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Summer Reading

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
June 24, 2022

In previous columns I reviewed books that might not be on public administration reading lists and that offered alternative, sometimes competing, perspectives. I’ve found that almost any book can provide lessons to public administrators. Once I even found myself highlighting a section of a Tony Hillerman mystery that described governmental actions.

In the summer, libraries issue reading challenges for both adults and children. So this column also is a reading challenge. I suggest several books from my bookshelf to consider for your summer reading. Most of these were published at least 20 years ago; one was published in 1899. Yet their stories and lessons are enduring. Though not written for public administration, I challenge you to find lessons in them—or in the book you select for your “beach read.” 


Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad, 1899) tells the story of a sailor’s journey up the Congo River to meet a man reputed to be an idealistic man. It explores imperialism, as well the hatred and fear that live in the hearts of humans. It is an interesting examination of the role of government versus individuals in creating culture. I read this twenty years ago; it bears re-reading.

Bell for Adano (John Hersey, 1944) is the story of an Italian-American officer in Sicily during World War II who wins the respect and admiration of the people of the town of Adano by helping them find a replacement for the town bell that the Fascists had melted down for rifle barrels. During his time in the town, he confronts authority, risking his position and career in support of the peoples’ interests.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 1960) is considered the most-read book in the United States, and you have no doubt read it and also watched the movie. This time, read it for public administration lessons. What was the role of government? Of the justice system? Of the community? What role did community play in the outcome? Mockingbird focuses on racial injustice and the destruction of innocence, as well as the issues of class, courage and compassion

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (Helen Simonson, 2010) follows the retired Major Ernest Pettigrew, who befriends a Pakistani shopkeeper in town. The novel touches on the intersections between national identity, race, racism, culture and institutions of marriage.


Civility by Stephen Carter was published in 1998 yet its message is as relevant today as it was more than two decades ago. Carter argues that civility disintegrates when we forget the obligations we owe to each other. Drawing on law, theology and psychology, he writes that the true test of civility is whether we work for the common good rather than for our individual desires.

Scuttle Your Ships Before Advancing (Richard Luecke, 1994) is a wonderful book for history buffs, offering lessons from 117 C.E to the 20th century. The title comes from Cortes’ command to scuttle the ships after he landed at what is now Mexico because “an army that lacked an escape route would fight with the courage of despair.” Luecke describes what can be learned from leaders who faced memorable crises, and either succeeded or failed.

The Road to Character (David Brooks, 2015) argues that today’s ever-increasing obsession with the self is eclipsing moral virtues and our ability to build character. Through the stories of individuals, he urges us to develop our “eulogy virtues,” the values that exist “at the core of our being” rather than our “resume virtues.” He argues that challenges and hardships can offer us more opportunities for growth than constant success and promotion.

Just about anything by Robert Fulghum. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (1986) is, as the subtitle notes, “uncommon thoughts on common things.” It’s a wonderful way to think about how we live and the decisions we make. It Was on Fire When I Lay Down On It (1989) examines why we do things, even when they seem unreasonable or even dangerous. Uh-Oh: Some Observations from Both Sides of the Refrigerator Door (1993) explores our reactions when something goes wrong. All these books are collections of short anecdotes. It’s easy to read a chapter, then consider what this might mean to you as an individual and a professional.

And, just about anything by M. Scott Peck. A World Waiting to be Born (1993) is a good companion to Carter’s book. It also considers how we have become uncivil and what we need to do to change this. The Different Drum (1987) explores the nature of community and how it is created and maintained. In these and other books, including The Road Less Traveled (1978) and People of the Lie (1983) Peck draws on experiences from his private psychiatric practice.

There are other books I might recommend and, no doubt, books which you would recommend for summer reading. Summer allows us to take time from our daily routines, and to escape into a book. Good reading!

Author: Susan Paddock is a Professor Emerita from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an interest in public leadership and in state and local government. She lives in Las Vegas and can be reached at [email protected] or at Twitter at @spaddock1030. Do you have a book that is not included in traditional public administration reading lists, but which holds important lessons?  Please share that via email.

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