RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Black, White, Read All Over

An email from a pal remarks that she's feeling more harried than ever -- too much to do, too little fun. I reply that at our house we're spending w-a-a-a-y too much time with the news. Sundays, which used to be pleasant in a do-nothing sort of way, now begin at Meet the Press and end with Sixty Minutes, with a bunch of newspapers and magazines in between.

The news reports have a kind of rhythm that goes like this: Story, Speculation, Recap, Speculation, Story, Speculation, and so forth. Most news repeat what we already know or don't know, but we can't stand to miss the latest horrors. Photos from our side or theirs, interviews with perplexed parents and confused leaders, blood, violence, grief.

But it's summer time! Our yearly chance for renewal and growth. So turn off the TV, pull the book bag out of the closet, and camp out in the backyard, the deck or the park. It's time for the summer reading list.

There are a number of new lefty books with insight into the political situation -- by John Dean, Bob Woodward, Richard Clarke and others. These expensive hardcovers add intriguing insider tidbits and chatty insight to the news coverage. Marvelous day-at-the-pool reads, their narratives tolerate interruptions from the kids or a nap, but reading them doesn't necessarily expand our understanding of the context.

The current political situation is so complex that it's easy to get lost in the jungle of specialized lingo and mysterious geography, but there's a great little series of pocket books to help you understand a complicated issue in an afternoon. The "No-Nonsense" guides come from New Internationalist Publications. Titles range from The Arms Trade to Climate Change to Sexual Diversity. I started with Fair Trade. In 136 pages, David Ransom covered the history of coffee farming, cocoa traders, organic and non-organic bananas, and blue jeans, all trade items that can create income for producers or enslave them. And don't forget that all these items come to us on a transportation sea of oil.

And, speaking of oil, what's the price of oil? I'm not talking about dollars, but the price in terms of our boys' lives? Pick up Jarhead by Anthony Swofford for some insight on the first Gulf War and the roles of Bush I, Cheney "and the commander's progeny." This is a great read from a very literate and smart Marine who served in Desert Storm. It's not family fare, so let's just say that if Bush II, Rummie, and Ashcroft had read it they'd be unsurprised by the pictures from Abu Ghraib. According to Swofford, Iraq is a place where grunts endure long days by the grace of porno magazines and Vietnam flicks, and a football game for the press can become group sex at a moment's notice.

Bush II and the boys haven't read Jarhead because they were busy with Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the US Marines by David H. Freedman and Charles C. Krulak, who describe the Marine Corps as the most successful enterprise in the world, with lessons to share with your -- that's right, your -- business! I picked this up because I thought the 30 lessons might teach something about organization, a skill we need on the left. So, okay, the lessons make a fine framework. They're things like: Encourage people at the lowest levels to make decisions necessary to accomplish the missions when guidance isn't available. Or: Decide quickly on an imperfect plan rather than waste time considering every angle and rolling out the perfect plan when it's too late. Read it, but remember that, after Jarhead, Corps Business reads like Cinderella.

As I read books for this column, I had the feeling that some kind of management book would be valuable to prepare us for the big events in November. As I was casting about, a friend recommended What Happy People Know by Dan Baker, Director of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch, the swanky spa where rich and famous go to get untangled. The book gets kind of squishy and the stories of businessmen giving up six-figure jobs to spend more time with family seem just too convenient, but Baker's basic science makes so much sense I can't let it go. According to his work, the brain has set up a fear versus happiness dichotomy that we can use if we understand it. So read it and see if you don't start telling your friends, "when you take the path of the intellect and spirit, you naturally begin to focus on your strengths" or "Choice is the father of freedom and the voice of the heart."

Still, we know that the key to success in November is going to be organization, so, if we've never organized anyone before we need some tools. Pack Doing Democracy by Bill Moyer in the book bag. Developed after years of observing nonviolent grassroots groups developing their messages and gathering strength, Moyer's theories help readers discover where the life of our issues is going and how we're bringing power from the elite to the people.

So there you go -- a list for the library or the bookstore. And when you're done, write a nice note in the front and pass them on.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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