Books I read in 2019. I’m sure I’m forgetting one or two. Novels and stories Transit. This is a lovely short novel by the German communist Anna Seghers, which I stumbled across on my parents’ shelves. Set, and written, in World War II France, it tells the story of various refugees waiting in Marseilles to work through the interminable bureaucratic process of acquiring the exit and transit visas they need to leave the country. It’s a beautiful evocation of the mix of unsettledness and bureaucratic stasis that is the life of the refugee, but it’s also got the tight construction of a classic 19th century novel, where the plot unfolds with a retrospective inevitability. There was apparently (and coincidentally) a movie based on it that came out this year. Jews without Money, by Mike Gold.
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Books I read in 2019. I’m sure I’m forgetting one or two.
Novels and stories
Transit. This is a lovely short novel by the German communist Anna Seghers, which I stumbled across on my parents’ shelves. Set, and written, in World War II France, it tells the story of various refugees waiting in Marseilles to work through the interminable bureaucratic process of acquiring the exit and transit visas they need to leave the country. It’s a beautiful evocation of the mix of unsettledness and bureaucratic stasis that is the life of the refugee, but it’s also got the tight construction of a classic 19th century novel, where the plot unfolds with a retrospective inevitability. There was apparently (and coincidentally) a movie based on it that came out this year.
Jews without Money, by Mike Gold. The classic autobiographical novel of the early 20th century Lower East Side ghetto, which I was shamed into finally reading by my friend Ben. It is, obviously, a socialist realist novel, which walks through, with unconcealed anger, all the deprivations, petty and not-so-petty humiliations, pointless tragedies, and self-defeating compensations of being poor in a rich city. (“It’s better to be dead in this country than not to have money,” says the narrator/author’s father in his final defeat, when he fails even at selling bananas. “Promise me when you’ll be rich when you grow up, Mikey!”) But it’s also and even more a novel of the intense emotions and heightened contrasts of the world seen through a child’s eyes – what it reminded me of most was Bruno Schultz’s magical realist stories of his Polish childhood.
Overthrow. A novel of Occupy, or more precisely the period immediately after Occupy was shut down, by my Brooklyn neighbor Caleb Crain. It’s the very rare novel of graduate school and radical politics that takes its protagonists seriously. The plot revolves around a post-Occupy working group, and their frictions and collisions with each other and, eventually, with the security apparatus. The working group is focused on something like ESP or telepathy, whose status is never quite resolved – it appears variously as a metaphor for the alternative forms of collective action and decisionmaking that Zuccotti Park was an experiment in; or a metaphor for sociality itself (as in Ursula LeGuin’s story “Solitude,” where any kind of social relationship is understood as a form of magic); or as a literalization of hacking and surveillance and the various other intercepted signals of our world; or as the kind of shared imaginary object that holds together any community; or at face value, in which sense it functions as the McGuffin that keeps the story moving.
I am very much the target audience for this novel —8 years ago, a very pregnant Laura and I were running away from the cops after a brief reoccupation of Zuccotti Park, and a bit later our now-emerged son’s first political action was a rally in support of striking grocery workers organized by Occupy Kensington, a post Occupy working group not unlike the activists Crain writes about. So take my opinion with a grain of salt, but I liked this book very much.
Cloudburst, Tom McGuane. A greatest-hits collection of stories by the author of Gallatin Canyon and Crow Fair, both of which I liked very much. The stories are mostly set in Montana, among more or less downwardly mobile people. Not having spent any time in that part of the country, I can’t say how realistic they are, but to me they feel true to life.
Books I read for teaching (do these even count?)
Modern Macroeconomics: Its Origins, Development, and Current State, by Snowdon and Vane. Delivers what it says on the tin. Randy Wray used to use this to teach macroeconomics at UMKC.I tried it for the first time this year, and I thought it worked pretty well.
Data Visualization, by Kieran Healy, and Quantitative Social Science, by Kosuke Imai. I used these two for my research methods class in the John Jay MA program. They worked ok.
The Book of Why, by Judea Pearl. I would never have made it through this book if I hadn’t assigned it — the early chapters are full of over-the-top auto-hagiography, as if the author were the first person to ever think about how statistical evidence could be used to answer questions of cause and effect. But if you persevere, there’s actually quite a bit of interesting stuff in here on how to think rigorously about causality.
Books I read with Eli, age 7/8 (missing some for sure here)
What If and How To by Randall Munroe, the xkcd guy. These are genuinely good books about applying physics concepts and quantitative reasoning to interesting real-world problems. How To is the better one.
The Hobbit. I’d forgotten how charming and light-hearted and funny this book is. It was wonderful reading it with my son, but it didn’t leave me with any desire to move on to Lord of the Rings.
A Short History of the World, by Enrest Gombrich. This is really nicely done. I highly recommend it to anyone with kids aged six to 12 or so.
Peter Pan. This is a much weirder book than I had realized – Barrie did have some ideas about mothers. But it kept Eli riveted.
The Pushcart War. On of those wonderful New York books everybody should read.
How to Invent Everything. Another pop science book. The joke ratio is a little high for my tastes – I don’t see why you would write a book about science if you don’t think the science is interesting enough to carry it on its own. But there is a lot of good practical science mixed in with the jokes. before I read it, I didn’t know what coppicing was, or how charcoal is made. Now I do.
Crossing on Time. The latest from the prolific David Macaulay, author of City, Cathedral, How Things Work, etc. (We probably read some of those too this year, come to think of it.) This combines a history of passenger steamships with the story of the particular ship he and his family sailed on when they immigrated to the US in the 1950s.
Books read for professional reasons
Austerity: When It Works and When It Doesn’t. See review here.
Open Borders, by Bryan Caplan. Caplan is a right-wing libertarian who I don’t agree with about much. But I do agree with him that there is a clear economic and moral case for unrestricted immigration. I reviewed this book for the publisher, and while I did suggest some changes — some of which were incorporated into the final draft — I had no reservations about recommending it for publication.
Books by friends
Never a Lovely So Real. A biography of perhaps my favorite novelist, Nelson Algren, by my neighbor Colin Asher. (Our kids are in the same karate class. It’s Brooklyn!) It’s a beautifully constructed book — when I’d finished it, I wanted to start it over again, just to see better how the story fit together. I don’t know how much people read Algren today — I used to have the habit, when I went into a bookstore, of looking for Never Come Morning on the shelves, and seldom found it. But in my opinion he should be in the first tier of the American canon, ahead of Updike and Hemingway and whoever else people read in high school. “The son of a Polish baker and mulatto pigsticker crouched across the canvass,” begins the final chapter of Never Come Morning; that’s more of humanity than you’ll find in the collected works of Saul Bellow. The book gets that, and it gets his writing, which combines lyricism and social realism in a way I don’t think anyone else has managed.
It also gets his politics, and how those politics were essential to the art. Like his friend Richard Wright, or like Mike Gold, Algren is someone who never would have become a novelist if it hadn’t been for the Communist Party. A major contribution of the book is to document, based on FBI files among other evidence, how the inexplicable stalling-out of Algren’s career after The Man with a Golden Arm was the country’s best-selling book and a movie starring Frank Sinatra, is fully explained by McCarthyism. Algren’s friends may have thought he was falling into paranoia, but he really was being followed on the street, his house was being surveilled, his mailed opened, his calls listened into. The publishers who rejected his books, and the editors who spiked his essays, were doing so on the advice of the FBI. It’s a huge loss for humanity: As Laura says, the cost of McCarthyism “is not only those imprisoned or deprived of their livelihood: it is the unions never organized, the books never written, and the films never made.” Algren, who knows, might have had a whole shelf.
The People’s Republic of Wal Mart, by Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski. The fact that production under capitalism is organized not by markets but by the conscious plans of corporations, is one of those facts that is completely obvious when you think about it, but still somehow radical and controversial. I don’t, to be clear, mean plans for for world domination, I mean the routine plans of getting input a from the warehouse here via a truck driven by this person, in time for that person to combine it with this other input using those tools. These tasks are all assigned by planners. A huge number of people cooperate in the production in all of the worldly goods around us, and essentially none of this cooperation is organized through markets. (Which doesn’t mean that markets are not an important feature of capitalism, they just don’t coordinate production.) Phillips and Rozworski make this case clearly and pointedly for the world’s largest corporation, and draw the natural conclusion that there’s nothing utopian about a planned economy – the raw materials are all around us. In large part it’s framed around the “calculation debate” of the 1920s. This is possibly not the most direct way of approaching the topic. But it does pass through some interesting territory, like Project Cybersyn, the precursor to the internet developed in Chile under Allende, which I had never heard of before.
Capital City. A short book on the politics of real estate and of urban planning by Sam Stein. Sam is a graduate student in geography at CUNY, and the book is very much written from that social position — animated by an expansive vision of the possibilities of urban planning, and by fresh anger at the ways it instead functions as an adjunct to the landlords’ lobby. Arguably the book’s strengths would have been better communicated if it were presented as a book about city planning, rather than a book about cities. (I don’t imagine it would have gotten nearly as many readers that way, so Sam and Verso probably made the right call.) One of those strengths is his perfect ear for the cant of really existing planning. Here’s Amanda Burden, Bloomberg’s planning director, describing black neighborhoods as effectively uninhabited: “We are making so many more areas of the city livable. Now young people are moving to neighborhoods like Crown Heights that 10 years ago wouldn’t have been part of the lexicon.” Here’s her successor in the de Blasio administration, Carl Weisbrod, explaining that what’s good for the landlords is good for New York: “There are very few industries where the self-interest of the industry and the fundamental interests of the citizens are so deeply intertwined as the real estate industry.” And here’s Mayor SUV himself, with one of his classic but-what-can-I-do? shrugs: “I think there’s a socialistic impulse, which I hear every day, in every kind of community, that they would like things to be planned in accordance to their needs. And I would, too. Unfortunately, what stands in the way of that is hundreds of years of history that have elevated property rights and wealth to the point that that’s the reality that calls the tune.” Sure, it would be nice to organize the city to meet human needs, says our progressive mayor, but landlord profits come first and that’s just the way it is. If quotes like this fill you with anger and you’d like to experience more of it, you should definitely pick up this book.
Other nonfiction books
The Racketeer’s Progress, by Andrew Wender Cohen. Nathan Newman has been telling me to read this book since forever and I finally did, mostly on a couple of long plane flights. The subject is the labor movement in Chicago in the early decades of the 20th century. It’s in the service of a very specific argument: that we misunderstand the historical labor movement if we think of it like today’s, as bargaining on behalf of employees of a specific employer. Rather, he argues that turn-of-the-last-century unions saw themselves — and were at least intermittently accepted — as sovereign governments of their crafts or industries. Membership as such didn’t matter, it was about establishing rules that everyone in an industry had to follow. Employers went along, at least sometimes, partly because the unions enjoyed broad popular legitimacy; partly because they had the power to make their rules stick; and partly because, at least in industries exposed to national competition, workers and businesses had a shared interest in excluding outsiders. There were, for instance, major and successful strikes to enforce the principle that only Illinois milk could be sold in Chicago, and only local electrical components could be installed in Chicago’s skyscrapers.
Why “racketeer”, tho? It’s true that Al Capone got his entree into Chicago labor thanks to this system of craft governance — not, as you might expect, as an enforcer of it, but rather as the publicly-announced guarantor of local employers defying union authority. (It was dry cleaners specifically who enlisted the mob to enforce their property rights against labor.) The term “racketeering” meanwhile, was coined specifically to describe union activities aimed at a form of sovereignty rather than at narrowly-defined economic interests. The term from its beginning, in other words, was intended not describe a legitimate activity corrupted by the presence of organized criminals, but to suggest that unions as they existed were inherently corrupt. The idea that unions historically represented the interests of an industry or occupation as a whole, and not of a particular employer, suggests that the historical model of American unionism may be more, not less, relevant, in the gig economy.
Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, by Olivier Rieppel. The best book I’ve ever read about evolution is Mary West-Eberhardt’s Developmental Plasticity and Evolution. This isn’t that, but it’s the best book I’ve read on evolution in a while. And it makes the same basic argument: Evolution, at the macro level, is more than natural selection. It isn’t just differential reproduction of randomly varying organisms, but rather depends on a set of specific mechanisms that generate useful variation in body plans, and that conversely ensures that the random genetic variation generally gives rise to a functional organism. The genes, in other words, are just one input to the developmental process; or to put it another way, the capacity for evolution on a more than bacterial scale is something that itself had to evolve. The specific issue with turtles, in this context, is not just their shell; it’s also the distinct but related fact that their shoulders are inside their ribcage, rather than outside it as in all other vertebrates. Like the double-jointed jaw in a handful of snakes — the original “hopeful monsters” — this is a feature that can’t have developed incrementally but had to arrive all at once. The question then is what it says about evolution that such leaps are possible, and what it says about the study of evolution that there’s been such reluctance to acknowledge them.
Warfare State, by James Sparrow. A nice history of domestic policy during World War II, or more precisely, how the scope of government in American life expanded during the war and how people reacted to it. The book draws heavily on reports from the Office of War Information, the 1940s-era propaganda and morale agency, and that shows in its choice of topics — there’s a bit more than strictly needed on the PR side of the war effort. But there’s also lots of interesting, well-organized material on policy around labor, housing and so on during the war, as well as on the more radical but unrealized proposals of people like Walter Reuther, which are arguably one of the great roads not traveled in US history. I read this in the course of putting together a Roosevelt paper on the war mobilization as a model for the Green New Deal, which should be coming out soon.