and townspeople insist that Elizabeth be brought to trial. The ruthlessness of the prosecutors and the eagerness of neighbor to testify against neighbor brilliantly illuminates the destructive power of socially sanctioned violence.

Written in 1953, The Crucible is a mirror Miller uses to reflect the anti-communist hysteria inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “witch-hunts” in the United States. Within the text itself, Miller contemplates the parallels, writing, “Political opposition… is given an inhumane overlay, which then justifies the abrogation of all normally applied customs of civilized behavior. A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence.”

Kimberly Bolin, program officer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, recommended this book.

From the host of the New York Times podcast Together Apart, an exciting new approach to how we gather that will transform the ways we spend our time together — at home, at work, in our communities, and beyond.

In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker argues that the gatherings in our lives are lackluster and unproductive — which they don’t have to be. We rely too much on routine and the conventions of gatherings when we should focus on distinctiveness and the people involved. At a time when coming together is more important than ever, Parker sets forth a human-centered approach to gathering that will help everyone create meaningful, memorable experiences, large and small, for work and for play.

Drawing on her expertise as a facilitator of high-powered gatherings around the world, Parker takes us inside events of all kinds to show what works, what doesn’t, and why. She investigates a wide array of gatherings — conferences, meetings, a courtroom, a flash-mob party, an Arab-Israeli summer camp — and explains how simple, specific changes can invigorate any group experience.

The result is a book that’s both journey and guide, full of exciting ideas with real-world applications. The Art of Gathering will forever alter the way you look at your next meeting, industry conference, dinner party, and backyard barbecue — and how you host and attend them.

Kimberly Bolin, program officer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, recommended this book.

From the bestselling author of A More Beautiful Question, hundreds of questions that harness the magic of inquiry to tackle challenges we all face at work, in our relationships, and beyond.

When we’re confronted with almost any demanding situation, the act of questioning can help guide us to smart decisions in the face of uncertainty. But the questions must be the right ones; the ones that cut to the heart of complexity or enable us to see an old problem in a fresh way.

In The Book of Beautiful Questions, expert “questionologist” Warren Berger shares illuminating stories and compelling research on the power of inquiry. Drawing from the insights and expertise of psychologists, innovators, effective leaders, and some of the world’s foremost creative thinkers, he presents the essential questions readers need to make the best choices when it truly counts, with a particular focus in four key areas: decision-making, creativity, leadership, and relationships.

The powerful questions in this book can help you:

– Identify opportunities in your career or industry
– Generate fresh ideas in business or in your own creative pursuits
– Check your biases so you can make better judgments and decisions
– Do a better job of communicating and connecting with the people around you

Thoughtful, provocative, and actionable, these beautiful questions can be applied immediately to bring about change in your work or your everyday life.


Join the Civic Arkansas Democracy Reading Challenge

Let us know which book you’re reading or what you’ve learned! We can also contact you about upcoming virtual book clubs hosted by organizations like the Clinton School of Public Service.

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Here are some discussion questions if you would like to start your own book club:

  1. In what ways did your understanding or perception of democracy evolve? 
  2. What was the most surprising thing you read about in the book? 
  3. Did the book spark any curiosity about a particular topic?
  4. Are there any actions that the book inspired you to pursue in your life? 

Contact Person

Alyssa Ghaleb

Program Officeraghaleb@rockefellerinstitute.org

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