Jonathan Alter

Books that illuminate turning points in our nation's history.



Columnist and Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter took on an unusual role in the media during the 1980s -- as Newsweek's media critic, he held his colleagues account in a way that was unusual for a national newsmagazine in the pre-Internet era.  In the 1990s he inaugurated regular political commentary for Newsweek in his column, and in 2006 published the bestselling The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.  His new book,  The Promise is a retrospective on the ambitious and tumultuous "Year One" of the Obama administration.  The wide-ranging author and journalist shared with us three reads that offer insight into American history, and the struggles we still face.


Books by Jonathan Alter




The Best and the Brightest

By David Halberstam


"I first read the late David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest when I was in high school and it exposed me to a world of political reporting, analysis, and storytelling that deeply influenced my own efforts. The book's description of how a bunch of over-educated and hubristic policymakers got us into the Vietnam War is a cautionary tale for our own time. But it's also just a great read on human fallibility and the limits of good intentions."




Five Days in Philadelphia

By Charles Peters


"Short works of history with short, simple sentences can often pack as much punch as longer tomes, as Charles Peters' Five Days in Philadelphia suggests. Peters explains how the 1940 Republican Convention, which nominated dark horse Wendell Willkie for president, changed history even though Willkie lost. Had the GOP nominated an isolationist instead of the interventionist Willkie that year, the United States would likely not have renewed the draft and thereby been totally unprepared for World War II. I love it when books like this can illuminate pivot points of history in a fun way."




Relentless Pursuit

By Donna Foote


"Donna Foote's Relentless Pursuit follows a group of teachers taking part in the Teach for America program at grim Locke High School in Los Angeles. Foote's book does more than take the reader inside the emotional ups and downs of today's most popular program for young college graduates. It illuminates the stakes involved in the education reform movement -- the lives of thousands of young people and the future of the country. What could be more important than that?"


April 18: "[W]ould it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament…?"

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.