10 Books on Connection, Human Nature, and Building Trust

Each year, I put together a summer reading list to share with colleagues. I hope it inspires your summer reading list, your next book club pick, or maybe even a gift for the reader in your life. In this year’s list, we made an effort to represent a broader range of fiction and nonfiction genres, and we pulled the recommendations from a variety of sources including award winners and best-of lists as well as NAIS staff favorites. Somewhat organically, the books fell into categories that felt meaningful as I reflected on our moment in time. 

One of the biggest challenges we face is the divide in our school communities. We’ve included book titles that can help us understand the underlying drivers of polarization and rebuild trust. Other books included in this list offer us a deeper understanding of our country and history and how people experience it differently. Many of the general interest books garnering praise this year focus on the captivating elements of nature and human nature.

Some of the leadership books that bubbled to the surface focus on the very human aspects of leadership––the importance of connection, grounding, and giving grace to each other and to ourselves during times of continued uncertainty.

Here are some of books on this year's list, and summaries from Amazon.com. I hope you pick them up and enjoy.

The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki
The author shares cutting-edge research, including experiments from his own lab, showing that empathy is not a fixed trait but rather a skill that can be strengthened through effort. He also tells the stories of people who embody this new perspective, fighting for kindness in the most difficult of circumstances.

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell
The key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language. In both positive ways and shadowy ones, cultish language is something we hear—and are influenced by—every single day. Through juicy storytelling and cutting-edge original research, Montell exposes the verbal elements that make a wide spectrum of communities “cultish.”

The Power of Trust: How Companies Build It, Lose It, Regain It by Sandra J. Sucher and Shalene Gupta
Sucher and Gupta provide an exploration of the changing nature of trust and how to bridge the gap from where you are to where you need to be. Trust is the most powerful force underlying the success of every business. Yet it can be shattered in an instant, with a devastating impact. Understanding how to build and sustain trust requires fresh insight into why customers, employees, community members, and investors decide whether an organization can be trusted.

The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation by Anna Malaika Tubbs
King, Malcolm X, and Baldwin, three men of one generation who changed history, each acknowledged their debts to their mothers as influences crucial to their paths. And yet these mothers—Alberta, Louise, and Berdis—like so many Black women throughout history, have until now remained largely unknown and unacknowledged. Who were these unsung Black mothers? What were their own journeys and what were the lessons they taught?

Beautiful Country: A Memoir by Qian Julie Wang
In Chinese, the word for America, Mei Guo, translates directly to “beautiful country.” Yet when seven-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994 full of curiosity, she is overwhelmed by crushing fear and scarcity. Hers is an essential American story about a family fracturing under the weight of invisibility and a girl coming of age in the shadows, who never stops seeking the light.

One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965 
by Jia Lynn Yang

The idea of the United States as a nation of immigrants is at the core of the American narrative. But in 1924, Congress instituted a system of stringent ethnic quotas that choked off large-scale immigration for decades. In a narrative filled with a fascinating cast of characters and framed by the story of her own family’s immigration to America, Yang recounts how lawmakers, activists, and presidents worked relentlessly to abolish the 1924 law and establish a new principle of equality in the American immigration system. Their crowning achievement, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, proved to be one of the most transformative laws in the country’s history.

Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City by Andrea Elliott
Elliott weaves the story of Dasani and her childhood, spent in a Brooklyn shelter, with the history of her ancestors, tracing their passage from slavery to the Great Migration north. Dasani must guide her siblings through a world riddled by hunger, violence, racism, drug addiction, and the threat of foster care. When she finally escapes city life to enroll in a boarding school, she faces an impossible question: What if leaving poverty means abandoning your family, and yourself?

The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease
by Daisy Hernández

When Hernández was a child, her aunt traveled from Colombia to the U.S. in search of a cure for the mysterious illness that she later learned was Chagas disease. Transmitted by “kissing bugs” that carry the parasite that causes it, Chagas sickens hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S., many of whom are poor immigrants from Latin America. Hernández traces the history of Chagas, offering an empathetic look into the intersections of poverty, racism, and the U.S. health care system.

The Night Watchman: A Novel by Louise Erdrich
Based on the life of Erdrich’s grandfather, who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., this novel explores themes of love and death with lightness and gravity. The author creates a fictional world populated with memorable characters who are forced to grapple with the worst and best impulses of human nature.

The Lincoln Highway: A Novel by Amor Towles
In this epic journey across America set in the 1950s, Emmett Watson is driven home to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile work farm where he has just served 15 months for involuntary manslaughter. His mother long gone, his father recently deceased, and the family farm foreclosed upon by the bank, Emmett’s intention is to pick up his brother and head to California where they can start their lives anew. But Emmett discovers that two friends from the work farm have hidden themselves in the trunk of the warden’s car. Together, they will take a fateful journey in the opposite direction—to New York City.

I know our NAIS leadership ranks are full of voracious readers and curious minds. I’d love to hear what you are reading as well. Please post your recommendations in the NAIS Connect online communities, or leave a comment below.

Looking Ahead

NAIS President Donna Orem writes Looking Ahead, a monthly email designed to help heads of school make sense of major issues that will affect independent schools in the near future. Each edition includes a PowerPoint that heads can share with staff, faculty, and/or boards of trustees. PowerPoints are available to all NAIS member schools.

In this month's issue of Looking Ahead, find more reading recommendations for your summer book list.
Donna Orem
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.


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