Dissonance: My Top Books in 2018

Books That Moved Me and Made Me Think

Danielle Lee Tomson
5 min readJan 1, 2019
Some books on my shelf. Despite it being the fiction section, somehow Grace Lee Boggs got improperly placed there. But the colors look good…

Much of my thinking this past year was punctuated by dissonance. How do these two things possibly go together? A great question for a year like 2018.

As a burgeoning tradition, my 2018 reading list gives some insight into the sense of dissonance (no, not David Stark’s book) that I was feeling last year. The diversity of books might make you ponder if I have self-induced schizophrenic reading habits — it made me think so. In addition to works on populism and technology (which I study), I read more fiction than I usually do. This is probably because of some need for escapism that I typically do not require, given a challenging year for work, academia, and health. I read probably 2–3 books a week during “school months” so these ones, I guarantee, are the cream of the crop in terms of style, ideas, story, and impact on my thinking.

Presented in alphabetical order by last name…

Naomi Alderman’s The Power: I like thinking about counterfactuals and this book is full of them. What if women had a monopoly on physical force, strength, and power? How would it change society? This book had me thinking about how seemingly small adjustments have massive impact on politics, business, government, sexuality, and the underworld. A fantastic piece of sci-fi.

James Carey’s Communication as Culture: While I read Carey’s work in my first semester of my PhD, I didn’t really appreciate it until recently. Thinking about the modalities in which we communicate in bigger strokes, of the transmission versus ritual approach. Transmission is common to us — sending messages, transmitting information, imparting. Ritual is increasingly lost and discovered, a desire for communion, fellowship, community. Think prayer. Yet is watching the news just transmission? No — its something more of a common social ritual, a drama of the highest sort we share with each other. These ideas are so simple, but once applied, they hold greater, almost religious meaning. I didn’t appreciate the subtlety and simplicity of a good theory until this year I think.

Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump: This is the ultimate take down of shallow identity politics on the Left, written by a left-wing, Muslim labor organizer and PhD Candidate at UC Santa Cruz. While anti-identity politics folks love to lap up Mark Lilla, Professor Lilla just repeats the same old, worn-out, tired critiques of identity politics that motivate no one to change their behavior and instead just incentivizes arm-chair intellectuals to keep on complaining to the same tune of the past 30 years. Haider’s critique is constructive, fierce, and unapologetic — while at the same time deeply empathetic as to why such a politics exists. It gives real reason to organizers, progressives, and the average Jane on why to abandon these politics which have been perverted, distorted, and abused by the Democratic and Left establishment (to say nothing of the Right) to essentially de-fang real attempts at reorganizing power. Props to Ittai and Jason for pointing this one out to me.

Michel Houellebecq’s Submission: I often wonder, in today’s politics and art, who is trolling who? Who is sincere in their beliefs and who is just doing it to make a point? Houellebecq’s book has been received both as an earnest warning of the impact Islamic immigration could have on Europe, but also as a satire about extremism. This book was a great read, but also vexed me. I think Houellebecq is a true believing troll with a penchant for sex.

Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present: Intellectual History was never so attractive as in Mishra’s book on a History of Anger. He sets up two archetypes: Rousseau, the privileged yet poor self-hating philosopher who fancied some kind of halcyon nostalgia for humble traditional plebian life, and Voltaire, the cosmopolitan monarchist who believed in amour propre as the guiding instrument of societal preservation — a sort of Ayn Rand with fancier clothes and better parties. Both wanted to reform societies and saw change a coming, but responded in different ways. A sort of nationalist-populist versus capitalist neocon problem. Taking these two sentiments, he applies them throughout modern history. LUSCIOUS BOOK.

Malka Older’s Infomocracy: What if Google and the UN merged and had a baby, and the nation-state dissolved into several thousand person districts that voted global party organizations using this Google/UN platform as both voting booth and information source? This sci-fi thriller written by a PhD Candidate and humanitarian disaster expert, Infomocracy and its other two books in the trilogy offer an alternative version of global self-governance that is technologically enhanced, but includes katana battles (cuz guns have been made null from magnetic technologies that disable firearms), sexy love scenes, and punk rock settings in foreign locales. Scrumptious and just the kind of constructive escapism I needed this year.

William Strauss and Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning: There is no better book to understanding American nationalist-populism from the eyes of Steve Bannon than this one. Cyclical and generational theories of history don’t fly with me typically — I can make a lot of convincing arguments about my personality and blame them on my astrological sign, for instance. But correlation isn’t causation. That said, this book lays out a theory of “turnings” in time and how various moments of crisis and peace in history impact generations. It reads like books on personality types — its always exciting to see how someone diagnoses your personality based on when or where you were born. Whether you believe it or not, it is prophecy for some who have power and that is enough reason to read it.

Honorable mentions go out to a rereading of Saul Alinsky and Marcus Aurelius, John Judis, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jonathan Haidt, and Clarissa Pinkola Estés (who’s book Women Who Run With the Wolves I still haven’t finished). Always Susan Sontag.

A blessed 2019 to all!

xo Danielle



Danielle Lee Tomson

Personal Musings of a Scholar and Strategist Navigating Propaganda, Tech, and Power