Eric Liu, author and civic entrepreneur, teaches at the University of Washington and writes for TIME.com. A former speechwriter for President Clinton, Liu is the founder of the Guiding Lights Network, and an avid reader who served for ten years on the Seattle Public Library Board of Trustees.
Val Easton: Is there a political or civic book you hope every American would read?
Eric Liu: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. The author is a psychologist who unpacks the moral foundation of people’s political beliefs.
VE: Will it help me be more tolerant of the other side in this election?
VE: What have you been reading lately to get you through election season?
EL: I’m not in need of distraction, I’ve been enjoying it. But I’ve been reading, for the first time, A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens. My daughter and I are reading it together, at the suggestion of her middle school language arts teacher. I’m only five chapters in, and finding it relevant to the turbulence and severe inequalities of our time.
VE: What’s the most powerful passage you’ve read from a book?
EL: I can’t recite them from memory, but I return to chunks of text from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, which is a book of essays on race. I find where I’ve folded down corners of pages and made notes in the margins. Same with W. E. B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folks, with its insights on citizenship, race and identity.
VE: Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?
EL: Robert Caro’s Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. This new one in Caro’s multi-volume biography is about the period from Kennedy’s assassination through LBJ’s transition to the presidency. It’s great storytelling about the nature of power.
VE: Do you buy books, get them from the library, download them?
EL: I’m more likely to buy books. I’m surrounded by books; I love owning them, marking them up, pulling them off the shelves, finding passages I’ve underscored and notes I’ve made in the margins.
VE: Why did you serve on the library board for a decade if you aren’t much of a library user?
EL: Libraries are personally important to me as an author and reader. When my mother, an immigrant from China and Taiwan, came to this country she worked in a library where she learned and absorbed a new culture. Public libraries are one of the most important institutions in a democracy.
VE: What books did you cherish most when you were a kid?
EL: I was a giant Star Trek fan and read every iteration of Star Trek stuff I could find, from novels to comic books. The Star Trek Technical Manual had blueprints of everything, uniforms and space ships. That book shaped my vision and imagination, showed me you can create whole worlds out of ideas.
VE: Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt read again?
EL: Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is a well-crafted epic, a perfect symphony about the immigrant experience, assimilation, the curdling of dreams in America.
VE: Do you read poetry? Any favorite poets?
EL: I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I love Book of My Nights by the Chinese American poet Li-Young Lee. It’s a mesmerizing, dream-like collection about migration and family.
VE: What book do you plan to read next?
EL: I’m finally getting to Jane Jacobs’s The Death and the Life of Great American Cities. It’s a critique of urban planning she wrote 50 years ago, about the vitality of neighborhoods and cities, what makes them thrive.