2020 year-end roundup: The books that stuck like random gum

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“We relate to the virus, in some ways, as we relate to Trump. We yearn desperately to return to a time of imagined normalcy, before Trump and before the coronavirus. But we can heal only by looking forward—perhaps to a life that will be slower, more environmentally responsible and less materially comfortable, but also more clearly rooted in mutual aid and the understanding of our fundamental equality and interdependence. Now that the pandemic, aided by Trump, has stripped our politics and our society to the bare basics, the question facing Americans is, What do we want our future to look like? Will we, as we did after 9/11, sacrifice civil liberties and human rights? Will we, as we did in response to the financial crisis of 2008, create even greater wealth inequality? Will we, in other words, choose solutions that exacerbate the root problems? In 2020, that would mean forfeiting more freedoms, accepting ever greater inequality, and reelecting Trump. Or will we commit ourselves to reinvention?” –Surviving Autocracy, Masha Gessen

It’s difficult to sum up a year in which time felt as though it passed more quickly than it ever has while simultaneously dragging on interminably. It feels fitting then that the year has been punctuated by memorable books, both old and new, that remind and instruct about the value of questioning, the value of suffering, the importance of asking how we want to be a part of the world and what we want that world to look like. Especially when we are limited and constrained by circumstances.

I did less this year than in previous years but read even more than normal over the course of the year. Read on to find out what I found most compelling in 2020’s reading.

Previous book reports: 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Reading in 2020

In no particular order, I’ve listed the books that I valued most during the course of the year. I have never been great at describing why something resonated with me, or perhaps I am just lazy and prefer using the writer’s own words to explain what illuminates certain passages and books, elevating them above others. Here I condense my original write-ups from previous months’ readings.

*Man’s Search for MeaningViktor E Frankl

“The uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on his creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude.”

My December 2020 re-reading of Man’s Search for Meaning felt significant and newly relevant. It always does, but in the unusual darkness of 2020, its prescriptions for finding meaning and understanding the near-unlimited capacity we may possess for endurance take on new importance.

“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make.”

*The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American FreedomH.W. Brands

“The work wasn’t finished. The work of freedom never would be.”

Also read in December 2020, The Zealot and the Emancipator explored the routes abolitionist John Brown and US president Abraham Lincoln would take in trying to end America’s darkest, most heinous violation of human rights — slavery. Because of Brands’s gift for storytelling, history comes to life as the lives of two vastly different men are juxtaposed.

“THE QUESTION HAD BEEN: What does a good man do when his country commits a great evil? John Brown chose the path of violence, Lincoln of politics. Yet the two paths wound up leading to the same place: the most terrible war in American history. Brown aimed at slavery and shattered the Union; Lincoln defended the Union and destroyed slavery.”

We are once more reminded that the work of freedom is never done, and the democratic experience is fragile, dictated more by relying on good faith rather than law, and this is where some of 2020’s other great reads pick up.

*Surviving AutocracyMasha Gessen

“The difficulty with absorbing the news lies, in part, in the words we use, which have a way of rendering the outrageous ordinary.”

Confronted by egregious and shocking things we’d never seen in quite the way they’ve unfolded in the previous four years, we have not had the cognitive ability to process, using the language available to us, that we were surviving the nascent steps toward autocratic rule. Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy, which I read twice in 2020, relies on the work of Bálint Magyar,  who assigns three stages to the birth and development of autocracy: “the concept of autocratic transformation, which proceeds in three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation.”

Trump-era madness embodied the autocratic attempt, and was at turns, successful. Could we say there was an autocratic breakthrough? Perhaps Trumpian successes have created “holes” in the veneer but haven’t entirely broken through. But his presidency has done enough damage and set a dangerous precedent that may make a breakthrough more likely and easier to accomplish somewhere down the line because it’s highly unlikely we are as a society learning the lessons of what this period has taught. Gessen insists that we disbelieve or ignore the signs and lessons as our peril, and I fear we did this long before Trump was a viable contender for president, and will continue to do so long after he is gone because we so long for the blindness and comfort of the status quo.

*Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of AmericaSarah Kendzior

““You were right two years ago, but this isn’t going to be Nixon. This is American authoritarianism, and they are going to tell us ‘That’s not possible’ until nothing else is.””

None of what Kendzior has predicted (repeatedly) will seem unfamiliar in hindsight. Much of it may seem unbelievable when reflected upon, but we’ve been on the slippery slope, being primed for this nightmare for a long time.

Read alongside Gessen’s warnings, Sarah Kendzior has delivered a damning condemnation of Trump and Trumpism, and, as many others have pointed out, doesn’t just let us off the hook with a concluding paragraph about “here’s how we get out of this” or “here are some hopeful, if misleading and false, words”. On second reading, this book managed to bear its sharp teeth even more effectively. After all, how can it offer hope when the truth is… things have long looked hopeless?

“One of the most horrific realizations when your government is hijacked from the inside is that there is no official to whom you can turn—because it is rare to find an official who cannot be turned by a corrupt operator. Living for legacy, living for security, living for money—it makes no difference, they are not living for you. There had been a coup, and we were on our own.”

As I said when I originally read this, this is a must-read. This was always the case but maybe it is even more important now as we stand at the threshold of the end of Trump’s presidency and the beginning of what may be the most status-quo presidency ever. So caught up in cleaning up the Trump-era messes and the continuing pandemic, no one will be interested in real change, and that’s what the powers-that-be (both the incoming government as well as Trump’s cronies) count on.

Inevitably, these readings lead to the bigger philosophical and existential questions of what constitutes freedom — on a personal or societal level? How can we seize our own freedom? Aren’t there countless definitions? Some of these definitions colored my other best-of 2020 choices.

Economic freedom

*And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic FutureYanis Varoufakis

Indeed, this book is about a paradox: European peoples, who had hitherto been uniting so splendidly, ended up increasingly divided by a common currency.”

I was on a Yanis Varoufakis kick in August, watching a number of his YouTube talks and interviews with other like-minded economists (there aren’t a lot of them because they have not drunk the standard endless-growth-is-good-possible-inevitable-at-all-costs KoolAid). When I feebly attempted to study economics, the field was dominated by blind praise for capitalism as a model, as the centerpiece around which other theories only existed as faded, failed ideas.

What reality shows us time and again, and which Varoufakis faithfully chronicles, is that people and the policies they enact, fail to enact or haphazardly enforce, often cause misery. It would be difficult to argue that unbridled capitalism has given true relief or prosperity to most people, even if it has done an exceptional job for the few who benefit from it.

To step outside the norm and the accepted (in anything, not just economic studies) requires not only an act of defiance but also raise your voice to tell the world that you think differently. This is where people like Varoufakis or Richard Wolff have walked a different path and have, at times, been “lightning rods” for daring to study, teach, lecture, and write about economic alternatives, which is akin to heresy for mainstream economists and capitalists. It’s also the unpopular direction economist Kate Raworth wanted her own economics studies to take, and she has discussed this in the introduction to her book,Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century Economist. (Raworth’s book is another of my go-to 2020 reads; see below.) All focus on wanting to implement an economic system that serves goals that support human well-being rather than serving the rights and growth of capital. You wouldn’t think that would be so dangerous or controversial.

“ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE once wrote that those who praise freedom only for the material benefits it offers have never kept it long.”

Indeed this is at the heart of a functioning democracy, which has in recent years grown threadbare before our eyes. We don’t live in a democracy as much as a functioning plutocracy (and more frequently under leaders like Trump, kleptocracy). The average person knows very little about economics, and in fact, has been intimidated by and discouraged from understanding it. It serves the plutocrat class to keep people in the dark and only feed the dominant theory into the educational machine.

One is fooled into believing they are free when they are brainwashed into thinking this is so. Varoufakis’s warnings about inequality and how capitalism (one of the great engines of inequality creation) will devour democracy (hasn’t it already in the form of things like Citizens United?) parallel the underlying themes of works by the aforementioned Sarah Kendzior. Varoufakis writes:

“Leonard Schapiro, writing on Stalinism, warned us that “the true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade. But to produce a uniform pattern of public utterances in which the first trace of unorthodox thought reveals itself as a jarring dissonance.”

…you cannot help but think of Kendzior’s own warnings about how Trump’s scandals are a form of smoke and mirrors that serve as a distraction from the actual criminal pursuits taking place just below the surface (well, not even out of the public eye — if anyone were paying attention or cared, we can all see the illegality). The spectacle, the propaganda machine, spits out new craziness on a daily basis. The perpetual fatigue and exhaustion, which Gessen also writes about, create conditions ripe for the exploitation and complete plowing under of democracy.

And in a fragile, flawed democracy based on capitalism, which is — if you didn’t realize — controlled by money, money talks… loudest and longest, and those without (which is most of us) have very little recourse.

*Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century EconomistKate Raworth

“…whenever I hear someone praising the ‘free market’, I beg them to take me there because I’ve never seen it at work in any country that I have visited.”

Raworth describes exactly what is almost ineffably wrong about standard economics. When I took up the formal study of economics more than 20 years ago, I ran into walls  – walls that have grown taller and thicker over time. Mostly this is because, when I started, I was more willing to accept, as Raworth describes it, economics’ “long-established theories”, rather than the more sensible and just “humanity’s long-term goals”. It did not occur to me until I was, as Raworth also describes, deep in the abyss of trying to understand accepted theory, that there might be another way.

“I was so busy getting to grips with the theory of demand and supply, so determined to get my head around the many definitions of money, that I did not spot the hidden values that had occupied the economic nest. Though claiming to be value-free, conventional economic theory cannot escape the fact that value is embedded at its heart: it is wrapped up with the idea of utility, which is defined as a person’s satisfaction or happiness gained from consuming a particular bundle of goods.”

The economic theories we were being sold were all about consumption and production and laden with its own (empty) values, which modern economists largely deny.

“It was only when I opted to study what was at the time an obscure topic—the economics of developing countries—that the question of goals popped up. The very first essay question that I was set confronted me head-on: What is the best way of assessing success in development? I was gripped and shocked. Two years into my economic education and the question of purpose had appeared for the first time. Worse, I hadn’t even realised that it had been missing. Twenty-five years later, I wondered if the teaching of economics had moved on by recognising the need to start with a discussion of what it is all for.”

How can future economists reclaim and reframe what economic success and progress look like, and espouse a way of “economic thinking that would enable us to achieve” and meet humanity’s needs and goals? Now more than ever, as unemployment numbers reach record territory, and when “full employment” doesn’t reflect the number of people in more than full-time employment who nevertheless live in poverty, how can we redefine economic prosperity to encompass human well-being instead of by impenetrable and meaningless GDP and stock market figures?

“And so, over half a century, GDP growth shifted from being a policy option to a political necessity and the de facto policy goal. To enquire whether further growth was always desirable, necessary, or indeed possible became irrelevant, or political suicide.”

This has been clear for a long time, but it takes extraordinary circumstances, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic to illustrate how exploitative, fragile and short-sighted the current system is. Whom does it serve? Who really enables it?

Raworth writes extensively about the invisible and unpaid “core economy” – the labor of the household, of rearing children, etc. This labor has been removed from the equation. During times of crisis (like now), however, the veil is lifted and its supremacy as the foundation of all that becomes possible in the market is elevated – or at least obvious, even if briefly.

“…And since work in the core economy is unpaid, it is routinely undervalued and exploited, generating lifelong inequalities in social standing, job opportunities, income and power between women and men.”

“By largely ignoring the core economy, mainstream economics has also overlooked just how much the paid economy depends upon it. Without all that cooking, washing, nursing and sweeping, there would be no workers—today or in the future—who were healthy, well-fed and ready for work each morning. As the futurist Alvin Toffler liked to ask at smart gatherings of business executives, ‘How productive would your workforce be if it hadn’t been toilet trained?’”

How can we show that freedom is not about buying shit and that GDP and growth have very little to do with the people who power the economy — those who supply the labor — both paid and unpaid — to create the workforce on which all of society depends?

Socioeconomic freedom

*The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better LifeAnu Partanen

Defining freedom is culture specific. When I talk about freedom with Americans, they spout superficial ideas about freedom that are related to showy patriotism, supposedly low taxes, and the ability to “defend themselves” with guns. I don’t know exactly where these definitions come from, although I suspect, having been educated there, it’s full-scale indoctrination from an early age. Pledging allegiance to a flag and valuing symbols over other humans or cultures is something endemic to life in America and its school system. Perhaps, assigning a less value-judgment approach to this definition, I could say Americans are a “freedom to” culture more than a “freedom from” culture. This doesn’t capture the entire picture but strikes on the individualism and selfishness that characterizes most Americans and the culture they live in.

The Nordic Theory of Everything begins to tap into the two sides of the “freedom” debate (if you could call it a debate).

Re: America: “In this country you are at the mercy of your employer. You really don’t have any rights. Because of that you live in a constant state of worry.”

The book goes into incredible detail about the differences between the Finnish (and Nordic more generally) and American systems, finally landing on a key argument (italicized and emboldened emphasis mine):

“Yet the longer I lived in America as a Nordic immigrant, something became clear to me. Regardless of whether Finland was the “best” country in the world or not, most people in the United States, as well as many of my Nordic countrymen back home, did not fully realize that to leave Finland or any other Nordic country behind and settle in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century was to experience an extraordinary—and extraordinarily harsh—form of travel backward in time. As a Nordic immigrant to the United States, I noticed something else, too. Americans, and many others around the world, did not seem fully aware of how much better things could be.”

Instability is the name of the game in American life, and I so much wish I could impart to Americans about how they are sold a bill of goods that insists that they are free, but how free are you when everything is so complicated, opaque, and you are tied to your job, your employer-provided, but nevertheless not-comprehensive health insurance, your out-of-reach expensive day care, your student loans and exorbitant university fees, your complex and insane tax forms, an unfair system of taxation (which is not that much less than what many Nordic earners pay), which Nordic people are free from?

“The longer I lived in America, therefore, and the more places I visited and the more people I met—and the more American I myself became—the more puzzled I grew. For it was exactly those key benefits of modernity—freedom, personal independence, and opportunity—that seemed, from my outsider’s perspective, in a thousand small ways to be surprisingly missing from American life today.”

And ironically… in “free” America, neither employees nor employers are free. This may be one of the key points Partanen makes. While no one would accuse most US employers of being overly generous, they are still being saddled with many of the responsibilities that Nordic countries expect their taxes and good government to provide:

“By now I was used to hearing the Nordic countries dismissed as “socialist nanny states.” But ironically it was here in America that businesses trying to manufacture products and make a buck had somehow gotten saddled with the nanny’s job of taking care of their employees’ health. Surely, I thought, Milton Friedman, the great free-market economist, must be turning in his grave! From a Nordic perspective, it seemed ludicrous to burden for-profit companies with the responsibility of providing employees with such a fundamental, complicated, and expensive social service. People in the United States were aware of this contradiction, of course, and in discussions of the American business landscape, experts often pointed to the burdens that health-care obligations placed on companies, especially on small businesses. But no one seemed to be talking about the other side of the coin: the unhealthy dependence on employers that this creates among employees receiving, or hoping to receive, these benefits. It was an old-fashioned and oppressive sort of dependence, it seemed to me, completely at odds with the modern era of individual liberty and opportunity. I could see the consequences in the lives of everyone I knew.”

Anxiety levels among my American friends are almost insanely high — but they don’t know otherwise. Making personal choices, like leaving jobs in which they are unhappy, or starting businesses, or taking a year off to have a child, isn’t fraught with anxiety levels in the Nordic countries because the government, held accountable by the people who elected it, anticipate these changes and needs. This seems like true freedom to me.

“When I look at my Nordic friends now, they seem so free to me. They work and have children, they engage in hobbies, they travel the world, and they never seem to worry about really going broke. They have health care, day care, and pensions. They can study whatever they want, and they don’t have to risk their financial future to do so.”

The freedom of personal choice, self-definition, self-determination and identity

The majority of books I read in 2020 are bound by this loose thread of defining “freedom”, defining oneself and one’s own identity, and finding meaning as well as, as Viktor Frankl wrote about, the self-determining nature of humans and humanity.

There are traits about ourselves that we can’t change, but there are also many aspects of our personal identities that we can change and choose for ourselves. Many of these books reflect the ways we make these choices and determinations.

*Shuggie BainDouglas Stuart

The much-deserved 2020 Booker Prize winner, a heartbreaking work with a clear sense of language, culture, class and place (Glasgow). The titular protagonist, despite poverty, suffering and loss, is deeply human, as are all the rich and imperfect characters populating the story.

*Scots: The Mither TongueBilly Kay

“Politics, in support or suppression, are central to the fate of languages. Yet political support at a given time is not in itself enough to guarantee a language’s survival if the historical process which has eroded it has been unrelenting over centuries and has pushed the language to a geographical and psychological periphery in the nation’s consciousness. That is certainly the case with Irish and until recently was certainly the case with Gaelic. The principal reason why Welsh is in a much stronger position than Scottish Gaelic today is that the Welsh had not posed a political threat to the British state for hundreds of years, while Gaelic was the language of the Jacobite forces which almost overthrew the state in the rebellions of the eighteenth century.”

In self-determination, language is a powerful key toward definition and retention. This book chronicles how essential the diverse Scots language is to the linguistic, national and cultural history of Scotland. Historical and linguistic hostility at its persistent use and existence continues — but the language itself has become a subject of vivid study and much-needed focus.

 “If using your first language is classed as the equivalent of sticking your tongue out at the teacher, there is little ground for fruitful dialogue. Educationalists often refer to the ‘inarticulate Scot’ as if it were a hereditary disease, instead of the effect of shackling people to one language when they are much more articulate in another. The omnipotent standard of having one correct way of speaking colours our society’s attitude and results in false value judgements about people. These value judgements are made in every sector of society, not just in education.”

This is particularly important as Scotland itself struggles toward self-determination in a post-Brexit, post-Covid-shambles world.

“One of the most debilitating phenomena of Scottish society is the false notion that to get on you have to get out. English hegemony is so all pervasive in our society that a sign of success and sophistication among some is to attempt to erase signs of Scottishness from their public persona. The implications of such an attitude for Scottish culture are drastic, not to mention wrong-headed. The linguistic tension is often not resolved at one particular time and can be an ongoing choice throughout one’s life.”

A person may choose to retain and (defiantly) use a language, such as Scots, and it becomes a part of their identity — or more a part of the identity. While you may not choose your native, first language, you can make the choice to continue using it even when it’s a minority language and often ridiculed… not only is it a part of the identity, it is a statement.

*The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationSarah Schulman

“The gentrification mentality is rooted in the belief that obedience to consumer identity over recognition of lived experience is actually normal, neutral, and value free.”

One of the few books that made me cry in 2020, Schulman’s account of a 1980s world governed by callous gentrification and a brainwashing of the entire culture to become willing cogs in the “Nasdaq value system” wheel hurts. And it hurts even more against its bigger backdrop: the loss of vast parts of an entire generation of young people, many of whom were artists, to AIDS, the dehumanization of the communities it primarily affected, and the heartlessness and unwillingness to act that kept the disease from being front-page news or a public health crisis of the proportion it should have been.

“The announcer is discussing events that I know intimately, organically, that have seared the emotional foundation of my adult life. And yet there is a strangely mellow tone to the story. It’s been slightly banalized, homogenized. This is the first time I’ve heard AIDS being historicized, and there is something clean-cut about this telling, something wrong. Something…gentrified. “At first America had trouble with People with AIDS,” the announcer says in that falsely conversational tone, intended to be reassuring about apocalyptic things. “But then, they came around.” I almost crash the car.”

Thus I comprehend her bewildered reaction: “But then, they came around“?!

What!?

When did “they” ever come around? Had, as Schulman pondered, her community – what remained of it – failed to show exactly how much they had suffered, how much they had lost? What the world, in fact, lost, to this epidemic, the lack of response to which was “caused by governmental and familial neglect”?

Schulman’s words echo the same words and experiences as highlighted in other books I’ve selected as important here, especially regarding the devaluing of humanity, experience, education and the prioritization, at any and all costs, of money and material wealth.

“Gentrified happiness is often available to us in return for collusion with injustice. We go along with it, usually, because of the privilege of dominance, which is the privilege not to notice how our way of living affects less powerful people. Sometimes we do know that certain happiness exists at the expense of other human beings, but because we’re not as smart as we think we are, we decide that this is the only way we can survive. Stupidity or cruelty become the choice, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. After all, people and institutions act on and transform each other. So, it’s not happiness at the expense of the weaker versus nothing, right? And yet we are led to feel this way.”

Schulman is writing from her own experience and taking back the narrative that homogenizes the AIDS crisis, but her theses are widely applicable in terms of discussing gentrification, privatization, privilege and — of course — the commodification of humanity and individual identities. Everything about this book commands attention and compels… action. Action toward empathy, compassion and intervention.

“Gentrification culture was a twentieth-century, fin de siècle rendition of bourgeois values. It defined truth telling as antisocial instead of as a requirement for decency. The action of making people accountable was decontextualized as inappropriate. When there is no context for justice, freedom-seeking behavior is seen as annoying. Or futile. Or a drag. Or oppressive. And dismissed and dismissed and dismissed and dismissed until that behavior is finally just not seen. Every historical moment passes.”

*Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary AbortionKatie Watson

While a book about abortion isn’t so much about identity, it is a complex and controversial issue defined by choice and anti-choice, ethical considerations, the legal system and personal and medical privacy. Public rhetoric about abortion, at least in the United States, treats it as less a personal medical issue and more a moral and religious one. And the mismatch between what is true (actions) versus what is said (ideas, beliefs) is stark.

Framing of the issue always comes into play, with the public discourse insisting that “abortion is always a tragedy” and that choosing abortion is or always must be “a difficult decision”. And this flies in the face of what I’d call freedom and identity (bold italics mine).

“But people who don’t struggle with an abortion decision are not necessarily less morally serious than those who do—they’re just less undecided. Someone who is clear about who she is, what she values, and what she wants is not casual. She is confident. Yet there are few examples of this type of counter-narrative. Bringing a child into the world is of great moral consequence, yet we don’t frame the decision to have a child as a difficult decision people always struggle with. So why wouldn’t some abortion decisions feel similarly obvious?”

And once more… the language and words we use matter.

“How we think shapes how we talk, and how we talk shapes how we think. That’s why terminology is contested ground in the abortion conversation. But all of our under- and over-inclusive words for embryos and fetuses make me wonder: Is it really that helpful to have seventeen words for snow? Or is the point rather that when you talk about something complex and important you need a range of words to describe it, each of which captures an important element, because none of them can encompass it all?“

*Breasts and EggsMieko Kawakami

And what of the choice not to bear children? What value does that convey about the one making this choice? Society has many opinions, but in the end, it is only the potential mother who must live with it.

In Breasts and Eggs, the protagonist is a writer who is considering having a child, and her reflections dive into the losses and consequences of having versus not having.

“It’s really simple, I promise. Why is it that people think this is okay? Why do people see no harm in having children? They do it with smiles on their faces, as if it’s not an act of violence. You force this other being into the world, this other being that never asked to be born.”

“Once you have children, you can’t unhave them,” she laughed. “I know how this sounds. You think I sound extreme, or detached from reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is real life. That’s what I’m talking about—the pain that comes with reality. Not that anyone ever sees it.”

*The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of TraumaBessel A. van der Kolk

Much of what I’ve focused on is the chosen identity. The self-determination that we can influence and drive for ourselves. But what of trauma and its influence on our bodies?

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”

Trauma appears to never disappear and the traumatic event (or events) live on, triggered for decades after (and epigenetics indicates that trauma lives on in the genes)… but an understanding of this, while continually emerging, is incomplete.

“The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communication is the royal road to emotion regulation, this demands a radical shift in our therapeutic assumptions.”

Freedom to explore, understand and interpret identity

*Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

“…no society, including our own, is the endpoint of human social evolution. We aren’t even a distinct stage in human development. History moves in loops and circles, not in straight lines, and toward no particular end. Our own vices and blind spots are as readily apparent as those of any society anywhere.”

The development of anthropology as a discipline isn’t something I gave a great deal of thought to until I started studying communication for development, which focuses on the so-called “developing world” (and queries whether it should even be called “developing world”). Later my psychology and theology studies crossed into anthropological territory, but it still never occurred to me to look more carefully at its theoretical and historical origins.

An anthropological quest crosses multiple disciplines: linguistics, sociology, psychology, theology, among others, and like most fields of academic inquiry, its methodology, its merit, its subjects have shifted alongside the specialists within the field and the cultures to which they belong.

At its core, according to its founding proponents, such as Franz Boas, cultural anthropology required acknowledging one’s own ignorance and one’s own worldview and preconceived ideas, placing oneself in unfamiliar surroundings and observing in as scientific and objective a way as possible. It provided, as anthropology pioneer Ruth Benedict put it, “illumination that comes of envisaging very different possible ways of handling invariable problems” and demanded the realization that nothing about culture is universal, i.e. cultural relativity.

Do we understand freedom, identity and self-determination without a context in which to place these concepts? Anthropology is one rich contextual lens through which to see and try to interpret in some limited way.

I greatly enjoyed this book, and could endlessly ramble about it — but won’t. It’s worth reading, and in particular its discussion on Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological work shines a light on her journey as a folklorist and writer in a new context; she is the most fascinating among the book’s “characters” and, while not orthodox or organized in her methodology and data collection, she captured the most living, breathing, startling accounts and observations in her anthropological work, such as in Haiti.

“Magical thinking was as close to a human universal as you could imagine, and it existed in modern societies, too. Gambling, the stock market, even the concept of private property—the belief that I can expand my sense of self to include an inanimate object, the loss of which would induce deep displeasure and anxiety—all depend to a degree on magical belief systems. They are ways of summoning the unlikely and the invisible in order to control the tangible world.”

For more detail on more of the things I read in 2020 (and before), here are the previous years’ reports: 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Said and read – December 2020

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Oddly I didn’t read a single book in November and only read a few in October. But I ‘recovered‘ in December by reading an insane amount. As always, it’s not the amount that counts. Just read. Especially during these times. There is something for everyone in the written word and world.

“A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining.”” Man’s Search for MeaningViktor E Frankl

Previous book reports: 2020 – October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for December:

I liked a lot of the things I read in December, even if I would not recommend the majority of them. I include several here that struck me for personal reasons and not so much because I think they’d be universally appreciated.

Highly recommended

*Man’s Search for MeaningViktor E Frankl

“The uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on his creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude.”

I had read Man’s Search for Meaning about three years ago at the suggestion of a friend. She sent me the book this year for Christmas, not knowing I’d read the book when she recommended it years earlier. But it’s the kind of slim volume that can and should be re-read.

It probably diminishes the value of the book to say that it could be an especially insightful thing to read in these soul-ravaging times, but I can think of very few books that can offer a guide for these fraught times. What other book teaches about human freedom and choice – our ability to choose to endure or even rise above suffering by choosing our own response to it?

“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make.”

I have had many conversations of late with people who are each enduring their own forms of suffering, and it reminds me constantly that suffering is relative. It is, as Frankl writes, omnipresent in life, but we cannot know the size of another’s suffering. But in our own suffering or in helping to shepherd others through their suffering, we may identify the source of the suffering. When we name it, we can endure it because we can strive for something else when we give the source or form of our suffering a name.

“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

In choosing our path, we also find meaning. Frankl, in very few words, shows how meaning can encompass so many different aspects of human existence.

“My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing—which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.”

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

*And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS EpidemicRandy Shilts

“How very American, he thought, to look at a disease as homosexual or heterosexual, as if viruses had the intelligence to choose between different inclinations of human behavior.”

I watch and read almost everything that chronicles the history of the AIDS epidemic, and strangely had never read this lengthy and detailed (not to mention gripping) account of the appearance of this mysterious and devastating disease. I had seen the film version, which now strikes me as inadequate.

Sound reporting for the most part, aside from its turning flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas into a villain by falsely identifying him as “patient zero”. At the time of the book’s publication, the best science available would have traced many AIDS patients back to Dugas, but later epidemiological digging would discover earlier antecedents to Dugas.

Notably thorough, particularly for a time when virtually no one was writing about AIDS with the kind of attention Shilts paid, it’s an incredible history from which we continue to learn. It covers the inattention, indifference and lethal lack of care of the public and political spheres (Conant recalled, however, that this was the dean who also once observed, “At least with AIDS, a lot of undesirable people will be eliminated.”), how frightening and befuddling the disease itself was, the incredible toll the disease took on the first group it mortally wounded, the gay community, and introduced a cast of unforgettable characters, including public health officials, AIDS activists and writer Larry Kramer (who recently died).

I can’t capture 800 pages worth of in-depth reporting in a couple of sentences, but this is one of the most comprehensive and important books of the early AIDS crisis, and time has done nothing to dim its vitality in retelling the story we seem to be, as a society, forgetting.

*The Right StuffTom Wolfe

“The military did not have very merciful instincts. Rather than packing up these poor souls and sending them home, the Navy, like the Air Force and the Marines, would try to make use of them in some other role, such as flight controller. So the washout was to keep taking classes with the rest of his group, even though he can no longer touch an airplane. He sits thee in the classes staring at sheets of paper with cataracts of sheer human mortification over his eyes while the rest steal looks at him… this man reduced to an ant, this untouchable, this poor sonofabitch. And in what test had he been found wanting? Why, it seemed to be nothing less than manhood itself.”

Having joked for years that my dad is Ed Harris (they sort of look alike), it’s hard not to then extend that to one of Ed Harris’s iconic roles, astronaut and US senator, John Glenn. I received a copy of The Right Stuff as a gift, an in-joke nod to this connection, the giver claiming I could finally get to know my dad better through his biography.

“…men who were the bearers and protectors of the most important values of American life, who maintained a sense of discipline while civilians abandoned themselves to hedonism, who maintained a sense of honor while civilians lived by opportunism and greed. Opportunism and greed: there you had your much-vaunted corporate business world. Khrushchev was right about one thing: when it came time to hang the capitalist West, an American businessman would sell him the rope. When the showdown came – and the showdowns always came – not all the wealth in the world or all the sophisticated nuclear weapons and radar and missile systems it could buy would take the place of those who had the uncritical willingness to face danger, those who, in short, had the right stuff.”

I started reading the book (having seen the film about a million times, which is of course how Ed Harris is so inextricably tied to John Glenn) the day before Chuck Yeager, who was arguably the hero of this book, died.

The book was beautifully written and captured the embryonic moments of the US space program and the competition with the Soviets but almost as a backdrop to the incipient and groundbreaking (or maybe “sound breaking” would be a more apt description) work Yeager did as a test pilot. A great deal of descriptive nuance is lost in the film (although I’d argue the film is also a classic, for different reasons. I liked having the visual image of the actors from the film in mind when I read the book).

And, in the shadow of Yeager’s death, a fitting tribute to Yeager and his apparently infectious, folksy, Appalachian drawl and how pilots ever since have sought to imitate it:

“’Pygmalion in reverse’: “It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

*The NightfieldsJoanna Klink

Poetry as always.

*I’ll Fly AwayRudy Francisco

Another collection of poetry from one of my recent favorites.

Useful, interesting and otherwise positive

*Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven WorldCarl T. Bergstrom

I’d have loved to read this when I was studying full-time – it is a great book to read any time to begin to unravel the skewed way we interpret data and statistics, eating them up as prepared. And the truth is they are prepared and fed to the tastes of the person feeding them to us.

It called to mind a book I read back in July, Rigor Mortis, about how bad/sloppy science is not only contributing to the replicability/reproducibility crisis but also wastes money, time and leads to bad conclusions that end up interpreted or used in media or other research that leads nowhere. Sharpening the BS radar, as Calling Bullshit calls for, and changing some of the particularities of academic and scientific journal publishing practice, could help alleviate this problem.

Whether you just want to understand a bit better how to critically interrogate the provenance or veracity of something you’ve read in a news article or need to think more deeply about scientific claims made in research, this is a great book to revisit often for practical how-to tactics to debunk junk claims, misleading “facts” and interpretations, and general BS. We need this kind of thing more than ever. While everyone can use it, it would be a heck of a lot more powerful if the people who need it most would read it.

*All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern ParenthoodJennifer Senior

Not much to say about this book except that it won’t surprise anyone that rearing children is difficult, expensive, and has become, if we follow Senior’s logic, asymmetrical.

“Over time, reformers managed to outlaw child labor practices. Yet change was slow. It wasn’t until our soldiers returned from World War II that childhood, as we now know it, began. The family economy was no longer built on a system of reciprocity, with parents sheltering and feeding their children, and children, in return, kicking something back into the family till. The relationship became asymmetrical. Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to our bosses.”

Mostly we see how children went from being useful to almost like being an all-consuming project. Senior touches on some of the important stuff about how rearing children outside the US, in European countries for example, is a very different enterprise, as governments usually guarantee protection for employees who take time off to have children, subsidize childcare and healthcare is universal, erasing some of the biggest worries atop parents’ minds. Having a child in Scandinavia, for example, is a good deal less… stressful than in America. Sure, it’s still hard, but all those external stresses are alleviated so parents can focus on being parents and people (individuals outside of parenthood).

*The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and HubrisMark Honigsbaum

“Unless and until we take account of the ecological, immunological, and behavioural factors that govern the emergence and spread of novel pathogens, our knowledge of such microbes and their connection to disease is bound to be partial and incomplete.”

I am on board with reading as many books like this as I can. I don’t know why I devour them. You’d think they would seem scarier under the thumb of Covid. But I feel like trying to get a better understanding of the history of identifying disease is comforting.

“Indeed, by the 1940s Burnet was worrying that these spillover events were becoming more common and that overpopulation, coupled with international trade and jet travel, was disrupting natural ecologies in new and unpredictable ways, leading to virulent outbreaks of vector-borne diseases such as yellow fever. While a world in which everyone and everything was more closely linked in a biological sense should favour a ‘virtual equilibrium’ between humans and microbial parasites, Burnet warned that “man… lives in an environment constantly being changed by his own activities, and few of his diseases have attained such equilibrium.”

*A Promised LandBarack Obama

Obama is a good writer, and it was comforting in some way to go back to this more innocent time. It feels like a million years ago. And it wasn’t innocent. It was just filled with complete sentences.

Even good writers, though, benefit from good editors, a point Obama himself concedes early on in this overly long book. But who is going to tell Barack Obama that he needs to shave off a couple hundred pages? Especially when he recounts with precise detail how offended he felt when others were cutting lines from a speech long ago, before he was the US president.

If you’re someone who has read his other books and Michelle Obama’s Becoming, much of this will also feel like you’re treading old ground that he didn’t need to include here. But plenty of people will appreciate the level of detail about the past he introduces.

*Death is Hard WorkKhaled Khalifa

“Surrendering to one’s memories is the best way of escaping the wounds they preserve; constant repetition robs them of their brilliance and sanctity.”

Khalifa is a Syrian writer whose work brings the day-to-day struggles and tragedy in Syria into stark view. In this brief novel, an old man dies in Damascus and has tasked his son with completing his last wish: to be buried in the family plot in Anabiya.

Yet with war raging all around, roadblocks impeding the supposedly two-hour drive between Damascus and Anabiya, the son enlists his siblings to help him achieve his father’s final wish. This book tells the tale of that harrowing and perilous journey.

““Tend to the living—the dead are already gone.” He didn’t like it, however, because of how often the line was quoted by cowards justifying retreat. And in any case, today it might be a different matter—better to tend to the dead; after all, they now outnumbered the living. He went on to muse that they would all surely be dead in the not-too-distant future. This thought had given him exceptional courage over the previous four years. Not only had it served to increase his stoicism day by day, but he was far better able to withstand the many insults he received from checkpoint soldiers and Mukhabarat in the course of his work if he bore this thought in mind, since it allowed him to subscribe to the view that anyone who gave him a hard time would probably be dead today or tomorrow, or by next month at the latest. Not that this was a particularly pleasant notion, but it was an accurate one, and each citizen had to live under the shadow of this understanding. The inhabitants of the city regarded everyone they saw as not so much “alive” as “pre-dead.” It gave them a little relief from their frustration and anger.”

*Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

*GulagAnne Applebaum

I’ve only recently discovered Applebaum, which is odd considering my long ‘relationship’ with studying eastern Europe and Russia. Still, I’ve stumbled onto her work as a result of her recent book, Twilight of Democracy, which completes a journey through (relatively) newly authoritarian regimes in Poland and Hungary, the inward-looking, xenophobic English (and mercifully Applebaum makes the critical distinction that it is an English obsession, not a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish one) drive toward the disaster that is Brexit, and finally the Trump-in-America phenomenon.

I enjoyed Twilight of Democracy, but not quite as much as I had expected. Perhaps because I’d read Sarah Kendzior’s Hiding in Plain Sight and Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy first. Even though Applebaum has different expertise and her own voice, I was put off by her tendency to write exceptionally long and not particularly succinct sentences. I have always been (rightly) criticized for my own long sentences, and I have yet to read another writer in modern literature who gets away with it. And, even though Applebaum’s long sentences made it through editing, I wouldn’t say she “gets away with it” because greater concision would have made Twilight of Democracy a better book. This is, though, a minor complaint because it is a good book. Just not as good as it might have been.

Her other works, especially Gulag, are better. The diligence of her research is clear – and she exposes a great deal of hitherto unavailable information about the history of the Gulag system. When I told someone I was reading a book about the Gulag system, he asked incredulously, “System?!” Which makes Applebaum’s point:

“Yet although they lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself, and although many millions of people passed through them, the true history of the Soviet Union’s concentration camps was, until recently, not at all well known. By some measures, it is still not known. Even the bare facts recited above, although by now familiar to most Western scholars of Soviet history, have not filtered into Western popular consciousness. “Human knowledge,” once wrote Pierre Rigoulot, the French historian of communism, “doesn’t accumulate like the bricks of a wall, which grows regularly, according to the work of the mason. Its development, but also its stagnation or retreat, depends on the social, cultural and political framework.”

*Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally IllRobert Whitaker

“I soon stumbled upon two research findings that didn’t fit with what I knew. First, in a 1994 article, Harvard Medical School researchers had reported that outcomes for schizophrenia patients had worsened during the past twenty years. Schizophrenia patients were now faring no better than they had in 1900, when various water therapies—needle showers and prolonged baths—were the preferred treatments of the day. Second, the World Health Organization had twice found that schizophrenia outcomes in the United States and other developed countries were much worse than those in the poor countries of the world. Suffer a psychotic break in a poor country like India or Nigeria, and chances were that in a couple of years you would be doing fairly well. But suffer a similar break in the United States or another developed country, and it was likely that you would become chronically ill.”

A damning exploration of the treatment of schizophrenia in America, and society’s inability first to see patients as people and second to appropriately understand the damage done by the litany of dangerous treatments lauded as “cures”. Whether blunt surgical butchery, electroshock therapy or highly toxic medication, the efficacy of most of the treatments administered in the United States was never established, and in most cases, patients ended up much worse off.

*The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American FreedomH.W. Brands

“The work wasn’t finished. The work of freedom never would be.”

This was one of those times I had to “nerd out” and email the author to say thanks because this book breathed fresh life into historical figures and events, which is something that always causes my heart to flutter a bit. This volume comes around at a time that lets it coincide with the raucous, much-lauded limited series, The Good Lord Bird, which certainly will act as a springboard for deeper investigation of the real people and stories that make up the actual historical record.

“The hanging was not the end of John Brown but a new beginning. Brown’s parting testament shortly surfaced, scribbled on a scrap of paper passed to a sympathetic guard before he left the jail. “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood,” he declared. The dreadful forecast made the martyr into a prophet as well.”

“Lincoln himself had raised the issue of blood atonement in his second inaugural address. Now his own blood was part of the reckoning, and his link to John Brown more compelling. Brown had foretold blood atonement while becoming one of the first sacrifices; Lincoln at the time had resisted the concept for his country and scarcely imagined it for himself. But he made decisions whose consequences included a bloodletting far greater than anything Brown had envisioned, and finally his own death. Brown was a first martyr in the war that freed the slaves, Lincoln one of the last.”

I’m partial to anything that leads people to investigate further. In this case, the book also raises points that are as relevant today as when Brown and Lincoln lived.

“THE QUESTION HAD BEEN: What does a good man do when his country commits a great evil? John Brown chose the path of violence, Lincoln of politics. Yet the two paths wound up leading to the same place: the most terrible war in American history. Brown aimed at slavery and shattered the Union; Lincoln defended the Union and destroyed slavery.”

*His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a LifeJonathan Alter

A misunderstood US president who has long been dogged by labels that he was one of America’s worst presidents. His long post-presidential life has enabled a reassessment of sorts, particularly as the man has devoted his life to doing good in the world.

Was Carter’s presidency as “bad” as it is often remembered? The book makes a compelling case that it certainly wasn’t – but Carter was a bit thin-skinned, a bit too honest and forthright, a true non-politician in the sense that he had neither the dishonesty or charisma to propel him to the inspirational heights that wholly unqualified individuals like Ronald Reagan reached.

*This Is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended ConsequencesSarah E. Hill

I am not sure how to characterize why this book was a disappointment to me. It’s not that it was bad or unreadable. It’s not that the subject matter isn’t fascinating in its own way. It’s just… I don’t know what. Still there are useful questions posed.

“Treating the pill as the big deal that it is will require a major course adjustment for all of us. We’ve all been far too cavalier about making changes to women’s sex hormones. And if you need evidence of this, consider for a moment the differences in the way we treat birth control pills and anabolic steroids, those drugs favored by athletes who don’t mind cheating to win. The primary ingredient in steroids is a synthetic version of the primary male sex hormone, testosterone. These synthetics work by stimulating testosterone receptors and getting cells to run their testosterone program. This causes the body to experience changes like increased muscle mass, skin breakouts, and the magnification of certain male-like behavioral traits (like bar fighting and wall punching). Now, as you are probably well aware, anabolic steroids are illegal without a prescription. They are classified as a Schedule III controlled substance and—if you’re caught with them—you’re looking at a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison. Steroids, because they stimulate hormone receptors, have a wide range of effects on men’s bodies and brains. When taken over long periods of time, these changes can be bad for men’s health. Given that men might want to take them anyway, steroids are illegal without a prescription, in an attempt to discourage steroid use in the service of public health. Are you starting to sense the irony? We worry about men using artificial sex hormones because of all the effects they have on the body. At the same time, women are routinely prescribed female sex hormones and kept on them for years at a time despite all the effects that they have on the body. We are willing to turn a blind eye to all the ways the pill can change women because we simply can’t entertain going back to living in a world where women don’t have control over their fertility. And we shouldn’t have to.”

Disappointing reads

*Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the WorldTom Burgis

“Compliance officers had been around for a while but following a procession of corporate scandals – Enron, WorldCom and the rest – they became ubiquitous, the designated conscience of big business. In practice, what compliance officers at banks usually did was attempt to swathe the organisation in a veil of rectitude without restricting bankers’ moneymaking in any meaningful way.”

I thought this was going to be an exciting book, and whether I was just not in the mood for it, or it was just that boring, I could barely get through it. I may revisit it later.

“For an oligarch seeking safety there was one option so bold that you might have thought it would be difficult. First, turn yourself into a corporation: one of the most powerful fictions in which Westerners chose to believe, endowed with privileges and protections, and yet blissfully easy to create. Second, add to that corporation the assets Nazarbayev had allowed you to acquire – mines, banks, whatever. Then sell a share of your corporation for Western money.”

Probably the best part of the book was the strategic deployment of quotes from other people:

“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” –Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Said and read – June 2020

Standard

“Someone who’s on top of the world isn’t much of an observer: happy people are poor psychologists. But someone who’s troubled about something is on the alert. The perceived threat sharpens his senses—he takes in more than he usually does.” The Post-Office GirlStefan Zweig

Image by S Donaghy

Another late book report. No good excuses other than… I kept reading more in July, not stopping to reflect too deeply on the things I read in June. I was also compiling a list of books on dealing with racist ignorance (a list that continues to evolve as I continue to educate myself).

Previous book reports: 2020 – May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for June:

Highly recommended

“But if we use the wrong language, we cannot describe what we are seeing.” Surviving AutocracyMasha Gessen

*When the Clyde Ran RedMaggie Craig

A great book chronicling the history of socialist Red Clydeside in Glasgow. It’s a bit of a niche read, as most people don’t care about Glasgow, but a valuable history of a city defined by labor movements and fighting for workers’ rights amidst poverty, war and a period of exceptionally rapid and dramatic social and economic change.

*Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary AbortionKatie Watson

In a country where abortion has been a constitutional right for forty-five years, we should be able to move on to a richer conversation about ethics and morality. We should be able to acknowledge the complexity of private decisionmaking without threatening the right of private decisionmaking.

I practically highlighted this entire book, which isn’t really helpful when trying to impart succinct ideas in a brief (haha) blog format. Although I wish everyone would read and try to understand it, I know it’s a difficult sell. Abortion is not a topic people are open to reading about, talking about or treating with any kind of nuance. The arguments are well-reasoned, persuasive and, most of all, important.

One result of our public and private silence about the experience of abortion is that doctors and clinic managers have become the public face of abortion. Unlike other health issues, in which patients and families advocate for future patients and the doctors and institutions that helped them, in abortion we ask those who provide something millions of women and families want and need to also shoulder most of the burden of its defense. That doesn’t seem fair, and I don’t think it’s sustainable.”

The “abortion is always a difficult decision” masterplot underscores the moral seriousness people making this decision are expected to have. But people who don’t struggle with an abortion decision are not necessarily less morally serious than those who do—they’re just less undecided. Someone who is clear about who she is, what she values, and what she wants is not casual. She is confident. Yet there are few examples of this type of counter-narrative. Bringing a child into the world is of great moral consequence, yet we don’t frame the decision to have a child as a difficult decision people always struggle with. So why wouldn’t some abortion decisions feel similarly obvious?

But the public rhetoric about abortion treats it as less a personal medical issue and more a moral and religious one. And the mismatch between what is true (actions) versus what is said (ideas, beliefs) is stark. So many more people have abortions than will ever admit it.

“Dr. Willie Parker identifies a related masterplot—“Abortion is always a tragedy”—and in Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, he offers his experience as an abortion provider as a counter-narrative. In doing so, he describes a large number of women whom I’d call confident. One of the cultural falsehoods that I most rail against is this: each and every abortion is a terrible tragedy and every woman who chooses to have an abortion is therefore a tragic figure. In this popular narrative, women are helpless victims—and not clear-eyed individuals making a sensible choice to benefit themselves and the people around them. I know, from seeing women every day, how far this is from being true. Most of the women I see are utterly matter-of-fact about what they’re doing. They’re on my table because they need to be.  … It may be difficult in a misogynist culture to regard women who freely choose sex and who freely choose to have abortions when needed as free agents taking their lives into their own hands. But the alternative is to see them as less than fully human and requiring of paternalistic intervention.”

And once more… the language and words we use matter.

How we think shapes how we talk, and how we talk shapes how we think. That’s why terminology is contested ground in the abortion conversation. But all of our under- and over-inclusive words for embryos and fetuses make me wonder: Is it really that helpful to have seventeen words for snow? Or is the point rather that when you talk about something complex and important you need a range of words to describe it, each of which captures an important element, because none of them can encompass it all?

How could we effectively reframe the language and thinking about abortion to change the discussion and make people see it in different ways? Much of what I read this month comes back to language and how it is used to frame or reframe issues (see the coincidence/Lakoff points below).

It observes that American adults are never required to sacrifice their bodies to save another person, and argues there’s no reason pregnant women should be held to a different standard. The most famous of these arguments was made by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971. She posited a parallel universe in which you wake up to find an adult, who happens to be a violinist, is attached to your body. He needs to be plugged into your circulatory system in order to live, and if you disconnect him he will die. She argues that the adult violinist has a right to life, but that is different than having a right to life support from another person’s body. According to Jarvis Thomson, a right to life is a right not to be killed—so if the violinist was flourishing on his own, shooting him at his recital would violate his right to life. But the violinist’s right to life does not include a right to be kept alive—so if he needs your body to stay alive, it is not unethical for you to disconnect him. Sacrificing your body to keep someone alive makes you a Good Samaritan, but it’s not morally required. This leads Jarvis Thomson to reason that even if an embryo or fetus has the same moral value as an adult, abortion is morally permissible.

Organ donation is not called “the obligation of life.” It’s called “the gift of life” because American medical ethics and law both say that no person can be forced to give a piece of their body to another. Our commitment to bodily integrity is so strong that we respect your wishes even after you’re dead—your desire to be buried intact is valued more in our culture than another person’s desire to stay alive.

Pregnancy can be viewed as a form of organ donation. A woman undergoes significant physical changes that can range from uncomfortable to dangerous for months so another’s life can be sustained by her major organs. It occupies her uterus, her heart must pump extra blood to give it oxygen, her kidneys must process its urine, and so on. These similarities mean the choice to lend one’s body to a developing human should also be considered a gift, not a requirement. The American tradition and law of self-defense offers another real-world analogy. When a person breaks into your house, you’re allowed to kill him. (The legal standard usually requires imminent threat of serious harm.) This suggests a woman who experiences an unwelcome pregnancy as bodily break-in by a different type of intruder should be able to respond to the threat of physical harm to her body and irrevocable disruption of her life by taking lethal action.”

*Surviving AutocracyMasha Gessen

“The difficulty with absorbing the news lies, in part, in the words we use, which have a way of rendering the outrageous ordinary. The secretary of education was held in contempt, and this astounding event was narrated in normalizing newspaper prose: probably the strongest description called it an “exceedingly rare judicial rebuke of a Cabinet secretary.” This could not begin to describe the drama of a cabinet member remaining unrepentant for her agency’s seizure of assets from people whom it had been ordered by the courts to leave in peace—sixteen thousand people.”

“When some of the post-Soviet societies developed in unexpected ways, language impaired our ability to understand the process. We talked about whether they had a free press, for example, or free and fair elections. But noting that they did not, as Magyar has said, is akin to saying that the elephant cannot swim or fly: it doesn’t tell us much about what the elephant is. Now the same thing was happening in the United States; we were using the language of political disagreement, judicial procedure, or partisan discussion to describe something that was crushing the system that such terminology was invented to describe.”

I doubt that anyone needs more analysis or discussion of the (beyond) dysfunctional, shambolic presidency of Donald Trump. However, coming from Masha Gessen, a voice of authority on the signs of impending autocracy, this is a must-read. Or, in Bálint Magyar’s terminology, we should, through Gessen, examine “the concept of autocratic transformation, which proceeds in three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation.”

As with Katie Watson’s book listed above, I cannot emphasize enough how important this book is, how much I wish everyone would and could read it. I would end up copy-pasting the entire book here if I were not conscious of how useless that would be. Of course the people who need to understand what has been happening during and before Trump — the lead-up to and introduction of autocratic rule — will never read this or believe what they are reading.

“Both ways of framing the policy—whether by stressing that calling something a lie goes beyond fact and becomes opinion, or by focusing on internal, unknowable intent—place artificial limits on a journalist’s ability to observe reality. In order to assume that Trump was not aware that he was lying when he said that millions of immigrants had voted illegally, or that Obama had him wiretapped, or that his tax cut was the biggest in history, or that the economy was better than ever, or that he was building a wall and this wall would keep out drugs and crime, one had to ignore the very act of repetition. Trump repeats his false statements after they have been fact-checked by the media and, in many cases, contradicted by officials in his own administration—and it is this repetition that gives Trumpian lies much of their power.”

The people who need to read and understand that we are living in an autocracy will never see it, have bought into the lies, are blind to the outright “belief that political power should produce personal wealth” and have drunk the KoolAid. They are ready to die for (perhaps literally, thanks to Covid) this lying criminal alongside the endless churn of his lackeys and sycophants.

“The Reichstag Fire was used to create a “state of exception,” as Carl Schmitt, Hitler’s favorite legal scholar, called it. In Schmitt’s terms, a state of exception arises when an emergency, a singular event, shakes up the accepted order of things. This is when the sovereign steps forward and institutes new, extralegal rules. The emergency enables a quantum leap: Having amassed enough power to declare a state of exception, the sovereign then, by that declaration, acquires far greater, unchecked power.”

“A study of modern autocrats may show us that a Reichstag Fire is never quite the singular and signal event that changes the course of history, but it will also expose a truth behind the single-event narrative: autocrats declare their intentions early on. We disbelieve or ignore them at our peril.”

“We disbelieve or ignore them at our peril.” This is exactly what we have done. And now look at where we are. Trump has been telling us exactly who he is and what he wants to do for decades, and American belief in institutions and checks and balances — as well as a naive “presumption of good faith” — created an environment not dissimilar to that chronicled by Saul Friedländer (mentioned below) about the years leading up to the Holocaust. It’s not an exact parallel, but enough parallels can be drawn to show similarities: a complacent populace, civil unrest, economic uncertainty, the normalization of inflammatory and violent (often deranged) rhetoric, a failed attempt to impeach, and a continuing naivete assuming that all of this is benign, all of this will pass.

“Trump had campaigned on insulting the government, and he himself was an insult to the presidency. But could someone so absurd, so evidently incompetent, be a true danger? In the early months of the Trump presidency, the hope that Trump would become “presidential” was gradually replaced by the hope that he was too bad at the job to do true lasting damage. We could have imagined, but we could not have predicted, that a pandemic would render his arrogant ignorance lethal. We imagine the villains of history as masterminds of horror. This happens because we learn about them from history books, which weave narratives that retrospectively imbue events with logic, making them seem predetermined. Historians and their readers bring an unavoidable perception bias to the story: if a historical event caused shocking destruction, then the person behind this event must have been a correspondingly giant monster.”

*Praises & Offenses: Three Women Poets from the Dominican RepublicAída Cartagena Portalatín, Angela Hernández Núñez, Ylonka Nacidit-Perdomo

Poetry, of course. I have always loved such collections. This one was a beautiful discovery when researching Central and South American women poets.

*The Invisible Bridge/El Puente Invisible: Selected Poems of Circe MaiaCirce Maia

Another poetry research discovery.

*América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan PoetsJesse Lee Kercheval, ed.

Lovely poetry from Uruguay.

*Survival is a Style: PoemsChristian Wiman

Each time I approach a Christian Wiman book of poetry, I imagine I won’t like it. I don’t know why because each time the collection is full of surprises.

*The Post-Office GirlStefan Zweig

“Indifferent and without desires before, now she’s beginning to realize what she’s been missing. This contact with the overpowering is her first encounter with travel’s disconcerting ability to strip the hard shell of habit from the heart, leaving only the bare, fertile kernel.”

Status and class and the process of becoming aware of that as well as the power wielded by appearances and class – and how easily it can all be derailed.

“There’s nothing more vindictive, nothing more underhanded, than a little world that would like to be a big one.”

“Fear is a distorting mirror in which anything can appear as a caricature of itself, stretched to terrible proportions; once inflamed, the imagination pursues the craziest and most unlikely possibilities. What is most absurd suddenly seems the most probable…”

This is what it is like to live in a capitalist, wealth-obsessed world and highly reflective of the world we live in now.

*Stronghold: One Man’s Quest to Save the World’s Wild SalmonTucker Malarkey

He’d identified a flaw in the system that few seemed to recognize. The Endangered Species Act was not a conservation strategy—it was the emergency room. By the time a species was endangered, the whole system was failing. It was code blue; life support could be administered at great cost, but a full return to health was out of the question.

This is really a book I had no expectations of, and didn’t imagine I’d enjoy as much as I did. Yet it was engrossing – the tale of a strange man, marching to his own beat, whose entire life becomes a mission to save the world’s wild salmon.

I came to regard the fish swimming in our river as shape-shifters. The rainbow trout of the Deschutes could, under certain circumstances, transform their physiology and become anadromous: able to live in both fresh and salt water. They could leave the river as rainbow trout and come back as salmon. I still find it baffling that a creature can start life as one creature and end as another, like a dog going to the woods for a year and emerging as a wolf.

Good – or better than expected

*When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back: Carl’s BookNaja Marie Aidt

Writer Aidt writing a thoughtful and melancholy account of life after the death of her son.

*Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural ObjectsEdward Posnett

In Ísafjörður, the capital of Iceland’s remote Westfjords region, a Lutheran pastor compared eiderdown to cocaine. “I sometimes think that we are like the coca farmers in Colombia,” he said. “We [the down harvesters] get a fraction of the price when the product hits the streets of Tokyo. This is the finest down in the world and we are exporting it in black garbage bags.”

I am not sure why this book stuck with me. Most of it was not that fabulous, but it started by telling the tale of Iceland’s eiderdown harvests, and it was so fascinating and evocative — and filled me with a renewed homesickness for Iceland — that I was drawn in. Perhaps I’d recommend this book primarily for the opening chapter, although it tells the unusual and improbable stories of eiderdown, vicuña fiber, sea silk, vegetable ivory, civet coffee, guano, and edible birds’ nests… not exactly subjects about which most of us know… anything.

*The Mountains SingNguyễn Phan Quế Mai

What my uncle said made me think. I had resented America, too. But by reading their books, I saw the other side of them—their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.

A story of a multigenerational Vietnamese family over the course of the 20th century. Beautifully written, bringing Vietnam itself to life in the prose, weaving the unwelcome conflicts of the 20th century, and the inevitable ensuing upheaval, into the lives of the characters.

*On Disobedience: Why Freedom Means Saying “No” to PowerErich Fromm

Man has continued to evolve by acts of disobedience. Not only was his spiritual development possible only because there were men who dared to say no to the powers that be in the name of their conscience or their faith, but also his intellectual development was dependent on the capacity for being disobedient—disobedient to authorities who tried to muzzle new thoughts and to the authority of long-established opinions which declared a change to be nonsense.

We continue to exist in a world that tries to harness and control people — and disobedience remains a powerful force for change. It also exposes the hypocrisy of the dominant paradigm and powers that be. Just before writing this I was told of a heated exchange on a British talk show in which a middle-aged woman (Carole Malone) decried the removal of a statue, which was replaced by a statue of a Black Lives Matter activist. It was clear that the replacement statue was meant as a statement, an act of disobedience and resistance, but she wasn’t having any of it — this was wrong and clearly a form of vandalism. When asked whether she saw Banksy’s work the same way, she insisted that, no, this was not the same because Banksy is “making a statement”. How and in what world is the statue removal and replacement not making a statement? In this case it was probably less about disobedience and more about Malone’s unconscious racial bias. But still… disobedience and resistance makes news, draws attention to issues and, as Fromm makes clear, is required as an ingredient for freedom.

Freedom may take on different definitions, but a society that is not free to question and resist power, particularly where it’s corrupt, isn’t free.

From socialist principles it follows not only that each member of society feels responsible for his fellow citizens, but for all citizens of the world. The injustice which lets two-thirds of the human race live in abysmal poverty must be removed by an effort far beyond the ones hitherto made by wealthy nations to help the underdeveloped nations to arrive at a humanly satisfactory economic level. Humanistic socialism stands for freedom. It stands for freedom from fear, want, oppression, and violence. But freedom is not only from, but also freedom to; freedom to participate actively and responsibly in all decisions concerning the citizen, freedom to develop the individual’s human potential to the fullest possible degree.

*The Book of Disappearance: A NovelIbtisam Azem

Longing is thorns.

A novel based on the premise that one day all the Palestinians disappear from Israel — what happens then?

*The Child in TimeIan McEwan

I went on an Ian McEwan “bender” during June… one book after another. Some were excellent, like this (which I’ve seen the film adaptation of), and others completely forgettable.

Such faith in endless mutability, in remaking yourself as you came to understand more or changed your version, he had come to see as an aspect of her femininity. Where once he had believed, or thought he ought to believe, that men and women were, beyond all the obvious physical differences, essentially the same, he now suspected that one of their many distinguishing features was precisely their attitudes to change. Past a certain age, men froze into place; they tended to believe that, even in adversity, they were somehow at one with their fates. They were who they thought they were.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed AmericaJared Cohen

I didn’t expect to enjoy this book, but it was actually quite informative. Obviously about presidents who ended up being presidents… by accident.

*Salt: A World HistoryMark Kurlansky

It’s been a long while since I read a Kurlansky book. I recall being stuck in the Halifax airport for the better part of a day, plowing my way through his book on the Basque people. Hard to believe that was already 20 years ago.

At times soldiers were even paid in salt, which was the origin of the word salary and the expression “worth his salt” or “earning his salt.” In fact, the Latin word sal became the French word solde, meaning pay, which is the origin of the word, soldier.

While there was nothing revolutionary here, it was still quite an interesting walk through the history of one of the world’s most common condiments.

They also ate a great deal of salted herring, though they seem to have preferred lightly salted and smoked red herring, perhaps because of their limited salt supply. When these early settlers hunted, they would leave red herring along their trail because the strong smell would confuse wolves, which is the origin of the expression red herring, meaning “a false trail.””

*Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and DemocracyMatt Stoller

Our leaders responded to a financial collapse caused by a concentration of wealth and power by pushing even more wealth and power into the hands of the same people that caused it.

Far from living in a decentralized age with competition and choice, we live in an era of monopolies and anti-competition the likes of which we’ve rarely seen before. And it poses a real danger to any semblance of democracy or control.

Take a look around. You probably have a phone made by one of two companies. You likely bank at one of four giant banks, and fly on one of four big airlines. You connect with friends with either Facebook, WhatsApp, or Instagram, all of which are owned by one company. You get your internet through Comcast or AT&T. Data about your thoughts goes into a database owned by Google, what you buy into Amazon or Walmart, and what you owe into Experian or Equifax. You live in a world structured by concentrated corporate power.

Wright Patman was an optimist, but the rise of soft authoritarianism globally would not have surprised him. Dictatorship in politics is consistent with how the commercial sphere has developed since the 1970s. Americans are at the mercy of distant forces, our livelihoods dependent on the arbitrary whims of power. Patman once attacked chain stores as un-American, saying, “We, the American people, want no part of monopolistic dictatorship in… American business.” Having yielded to monopolies in business, we must now face the threat to democracy Patman warned they would sow.

*Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of ExterminationSaul Friedländer

Nobody would dispute such an obvious point; its significance derives from an essential fact. Not one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews (some of the Christian churches declared that converted Jews were part of the flock, up to a point); to the contrary, many social constituencies, many power groups were directly involved in the expropriation of the Jews and eager, be it out of greed, for their wholesale disappearance. Thus Nazi and related anti-Jewish policies could unfold to their most extreme levels without the interference of any major countervailing interests.

An essential but difficult-to-read account of the persecution and killing of Europe’s Jews before and during World War II. It delves into the complex set of circumstances that set the stage for the mass-scale extermination that eventually ensued, including policy decisions, the willingness to obey orders, the blind belief in the rule of law (not considering that the law could be changed to suit the moment), the herd mentality, economic factors and scapegoating, and much more. It’s painstaking… and painful but more important the further away from this period of history we get.

*Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food KingdomAdam Chandler

“The chicken was a revelation; the result was poultry in motion.

I read this on a lark, without having high hopes that it would be a great book. This is a lightweight and easy-to-read account of America’s fast-food history. It’s a straightforward and engaging story that eschews the “dark side” of fast food we’ve come to expect from exposé-style journalism and filmmaker (here I mean things like the Supersize Me documentary and other materials in the same vein).

Nothing here was very surprising, but it was put together in a way that made the ‘journey’ worth taking. For example, I read this quite soon after I’d read some other account of the life of KFC’s Colonel Sanders, so while Chandler reveals nothing new, he still brings the story to life. Even his treatment of the rise of the almighty cupholder came to life:

By 2007, PricewaterhouseCoopers surveys had found that the number of cupholders had come to outstrip fuel efficiency as a priority for the American car buyer, though unprecedented hikes in gas prices in the late aughts would shuffle those priorities and hurt the sales of big cars. But by 2015, the mighty SUVs were booming again, along with a runaway number of cupholders. In late 2017, viral word of the features offered by a new-model Subaru SUV inspired euphoria and disbelief. The 2019 Ascent, pumped as “the biggest Subaru yet,” comes equipped with three passenger rows, 260 horsepower, and a staggering nineteen cupholders.

Oddly, he makes a reference to “Buddy Garrity”, “Nearly fifty years later, Piazza is an impressive dead ringer for Buddy Garrity and is the owner of ten McDonald’s franchises”, and I had to wonder how many people reading it would be familiar enough with Buddy Garrity to get the reference.

*Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening WorldDavid Owen

I suspect that hearing is something we take very much for granted until we start to lose it. Right away I felt like I was reading retellings of stories I’ve heard from people so many times about how, having lived together for 30 years (or thereabouts), they realize that their partner is mumbling and angrily demanding, “Answer me!” even though the person has answered already. Hearing just begins to disappear, often in slow increments, and people don’t realize, stubbornly refusing to move to mitigate the damage.

Hearing problems are often aggravated by the human tendency to do nothing and hope for the best, usually while pretending that everything is fine. This is the way we treat many health problems, although it’s not the way we typically treat threats to our other senses. People who need glasses almost always get them, and, as Lauren Dragan wrote on the website Wirecutter in 2018, “If someone told you that wearing certain jeans too often might trigger permanent leg numbness, or overuse of a hot sauce would cause you to lose your ability to taste sweets, you’d pay attention.” Yet people who notice trouble with their ears wait more than ten years, on average, before doing anything other than saying “Huh?,” turning up the TV, and asking other people to speak up. I heard a joke about a man who was worried his wife was going deaf. He told his doctor, who suggested a simple test. When the man got home, he stood at the door of the kitchen, where his wife was at the stove, and asked, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” She didn’t respond, so he moved closer and asked again. She still didn’t respond, so he stood directly behind her and asked one more time. She turned around and snapped, “For the third time, chicken!”

Coincidences

*The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the DebateGeorge Lakoff

When you think you just lack words, what you really lack are ideas. Ideas come in the form of frames. When the frames are there, the words come readily.

Earlier in this post I wrote about Katie Watson’s Scarlet A and Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy, both of which describe the importance of language and how we must deliberately choose how we frame issues. Clearly the “coincidence” this month was that I managed to read books that cover a broad range of topics, but many of them come back to this very basic truth about language and how influential it is, and how it is fundamentally underpinned by metaphors and semantics and are backed by ideas that resonate deeply with the long-term concepts embedded deep within our cognitive function.

Lakoff has been writing from the linguist’s and progressive’s point of view, explaining how the conservative movement, particularly in the United States, have been so successful because of their command of framing their issues.

Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.”

Gessen writes about how the language we choose and use is instrumental in our understanding of the world, and in the case of Trump, the process of normalizing the exceedingly abnormal. Language and words carry real power. Progressives, democrats and those on “that side” of the line haven’t been as active or effective at deploying language and framing, which is something Lakoff tackles.

The conservatives had set a trap: The words draw you into their worldview. That is what framing is about. Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary—and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.

“People think in frames. The strict father and nurturant parent frames each force a certain logic. To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off. Why? Neuroscience tells us that each of the concepts we have—the long-term concepts that structure how we think—is instantiated in the synapses of our brains. Concepts are not things that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact. We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise facts go in and then they go right back out. They are not heard, or they are not accepted as facts, or they mystify us: Why would anyone have said that? Then we label the fact as irrational, crazy, or stupid. That’s what happens when progressives just “confront conservatives with the facts.” It has little or no effect, unless the conservatives have a frame that makes sense of the facts.”

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

Nothing terribly disappointing to report, although there were plenty of things that were neither good nor bad.

 

said and read

Standard

My goal, as stated, was to read 26 non-English-language books in 2018. I am on track, but I didn’t really intend to keep reading other books like a total fiend.  I suppose it’s like when you avoid something over which you have no self-control. (My grandmother might have called this lamentable lack of discipline ‘a potato-chip effect’. She could entirely avoid potato chips, but if she ate just one, she was not able to stop. Then again, my grandmother would also have found this kind of obsessive reading to be intoxicating and its own form of discipline, so I doubt she would have faulted me for it. Books are not, after all, potato chips.)

For nearly a decade I didn’t read much of anything. But crack open a book (or a screen in the case of an e-reader), and I’m done. You can’t pry me away from it. That’s not to say I don’t do anything else. It’s just that I never go anywhere without the Kindle. Every spare moment waiting or riding a train or plane or lying in bed trying to fall asleep is occupied with reading.

To achieve my actual goal I need to read two non-English-language books per month, and I am well into the second of the two. But I guess there must be about 18 other (English-language) books on the go at the same time. I really didn’t anticipate this.

And my one unequivocal recommendation is Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Sure, you kind of have to be interested in Russia, Russian history and non-fiction for this to appeal to you (although she has used several people’s journeys as ways into the story, making it feel more visceral and urgent than a lot of fiction). Several other books have been noteworthy: Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Bohumil Hrabal)… because it’s Hrabal. There’s no way to explain why it’s good or worth your time (and it might not be if this style doesn’t appeal to you); The Best We Could Do (Thi Bui), which is not my normal style. I don’t care for graphic/illustrated novels (this is more an autobio than a novel), but this was a moving exception. If you have interest in Vietnam, the refugees who left Vietnam after the long conflict and the way these people adapted in their new surroundings and how their children then adapted, this is a fresh and deeply humanizing take on a familiar story (familiar, perhaps, in a firsthand way to Vietnamese and American people at least).

So far I have not read anything I considered truly bad, but there were a few repetitive time wasters (e.g. a handful of books by comedian Frankie Boyle – not time-wasting per se… more just semi-lazy rehashing of his comedy material mixed with some semi-thoughtful left-wing opinions, and the inane autobio of Lauren Graham, whom I dislike anyway, so I can’t explain why I read it. It may just be an extension of my “hate watching” of certain TV shows, notably and related in this case, Gilmore Girls and Parenthood). It could be that I read these because they were readily available as e-books from the library. Yeah, sometimes this potent mix of lukewarm curiosity and convenience/availability will do it. Not just when it comes to books.