Nicholas Kristof, John Cassidy, David Finkel and Great Current Events Books

Wondering what to read to understand the problems facing the world? Last week’s Bernstein prize for journalists presented 5 must-reads on everything from women’s rights to the Iraq war to oil. Lucas Wittmann on why these books are essential.

With Newsweek on the shopping block, newspapers cutting staff and closing foreign bureaus, it seems a dismal time for journalists everywhere. But last week a few of journalism’s brightest stars gathered at the New York Public Library for the annual ritual of the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism. While David Finker won the prize for The Good Soldiers, the nominated books represented an amazing range of work on important issues ranging from oil exploitation to women’s rights to the financial crisis, and demonstrated the important role that insightful, incisive, and well-researched books still play in helping us understand our complicated, messy world. Any reader would be well advised to pick up one of these five—or all five—to get a better sense of what’s happening.

Here is a quick rundown of the books nominated—and why they’re worth reading:

The Good Soldiers By David Finkel

While Washington bickered over the merits of George W. Bush’s surge, David Finkel headed off to Iraq for The Washington Post to see what was actually happening there. The result is one of the most compelling books on war since Michael Herr’s Dispatches. There is no better example of why great journalists matter than to be taken into Finkel’s devastating, harrowing, and moving account of one battalion’s efforts to turn the tide in their bloody section of Baghdad. It takes spirit and an admittedly slightly perverse sense of self-preservation to do what he did and insert yourself into the middle of a war, but as he spoke on Tuesday night it was clear that he did it for the soldiers as much as for us readers.

How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities By John Cassidy

Months after its release and the publication of another thousand or so titles on the financial crisis, New Yorker writer John Cassidy’s pointed deconstruction of our wayward free-market ideology is the most intellectually sophisticated account of what went wrong. Others may still hold tight to the market gods of Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan, but after reading Cassidy’s book they resemble nothing so much as punctured balloons on the floor. Eschewing breathless accounts of closed-door meetings, How Markets Fail gets that we weren’t just dealing in subprime mortgages but also in subprime economics.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide By Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof

I can’t think of another book this year that tackled half the world, literally, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife and co-author Sheryl WuDunn did in their Half the Sky. In fact, at The Daily Beast it inspired us to take action about how to improve political, economic, and educational opportunities for women worldwide by launching The Daily Beast Women in the World conference this past March. Is there any higher praise than that for a book?

Crude World: The Violent Twilight of OilBy Peter Maass

And then there are those complex subjects that are so hard do dramatize. Over the last two weeks we’ve watched the largest oil spill in U.S. history slowly metastasize through the Gulf. Many of us were shocked by the devastation but anyone who has read Peter Maass’ superbly terrifying account of oil, Crude World, will know that Ecuador and Nigeria have been experiencing something similar year after year. Our world runs on oil and Maass’ book is the guide to our awful addiction—and hopefully a spur to greater control. If you saw the 60 Minutes expose on Sunday night, you’ll know the urgency of reform.

Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty By Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman

If you thought oil was hard to grasp, try figuring out the amazing economic, political, geographic, and scientific complexities around solving world hunger. Then read Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman’s powerful book to realize that it’s actually quite simple: there’s enough to go around. They take the simple yet astounding story of why America ships beans to Africa instead of having Africans produce their own beans to illustrate the perverse system of dependency that our agricultural policies sustain. Hard to imagine such a hard, challenging subject being made as riveting as it is in this damning account of how misguided so many of our international aid and hunger policies are.

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Lucas Wittmann is the Books Editor at The Daily Beast.