Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee, with photos by Walker Evans (Mariner, $18). Reading this as a young newspaperman helped me shed much of my callow opportunism. Agee's feelings for his subjects are matched only by his awe of their humanity. The fact that it initially sold only a few hundred copies makes me feel better about those Treme ratings.
Two Nations by Andrew Hacker (Scribner, $19). In its quiet way, this slim, thoughtful 1992 volume from a careful political scientist demolishes the easy and indulgent notion that we are in any way, shape, or form living in a postracial America. A primer for anyone interested in honestly discussing our racial pathologies.
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (Mariner, $16). My nominee for the Great American Novel. Not because I want to argue down Huck Finn — I don't — but because Warren caught something so dark, hollow, and true in the populist affirmations that we Americans use to adorn ourselves and our works. Read it before every election cycle as a prophylactic.
Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills (Simon & Schuster, $17). A brilliant analysis of the moment when the 16th president dragged a flawed national experiment kicking and screaming to a moral summit. With one short speech, Lincoln stole the United States from the big-house gentry, the racists, and the strict constructionists. F--- 'em if they think they're ever getting it back.
Ball Four by Jim Bouton (Turner, $24). A sports book from The Wire guy? Bouton's diary of a season at the margins of pro baseball is a careful, penetrating assessment of an America caught between the interior truth of everyday life and the Disneyfied version of things that we are always selling and buying. Swear to God, Ball Four was the template for Homicide, my first book. Hey, throwing a knuckleball and solving a murder both require more nuance than you’d think.