Attention-conservation notice: capsule reviews of 12 books that I’ve read this year, averaging 250 words apiece. This isn’t a complete list of books I’ve read this year — just the books that I a) hadn’t yet reviewed, b) felt great shame in having not yet reviewed, c) still remembered well enough, and d) felt strongly about in one direction or another.
Having just finished a book, and seeing that I’ve read a bunch of books without reviewing them, I’m going to throw some really quick capsule reviews in here.
- Oliver Sacks, “Uncle Tungsten”: just finished this tonight. Truly remarkable. Unlike anything I’ve ever read. If you combined “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” with … I dunno, maybe “An American Childhood” (but in Britain … and only ending a few years after World War II), you’d get Sacks’s book. It’s scientifically rigorous, makes the science exciting, is deeply personal about Sacks’s family, and really draws a lot of parallels between the scientific community and the community of scientists in his family who gave him endless support as his interest in chemistry developed.
Sacks wrote elsewhere, heartbreakingly, of his parents’ reaction when he revealed to them that he was gay: his mother declared him an abomination and said she wished he’d never been born. His attitude toward his parents in “Uncle Tungsten” is almost reverent, and certainly always respectful; it may not be coincidental that the story in “Uncle Tungsten” ends before he turns 18.
Oliver Sacks, “Migraine”. Interesting in a lot of ways, but too clinically written — seemingly with only a specialist audience in mind — to recommend. Though the details about migraine auras — which sometimes include others’ faces dissolving into mosaics, or time itself fracturing like the frames of a film — are fascinating.
John Maynard Keynes, “Essays In Persuasion”. These are essays starting at the Versailles Treaty and ending in the early 30s. The Versailles era is covered in Keynes’s startling “Economic Consequences of the Peace,” which I’d recommend without reservation. The “Essays In Persuasion” argue passionately that Britain should get off the gold standard, and that it should continue to spend to put people to work; without much modification, I think these essays could have been spoken by Paul Krugman from 2009 to now. They contain some of Keynes’s most famous lines, such as when he refers to the gold standard as a “barbarous relic” or calms readers during the Depression when he tells them that “the resources of nature and men’s devices would be just as fertile and productive as they were. The machine would merely have been jammed as the result of a muddle.”
Annie Dillard, “An American Childhood”: kinda fun, but felt like it was trying too hard. In general it’s a book about a child slowly coming to discover herself. Near the start is a pretty clever and engrossing scene, in which Dillard sees a shadow monster climb from the foot of her bed and up the wall of her bedroom before disappearing, and screams for her parents to come protect her. This happens night after night before Dillard realizes that the monster comes from the headlights of passing cars. This is the beginning of her self-awareness. She becomes progressively more human throughout the book, enters her teenage years, and experiences an uncontrollable rage. We leave her when she’s just beginning to regain control.
Despite the occasional bursts of cleverness, I can’t recommend this book. It didn’t hold my interest. As always, this is likely as much about me as about the author.
Daniel Okrent, “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition”: I knew — we all know — that Prohibition was a disastrous failure, that it led to the rise of the Mafia, etc. I don’t think I realized just how farcically bad a failure it was. Daniel Okrent is practically giggling throughout “Last Call”: Prohibition didn’t work, it was never going to work, and there was never any mystery about whether it would eventually work. Okrent creates a bit of suspense here and there, as when a tough-as-nails administrator joins the FBI (I believe it was the FBI — forgive me; it’s been a couple months since I read it, and I’m trying to dash these off without checking sources) and for a moment you think, “Here’s where it’s going to turn around.” But no: it was never going to turn around. The loopholes were there from the beginning: for sacramental wine, for industrial alcohol, etc. Indeed, some of the most horrifying parts of Okrent’s book were tied up with these loopholes — as when the government added toxic chemicals to industrial alcohol so that it couldn’t easily be turned into drinkable alcohol, and consequently killed thousands of people. The government was so eager to morally purify Americans that it intentionally caused their deaths.
Prohibition, in Okrent’s telling, could only have happened through the confluence of three forces: women’s suffrage, racism, and the income tax. Women were the natural advocates for Prohibition, since they suffered from their husbands’ drunken rampages. Advocates of Prohibition knew this, so they fought hard to get women the vote. And once women did get the vote, they lined up for Prohibition as expected. Racism’s role was to play on ugly stereotypes, particularly the animalistic black man who, under the influence of drink, would perform his savage acts upon pure white women. And the income tax was necessary to replace income lost from the departed alcohol tax; fortunately World War I came along and made the income tax necessary.
There’s loads more I could comment on here, including Okrent’s history of the Bronfman (aka Seagram’s) family’s ill-gotten gains. And for that matter, all the fascinating parts about ships lining up three miles offshore in international waters, filled to the brim with fifths of bootlegged whiskey. (The boundary of international waters is now twelve miles out, in no small part so that little U.S. boats would have to go through more work to reach the bootleggers.) It’s a delightful and infuriating parade of pitch-perfect storytelling. Just an extraordinary book, with the passion of a moral crusader and the journalist’s eye for the perfect, evocative detail. Recommended in the strongest terms.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me”: this is a brutal, honest letter from a black father in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, explaining to his son that white society has always tried to control black bodies and would always try to control black bodies. It’s part rationally controlled rage, part historical consciousness, and essentially pure poetry. He writes it from a bleak time in American history, and he pulls no punches. I read it on a long train ride while my partner slept beside me, and I was filled with a bottomless sadness; there’s not much room in Coates’s book for hope. Hope is what a Martin Luther King would experience, whereas someone like Malcolm X would view the world in material, visceral terms: these are our bodies, and white society exercises its power over those bodies.
It’s a must-read, but as a white man I left it feeling sad and powerless. Coates would seem to say that white America is just confused about the lives of black Americans. His own dawning consciousness came through reading Garvey, Fanon, and others while at Howard University, but much more of that consciousness came through — again — watching white America destroy the bodies of his friends. There’s no way I’ll ever experience that constant feeling that my body is not my own. Merely reading what Garvey had to say will never get me a visceral experience of life as a black man.
Adam Swift, “How Not To Be A Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent”. The most important thing that this book probably brings to a lot of people is that there is a morally perplexing aspect to sending your kids to private school if you, at the same time, feel that public schools are worth supporting (in the abstract). The moral dilemma is, of course, that you know that it would be better for everyone if the public schools had rich kids alongside poor kids, black kids alongside white kids, and you simultaneously want what’s best for your kids.
To the extent that I understand Swift’s argument, it’s that you only have a right to demand so much for your kids. In part this is because schooling has some aspects of a “positional good”: school is valuable for me inasmuch as my kid gets ahead, which means that my kid does better in school than yours does. But of course you feel the same way. The result is that some part of schooling is a pure zero-sum game: my kid can only get ahead to the extent that your kid falls behind. On the other side, there’s the aspect of education that is truly nourishing to the child; you should be entitled to as much of that as you can get, so long as in doing so you’re not depriving anyone else’s child of it.
This quickly turns from philosophical questions to empirical ones. Am I, essentially, entitled to claim a marginal unit of quality for the education of my child so long as I subtract less than a unit of quality from the education of everyone else’s? And is private school really so much better than public school? Or is it just that private school gets richer, whiter, better-prepared students with more-involved parents than public schools do? If so, maybe the problem with your sending kids to private schools isn’t that you’re a hypocrite; it’s that you’re wrong.
It’s a book by a philosopher, so it doesn’t spend a lot of time engaging with the empirical evidence (as, say, a Diane Ravitch would); Swift, I think, views his role as clearing away the dross of bad arguments, which would then leave room for matters of empirical evidence to be argued more directly. It’s not clear to me that the philosophical argument here is really necessary — the empirical arguments for public schools seem more convincing than the philosophical ones — but every little bit helps.
(I’ve been using educational comparisons — white students versus black students, etc. — that are relevant in the U.S. context. Swift’s book is written from a UK perspective, but you can divide through to get the U.S. analogue.)
Rob Delaney, “Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.”: If you know the comedian on Twitter, I imagine you already love him. He’s filthy and absurd. His book is funny, but it’s really the story of how the author, an alcoholic, hit rock bottom and struggled out. If you like him on Twitter, you really need to read the book. If you don’t know him on Twitter, you should remedy that.
Ernest Gellner, “Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History”: this book is too intricate to go into in the space I’ve allotted myself, and to be honest I need to give it a second reading; it would be well worth the effort. Gellner also gave us “Nations and Nationalism”, which is a little book that has lodged itself in my brain in the few years since I read it.
In Nations and Nationalism, Gellner gives us a disarmingly simple model of where nationalism comes from. Essentially capitalism begets nations. First capitalism upends the static pattern of history, whereby a son can expect to do the same work that his father and grandfather did. The son also needn’t expect to live where his ancestors lived. The constant destruction of old industries means that workers must be able to retrain, at least once per generation, for the new work that capitalism demands of them. This, in turn, demands mass education. Mass education demands a common language. There’s a bit of the argument in here that I can’t reconstruct from memory, namely: how do we get from “all these people must share a common language” to “the people who share this common language must therefore be their own nation”? Apart from “the language constructs an imaginary grouping of people who come to believe they share Englishness or Frenchness or Germanness”, the path isn’t totally clear to me.
Gellner’s stock-in-trade are these sorts of large questions. In N&N, the large question was how nations form. In “Plough, Sword, and Book” it’s the intellectual structure of human history. Gellner contrasts today’s “single-stranded” rationality, in which all experiences, facts, and arguments must be subjected the same Enlightenment-derived standard of evidence, to earlier societies’ “multi-stranded” perceptions of the world. In a multi-stranded understanding, it’s okay to treat religious statements as, say, metaphors, while putting empirical reality in its own bucket. Post-Enlightenment rationality simply won’t allow this division.
Gellner wouldn’t quite echo Schumpeter here, but Schumpeter saw something analogous happening: capitalist rationality had driven away all modes of reasoning apart from cost-benefit calculations. We’re now all good little utilitarians, even in the decision of whether to have kids or how many to have. This is such a part of our wiring now that it would seem absurd to treat the decision any other way.
Gellner has a weird habit of rarely allowing himself a proper noun: “This perpetuated, at the level of national politics, the idea that military power and territorial expansion were paramount goals and/or the conditions of prosperity. The brilliant postwar economic performance of the two prime losers of [World War II], deprived of all empire (and more), finally put paid to this illusion.” Would it have killed him to have written “Germany and Japan”? This replacement of proper nouns with disguised definite descriptions is meant, I think, to lend his books some abstraction and some timelessness, but often it just removes some of the grounding that would make them easier to reason through.
Ammon Shea, “Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages”: It’s what you’d expect, namely a curio cabinet of words that the author found interesting, and his observations on them. It’s a two-legged stool; one leg is how interesting the words are, and the other is how tiresome the author is. The author tries to affect a persona of being generally an introvert and a hater of humanity, and I don’t doubt to some degree that he is; hard to see how someone who loved being out in the world would agree to spend a year holed up in libraries or his apartment with his walls of dictionaries. But it seems mostly affected; I think Shea is probably a nice guy, despite his best attempts to pretend otherwise.
(Shea was on You’re The Expert, and he was charming. His wife, to whom he referred repeatedly throughout “Reading The OED” when they weren’t yet married, appeared on YTE a few weeks earlier; she was also delightful.)
Hans Zinsser, “Rats, Lice, and History”: Zinsser tells us that the often-unmentioned prime mover behind much of human history is epidemic disease, particularly typhus. Zinsser’s experience here is not purely academic: he worked during World War I as sanitation inspector of the Second Army, and kept thousands of soldiers from dying. Contrast this with the Civil War where (if memory serves) Zinsser tells us that twice as many soldiers died of disease as died at the wrong end of a rifle. Napoleon’s retreat from Russia also had a lot to do with raging infectious disease among his troops.
Part of why disease is so underreported as a crucial part of military success or failure might be that we like to focus on individual acts of valor rather than unromantic things like disease control or logistics. We’ve all read a lot about the brave American soldier storming the beaches at Normandy, but quite a lot less about how, say, the Office of Price Control managed to control inflation while the nation’s factories churned out vast quantities of military materiel.
And when public health succeeds, it’s invisible: thousands or millions of people don’t get sick. Whereas when a doctor saves just one patient’s life, he’s revered as a saint and a genius. I hypothesize that this is connected to the American epidemic of naïve and infantile libertarianism, but I don’t have the space to expand on that right now.
Katha Pollitt, “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights”:
- Abortion is actively good
- It should be considered unapologetically as part of the repertoire of useful birth control
- The cloak of regret that American culture hangs around abortion is unfounded and not borne out by the actual experiences of women who’ve had abortions.
- Third-trimester abortions, which are the ones that seem to horrify so many people, and around which so many people focus their opposition to abortion, are vanishingly rare. To the extent that they happen, they happen because women are genuinely unaware that they’re pregnant, and because state laws mandate waiting periods for abortions that push abortions into the third trimester.
- Liberals have been in a defensive crouch on abortion for decades, and they shouldn’t be. It’s time to take back abortion as a positive good.
- Reluctance to claim abortion as a positive good is tied up with the general war on women, whereby men insist upon the legal right — only recently revoked — to control women’s bodies.
Everyone should read this book. You should read it in particular if, like me, you at some point felt it was the height of judicious centrism to say that you “support a woman’s right to choose, but feel uncomfortable with abortion.” Pollitt would say that that’s nonsense, and that your discomfort was put there by a dedicated, focused, decades-long campaign to demonize abortion and demonize the women who have them (while not, curiously, demonizing the men involved in the pregnancy). After reading “Pro,” I am 100% convinced.