Every year I make it a personal goal to read at least 16 books, tracked with the help of goodreads.com. With only a slight bit of cheating (I just finished up the last quarter of a book this first week of 2018), I read 17 books in 2017, and I figure I should reflect on them a bit. Broadly my reading this year fell into three categories: science fiction, history, and society/politics.
First there was Dan Simmons’ Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, which I originally read in maybe middle school. It was interesting to see what pieces of the book I remembered vs what I had completely forgotten. I’d say Hyperion is the better of the two books, but if you don’t like cliffhanger endings you’ll have to read both. I really enjoy the world building and general premise, but I felt a bit let down by the ending. Some of the images in the book are so striking they have stuck with me for nearly two decades.
The other science fiction series I read was the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, composed of The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End by Chinese author Cixin Liu. This was a really great series, originally published in China about a decade ago and only receiving an English translation in the last couple years. The three books manage to be very different while all telling parts of a larger story of the evolution of humanity after First Contact is made by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. They’re definitely worth reading so I don’t want to spoil much, but I do want to note that one thing that is so interesting about them is seeing a non-American’s speculation about how America would behave in this world. For example, in one book there is a character who is mentioned as being Secretary of Defense during America’s invasion of Venezuela. When I first read that, I initially dismissed that as the author not knowing much about US foreign policy; but once I realized the book had been written during the early phase of the Iraq War, I could no longer say it was wholly ridiculous.
The Complacent Class: I always enjoy reading Tyler Cowen, and this book was no exception. While a little lighter than I had hoped, I realize I may not be the book’s intended audience.
Achieving Our Country: This book, by the late philosopher Richard Rorty, was mentioned in a lot of pieces in the wake of Trump’s election thanks to a particular prescient quote about the likelihood of a strongman politician taking power, but that was more of an aside in a book focused on healing the internecine divides on the American Left (which also turned out to be highly prescient!). I had intended to do an in depth review here, and worked quite a bit on it, but could never quite get it to gel as I wanted and abandoned it. I may try to take another crack at it, or at least clean it up and post what I can.
The Fourth Revolution: I was really disappointed in this one. It was written by two Economist writers, and it showed; that’s not bad in itself, but for a book about ‘The Global Race to Reinvent the State’, there was a distinct lack of imagination. There was some good stuff in here, but ultimately I felt let down because their idea of the Fourth Revolution of the state (the first 3 being the creation of the nation state, the creation of the liberal state, and the creation of the welfare state) was just wishy washy arguments that the state would have to become more efficient…and that was about all.
A Colony in a Nation: I thought this was fantastic. I really like Chris Hayes; while he ends up further on the left for many issues than myself, he’s always come across to me as a very thoughtful and self aware commentator. There’s a great anecdote in this book about participating in a police training simulation where he, the liberal MSNBC television host who covered the Ferguson riots in detail, ends up pulling his gun on an unarmed civilian within just a couple minutes. His earlier book, the Twilight of the Elites, probably did a better job of understanding the underlying forces leading to our current political moment than anything else written in the past 6 years, so if you want to be ahead of the curve, this book is essential as well.
The Great Transformation: This book, by Karl Polyani, lies on the boundary between society/politics and history. I’ve seen some describe it as a foundational work for the center-left akin to how Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom” is for libertarians. The main thing I took away from the book is that we have to understand that the transition to a market economy can be a very painful thing for the people living through it. There’s a tendency to look fondly back on the Industrial Revolution as an era of great opportunity that pulled people away from the countryside into the cities, but Polyani reminds us that the actual history is much messier; in England a series of laws were passed that essentially forced people off their lands and into the cities to participate in the new economy. While interesting, you could probably get away with just reading a few chapters to get the most important ideas.
SPQR: An excellent single volume history of Rome that aims to capture all aspects of Roman life, not merely a chronology of rulers. One idea in here that has stuck with me is this concept of the proto-bureaucracy present in the early Imperial period. That is, the Emperor could not just do whatever they wanted; in many ways they were mostly administering the state, ensuring that it was running effectively. Certainly Rome did not possess a large and robust bureaucracy in the way we do, but there were the beginnings of one, and it seemed to be important for the functioning of the wider Roman economy.
Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: By historian Eric Foner, this is a classic work that I found fascinating, and was all the more illuminating to read after Democracy for Realists. This work tells the story of the formation of the Republican Party – the last time in American history that a new major party has been created. Before this book, I held the vague impression that Republicans were basically rebranded Whigs, but Foner shows this is not at all the case. Recall that Democracy for Realists argues that much of democratic politics is based around identity concerns, not policy preferences in and of themselves. So what was able to unite disparate interests under the Republican banner? How was such a coalition assembled?
The Great Upheaval: Another narrative history, by Jay Winik. The author has a real gift for engaging prose; usually I like a little more economic and sociological interpretation of historical events rather than a focus on individuals, but Winik is so good at transporting you across time and space that I didn’t mind much. It’s just a great history, though I don’t fully buy the claims that the era of 1788-1800 was ‘the’ turning point to the modern world. Take that with a grain of salt, and enjoy being transported to a world that is far more globalized than we are used to thinking about.
Steppenwolf: I suppose I could have stuck this under science fiction, given its somewhat magical aspects, but this 1927 novel, like all of Herman Hesse’s work, stands apart. Hesse is an interesting author, and his books have the virtue of brevity; I’d recommend reading at least one in your lifetime.