To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Grand Central, $8). As a kid, I was in awe of Atticus Finch, Lee's country lawyer, who defends an innocent black man against bogus rape charges. What I admired most was how Atticus defends his black client's truth against the white power structure of the time. Inspired by Atticus, I started my career as a civil rights lawyer, and to this day, I try hard to speak truth to power and stand up for people who need a voice.
Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris (Random House, $18). I wanted to be Atticus Finch as a kid, but when I grew up, I wanted to be Teddy Roosevelt. He had that fierce, independent populist streak that is so missing these days in our political leadership. He supported business, but he also brought down the big trusts when he saw the threat they posed to the rest of the nation.
13 Bankers by Simon Johnson and James Kwak (Vintage, $16). These next four are some of the best books about the financial crisis (after mine, of course). Powerfully written, 13 Bankers puts the 2008 crisis in historical context. Unfortunately, we've been struggling to keep the banking system in check since the days of Jefferson. And it's still not getting fixed.
Reckless Endangerment by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner (St. Martin's, $16). This book shows how mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac used their financial clout and implicit government backing to take outsized risks, capturing not only politicians and regulators with their largesse, but also academics, community groups, and the media.
All the Devils Are Here by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera (Portfolio, $17). McLean and Nocera show just how badly our "self-correcting" markets and government fell down on the job. There are plenty of devils to blame for the 2008 debacle.
Fool's Gold by Gillian Tett (Free Press, $16). A more technical book, Fool's Gold is best at explaining credit default swaps, essentially a form of insurance that gave banks a false sense that they were protected against losses on their mortgage investments.