2020 By The Book, Pt. 1

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer

America used to be a a British colony, and as such it’s profoundly shaped by its colonizers. What’s easy to forget is that there wasn’t a unique British culture but many, and that migration happened in relatively distinct waves from different parts of the country. Just how much, for example, the Quaker culture differed from the ways of the Border reivers (they were almost polar opposites) helps to make sense of the often profound divides that determine American politics to this day.

[Fiction] All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren *

Many commentators have remarked the similarity between one of the book’s central figure, Governor Willie Stark, and Donald Trump — both charismatic leaders with little educational distinction, an affinity for extramarital affairs and strict demands for personal loyalty. There’s something to this analogy, but I would argue that Stark is much more of a left-authoritarian populist (he seems to oppose segregation and favors heavy wealth redistribution). Even so, the story has lost none of its relevance and grip, and is definitely high up on my list of favorites for this year.

Aristotle’s Children, Richard E. Rubenstein

The subtitle (“How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages”) led me to expect a book about how Aristotle’s work helped to lift Western Europe out of the intellectual darkness it fell into after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and set the path for modernity. But that’s not the story Rubenstein is telling. Not directly, at least.

As We Go Marching, John T. Flynn

I realized (too late, unfortunately) that the recommendation for this books stemmed from a time when I was a very passionate anti-government libertarian. Flynn, a prominent America Firster and staunch opponent of the US’s entry into WWII, presents a neither particularly scholarly nor nuanced view of how America started to turn into a fascist state at the very moment they very at war with fascism (Germany, Italy). Several things are annoying about the book — the lack of a clear terminology, the constant switching between “fascism is defined by Mussolini’s or Hitler’s program from ….” and “actual fascism is some kind of state capitalism plus maybe some restrictions for minorities and a lot of public debt”, the idiosyncratic style — and there isn’t really much new in it to learn. The further I advanced in the book, the more I started skimming pages. At its worst, it is really little more than an attempt to equivocate Nazi Germany and the US under FDR.

[Fiction] Les Bienveillantes, Jonathan Littell

Only twice has a novel been awarded both the Prix Goncourt and the Grand Prix du roman de l’Academie Francais, and Littell’s tense, voluminous magnum opus, Les Bienveillantes, is one of them. Set during the latter half of the World War II — from the massacres at the Eastern Front in 1941 to the fall of Berlin -, the story is told from the point of view of an ex-SS officer (Max von Aue), himself involved in numerous atrocities and describing events, without the slightest remorse, “as they really unfolded”.

The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect, Judea Pearl & Dana Mackenzie

This is very weird. I should begin by saying that it’s a bad book — poorly structured, badly in need of editing, repetitious at times and lacking details at others. The title is pretentious, and so is the style. I clearly did not enjoy reading it. And yet, there’s a lot of good stuff in it if you try hard.

Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman

It is probably astonishing that it took my until now to read Friedman’s classic, or any of his books for that matter. I was not too impressed — neither by his much-praised eloquence, nor by the content. I think some progressives should be surprised to see how many concessions he makes for when state action is justifiable according to his liberal philosophy. They should not rejoice too early, though: While he goes over many areas where market failure is a problem, he’s also crystal-clear that (a) the category is not arbitrary and can be applied whenever we are unhappy with the results of the market process and (b) precisely what remedies are advisable to address these market failures. Suffice it to say that almost no government consistently applies the policies that the theory of market failures suggests, casting doubt on how much of a guiding principle this really is in public policy.

[Fiction] The Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger

For all the stir it has caused (one should probably take into account that it first appeared in 1951, so times have changed a bit), I do not really understand its enduring appeal. It’s a quick and easy read, but the more grandiose claims (‘a critique of a superficial society’, ‘a masterpiece on identity and belonging’) do not, in my opinion, hold up. When all is said and done, Holden Caulfield, the protagonist, appears to be little more than a confused teenager, equipped with all the attributes that make their coming-of-age so annoying for the rest of society. Why this book is being praised as a key to something important about the human condition remains mysterious to me.

Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship, Robert C. Martin

This is a book that every programmer, at almost any stage of their career, would benefit from taking to heart. In retrospect, I should have read it upon starting my first job, instead of letting two years pass, although parts of it can be (and still are) confusing if you’re not coming from a CS background. It is also somewhat unfortunate that the book relies so heavily on Java, which I am not at all familiar with (anyone trying to translate it to different programming languages?), and that it’s a bit old (12 years are a lot in the world of coding). Has it aged well? Parts of it, surely, but not all of it, and an overhaul might be needed. Again, not being an expert programmer, I don’t want to weigh in too heavily on that.

The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt

Given how much of a fan I am of Haidt’s earlier The Righteous Mind (which is still among my all-time favorites), this book was rather disappointing. The reason for this is that the book was exactly what I expected it to be, blaming both the toxic, overprotective campus culture and the off-campus violent far-right counterprotesters. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad book or that it’s got all of it wrong — it’s more that I learned close to nothing new from it, so it felt a bit like a waste of time. I’m also not much of a fan of their generational analysis, which reels on BuzzFeed-style “ten horrible things millennials are to blame for” articles, and their embracing of Taleb’s “genius idea” of antifragility, which doesn’t do anything to help understand the phenomenon at hand.

Code, Charles Petzold

“How a computer works” would have been a more accurate, if less concise, title for this book. It’s been the subject of a lot of praise across the board — almost everyone who is somehow involved with “code” seems to love it, which means quite something for a community that can have passionate debates about the proper way to store and display dates. So I thought that I, too, would be swept away by it.

[Fiction] Confessions of a Mask, Yukio Mishima

As someone who has no familiarity at all with Japanese literature, I did not quite know what to expect from Mishima’s Confessions. The author itself remains a highly controversial, but oddly entertaining figure (seriously, read him up in Wikipedia — especially the part about the failed coup attempt). Expecting a peak into a truly freakish mind, I was rather disappointed — the plot is boring, the style bland, and I still don’t think I understand Japanese literature any better now.

Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Antonio Damasio

A book that took me several months to finish because I put it away twice for an extended period of time. The reason for that, besides the fact that I had a physical copy instead of an eBook, was, quite simply, that I did not find it all that engaging. And that’s even though it has quite an interesting thesis to offer.

[Fiction] East of Eden, John Steinbeck *

I could hardly take the book out of my hands once I started reading it, which hasn’t happened to me in a good long while. A family epos spanning over two generations, it follows the path of Californian settlers in a modern retelling of the Book of Genesis. The description of both the characters and the valley where most of the story unfolds is very rich and gripping in a way I can’t quite describe. The hints at Cain and Able in are not particularly subtle, but other than that, this is clearly a master at the height of his craft.
Somehow, it also reminds me of Buddenbrooks (another one of my favorite novels), even though the plot bears only superficial resemblance with it.

[Fiction] Ein Bruderzwist in Habsburg, Franz Grillparzer

So to be perfectly honest, I didn’t finish this book (only about 60 percent) and I’m not sure I’m allowed to put it in this list, but maybe I can save someone else from wasting their time on it. I have not the slightest idea why I ever considered reading it (if I just wanted to read Grillparzer, this book is a very odd choice), but I found it excruciatingly boring. It didn’t get any better along the way, so at some point, I decided to let sunk costs be sunk costs and put it away for good.

The Everything Store, Brad Stone

Generally speaking, I am not particularly excited about businesspeople biographies, my basic assumption being that they’re written for gullible people who imagine they’ll learn all the insider tricks how to get a multi-billion dollar business started just by looking at how others succeeded (classic survivorship fallacy). I don’t expect to be challenged or surprised by those books either.

The Four-Hour Workweek, Timothy Ferriss

This is definitely one of the books I read but feel I shouldn’t. Yet somehow, it captures me on a deeper level than many of the books I would recommend to others, despite being terribly written and oozing from arrogance. Here’s the thing: The typical book I describe as amazing makes me change my mind on a thing or two, but then I’ll continue my live pretty much as if nothing happened. Ferriss makes me question life choices, and not — I repeat — because he’s written a good book. This seems weird, so I’ll try to explain it a bit. Bear with me.

Globalists, Quinn Slobodian

Slobodian is an anti-globalist leftist, and he makes it abundantly clear. With these pedigrees, is he still able to write a solid book on the neoliberal movement? Yes, absolutely. Meticulously researched, this book provides a provocative, but not totally unsubstantiated thesis how neoliberals, rather than being closet anarchists, actually used the state (or, more concretely, federations of state) to further the interests of the property-owning class.

Le bonheur et l'absurde sont deux fils de la même terre.