Here's a list of books I like (or, uh, liked. I posted this list in 2003 or so, on a blog on another site that I had at the time).
Matthew Arnold--Culture and Anarchy, 1869.
Classic essay about the relationship between politics and culture from a man better known these days for 'Dover Beach,' which appears in many a poetry anthology.
Thorstein Veblen--The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1934.
One of the first Americans to write about conspicuous consumption like it's a bad thing.
George Orwell--Politics and the English Language, 1946.
Yeah, everybody knows about some of his other works. Now that you're not twelve, this one's better.
C. Wright Mills--The Power Elite, 1956.
Mills thought that the military, big business and government run things. He makes a good argument.
Vance Packard--The Hidden Persuaders, 1957.
Cited by all sorts of people, this is a seminal look at the inherently deceptive nature of advertising.
Michael Harrington--The Other America, 1962.
Harrington sees the 'invisible' poverty in this land of milk and honey. A big influence in the thinking behind social programs in this country.
Eric Hoffer--The True Believer, 1963.
Eminent sociologist writes about cults, mass movements, and the kind of people that go in for that sort of thing.
Jessica Mitford--The American Way of Death, 1963, Kind and Usual Punishment, 1973.
One of my favorite muckrakers takes on the funeral business, and the prison business. She also wrote the excellent 'American Way of Birth.'
Marshall McLuhan--Understanding Media, 1964.
Out of fashion for a while; now, in this age of global computer networks, very much back in.
Studs Terkel--Working, 1972; American Dreams, Lost and Found, 1980.
Superstar journalist (and hero of mine) talks to the person-on-the-street.
Eugene Gans--Popular Culture and High Culture, 1974.
A little dry, but an acknowledged classic on the subject.
Neil Postman--Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, 1976.
The author of the more-famous-these-days 'Amusing Ourselves to Death' examines the misuse of language, intentional and otherwise.
Paul Fussell--Class, 1983.
Probably the funniest (nonfiction) book ever written about social class in the U.S.
James Gleick--Chaos, 1987; Faster, 1999.
One of my favorite science writers on chaos theory, and the increasing pace of everything.
Timothy Ferris--Coming of Age in the Milky Way, 1988.
Wonderful overview of the history of astronomy and cosmology.
Mark Hertsgaard--On Bended Knee, 1988.
Scathing indictment of the way the press treated Reagan. He's also written memorably on nuclear energy, and just published 'The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World.' Mostly good reviews, but I haven't read it.
Paul Slansky--The Clothes Have No Emperor, 1989.
Hilarious look at the U.S. during the Reagan era, from someone who spent years working on Esquire's Dubious Achievement Awards.
Michael J. Weiss--The Clustering of America, 1989.
Demographics, zip codes, target marketing. A nice thing to read before reading 'Database Nation,' later on this list. Weiss also published 'This Clustered World,' on the same topics, in 2000, but I haven't read it.
Howard Zinn--Declarations of Independence, 1990.
Everybody loves 'A People's History of the United States,' but I think this is the better book.
Mike Davis--City of Quartz, 1990; Ecology of Fear, 1998.
Both about Los Angeles, but also very much about urban studies in general.
Susan Faludi--Backlash, 1991; Stiffed, 1999.
'Backlash' gets all the props, but, personally, I think 'Stiffed' might be the stronger of the two.
James Twitchell--Carnival Culture, 1992; Adcult USA, 1996.
I'd recommend the earlier one--he's no longer the outsider that he used to be. For evidence of that, check out his 2001 'Twenty Ads that Shook the World.' 'Living it Up' and 'Lead Us into Temptation,' by contrast, are both worth reading.
Henry Will--In Defense of Elitism, 1994.
Occasionally-infuriating call for a return to standards. You could lump him in with Dinesh DiSouza, Harold Bloom and others of that ilk, but probably shouldn't.
Douglas Rushkoff--Coercion, 1999; Media Virus, 1994.
A little breathless at times, but a very perceptive observer of our technology culture, and one of my favorite writers.
Walter Kendrick--The Secret Museum, 1995.
The best book i've ever read about the history of pornography in Western culture.
Nadine Strossen--Defending Pornography, 1995.
ACLU leader makes excellent arguments against Dworkin/MacKinnonites and other crusaders.
Susan J. Douglas--Where the Girls Are, 1995.
Boomer-y, but very readable look at gender and pop culture.
Laura Kipnis--Bound and Gagged, 1996.
Very accessible look at the aesthetics and politics of pornography.
Jeffrey Toobin--The Run of His Life, 1996.
I couldn't resist including an O.J. book. By far the best one, unless you prefer the indignant tone of Vincent 'Helter Skelter' Bugliosi's 'Outrage.'
Richard Zacks--An Underground Education, 1997.
Nice broad survey of repressed and forgotten history. Kind of like what the 'People's Almanac' people would have written if they were bigger liberals, and not so fond of lists.
Ian Grey--Sex, Stupidity and Greed, 1997.
Essays that attempts to explain just why so many movies are so bad. 'Bodies of Subversion,' also from former RE/Search publisher Andrea Juno, about women and tattoos, is also very good.
Thomas Frank--The Conquest of Cool 1997; Commodify your Dissent, 1997.
The latter title is an anthology from The Baffler. Frank's 'One Market Under God' is also excellent.
Joe Queenan--Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon, 1998.
Cynical critic spends a year taking in the worst that American popular culture has to offer.
Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, 1998.
A nice complement to more scholarly art history.
Neal Stephenson--In the Beginning was the Command Line, 1999.
If it weren't for my no-fiction decision, I'd also include 'Cryptonomicon.'
Simson Garfinkel--Database Nation, 2000.
Frightening look at privacy in a digital age. Might even make you think about those doubleclick cookies.
Mark Prendergast--The Ambient Century, 2000.
Small factual errors take away from it, but this sweeping attempt to connect modern musical forms still impresses.
Daniel Harris--Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic, 2000.
Angry look at the aesthetics of consumerism and 'the lies we tell ourselves to preserve our individuality.'
David Brooks--Bobos in Paradise, 2001.
Bourgeois Bohemians, the new elite? Not nearly as good as many of these other titles, but intermittently funny, topical and rather popular, in a 'The Tipping Point' kind of way.
John Seabrook--Nobrow, 2001.
Not great, but quite entertaining. And I love the subtitle: the culture of marketing, the marketing of culture.
Eric Nuzum--Parental Advisory, 2001.
Concise history of music censorship in the U.S., from a WKSU
Eric Schlosser--Fast-Food Nation, 2001.
Gets compared to Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle,' and justifiably so.