Around the Institute

Our Favorite Books of 2015

December 22, 2015  • Aspen Institute Staff

From the Five Best Ideas of the Day to the Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn Book Series, Aspen Institute staffers enjoy a good read! With 2015 drawing to a close, we asked some of our colleagues to share their favorite books from the past year. Read below for their handpicked recommendations. 

Todd Breyfogle, director of Seminars

Meditations on Quixote” by José Ortega y Gasset (1914)

An extraordinary series of short, penetrating, yet accessible essays — Ortega’s first book and arguably the core of his thinking. The book is more than just a reflection on Quixote or on literature, it is an attempt — at once profound and playful — to come to terms with human experience in all its forms. One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in years, by someone who was present at the Goethe Bicentennial in Aspen in 1949 and instrumental in the conceptual founding of the Aspen Institute. I can’t believe I read it for the first time only this year.

Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy” by Irvin D. Yalom (1989) 

These are very thoughtful essays told by a noted therapist and riveting storyteller. Yalom reflects on the power of love and the power of our past in shaping our imaginations of the present. Yalom does not exempt himself from analysis, and his insight into how to ask questions that stimulate genuine reflection and conversation provides insight into the kind of dialogue we all need with ourselves and with one another.

Brown: The Last Discovery of America” by Richard Rodriguez (2002) 

A must-read for anyone concerned with the complexities of the construction of identity and the troubling incoherence of race in America. Rodriguez writes with intensity, perspicacity, and frankness about our present and our future — he remains arguably the greatest living American essayist.

In the Light of What We Know” by Zia Haider Rahman (2014)

A philosophical novel with a page-turning contemporary plot embracing the financial crisis of 2008, the rebuilding of Afghanistan, and the depths of love, friendship, and memory. This is an absorbing first novel that will make you think twice about what we know and what we love.


Adrienne Brodeur, creative director of Aspen Words

Fortune Smiles” by Adam Johnson (2015)

Just after Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Adam Johnson, agreed to speak about his new story collection, “Fortune Smiles,” at Winter Words, it won the National Book Award for Best Fiction, and for good reason! These six unnervingly dark stories are elegant, heartbreaking and somehow funny, even though they are wrenchingly sad. I put the book down feeling simultaneously exhilarated and rattled. As one character put it, “The most vital things we hide even from ourselves.” How true. 

Meryl Chertoff, executive director of the Justice and Society Program

The Blazing World” by Siri Hustvedt (2014) 

In this philosophical puzzler, a New York artist grapples with the ghost of her art dealer husband while engaging in an experiment designed to unmask the persistent sexism that permeates the art world. With three male artists as her successive co-conspirators, she achieves unprecedented recognition, and suffers unanticipated betrayal.

Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security” by Sarah Chayes (2015)

Based in part on her experience in Afghanistan, Chayes makes a persuasive case that corruption, rather than being a symptom of destabilization, is actually a driver of it globally.  


Just Like a River” by Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib” (2002)

Set in Damascus in 1984, this short novel employs the voices of multiple characters to tell the story of a courtship between a young scholar and the daughter of a military official. Through detailing their relationship, divisive societal issues—including the conflict between traditional Arab values and the rising college-educated, cosmopolitan youth cohort—are brought to light. 

Eric Liu, director of the Citizenship and American Identity Program

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” by Frederick Douglass (1845)

There are many reasons to re-acquaint yourself with this classic work. One is the Lincolnian lucidity of its prose, and vitality of Douglass’ voice. Another is how his narrative builds slowly, matter-of-factly, until suddenly it accumulates a force that can cut through all the hypocrisy and self-justification that still too often surround discussions of slavery today.

Consider this line, in which Douglass laments that his grandmother was treated with “base ingratitude” by her enslaver: “She had been the source of all his wealth; she had peopled his plantation with slaves; she had become a great grandmother in his service.” In this time when many American institutions are having to reckon with race and the deep unseen sources of their wealth and relative privilege, Douglass reminds us vividly why this question matters.

Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson (2004)

I had not read any of Robinson’s work until this summer, and now I am deep into my third novel of hers. This book is set in a fictional Iowa town and takes the form of rambling letters by a dying elderly minister to his young son. It is an entrancing epistolary meditation on faith, on the persistence of history, on the way individual character can be formed or deformed by accidents of circumstance, and on how Americans who so avidly chase individualism yearn deeply for collective meaning. The wisdom and plainspoken poetry of this book stay with you.

Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society” by John W. Gardner (1981)

This short 1981 classic by one the great citizens of late-20th century America is easily mistaken for a self-help book. It’s not. It’s a “selves-help” book: an elegant ethical guide for each of us in American life to be reminded how we are woven into a fabric of relationship and obligation; and yet to free ourselves from “manacles of custom” and to remember that each of us is capable of changing social norms and civic culture by our own example. “Each generation is presented with victories it did not win for itself,” Gardner writes. And the question, perpetually, is this: how do we earn it?  

Eric Motley, vice president and executive director of national programs

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Clive James

Clive James, Australian author, critic, broadcaster, poet, published two years ago his own masterful translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In a beautiful way James stays as true as one can to Dante’s terza rima (Dante’s meter-unit for the poem), translating into English iambic pentameter, which reads and sounds lovely to the ears. What makes James’ translation so beautiful and poignant is the awareness that while writing it he battled against cancer and a faltering marriage with wife and children. This is a work of reconciliation and self-awareness and the author finds himself up to the task.

Abigail Golden-Vasquez, executive director of the Latinos and Society Program

Enrique’s Journey” by Sonia Nazario (2007)

Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times series, this nonfiction novel details the journey of 17-year-old Enrique: a Honduran boy searching for his mother, who immigrated to the US when he was six years old. In detailing Enrique’s quest to reconnect with his mother—from hopping freight trains to surviving thugs and bandits — this book provides an intimate look at the power of family, as well as the reality of immigration in the twenty-first century. 

Thrive” by Ariana Huffington (2015)

What does it mean to be successful? This question lies at the crux of Ariana Huffington’s latest novel. In “Thrive,” Huffington examines the societal constructions of success — money and power — and explores whether these metrics are truly driving us forward, or merely holding us back. Through a combination of scientific research and personal anecdotes, Huffington suggests new methods for measuring “success,” both personally and professionally.

Latinos and the Nation’s Future” edited by Henry Cisneros (2009)

The influence of the Latino community in the United States is widespread, and continues to grow — the Census Bureau estimates that Latinos will make up 25 percent of the US population by 2050. “Latinos and the Nation’s Future” critically examines the impact of Latinos living in the states, and through a collection of essays, argues that the country’s future hinges on the US’s ability to improve opportunity and access for the burgeoning Latino community.