My Year in (Not) Reading

or, how I can only read nonfiction in a pandemic

One reason I started this newsletter was to provide a forum that would allow me to write about things besides economics and economic policy. So far, at least, the trend towards wonkiness has been rather extreme, so I figured I could take advantage of this specific time to at least talk about books, even if I won’t engage with any one of them with the depth they might deserve.

Some of the most gratifying emails I’ve received from readers have been about books, either asking for recommendations or informing me that they’ve read a certain book at my urging (i.e. incessant tweeting). I hope to write about books in a less topical way, specifically about those that have “shaped my thinking,” inasmuch as such a process has happened, in the coming year.

Until then, we will have to subsist with a more impressionistic and time-bound sketch. As always, thank you for reading and subscribing. If you like what you read, please sign up or tell a friend about it. Happy New Year to you all.

Every year, I try to read at least 50 books, and since I’ve started keeping records of every book I’ve finished in a given year, I am yet to hit that goal.

2020, despite, in theory, offering me unprecedented spans of otherwise unoccupied time, was no exception: I only got to above 40 only thanks to a 160 page novel I’ve read in the last 24 hours.

Looking back, there were a several week-long breaks where no book was finished. In some cases this can be attributed to the news cycle (the election). In other cases, I was embarking on reading projects that were both time consuming and, in the end, a poor match for my frazzled mind (sorry Proust, Genovese, and Trollope, may we meet in more favorable circumstances). The reading list takes a sharp turn towards nonfiction starting in the fall and has much less fiction, and especially contemporary fiction, than usual.

Some of this is due to the shutdown of libraries, as I prefer to read fiction in paper. But much of it is my fault. I’ve had a Brooklyn Public Library copy of the third volume of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy gathering dust on my nightstand since before New York shuttered its libraries — hopefully they aren’t charging late fees.

I hope this is a temporary aberration. I live in fear that, like many men, my taste for fiction, especially contemporary literary fiction, will wane as I age and I will increasingly turn to spy novels and ever-more-detailed histories of the Battle of Stalingrad or, even worse, biographies of Winston Churchill.

But here we are.

In addition to the full list itself, which will be at the end of the email, I’ve decided to share three standouts.

Locking Up Our Own, James Forman Jr.

How did a black community with a largely black civil service, elected government, and police force respond to elevated crime in the 1960s through the 1990s? In short, with more active policing and harsher punishment, much like the rest of the country.

Locking Up Our Own won a Pulitzer, so you don’t need to hear it from me, but this book is remarkable. It combines Forman’s account of his time as a public defender in Washington, D.C. with a history of how the criminal justice system of the “Chocolate City” evolved over the same time period of time that its Black residents were increasingly able to govern themselves.

While Forman has taken something of an “abolitionist” stance towards policing and incarceration, Locking Up Our Own does not try to convince you that the system only targets "non-violent offenders” or that the voters and politicians responsible for our harsh system of policing and incarceration weren’t responding to something real. It instead asks you how you would have responded to objective circumstances and popular pressures that D.C.’s leaders faced. While the situation reformers find themselves in today is not the same as the 1970s, it may not be entirely different either.

The Jakarta Method, Vincent Bevins

Bevins uses two primary case studies — Brazil and Indonesia — to tell a story of the Cold War that inverts typical categories. Instead of communism spreading throughout the world with the support of either the Soviet Union or Mao’s China, Bevins sees the Cold War, especially from the 1960s onward, as America and its allies’ response to decolonization in the Global South.

Bevins identifies a set of nations, institutions, and even a few key individuals, who form an anti-communist international, linking together American-led-and-assisted efforts to determine who ruled Indonesia, Brazil, Iran, Guatemala, and several other nations.

The focus of Bevins’ book is the overthrow of Indonesia’s nationalist (but not communist) leader Sukarno and the military-led mass killing of Indonesian communists that preceded it. Through an immense amount of on-the-ground reporting, Bevins finds ideas, individuals, and institutions that link together leftist and nationalist movements as far afield as Indonesia and Brazil, along with the global forces that sought to put them down. If you’ve ever read a book about the Cold War that was primarily focused on policymakers in Moscow and Washington, you should read about what happened when they decided.

Trade Wars Are Class Wars, Matthew Klein and Michael Pettis

This book will revise everything you think you know about how international trade affects the economies of the countries that participate in it. Or, as the book argues, how domestic economies affect trade.

Klein and Pettis revive the late-19th-and-early-20th-century English political thinker and polemicist J.A. Hobson, now best known for his citations in the work of Lenin and Keynes, to explain the imbalances of the global economy. Specifically, they explain how efforts by German and Chinese political elites to repress the wages and consumption of their workers have resulted in a misallocation of goods, income, and capital in the rest of the world.

This was truly an eye-opening book, to the point where, after reading it, any account of international trade or capital movements that doesn’t take into account the domestic dynamics they identify seems entirely besides the point. Can’t think of a higher recommendation than that.

And here’s the whole list, with the ones I enjoyed most starred.

  • A Buyer’s Market, Anthony Powell

  • The Swimming-Pool Library*, Alan Hollinghurst

  • Nada, Jean-Patrick Manchette

  • High-Dive, Jonathan Lee

  • The Longing for Less*, Kyle Chayka

  • Sweet Days of Discipline, Fleur Jaeggy

  • Maoism: A Global History*, Julia Lovell

  • Bring Up the Bodies*, Hilary Mantel

  • Ordinary Men*, Christopher Browning

  • The Pity of War, Niall Ferguson

  • The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan

  • Lying About Hitler*, Richard Evans

  • The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark

  • Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum

  • Trade Wars Are Class Wars*, Matthew Klein and Michael Pettis

  • Imperialism, J.A. Hobson

  • Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, V.I. Lenin

  • The Price of Peace*, Zachary Carter

  • The Spy Who Came In From the Cold*, John le Carré

  • The Jakarta Method*, Vincent Bevins

  • Locking Up Our Own*, James Forman

  • Negroland*, Margo Jefferson

  • Locked In*, John Pfaff

  • Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta

  • The Dead Do Not Improve*, Jay Caspian Kang

  • Barbarian Days*, William Finnegan

  • Luster, Raven Leilani

  • Uncanny Valley*, Anna Wiener

  • The Kid Stays in the Picture*, Robert Evans

  • Cutter and Bone, Newton Thornburg

  • The Comanche Empire, Pekka Hämäläinen

  • Ghost, Jefferson Morley

  • Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

  • Bring the War Home, Kathleen Belew

  • Fatherland, Robert Harris

  • The Diana Chronicles*, Tina Brown

  • Agent Sonya*, Ben Macintyre

  • 1931*, Tobias Straumann

  • Spectrum*, Perry Anderson

  • The Order of the Day, Éric Vuillard

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