Attention-conservation notice: 3,216 words on some recent books I’ve read. Consider this a downpayment on all the reviews I’ve neglected to write. I may end up defaulting on that particular mortgage, but at least I made the downpayment, right?

Cover of Private Empire

  • Steve Coll, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power

    This book is far less polemical than the title suggests. The title would suggest that liberals will be waving this in their political enemies’ faces and spluttering something about Citizens United.

    The overarching thesis of Private Empire is far less exciting: that what ExxonMobil wants above all else is predictability. If it’s going to set up drilling operations in, say, Russia, it’s making an enormous upfront capital investment in exchange for returns that are expected to pay out over 20-30 years. On those kinds of timelines, it needs certain guarantees: that contracts will be honored, that its workers will be safe, that political corruption won’t be allowed to interfere with crude-oil extraction.

    The impression most of us might have, going into this book, is that Exxon’s hooks into the Federal government go deep. While Coll doesn’t dispute that Exxon — like any large corporation — does its share of lobbying, and doesn’t dispute that Exxon’s executives were chummy with the Bush administration, he seems to suggest that mostly Exxon wants the government to ensure stability of contract. Certainly the Federal government encourages foreign governments to sign contracts with Exxon, but Coll really suggests that the relation is hands-off.

    The ‘private empire’ piece comes in when Exxon places its drilling operations in dangerous countries; Equatorial Guinea figures prominently here. One could argue that Exxon has a responsibility to reinforce the security services of the country it’s operating in, but the company seems to believe in minimizing its political involvement. Instead its hunkers down in each country, sets up its drilling operation, surrounds it with high fences and armed guards, and tries (with uneven success) to remain an oil-extracting island.

    Along the way, of course, Exxon is arguing against the very idea of global warming, and lobbying against carbon taxes or cap-and-trade — though Coll suggests that the Rex Tillerson era at Exxon has been moderately more open to the idea of progressive legislation than was the Lee Raymond era.

Cover of Evicted

  • Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

    It’s extremely hard to imagine a more depressing book than this one; I repeatedly had to put it down for a while to catch my breath. It’s the story of people trapped forever in a cycle of eviction and poverty. In the same way that those who’ve been imprisoned are often prevented from finding jobs, which makes it that much easier for them to return to illegal employment, so eviction traps people in substandard housing. A double-digit fraction of renters seemingly pay more than 100% of their income in rent, and a quarter pay more than half. When they miss a few rent payments, they’re now on notice that they might be evicted, and at this point any legal protections that they may have had when complaining to their landlords about non-functioning plumbing or a leaky ceiling disappear.

    All of Desmond’s subjects are sympathetic, including the slumlords; their tenants are often not people you’d want living in your home. They’re hoarders; they’re drug addicts; they allow filth and cockroaches to accumulate. But the tenants are sympathetic, too; poverty in the United States makes life more expensive for the poor than it does for the rich. Desmond’s book certainly comes from a place of outrage, but I read it more as the housing version of The Wire: the system has evolved to the point that no one wants to be part of it, but no one has a choice.

Cover of Streetcar Suburbs

  • Sam Bass Warner, Jr., Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1900

    A delightful little history of how Boston became a small city with thick suburbs. Essentially — this is a point I infer from both Warner’s book and from Crabgrass Frontier, below — Americans have always dreamed of living in idealized suburbs; everyone has always wanted to have a few acres of land to call his or her own. So streetcars were built off into the country, and the development followed. Warner notes that as the suburbs were being built, it always looked to their new residents like they were surrounded by farmland — right until their neighbors moved in and they realized that they weren’t living in the city or the country, but rather in some new variety of housing that they were creating.

    Initially the pattern was that those who needed transit to get to work in Boston lived on streetcars near to the city, while the wealthy could afford to live further out on their estates. But the land near the city was already more thickly settled, hence more expensive; hence the working class were from the beginning more burdened by high housing costs than the wealthy were.

    Certain neighborhoods, like lower Roxbury, developed in a self-negating way: the housing stock was constructed cheaply, in a hurry, with the intent of luring the working class. This meant that anyone who could would leave the neighborhood for better housing as soon as he could afford it. In short, Roxbury’s housing was never aspirational; the neighborhood was always a halfway house. Smarter neighborhood design would have offered housing for multiple economic levels. As Warner tells it, lower Roxbury sealed its own fate from the beginning.

    Warner’s central argument, indeed, is that Boston has done a poor job fashioning a cultural community from its neighborhoods. Neighborhoods may be unified religiously (Catholic versus Protestant), or they may be unified economically (wealthy or working class), but they’re still ultimately balkanized. Boston, and perhaps American cities generally, have done a bad job correcting for the U.S.’s steep economic hierarchy. This devastating paragraph sums up the state of the city as Warner saw it in 1977:

In 1900 the new metropolis lacked local communities that could deal with the problems of contemporary society at the level of the family and its immediate surroundings, and it lacked a large-scale community that could deal with the problems of the metropolis. As a result Boston community life fell into a self-defeating cycle. Each decade brought an increase in the scale and complexity of economic and social life; each decade’s problems demanded more wide-scale attention, more complex solutions. Because of the physical arrangement of the new metropolis, each decade also brought an ever greater fragmentation of community life into town and ward politics, church groups, clubs, and specialized societies of all kinds. The growing parochialism and fragmentation resulted in a steady relative weakening of social agencies. Weakness, in turn, convinced more and more individuals that local community action was hopeless or irrelevant. From this conviction came the further weakening of the public agencies. The self-defeating cycle, begun by the streetcar metropolis, has continued with increasing severity to this day. It has proved, both for the metropolis and its constituent political units, an iron cycle, a cycle which once established, is difficult to break.

That still describes Boston to this day.

Miscellaneous notes I took while reading this book:

  • As of 1851, more than a quarter of the 46,000 people commuting into Boston did so on foot. (Via the Hunt’s Merchant Magazine, page 759.)
  • This book contains a history of the development of the South End that looks to be worth reading.
  • If you believed that there were a lot of Washington Streets around here, you were not wrong:

Excluding the Washington avenues, alleys, and boulevards, there are at the moment of writing thirty-six Washington streets in metropolitan Boston, six in the different quarters of Boston itself. For the purposes of this book the reader should distinguish between two different Washington streets. One is the long street which runs north and south from the downtown shopping center of the city, along the South End, through Roxbury, up the Stony Brook Valley to Forest Hills, West Roxbury, and thence through West Roxbury until it passes out of the city limits into Dedham. The other important Washington street is in Dorchester. The street, which is unconnected to its Roxbury counterpart, begins at Blue Hill avenue and runs through Codman Square to the village of Lower Mills, where it ends in a junction with Dorchester avenue.

Cover of Between Meals

  • A.J. Liebling, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris

    This is a little book by a great big fat man, lamenting the era when you could spend the entire day eating spectacular quantities of food in Paris. Everything went to shit, says Liebling, when the doctors started obsessing over the health of your liver. Then the copious quantities of meat and wine went away.

    It’s a fun book, about a lost era, and about a time in Liebling’s life when he was “poor” (more on why I put that in air quotes below) and spent most of his money on food. I seem to recall that there’s a passage in here where Liebling says that, to become a gourmand, you really need to be neither too poor nor too rich. If you’re too poor you can’t afford to eat anything good; if you’re too rich, you spend money on food whose main selling point is that expensive, rather than that it’s good. Only if you’re in that sweet spot in the middle do you develop some discernment in your palate: you can afford to eat the good stuff, but you need to be choosy.

    I have a hard time believing that the pre-World War II Parisian life that Liebling describes was ever the life that most people could experience. Most people at most times, I imagine, had to grind through their days trying to earn enough to eat; it was the rare person who could spend practically his whole life eating. Liebling was lucky enough to have a father who paid for him to live and eat in Paris for months, ostensibly because the son was attending school there. Liebling’s experience in Paris resembles A. Scott Berg’s description of Princeton before Woodrow Wilson took over: largely a playground for the rich to spend their days idly.

    So Between Meals is a study of a particular class of person at a particular time in world history. And it’s fun, for all that.

Cover of Coming Into The Country

  • John McPhee, Coming into the Country

    McPhee’s general schtick, more or less camouflaged, is to write about people under the guise of writing about things. In Oranges he writes about, well, oranges, but he’s writing just as much about the men who pick them. The Curve of Binding Energy is as engrossing a walk through the construction and safeguarding of nuclear weapons as it is a biography of Ted Taylor. Uncommon Carriers gives fascinating accounts of how coal makes its way via train from the mine to a Georgia power plant, of boats on the Russian River, and of the paths of packages through the UPS facility in Louisville, but it’s just as much about trainmen, ship captains, and UPS employees.

    So it is with Coming Into The Country. John McPhee has as much to say about Alaskan wildlife, as he perceives it while hiking and kayaking, as he does about the peculiar sort of person who decides to become Alaskan. You “come into the country” when you move way, way, way off the grid. For the sort of person who lives near the Arctic Circle, Juneau and Anchorage are too crowded; all those people create anxiety and a desire to run away. If American history is the story of people moving westward to stake their claim and make their fortune, one branch of that history contains people who veered to the right while everyone else was moving westward to California.

    People who make it in Alaska, as McPhee observes them, are self-sufficient to an admirable degree. I wish that I had it in me to move off into the woods, fashion my own home from trees I chop down, and eat food that I hunted myself. I wish I were so confident in my own skills that I could fly a little prop plane around the backcountry and bandage the plane with paperclips and chewing gum when the need arose — because without those skills, I am stuck in the middle of an empty vastness containing one-fifth the area of the Lower 48.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have it in me. I don’t know whether to feel bad about this. Reading this book, you really can’t help but consider what civilization really means; it’s a place where people come together to handle problems together that they simply couldn’t tackle on their own. The positive side of civilization is that we achieve things we couldn’t otherwise; the negative side is that we may have evolved — Maynard Smith-style — in an irreversible way: the division of labor may mean that it’s now impossible for most of us to go back to an earlier, more-solitary way of life. Small tribes don’t have the collective knowledge to construct an iPhone, but the inhabitants of large cities may be unable to hew their own wood. Your judgment of this situation may rest on how you evaluate the relative importance of iPhones and wood-hewing.

    One further note on the moral economy of cities. The economic view of their importance — which you’ll encounter in, for instance, Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, or at a more formal level in Fujita/Krugman/Venables — focuses on this specialization aspect. People working in close proximity to one another can accomplish things that none of them individually could. As the city grows, entire industries become possible that wouldn’t even make sense in small towns; you can ask how many piano tuners there are in the city of New York, but it doesn’t really make sense to ask how many there are in Stewart Township, Pennsylvania. New York is not just a larger Stewart Township; it’s an entirely different variety of thing.

    This division-of-labor story is fruitful, and you can go in a number of interesting directions with it. It’s part of a rebuttal to Malthus: as the number of people increases, the existence of larger cities is a reason why you can expect more output rather than less. But even still, this economic view is impoverished, in a way that Lewis Mumford recognized: the city should be understood as a place where we can be collectively uplifted. It should be the place where collective education allows us to learn more and faster than our rural brethren; it should be the place where our cultural accomplishments go beyond anything that small towns could dream of. The Museum of Fine Arts is in Boston rather than in Burlington, Vermont for a reason; Boston has about 15 times the population of Burlington, but it shouldn’t be understood as just 15 Burlingtons lined up next to one another. The large city can accomplish what the small city cannot.

    Mumford’s attitude here is pessimistic: the moral arc of the city has been basically downhill ever since Ancient Greece understood the collective greatness available to the Athenians. When Mumford wrote in the 60s, cities were in the middle of being decimated by the automobile. We’re in the middle of rolling that back ever so slightly (not nearly so completely as the optimists would have it), but we still don’t appreciate the possibilities that the city brings us: that our collective accomplishments will make humanity better. Instead we mostly follow the economists: the city is a place where jobs are plentiful and incomes are higher than average. High-paying jobs are important, but they shortchange what the city can achieve.

    It’s hard not to think of all of this when McPhee writes about Alaska. Americans move off into the wilderness to make their own solitary civilization, and in many ways I admire them for it. As Americans, they come from a civilization that has done much to destroy its cities, so it’s even easier to understand why they’d want to desert those cities. (I wonder whether Pericles would have decamped for Juneau if the opportunity had presented itself.) In my most fevered dreams, I imagine an American civilization that honors our cities to such an extent that moving off into the woods would be an unthinkable act of lunacy.

Cover of Up In The Old Hotel

  • Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel: Reportage from “the New Yorker”

    Delightful candy about old New York, where I understand that “old New York” is always the good old city that had disappeared by the time you arrived. In old New York, everyone in the neighborhood knew the crank. In old New York, owners of seedy movie theaters watch over the Bowery and give the occasional dime to those same cranks. In old New York, crotchety old men spent their days nursing warm beer at McSorley’s.

    Old New York was seemingly also filled with an assorted collection of fishermen and oystermen who plied their trade off Long Island, and who sold their catch to fishmongers in the Fulton Street market. I don’t know if that part of New York has changed (here The Downeaster ‘Alexa’ is playing softly in the back of my head). Either that part of old New York has disappeared, or writers like Joseph Mitchell have.

Cover of Crabgrass Frontier

  • Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States

    This is the definitive history of how the U.S. came to be suburb-dominated; like Caro’s biographies of LBJ and Robert Moses, it’s hard to imagine another book that would tell the story as clearly and completely as Jackson has. (It’s a Bancroft Prize winner, and like all Bancroft Prize winners that I’ve had the good fortune to read, it’s extraordinary.) The main thing I take away from Jackson is that the process of unwinding suburbanization will take a lot more than just some wealthy people — even all the wealthy people — moving back in. (Among many other reasons, this “great inversion” story irritates me because it tends to hand-wave over the problems of schools, mass transit, and affordable housing.) Suburbanization is as much a part of the American ethic as is the Jeffersonian love of rural life. And our particular variety of it comes, in no small part, from our having had ample unoccupied (well, “unoccupied”) land from the very beginning. It’s still an extremely sparse country: if the U.S. were as densely populated as Somerville, Massachusetts, you could easily fit all 319 million of us in West Virginia.

    Of course, there’s suburbanization and then there’s suburbanization. An East Coast urban liberal snob such as myself sees a world of difference between Brookline, Massachusetts — a 19th-century streetcar suburb — and a modern 20th-century car-dominated suburb like Woburn, Massachusetts. Automobile dependence is even harder to unwind; the most Boston could do to the highways when it wanted to reverse the decades of damage that they’d done was to move them them underground. “(Nothing But) Flowers” this is not.

    I don’t mean to be entirely cynical and pessimistic; you have to start somewhere, after all, and the fact that New York and Boston are growing faster than the nation as a whole could only please me. But the point of Jackson’s work is that the suburbs were a long time in the making, from which I infer that they’ll be a long time in the destroying.