The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (Ballantine, $8). This book set me on a path that I'm still walking today. I love how it describes Malcolm X's continuous growth as a person: from poor black kid, to foster care, to street thug, to Black Nationalist, to Muslim, to humanitarian. Everyone can learn from it.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (Vintage, $17). Wilkerson chronicles the journey of countless African-Americans, including my own family, who left the Jim Crow South in search of a better life up north. They were searching for their version of the American dream — just like anyone traveling across the Rio Grande, the Atlantic, or the Pacific.
Deer Hunting With Jesus by Joe Bageant (Broadway, $15). A fascinating explanation of the cultural and historical reasons why some working-class people, particularly in the South, vote in ways that seem contrary to their economic interests. Bageant, a native of Winchester, Va., also offers insights into how a bridge of understanding might be built and crossed.
Who Stole the American Dream? by Hedrick Smith (Random House, $18). Smith's book details the steady erosion of a reliable path toward economic security for the majority of Americans and shows how to rebuild the American middle class. A simply awesome work.
Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (Penguin, $16). The amazing story of a free New Yorker who was tricked, drugged, and kidnapped into slavery in Louisiana. Northup's gripping account also describes his effort to hold his kidnappers accountable even though a law prohibited blacks from testifying in court against white people.
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster, $21). It's impossible to understand modern America without understanding the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln held America together while transforming from a tepid critic of slavery's expansion into the nation's foremost abolitionist revolutionary. Goodwin captures Lincoln's vulnerabilities, patience, intelligence, and amazing will.
— The first Muslim elected to Congress, Minnesota's Keith Ellison is now serving his fourth term in Washington. His new book, My Country, 'Tis of Thee, describes his conversion from Catholicism and outlines his vision for a better America.