Here’s what I read in 2016. There’s probably a couple books I’m forgetting.
Munif – Cities of Salt. Munif was a dissident Saudi writer who spent his later life in exile in Syria. I happened to pick up this book on a recent visit to hi son Yasser’s house (we went to grad school together) and couldn’t put it down. It’s set in the 1930s in an unnamed Arabian country, and tells the stories of ordinary people who are variously enriched, displaced, and wrecked by the establishment of the oil industry. It has a bit of the structure of something like One Hundred Years of Solitude, though without the magic. One unusual thing about it is its use of collective protagonists — various individuals drift in and out, but a great deal of the narration is from the point of view of “the villagers,” “the pipeline workers,” “the townspeople,” etc. Munif’s sympathies are obviously with those uprooted by the alliance of American business and indigenous royalty, and with their overt and covert resistance to it, but he’s also clear-eyed about the limits to their capacity for collective action and their lack of any usable political language for what is happening to them. It’s the first book in a series. Two others are available in English, beautifully translated by Peter Theroux; the remaining two sadly are not, apparently because Theroux has been occupied translating books by Naguib Mahfouz.
Mantel – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. These stories were mostly just ok. I picked them up because, like everybody, I loved the Thomas Cromwell novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. (The tv miniseries was also quite good.) But what she’s doing here doesn’t work as well. What she’s doing is mostly something very specific: writing realistic fiction with the conventions of the gothic. Almost all of them are written from the perspective of subordinates and outsiders, and almost all of them involve a building sense of unease and dislocation. Sometimes this mix of social realism and horror succeeds, as in the title story and in The School of English, about a servant who was raped by her employer under circumstances that never quite come into focus. But more often it doesn’t, like in the embarrassing misfire Harley Street, where the shocking revelation is that two of a woman’s coworkers are lesbians. Oh well. I hope she’s working on the third Cromwell book.
Beckert – Empire of Cotton: A Global History. This magnificent book is certainly the best nonfiction I read this year. Perhaps the best way to show the concrete reality of capitalism is by following the chain of a single commodity from start to end — Mardi Gras Made in China s a classic example. With cotton Beckert has picked the ur-commodity. It’s all here: from the rise of Europe and the origins of wage labor, through imperialism and emancipation, the changing organization and financing of trade, to the developmental state. He’s especially good on two points. First, that the organization of production always comes down to control of labor. Second, that incorporation into the global economy didn’t simply mean swapping one mix of commodities produced and consumed for another, but a thorough reorganization of society, not just once but continuously as people’s life choices and circumstances became increasingly dependent on developments in distant markets. And he has an almost miraculous ability to produce exactly the right quote, the perfectly telling anecdote, at every point in the story. I’d love to know how he organizes his files.
Davis – Late Victorian Holocausts. I assigned it for a class – one of the best ways of finally getting to something you should have read years ago. It’s an extraordinary book — as suggested by the title, a comprehensive guide to Europe’s war against humanity in the 19th century, but also a timely exploration of the political and social consequences of climate change — a sort of prequel to my friend Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos. Davis is a master of this kind of thing — he somehow combines the core historical narrative, the political-economic analysis, the key statistical information and the telling quotes in a completely organic way. (I happened to reread a bit of City of Quartz recently and it’s the same — holds up very well.) The Brazil, China and Africa chapters are powerful, but the stuff on India is just brutal. The name Richard Temple should have the same resonance as the name Josef Mengele.
Bagchi – Perilous Passage: Mankind and the Global Ascendancy of Capital. This is I’d planned to assign parts of this in my economics history class but in the end I didn’t use it. It’s a global history with a particular focus on assessing historical changes in wellbeing, especially in the periphery of the Europe-centered world system. In some ways it seems like an attempt to put Sen’s ideas about capabilities and functionings into a historical framework. It’s not a bad book, but the stories I wanted to use it for are told more vividly elsewhere, like the Beckert and Davis books.
Coates – Between the World and Me. I don’t have anything really to add to what everyone else has said about this book. It deserves the praise it’s gotten. If you haven’t read it, you should.
Isherwood – A Single Man. A lovely little novel about a bereaved gay academic in early-1960s California. Although all the specifics are captured very well, in some ways all these are beside the point. The real subject is the way our unitary self dissolves, on closer examination, into various roles we play, personae we adopt, based on the circumstances we find ourselves in. I suppose the bereaved part of the package is the most important for this purpose, since it removes the central, stabilizing social context of the narrator’s life. I guess the pre-stonewall gay part is important too, since it deprives him of a standard set of social forms and rituals that would make sense of his new condition. But the core idea is conveyed as well by the scene of him observing himself driving on an LA freeway: “an impassive anonymous chauffeur-figure with little will or individuality of its own, the very embodiment of muscular co-ordination, lack of anxiety, tactful silence, driving its master to work.” One other thing I like about this book: It’s one of the only campus novels that somehow manages to tip into neither nasty satire nor sententious harrumph. He conveys both that teaching is an almost religious vocation, standing intercessor between your students and a world that’s much bigger and older and deeper than them; and that it’s just a job. The Tom Ford movie entirely misses the point.
Hicks – The Crisis in Keynesian Economics and Critical Essays in Monetary Theory. I read through quite a few essays in these collections after reading some fascinating pieces by Axel Leijonhufvud on Hicks and his work. I didn’t get as much out of them as I had hoped. Hicks famously described his later work as a struggle to escape from the neoclassical framework of his best-known work, Value and Capital, but I don’t know how well he succeeded. I think I prefer Leijonhufvud’s Hicks to Hicks’ Hicks.
Reardon – Handbook of Pluralist Economic Education. I wrote a review of this, which should be coming out in the Review of Keynesian Economics at some point.
Diski – In Gratitude. I’ve been reading Diski’s essays and reviews for a while in the London Review of Books (which is objectively better than the NYRB, by the way). This is her memoir of, first, being semi-adopted by the novelist Doris Lessing as a teenager, and, later, dying of cancer. It’s a lovely book. It’s a playful but rigorous self-inventory; like a lot of the best memoirs, it conveys the the sense of being a spontaneous confession while benefiting from careful construction.
Lewin – The Soviet Century. I picked this up at a Verso event. I’m not sorry I read it, but I wouldn’t really recommend it. (Any ideas what one book you should you read on the history of the Soviet Union?) It’s chronological but not comprehensive — he’s really only interested here in how the system worked politically — how decisions were made, carried out, and justified. There’s some interesting material here on the day to day realities of the Soviet administration. But there’s not enough context on what concrete outcomes resulted all this reshuffling of departments and reassignment of personnel. (The iconic red army soldier on the cover is a bit of a tease – there’s almost nothing here on World War II itself, only its repercussions for bureaucratic politics.) Lewin is evidently a Trotskyist of some sort — we are constantly being reminded of how stalin betrayed the promise of the revolution and the genuine accomplishments of the 1920s. As far as perspectives on the Soviet Union go, this is a respectable one, but it seems like at this point we should be aiming for a dispassionate account of how the system worked and what it did and did not do, without reenacting the debates of 100 years ago.
Hood – 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York. I’d expected this classic history to be, you know, sandhogs battling the Manhattan schist. There is some of that, but much more about the political and financial aspects of the story which, to me, are even more interesting. It develops and complicates the vague — “private subways abetted real estate speculation but became unprofitable after WWI so the government took them over” story I’d vaguely had in my head before.
The book does support the idea that the economics of private subways only really make sense in conjunction when they’re built by large-scale real estate developers; no other private actor can internalize their positive externalities. But the private to public transition is more complicated. It is true that, thanks to inflation and the nickel fare, the private lines saw big losses in the 1920s and 1930s. But because of the long-term contracts signed before the war, under which the city owned the tracks on which the privately-owned trains ran, the losses were mostly borne by the public; the private companies were mostly profitable. So the private-public question was less economic, and more directly ideological, than I had realized. Early on, there was very strong resistance to the idea of government-operated subways — state legislation forbidding public operation was passed when proposals were first floated. Public subways were explicitly seen as a step toward socialism. But a bit later, in the Progressive era, there was a serious push for a government run subway as a sort of public option to compete with August Belmont’s monopoly, and the Public Service Commission briefly operated some short connecting lines. this early foray into public subways was abandoned, but only as a result of complex set of negotiations counterbalancing the goals of holding down fares through competition; extending the existing system in a rational way; and encouraging development of outlying areas. (The last goal also supported by the progressives in order to move workers out of dense immigrant neighborhoods in Manhattan.) As is often the case when you read history, what in retrospect looks like a logically unfolding inevitable development, on clsoer examination could easily have gone in other ways.
Saki – The Unrest Cure. Oscar Wilde’s wit without his weirdness (mostly) or his politics (at all). Kept me occupied for half a dozen subway rides.
Ferrante – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. These remarkable books deserve much more than I can write about them. Luckily, lots of other people have written about them! Purely as fiction, they are highly effective – they are the sort of novels you can’t stop reading, but that you constantly want to stop reading to make them last longer, and to think about what you’ve just read. As to the substance: Some people see the tragedy of the book that Lila, the central character, never leaves Naples — that her talent and energy and intelligence go to waste there, instead of developing into some useful and rewarding career as they would have elsewhere. I don’t agree. I don’t think we’re meant to imagine that anything important would have been better if she’d followed the narrator Elena to a middle-class, professional life in the North. I think we should take the narrator seriously in her reflections at the start of the third book. She says that she once saw the stasis, brutality and hopelessness of her childhood neighborhood as geographically specific. So she thought the solution was to
get away for good, settle in well-organized lands where everything really is possible. I had fled … Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong… the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth… And shrewdness means hiding from from oneself the true state of things.
I think if there’s a failure in the book, it’s the shrewd, practical Elana’s. I think Lila’s choice is the one we’re meant to admire — to keep trying to push through the immovable barriers of corrupt, violent Naples. To me, she comes across as almost Dostoyevskyan figure, a Myshkin unable to make the reasonable compromises we all make with an unreasonable world. In this reading, the radical political milieu of the middle books is more than just dramatic backdrop, though it certainly functions as that. The insurgent New Left of the 1970s, whatever its failures, was reacting to same basic problem as Lila — what do you do when you find the world you’ve been born unjust, nonsensical, and intolerable? Of course the usual answer is you do what you can to make things a bit better, incrementally — after all they are getting better — that way, with luck, lies a respected and remunerative career. This choice — which, again, almost all of us make — is represented in the books by the repulsive Nino. Whereas Lila (and the communist Pasquale, the books’ most purely admirable figure) represents the other choice, not to reconcile yourself. I feel like the books could have taken their epigraph from Mario Savio: “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”
Streeck – Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. I originally read this hoping to write a review of it. But I took too long and now Streeck has another one. Still planning to write the review, which will now have to be of the two books, so will save my thoughts til then.
Eicher – The New Cosmos. I like reading about science and I loved Carl Sagan as a kid, so this was an easy sell. I enjoyed reading it — if it’s the sort of thing you like, you’d probably enjoy it too — but I wouldn’t say it’s anything special. He does make a strong case that demoting Pluto from planethood was the wrong call.
Ascher – The Works and The Heights. I got these two books mainly to read to my son, who like many five-year-olds is very interested in public works, infrastructure and engineering. (Brian Hayes’ magnificent Infrastructure, with its gorgeous photos, has been preferred dinnertime reading for a while.) But they aren’t kids’ books — I learned quite a lot from them — especially from The Works, which is about all the normally unregarded machinery and labor that makes New York City, well, work. Did you know about the Sandy Hook pilots, who still guide freighters into New York Harbour? Did you know that New York is one of the few major cities where storm runoff and sewage flow together, and that until the 1980s, the upper west side of Manhattan had no sewage treatment facilities and dumped its raw waste right into the Hudson? Did you know that New York still has an operational steam-tunnel system, which provides the heat for many of Manhattan’s iconic buildings as well as steam for dry cleaners, hospitals, etc.? Did you know that six inches of snow is the cutoff for all the city’s garbage trucks to be converted to snowplow service? I didn’t know any of that, and it’s good stuff to know.
Johnson – The Making of Donald Trump. At my parents’ house at Christmastime, my father was reading this. Laura picked it up and started saying, “Wait! did you ever hear this…?”, so I started reading it too. It’s a page turner. Now personally, I think it’s a mistake to personalize the political situation; I think we’re better off talking about what “the Republicans will do” than what “Trump will do.” And of course the fundamental terms of politics don’t change with elections. Still, I hadn’t realized just how vile this person is. Did you know that he cut off the medical coverage of his newborn grandnephew in neonatal intensive care, to force the parents to settle an inheritance dispute? Good times.