10 Must-Read Books on Urban History, Monopoly, Inequality, and Tech

Alec MacGillis is a senior reporter for ProPublica and the recipient of the George Polk Award, the Robin Toner prize, and other honors. His new book (featured on NPR’s Fresh Air) and audiobook Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America investigates Amazon’s impact on the wealth and poverty of towns and cities across the United States. Here, he shares his top books that have informed his work.

My new book, Fulfillment, covers a lot of ground: inequality, urban history, the tech industry, monopoly, warehouse work, and steel manufacturing, among other subjects. The upside of this, though, was that I had an excuse to read broadly in all sorts of different areas.

Fulfillment is a mind-bogglingly thorough book, a hybrid of urban history, reportage, profile and research on people and places that have been impacted by [Amazon].”

Elizabeth Greenwood, San Francisco Chronicle

Here are some of the most compelling of the many books of relevance to my work:


The classic text on American monopoly. Tarbell, one of the original muckrakers, watched her father and other small oil producers being crushed by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Then she got to work.

A worthy successor to Ida Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company. Stoller carries the story of the battle against monopoly through the political history of the 20th century, showing how both parties—very much including the Democrats—lost the thread.

Believe it or not, Seattle was home to a thriving Black neighborhood, the Central District. The musical scene alone: Ernestine Anderson, Quincy Jones, Hendrix…

Taylor tells this story, starting deep in the 19th century.

How did a swath of farmland in the place once known as the Santa Clara Valley transform into the global center of tech innovation and a landscape of dystopian inequality? O’Mara delivers the definitive history of Silicon Valley. 

What is the Internet, really? What does it look like? Blum takes you through the physical landscape of the Internet: the massive data centers, the trans-Atlantic cables, the “series of tubes,” in the immortal words of Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Long before everyone realized that Amazon warehouses were taking over America, Bruder captured the subculture that was helping populate them: the “CamperForce” of economically marginal semi-retirees. Now a major motion picture.

Years after Barbara Ehrenreich gave her first-hand accounts of low-wage work in Nickel and Dimed, Guendelsberger showed what such work looks like in our time, including weeks of numbing labor at an Amazon warehouse.

Making Steel

By Mark Reutter

The definitive history of Sparrows Point, the peninsula outside Baltimore that became home to the largest steel plant in the world and the ultimate company town. A harrowing, mind-boggling tour de force.

Roots of Steel

By Deborah Rudacille

The perfect complement to Making Steel: authoritative Sparrows Point history mixed with personal memoir from someone who grew up in a Beth Steel family.

Thanks Alec! You can listen to a 5-minute audio sample of his new book Fulfillment below.

Alec MacGillis

Alec MacGillis is a senior reporter for ProPublica and the recipient of the George Polk Award, the Robin Toner prize, and other honors. He worked previously at The Washington PostBaltimore Sun, and The New Republic, and his journalism has appeared in The New York Times MagazineThe New YorkerThe Atlantic, and other publications. His ProPublica reporting on Dayton, Ohio was the basis of a PBS Frontline documentary about the city. He is the author of The Cynic, a 2014 biography of Mitch McConnell. He lives in Baltimore.

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