But seriously, reading is a good idea, and I should be doing more of it. Soon I'll try to blogs review of the (embarassingly short list of) books I've read this fall. But here's the quick summary.
- Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. It's ridiculous how I haven't read or seen this before! This play is so moving that I wanted to clap after finishing Act One, even though I was just reading a script. And it's still incredibly relevant (if a little patriarchal): for example, you could argue that Requiem for a Dream just updated it for the 90's. And it's so much better than On the Road, which seems to be a lot more popular.
The rest are in order of increasing specificity and convincingness.
- Small is Beautiful: Economics as if people mattered by E.F. Schumacher. Classic 1970's critique of capitalism with a very Limits to Growth flavor. Argues that instead of prioritizing production through large-scale industry, we should focus on human fulfillment with smaller organizations. Nice ideas, but thoroughly missing is a look at the power relations that sustain the systems he criticizes. Without this, the whole thing starts to sound like those NYT editorials calling on the Bush administration to start respecting human rights. Plus the writing style often reminds me of management seminars and/or theology.
- Economics and the Public Purpose by John Kenneth Galbraith. Classic 1970's defense of big-government liberalism. I would recommend it highly for the writing alone: crisp, witty, compelling and easy to read. I know the title makes it hard to argue this convincingly, but you really will enjoy reading this book. Anyway, I'll blog later about its contents in more detail, but for now will mention that its answers to the "why are things shitty?" question are much more specific and convincing than those in Small is Beautiful. It also proposes bold solutions that, while less convincing than the rest of the book (sometimes too radical, sometimes not radical enough, often dated), make a nice contrast with the usual alternative-less leftist whining.
- The Wages of Whiteness by David Roediger. Explains how white working class racism emerged in 19th century America. Despite being much more academic and focussed than the above books, it's still very readable and engaging. I'll write later about how its specificity crushes Galbraith's arguments on the points where they clash. Also, almost all of its points are sadly still relevant today: how whiteness is constructed, why struggling separately against racial and economic oppression isn't likely to be successful, and how racism is so rarely about hatred. Again, the writing is inspiring; just check out the first few pages of the semi-autobiographical introduction (which you can do through amazon, or google book search) and you should be convinced to read the whole thing.
- In the Shadow of "Just Wars": Violence, Politics, and Humanitarian Action. A collection of essays from Médecins sans Frontières staff, editted by Fabrice Weissman. Western political discourse usually misses the point so badly that it's offensive, especially when talking about poorer parts of the world. This book is an incredibly welcome counterpoint to that; but as it's late I'll keep this short. It discusses dozen humanitarian crises around the world, and critically reviews the responses to them. The results often aren't pretty, but I think we have a moral obligation to not to ignore them.
Why have I read so little this year? I blame partly the thesis, but more the fact that I read too many blogs; for example, see this ironic blog post about how reading books is better.