Books read in 2020January 8, 2021
Este post también está disponible en español.
2020 was a strange year. The isolation and confinement brought about by COVID-19 meant that there was a lot of time to read, but also a lot less brainpower left at the end of the day. I read ~9700 pages, or the equivalent of ~32 books, two more than my goal.
Somewhat expectedly, I leaned on fiction as an escape, first from the grim reality of being stuck in a small apartment most of the time, and then from the loss of my father later in the year. My reading was eclectic, but the themes of the books below are probably not going to be surprising to people who know me.
Rayuela - Julio Cortázar
My first encounter with Cortázar was via short stories from his Historias de Cronopios y de Famas which at the time, when they were assigned to me in high school, were mostly incomprehensible, with sparks of wisdom here and there. Since then, I had heard of Rayuela (English: Hopscotch) and its funky “build your own adventure” style, but hadn’t had the courage to take the leap and read it. The book is known to be complex and, much like his tales of Cronopios, whimsical, confusing, innovative, bordering on insane genius. The concept of the book is that you jump around to take part in constructing the story along with the author. It’s a bit too stream of consciousness for my taste but still enjoyable. The chapters in the second half of the book (the “prescindible chapters,” as the author calls them) are especially nonsensical. Many read like bad poetry, others are just made up words, and most have an anecdote to explain how the characters got where they are now, or are snippets of the characters’ internal dialogue.
In reading a novel, as in life, unavoidably, there’s information that the reader doesn’t have. The past is hard to remember, and the future is unknown. In this book of many books, that asymmetry is even clearer. In Rayuela, our perception of a character’s actions might change based on whether or not we know what they knew when they chose what they chose. The backstories in Rayuela’s expendable chapters allow us to dig further in, but even then characters sometimes contradict themselves, and only in moments of clarity act in predictable ways. Much like real people, Cortázar’s characters often have a hard time articulating their wants and their inclinations. This book is an invitation to explore the very human problem of the unknown. If you want to be challenged, this is a good book to try.
Check out my full review here.
The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins
The Selfish Gene was published in the 70s, and is by now a classic of popular biology. These days, Dawkins is more widely known for being a controversial and outspoken atheist than for his contributions to biology - in fact, most people don’t know he’s the one who came up with the word meme, nor that the word’s meaning is rooted in his work in genetics. This book builds upon the classic theory of evolution, but shifts the focus from the individual organism to the gene as the main unit to be concerned with. Reading it, I found it surprising how many of the ideas that Dawkins proposes as contentious or novel back then are by now the mainstream story taught in schools. In short, Dawkins suggests that behaviors that are possibly damaging to an individual might still be the evolutionarily correct strategy, as it increases the chances that its genes will survive in the future. The book is packed with plenty of counterintuitive examples, explaining how altruism can be understood as a form of selfishness, showing the rationality behind why insects would give up childbearing to keep their colonies alive, and several interesting cases of information transfer via extended phenotypes, memes, etc.
While some of the examples he uses are morally dubious, Dawkins is a clearheaded thinker, and he insists throughout the book that he doesn’t intend to make assertions about what’s right or wrong, but instead to provide plausible hypotheses that explain the world around us. He also points out that the metaphor of selfishness is somewhat heavy handed (DNA has no goals, and genes have no will; what we see is emergent behavior from simple rules) but it’s hard for humans not to project our own intentionality while reading. The book raises important philosophical questions about free will, but doesn’t pretend to have any answers. The main lesson I drew from it is that the same tools can point us to very different answers if we’re looking at the wrong zoom level.
Tangentially relevant, I should have loved biology
The Black Swan - Nassim Nicholas Taleb
February/March 2020 was an interesting time to be reading this book. The core argument is succinctly summarized by Taleb in his “turkey chart” and the earlier we internalize it, the better off we’ll be, because we’re the turkeys.
We live in a world which is a collection of complex systems in constant flux, and while some relationships might seem linear and understandable, they are often subject to sudden extreme change. This makes forecasting hard, but the edifice of modern statistics is built on ignoring these extreme outlier effects, the science we learn in school teaches us the simple relationships of classical physics, and the news trains us to observe simple narratives where complexity abounds.
The power laws that rule our world require us to think about how to build robustness into our decision making processes, leveraging optionality, bounded downside and unbound upside, to tame the assymetry. Taleb doesn’t (can’t!) argue for not making predictions; in the end every one of our daily activities and choices force us to predict the future to some degree. Instead, he insists on building mental models that account for extremely harmful — even if virtually impossible — situations.
No one saw COVID-19 coming, but we could have built up systems to respond to this kind of crisis without knowing the specifics.
Close To The Machine - Ellen Ullman
Back in the simpler times of 2017, at a Litquake event/Logic Magazine launch party, an older woman raised her hand and asked a question about the responsibility of software engineers toward the algorithms they deployed and their impact on society. I initially scoffed, assuming based on the way she began her question that it was coming from a point of ignorance, but as she elaborated on her argument I started to understand that not only did she know what she was talking about, she had pondered this question deeply herself. That woman was Ellen Ullman, and Close the the Machine is a chronicle of the early days of her pondering.
Most of it reads like a memoir, but at times it suddenly goes into preaching mode, which I think I preferred. Covering her time working on various software projects in the 90s, Ullman discusses how writing programs changes the world. Her tales of technocapitalsim, customers with questionable morality, and the ignorant expertise of engineers flipping bits (or today, searching Stack Overflow) until a program runs, felt just as relevant to 2020 as they might have been twenty years ago. We create the programs, and in turn they create us.
Capitalism And Freedom - Milton Friedman
In the United States of 2020, being a free market capitalist is frowned upon. All social problems currently affecting the country clearly stem from giving up control to the emergent behavior of markets. It’s the fault of neoliberal economic policies and their “government is bad” outlook. No room for nuance, no room for analysis.
Needless to say, I don’t buy into this dogma, and reading Friedman’s essay reinforced my views on the subject.
Friedman is immensely quotable, for example when he points out that the “major aim of the liberal is to leave the ethical problem for the individual to wrestle with” or that “any system which gives so much power and so much discretion to a few men that mistakes - excusable or not - can have such far-reaching effects is a bad system.” People often mistake the goal of liberalism with those of libertarianism and anarchism. In my view, the goal is to enable emergent behavior, and to avoid setting in stone rules that will stop making sense over time. That doesn’t mean we should slash all regulations, disregard assymetries in market power, and neglect the differentials in initial conditions. As argued in Capitalism And Freedom, government is essential in defining a framework and enforcing its rules so that people can live in a predictable environment that allows them to build and flourish, together. This system should be as simple as possible, making it robust to corruption, and it should not pretend that we know what we don’t know.
Three Body Problem - Cixin Liu
The internet told me so much about this trilogy that I just had to read it. At first, I was discouraged, thinking I needed to learn more Chinese history (particularly about the Cultural Revolution) in order to fully enjoy the book, but luckily that was not the case. Without giving away too much of the plot, the premise is that a disgruntled scientist working on a military project, and tired of the political situation, decides to contact an alien civilization, inviting them to Earth to solve our problems. The story is set in China, and having deeper knowledge of the culture could have helped me understand the political metaphors and undertones hinted at by the author, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.
Beyond the political aspects, which seemed surprisingly open for censorship-heavy China, the book also touches on existential topics about humanity’s role in the universe and our interconnectedness. We have levers to control some aspects of reality, but in the broader scheme of things humanity is a fragile leaf, and we are mostly helpless in a complex world. Progress and human flourishing are not inevitable, and if we don’t care for each other, external threats will ultimately affect us.
Pachinko - Min Jin Lee
This one was probably my favorite read of the year. The fact that I went in with zero expectations helped. Pachinko is a historical novel that follows multiple generations of a Korean family starting in the late XIX century and touches on the Japanese-Korean conflict, class relations, changing gender roles, religious animosity and the urban-rural divide over roughly 100 years. Going in knowing nothing about early XX century Korea/Japan made the book eye-opening, and Lee’s character-building made it human and approachable. Pachinko is a heart-wrenching novel, with a cast that suffers a lot of grief and misery while dealing with their alterity, only getting flashes of happiness here and there as life bobs them around. Reading it was a true exercise in understanding a different culture.
That Wild Country - Mark Kenyon
This was a recommendation from my friend Maizie, who was appalled after I brought up Friedman’s argument for the privatization of national parks from Capitalism and Freedom. That Wild Country is half travelogue half history book, explaining the process through which the US’s parks come about and the tensions between conservationists and naturalists vs. interest groups and ideological privatizers like Friedman. Kenyon’s perspective focuses a bit too much on the American-ness of it all for my taste, as if the US was the only place in the world where the state owns and manages public land, but he does a good job of recounting a few conservationist arguments for federal management of vast tracts of land.
I like the idea of national parks, and visit them as often as I can because I truly enjoy being out in nature (check out my photography if you haven’t). They would not exist if there weren’t laws to protect them, but from a first principles view I do agree with Friedman. How can I reconcile these views? We want to preserve them so that they don’t become oil fields and mines and highways! But there is a cost to run parks, and an opportunity cost, too. If society isn’t willing to pay the cost of the parks, and someone can create more value isn’t that a better outcome in aggregate?
Kenyon’s book is not a deeply intellectual account, and most of its weight comes from an appeal to patriotism or to emotion. If you have a solid refutation to Friedman here, I would like to hear it. So far, the best point I’ve heard is that we somehow have to control for the irreversible loss that would be caused by privatization, but that’s not the full story, either. How would you even begin to build a mechanism to control for that from first principles?
Zero To One - Peter Thiel
This one was a re-read. I first read it when it came out in 2014, and having now lived in San Francisco for 5+ years, soaking in all the Kool-Aid, I was excited to go at it again to see what’s what. This time, I read it less as a manual for founders and more through a political lens.
From page one, something seemed obvious that did not click the first time around: VC, history, and politics are deeply intertwined. Investing and founding companies are political acts. Creating products with your sight set on scale and deploying capital to fuel those products are bets. Bets on which products and which companies will become big are bets on specific versions of the future, which by definition are political. On that note, opening the preface with comments on “American companies” and their stagnation seems a lot darker since Thiel’s appearance at the RNC in 2016.
The book is short, and well worth a read in its entirety, but chapter 6 is where the meat of Thiel’s thesis lies, in an argument about luck, followed by a 2x2 matrix. Thiel mostly disregards luck, and this is probably where I disagree with him the most. He talks about self-made men who exist in isolation, pointing to repeat entrepreneurs as proof that skill is real, and that success is not mostly a matter of luck. The thing is, though, it’s not an either or question between luck and skill. We all are lottery tickets. The fact that we each come to the world in a context that we do not decide, to develop in a dynamic environment that changes without our input, means that luck does matter. That doesn’t mean we can’t put in the effort and improve our chances over time. Where we start is a matter of chance, but how we confront the present and plan for the future is not out of our hands.
As for his 2x2, he lays out optimism/pessimism and definite/indefinite as the two axes where all cultures, people, and projects can be categorized in a model of how societies face the future:
|Optimistic||We have a clear vision, and we will accomplish it||No matter what, things will keep improving|
|Pessimistic||The future will be bleak, let's prepare for it||Nothing will improve, no point in trying|
This is Thiel’s dichotomy of incrementalism (1 to N) vs bold bets (0 to 1) as applied to broader historical trends instead of just to startups. Thiel argues that the problem with the West today, and particularly the US, is that we fall in the indefinite optimism quadrant, leading to a mentality that says “Progress is inevitable!” leaving us with “optionality chasers,” ready to rearrange the world but not create it. Ivy League consultants and MBAs. Prepared for everything, but knowledgeable about nothing in particular. While I don’t buy the explanations Thiel gives of the other three quadrants, his critique of Indefinite Optimism resonates. It is a critique of the boomer worldview: Rising tides lift all boats, and it’s easy to assume progress is a given when that’s all you’ve ever experienced. Thiel expands onto specific fields, like indefinite finance (market is random but always goes up, so we end up with index funds and share buybacks) or indefinite politics (politicians without opinions, tailoring positions to polls, and no real plans). Here I do agree with Thiel. We need more bold bets, because that’s the only way to keep going forward.
I discuss the book more in detail in this Twitter thread.
These Truths - Jill Lepore
In this comprehensive tome on US history, Lepore tries to explain how this country has been divided from day one. Room for disagreement is baked right into the Constitution, and mechanisms to continue to cooperate despite disagreement are, too. Lepore came to my attention after writing a superb essay on her views of A New Americanism, and her analysis came well recommended. As someone who never took a single course on US history, her explanations helped me delve deeper than any other book I’ve tried to work through on my own, but it was a slog. I ended up amassing nearly 600 highlighted passages and requiring many Wikipedia searches. I can’t tell if that is good or bad.
These Truths is grandiose and nearly all-encompassing, covering hundreds of years of history. Instead of taking a simplistic great-man view of the past, with leaders pushing their polities in a determined direction, Lepore wrings out subtle antagonisms and alliances from overt controversies. Methodically, she ties the views and values of different politicians into strings of causality that span decades if not centuries. Chapter after chapter, Lepore focuses on major elections and watershed moments in the evolution of the Constitution, drawing long term connections to the source of the ideologies these events represent. Along the way, she also raises important questions about justice, motivation, and historiography itself.
Assembling a complete narrative that stretches from Columbus to the present day is an impossible task, especially when attempting to do it through a critical lens in a fair manner. Early on, Lepore earnestly admits that history is almost by definition unfair. In her own words, “Most of what once existed is gone. Flesh decays, wood rots, walls fall, books burn. Nature takes one toll, malice another. History is the study of what remains.” As time goes on, more remains will build up, and I know I’ll turn to Lepore and her analysis again as I continue my inquiry. The events of this week are surely proof that history has not yet ended.
The Master And Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
Early in the pandemic, I asked Twitter for happy fiction books that make you think. Most good fiction is sad, the kind of work that asks tough ethical questions or puts its characters through grief. I needed something uplifting, and Gustavo Solórzano came through with this one.
The Master And Margarita is a dark satire that develops in two timelines, one in early Soviet Russia and another in ancient Jerusalem. Reading it made me realize how little I know about the New Testament; I missed many references and details until they were spelled out. The allegorical writing is reminiscent of magical realism, juxtaposing everyday life elements with fantastical beings. Bulgakov masterfully blends critique of atheism with critique of religion, praising and denouncing modern life under the Soviet regime through the lips of the literary elite and the devil’s entourage. The book is entertaining, and while it does raise tough ethical questions (which I was trying to avoid with my ask for happy fiction), it does so in a playful and deliberately mischievous way.
Homage To Catalonia - George Orwell
At some point, Noah Smith recommended Homage to Catalonia on Twitter as a good read to understand how sensible movements can be overtaken by loud ideological minorities. The book is Orwell’s retelling of the Spanish Civil War and the interaction between politics and idealism. He was a volunteer in the Workers’ Party militia (POUM), and his book provides an outsider’s view of what the fighting was like - both the literal battles in the trenches as well as the metaphorical intellectual ones between soldiers in the barracks. When first facing the fascists on the line, Orwell realized the absurdity of it all: the fascists “were indistinguishable from ourselves, except that they wore khaki overalls.” Eventually, it dawned on him that every one of the people he was fighting with were pawns in the battle between political theories, and that the fight between the socialist factions was not that different to the battle between fascists and antifascists one level up.
Orwell’s book explains how the communist party sabotaged the workers’ revolution in Spain by branding them as Trotskyist, stirring the pot for the troops to fight amongst themselves. In this context, it’s interesting how “Trotskyist” has a similar connotation as “fascist” and “socialist” do today - a catch-all pejorative. Ultimately, politics is all about branding. The description of currency shortages, fake news propaganda, and people being confused by random fireworks going off in the middle of the night, hand in hand with the partisan political insults are a testament to how little humans have changed, and how easy it is to draw parallels to events in the past to learn about the present.
This book isn’t particularly dense, but it isn’t an easy read. It includes detailed explanations of the rifts between factions on the Spanish left in which it is easy to get lost, and a lot of political discourse that a layman in 2020 can’t expect to parse correctly. Alongside, there are harrowing scenes, such as Orwell’s firsthand account of being wounded by a bullet and the experience of recovering alone in a foreign hospital. Nevertheless, taking the analysis at a high level of abstraction, reading Orwell’s Homage is well worth the effort.
Suite Française - Irène Némirovsky
While I have read a lot of history of WWII throughout the years, it had always been from the perspective of either the Germans or the Jews, with only a bit of the British viewpoint here and there. I knew that the French hadn’t had a good time either, but I had never realized the extent to which the average French citizen’s life was dislocated. Suite Française gave me a taste of that experience, providing a few separate story lines that turn out to be deeply intertwined as the book goes on and the characters flee Paris ahead of the German occupation.
The characters’ internal conflicts surface as the danger of battle gets closer, revealing multifaceted desires and weaknesses and showcasing their humanity. It’s hard to imagine Némirovsky didn’t base her narrative on real people, which makes the book heartbreaking. The fact that Némirovsky’s daughters discovered and posthumously published her book in the 90s after she was murdered in Auschwitz makes the narrative all the more chilling.
The Making Of A Manager - Julie Zhuo
After changing roles and becoming a manager a few months ago, I turned to books. Asking for recommendations, The Making of a Manager kept popping up as a practical one to start with, praised for its suggestions for first-time managers. It worked as expected. Check out my full review here.
Cien Años De Soledad - Gabriel García Márquez
Perhaps my expectations were too high, but Cien Años De Soledad (English: One Hundred Years of Solitude) seemed ok, but not amazing. The novel is usually included in lists of the most influential books in history and is considered one of the crown achievements of the Latin American canon.
The subtle symbolisms and the cyclicality of the plot are playful but often confusing. That, plus the incestuous family tree full of eponyms, kept me referencing previous chapters and eventually made me give up and look up a diagram online. The last few chapters, and especially the ending with its recursive quality, saved the book for me, so much so that I think in a few years I’ll give it a second try, this time on paper instead of on a Kindle.
Apártense vacas. Apártense, que la vida es corta.
The Five Dysfunctions Of A Team - Patrick Lencioni
Soon after starting to manage my team, I learned that my group’s senior management were reading The Five Dysfunctions Of A Team to help them diagnose internal conflicts. Not wanting to stay out of the loop and miss references when the time arose, I decided to read it, too. The book, like most management books, is simplistic but presents a few interesting ideas that I’ve tried to incorporate in my decision making at work.
Perhaps the most concise one, beyond the five dysfunctions themselves, is the concept of the first team, which roughly translates to prioritizing the team you are a member of over the team you lead as a manager. To me this is less useful advice about prioritization within my team, but more a lens which makes other managers and their actions more legible and predictable. In a large group full of dotted line relationships and dependencies, this has been fairly useful already.
This book is short, but not worthwhile. Just reading the last section on the five dysfunctions and how to overcome them would have been a better use of time.
This Life - Martin Hägglund
Presenting a treatise on the meaning of life and human relationships, Hägglund’s book was one of the most challenging and complex books I read last year. Using classics of philosophy, literature, and economics to build his argument, Hägglund draws a distinction between religious faith and what he calls secular faith - a philosophy rooted in our lives as ends in themselves, as opposed to a stepping stone to some trascendent state. In his own words, “To be religious—or to adopt a religious perspective on life—is to regard our finitude as a lack, an illusion, or a fallen state of being.” Meaning, according to Hägglund, comes from the fact that we are fragile, that we can be defeated by loss, and that we have agency to avert it.
In order to demonstrate the contrast between religious and secular faith, This Life points us to literature, citing Proust and Knausgaard extensively. For secular faith, the value of our life must come from the mundane experiences of our day to day lives, which are the focus of these authors’ works. Their magnum opera are in my queue, but I doubt I’ll get to them any time soon.
Halfway through the book, Hägglund makes an unexpected jump from theology and literature into economics. The finiteness of your life and the inherent uncertainty in every one of your decisions, posits Hägglund, means that “…you are necessarily engaged in the question of how you should spend your time and what you should prioritize, which is fundamentally a question of valuing.” Hägglund’s exploration doubles down on re-evaluating our notion of value, with questions that at times resemble those of Mariana Mazzucato in her Value of Everything. At this point the book takes a turn, and delves into a Marxist flavored analysis of the value of our time, which includes a well reasoned critique of modern capitalism, punctuated by mentions of Keynes, Hayek, Postone, Piketty, and other thinkers. In this framework, both capitalism and religious faith have the same flaw, in that they alienate us from what is truly valuable.
The topic of death permeates the book, and some of the framings provided by This Life were helpful in a year of grief. Hägglund is a thoughtful writer, and his research brings a coherent and comprehensive philosophy to the table. I’ll likely re-read it a few years down the line.
The First 90 Days - Michael D. Watkins
Another management book which I found to be not worthwhile. This one was another recommendation from someone who thought the sections on how to transition from peer to manager relationships would be helpful for me. While it took me more like 120 days to read the book after my role change, I honestly don’t think it would have been too helpful to read it earlier, either.
Much of what’s covered in The First 90 Days seemed to me common sense, such as avoiding the assumption that past success in a different individual contributor role will translate into good management. Through short case studies, the book encourages new managers (as well as managers switching into new organizations) to build relationships early, and to map out dependencies, strengths, and weaknesses across teams to leverage them later on. Perhaps the only novel notion I got out of it was Watkins’ STARS model, which groups projects based on their attributes into startup, turnaround, accelerated-growth, realignment, and sustaining stages, giving you as a manager a good system to pattern match against.
The Dark Forest - Cixin Liu
After finishing The Three Body Problem I anxiously waited for The Dark Forest, the second book in Liu’s trilogy, to become available at the library. Once I started reading, I lost steam quickly, and it wasn’t until I was a couple hundred pages in that the sequel gripped me.
The plot centers on the U.N.’s reaction to the imminent Trisolaran invasion and the enactment and development of the Wallfacer Project. The Project aims to avoid Trisolaran surveillance by appointing specific people to develop grand strategies in secret, with nearly unlimited access to the resources of the international body. Cryogenic sleep takes characters into a future that’s closer to the arrival of the Trisolarans, allowing for creative layers of complexity as the book explains how the Wallfacer schemes unfold. In the process, factions of defeatists and escapists raise ethical concerns with the other camp’s proposed solutions, and work a lot without reaching any kind of consensus.
Much like book one, The Dark Forest is an investigation of humanity’s role in the universe. We’re ignorant, and constantly threatened without even knowing it. Like you’d expect from any good midpoint, it leaves a lot of questions open for the last book in the series, which I’m planning to read early in 2021.
The Mind Of God - Paul Davies
This was another re-read, after a first pass in high school. Back then, I went down the cosmology rabbit hole and read a bunch of physics books — including this one — that gave me ammo for my doubts on my religious upbringing. Davies introduced me to the refutation to the cosmological argument, which can be summarized as “the buck has to stop somewhere.” I’ve used his refutation again and again in casual conversations with rabbis and others in the past.
In The Mind Of God, Davies walks the reader through many centuries of theological and philosophical discussions which have produced several strong arguments for and against every angle to the origin of the universe, the nature of life, and the source of consciousness. Throughout the book he does a good job of remaining fairly neutral regarding each of these questions. Ultimately, the reader is unlikely to leave with a different stance than the one they started with. The book doesn’t offer answers, but it does paint a nuanced picture.
Mamita Yunai - Carlos Luis Fallas
This is a book I was supposed to read in high school and didn’t. Better late than never. Mamita Yunai is a semi-autobiographical narration written in 1940 by an ex-banana plantation worker in Costa Rica. The title refers to the United Fruit Company and its conflicting role as both an exploiter of labor, as well as one of the few sources of income for the locals.
The first part follows the journey of Sibajita (a stand-in for the author), a labor activist, as he delves into the jungle to oversee a local election that’s expected to be rigged. In the process, he learns about the lopsided power dynamics endured by the indigenous population. He hears about cases of harassment, rape, and murder which torment the locals, who have no interest in the political process and believe to have no recourse with the notoriously corrupt authorities. Needless to say, his effort to push for a fair election isn’t fruitful.
The second part of the book recounts Sibajita’s years as a worker at the plantations and adventures with his colleagues. Here, too, the author uses the narrative to denounce the social injustices imposed on the workers by the company’s leaders, who often hold back the crew’s pay and underinvest in their wellbeing. This section has vivid passages about hunger, exhaustion, and other hardships. Mamita Yunai doesn’t hold back on crude realism.
Although Fallas’ characters are flat and the story is somewhat predictable, he does such a good job of portraying the tragedy of life as a laborer in the Costa Rican Caribbean in the early XX century - a sliver of life we wouldn’t have access to otherwise - that the book is worth a read. As an aside, reading it 10 years after I was originally supposed to, I was surprised that a book that seems so radically aligned with the labor movement and not in the interest of the establishment somehow made it to the country’s high school assigned reading canon.
A Paradise Built In Hell - Rebecca Solnit
I added A Paradise Built In Hell to my to-read pile after hearing Cory Doctorow refer to it as one of the main influences behind his book Walkaway which I enjoyed so much a few years ago. Solnit is a mainstay of the literary scene in San Francisco, and having read some of her works before, I knew it wouldn’t disappoint.
The book discusses various disasters, both natural and man-made, and how people in the affected areas respond to them. Drawing examples from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, Hurricane Katrina, and 9/11, Solnit argues that individuals rise up to the task to help each other out, while governments’ more centralized and organized responses dampen that emergent urge for cooperation, often leading to a deadly toll. It’s easy to sell “every man for himself” stories, so that’s what we think of when we think of disasters. Governments tend to assume we’ll take advantage of others when they’re down, and leaders act on that instinct in times of hardship. Turns out reality is pretty different, and we help each other out, with police and armed forces often getting in the way of citizens lending each other a hand.
Honestly, I was pretty surprised by Solnit’s decentralized position, considering she’s someone I associate with the SF left, but the narrative was refreshing. A Paradise Built In Hell is an optimistic book about human nature, and its assorted sketches of human reactions in times of trouble throughout recent history were reassuring. Time after time, Solnit shows that neighbors help each other out in unexpected ways when faced with adversity.
La Rebelión De Las Masas - José Ortega y Gasset
I knew vaguely of Ortega y Gasset growing up and picked up the book at a bookstore while I was in Costa Rica over the summer, for no particular reason other than “it’s supposed to be interesting.” For someone who waxes poetic about clear thinking/communication, I thought the language he chose to use didn’t make his ideas accessible, but I kept trying to finish it because the arguments put forth felt ahead of their time. His “preface for Frenchmen” and “epilogue for the British” together with a Eurocentric but still outsider-ish view make for a good read with tons of historical/cultural perspective.
La Rebelión De Las Masas (English: The Revolt of the Masses) was written in 1929 as a series of newspaper essays which was then compiled into a book. Ortega y Gasset’s book denounces a certain kind of new European, one who takes civilization for granted and doesn’t stop to think about why the world is the way it is, nor in which direction one should push it. This is not unrelated to Thiel’s idea of indefinite optimism mentioned above. This generic man is the person he refers to as the mass man, not necessarily pointing at a specific socioeconomic class, but instead at the people who hold this mindset that progress is a given and that the present is good enough.
Ortega y Gasset poignantly asks who will be the next world leader as Europe’s role recedes. Writing between the world wars, this isn’t an empty question. To answer it, he interleaves a critique of the new ideas of morality arising from Europe’s modern disenchantment with a careful dissection of European nationalisms. He goes on to critique the rise of fascism, bolshevism, and the inevitable vacuum they’d leave behind. He points in the direction of a United States of Europe as a possible solution, and in what I thought to be one of the clearest passages in the book lays out that a nation is not rooted in its past as much as in the project of a common future, a shared enterprise. La Rebelión De Las Masas doesn’t propose what that pursuit should be, but it does give us a glimpse of what such a culture would require.
Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead - Olga Tokarczuk
Given the off-putting title, let me start by saying this book was great. The story unfolds in rural Eastern Europe, where hunters in a little village suddenly start to drop dead. The main character, Janina, is an older woman who takes care of her neighbors’ houses over the winter and spends the rest of her time translating poetry and working out astrological predictions. Her fantastical theory about the deaths is that the animals are taking revenge on the hunters. The story revolves around the disruption to the small town’s quiet life and the existential question of the value of human lives as opposed to animal lives.
Except for its heavy reliance on astrology, which had me constantly rolling my eyes, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead was a gripping murder mystery, a narrative style I’m usually fairly allergic to. Tokarczuk’s writing is intellectual but approachable, and she does a great job of keeping the reader on their feet as new information bubbles up to the surface.
Waiting For The Barbarians - J.M. Coetzee
This book was a pleasant surprise, picked on a whim to read with Hannah. Set in a small outpost at the remote frontier of an unnamed empire, it tells of the arrival of forces from the mainland and the tensions caused by their presence. To repel a rumored attack from the natives beyond the wall (referred to as the barbarians), the envoys from the capital go on a raid that disrupts the peaceful life in the town. The story focuses on a local bureaucrat and his struggle to lead the town while balancing his personal ethics against colonial pressures imposed by the empire.
Like many books I read, the themes of otherness and liminality were front and center and the power dynamics between peoples were a salient feature. I especially liked the fact that here we were not just dealing with an us and a them but instead a third layer of complexity where the us itself is divided. Reading about the magistrate’s musings reminded me of Imagined Communities and the notion of the creole bureaucrats becoming disillusioned with their remote empires as a first step in national formation in the Americas.
Waiting For The Barbarians was a thrilling read, although some of its more intimate and more brutal scenes seemed gratuitous. If you’re looking for fiction heavy on politics and adventure without going into fantasy this is a good one to go with.
36 Arguments For The Existence Of God - Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
I don’t recall how this book ended up on my to-read list, but it was a nice easy read that carried me through the end of the year. The title might seem daunting, but the book is just a novel with mostly flat characters who understand and expose complex ideas.
36 Arguments tells the story of Cass Seltzer, an academic who suddenly becomes famous after releasing a book that is mostly ignored but which includes an eponymous appendix which forcefully stokes the debate between reason and faith. The fictional Seltzer’s appendix appears as the appendix to Goldstein’s actual novel. The book plays with flashbacks, correspondence between characters, and other structural devices that keep what would otherwise be a boring story fairly exciting.
Goldstein makes complex ideas from epistemology and theology accessible to laypeople, and in the process invokes the kinds of questions of identity and morality that made my head spin long before I read her book. The fact that a major portion of the story revolves around a hassidic sect and their own perception of reality — yiddishkeit and the kabbalistic significance of potato kugel included — made the read enjoyable for me.
Exile, Statelessness, Migration - Seyla Benhabib
I am interested in the problems of statelessness, and have thought for many years that countries as we know them will soon be a thing of the past. I bought this book on a whim after reading Joshua Keating’s Invisible Countries last year. Benhabib’s book was not exactly what I was looking for, barely touching on the modern refugee crisis in Europe, or recent developments in how the West thinks about otherness. However, it did provide me with a useful set of vignettes on the lives of Jewish emigrés who worked in philosophy and political theory and shaped the fields around mid-century. After a brief context-setting introduction, Benhabib surveys a few representative ideas of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Judith Shklar, Albert Hirschman, and Isaiah Berlin, while also sprinkling in adjacent figures like Max Weber and John Rawls, and deep-diving into the works of Hannah Arendt. The main focus is the development of the conflicting ideas of liberalism and identity that arise from each author’s personal circumstance. The writing is definitely more academic and more flowery than my usual reading, but as a means of exposing myself to these thinkers, I’d say reading the book was a success.
I have not yet found a good book on statelessness, though. I’d like to read something that can explain the mechanics of living as a human being without citizenship (e.g. political refugees, people whose countries disappear, children of immigrants in countries without jus soli, etc.) in the XXI century, as well as through history. Ideally, I’d like to find something that includes representative personal stories as well as an overview of how the abstraction of states rules all our lives. Some previous recommendations I’ve gotten are Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, and Against the Grain, but none of them quite fit what I’m looking for.
If you know of books that get even somewhat close, please let me know.
The World After Capital - Albert Wenger
I have been following Albert’s writing for years, and when I learned he was writing a book in public, got excited. It’s wild to think it’s been nearly five years since then, but I’ve finally given his current draft a thorough read. The ideas exposed in the book are things he’s written about before in his blog, so it wasn’t much of a surprise for me, but still an enjoyable read. Given it is still a draft at this point, it feels unfair to give a full review, so I’ll just summarize and focus on the positives.
Albert hypothesizes that we’re at a non-linear dislocation in history similar to those that happened when humanity went from foraging to agriculture, or from agriculture to industry, changing our relationship with the environment and with each other as some previously binding constraint in our world was relaxed. Albert posits that the bottleneck is now going from capital to attention, and that the frictions caused by this change explain why the world is so turbulent today. With some back of the envelope math to show that we already have enough capital to serve all human needs, the book provides a good framework for thinking about policies that could ease this transition and help us allocate our attention to solving the right problems. Betting on universal basic income, along with proposed changes to intellectual property law, and technology regulation, Albert lays a path forward that could unlock innovation to make us all better off. World After Capital argues that while markets have provided humanity with great progress over the last few centuries, we’re now facing new questions where prices alone can’t help us (for example, the marginal cost of zero problem in digital goods distribution). While it doesn’t provide a full fledged solution, the book argues for a restructuring of our economy to continue to reap the benefits of capitalism without expecting it to be a silver bullet. The book is ambitious, perhaps to a fault, but it gives us an optimistic view of progress and a clear set of experiments worth trying out, which is valuable.
For a taste of the proposals in the book, check out Albert’s TED talk, A BIG idea, a bot idea – How smart policy will advance tech.
And that was 2020! This year, I’m increasing the goal to 34 books, which should take me to ~10,200 pages. Additionally, I read a few hundred pages of Marx’s _Das Kapital, but the rest of the project is left for 2021.
Photo: Dog Eared Books, San Francisco, California, USA, by me.
Want to see more articles like this? Sign up below: