Category Archives: Book Reviews

2017: A Reading List in Review

The books I read in 2017, listed chronologically (January reads first). Some of these I commented on more fully in earlier posts and/or on Goodreads. You can see a prettier visualization of this data here.

  1. Autumn by Ali Smith (my first Ali Smith and as I’ve said before, it was a true joy to read)
  2. How To Be Both by Ali Smith (I preferred Autumn but also liked this)
  3. Heartbreak by Andrea Dworkin (loved her voice)
  4. The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri (disappointing – one star on Goodreads)
  5. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee (really fantastic biography, though not as great at Lee’s bio of Virginia Woolf)
  6. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (great)
  7. Prejudicial Appearances: The Logic of American Antidiscrimination Law by Robert Post, K. Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Thomas Grey, and Reva Siegel
  8. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (if you want a super fun read about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, you must read this)
  9. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (also excellent)
  10. The Second Shift by Arlie Russell Hochschild (eye-opening and I’ve started giving it to all my girlfriends)
  11. Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (enjoyed, especially after reading her biography first. In all her work there seem to be these moments of intense violence that are mixed in with the very normal everyday. In some sense it makes it even more jarring — you aren’t expecting it and she doesn’t do anything to help you process it afterwards. It’s just — here’s a horrible violent thing. And then we pan to the left and see Johnny having some tea.)
  12. The Taming of Free Speech by Laura Weinrib (If you’re interested in the history of civil liberties, esp. the First Amendment, and how its current form is far away from its labor economic-rights-based origins, this is a must read. I thought it was so interesting. Go Laura!)
  13. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  14. Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale by Debra Satz
  15. N-W by Zadie Smith (got progressively better as it went along)
  16. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World by Melvyn Dubofsky (As best I can tell this is *the* history of the Wobblies book to read – and for good reason)
  17. To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization by William Alford (such an interesting topic but didn’t give me exactly as much as I’d hoped for. I wanted a deeper dive into the history and development of conceptions of property and ownership in China generally and then for IP specifically. Stealing as a concept already assumes a background ownership structure. It assumes that someone is a rightful possessor and then some other person wrongfully took that possession from them. But what’s interesting is how cultures can develop where what we might think of as stealing and wrong others simply don’t even conceptualize in that way. That is part of what I wanted to walk away with a better understanding of. But at only 236 pages, you can imagine that a lot had to be left out. If anybody reading this knows of another book like this but longer and deeper, please let me know!)
  18. Orlando by Virginia Woolf (I loved this book. Like, loved it. Dear book gods, please please please give me a signed first edition. And if you want to send me the presentation copy from Woolf to Vita Sackville-West or even Vanessa Bell (see, I’m not picky!), I promise… well… I’ll promise whatever you’d like! (note the current price of the presentation copy to Vanessa Bell is currently listed on abebooks at $325,000!) (The cheapest signed first edition I see is already $2,887.50 on abebooks. I cry.)
  19. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (given my love of The Hours (which you should read right now if you haven’t), I thought I’d have to love this one. But, alas, it just didn’t work much for me. I found Orlando and To The Lighthouse to be absolutely wonderful though.)
  20. The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand (great and now filled with pages of my notes)
  21. The True Believer by Eric Hoffer
  22. Private Government by Elizabeth Anderson (her Tanner Lectures followed with commentary from a number of people in different fields and then her replies to those replies.)
  23. The Disappearing L by Bonnie J. Morris (about the rise and fall of US lesbian culture since the 70s, focusing almost exclusively on concert festivals (esp. Michigan Festival) and music more generally. As a Lilith Fair lover, I enjoyed reading about all the many awesome festivals that came before it. The demise of these kinds of events (think a women-only burning man in a summer camp) is a true loss.)
  24. Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil by Deborah Nelson
  25. Food Justice by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi
  26. Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller (easy intro to attachment theory, though I found their inability to sympathize with/contextualize avoidants a serious mark against it)
  27. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
  28. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus (sometimes, some of us, become a little, shall we say, unwell, when it comes to romantic relations. Most of the time we take this behavior to be bad/something to ‘work on’. Here’s a story of a woman who did the opposite. Put another way, there’s the person who calls their ex a bunch of times in a row and then finally feels ridiculous and creepy. Then there’s the person who just keeps calling, leaving hundreds of messages, sending letters, emails, etc. and 100% owns that. In fact, turns the whole thing into something of an art project. This is the person who drives their car, full-powered, over a cliff and while falling just screams manically “yes!!!!!” This book is about this latter sort of person. I found it sort of amazing.
  29. The Myth of Ownership by Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel
  30. The Sum of Small Things by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett (my previous review is here)
  31. Future Sex by Emily Witt (a total disappointment)
  32. Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy by Richard E. Ocejo (‘how educated and culturally savvy young people are transforming traditionally low-status manual labor jobs into elite taste-making occupations.’ People who gave this less than four stars on Goodreads were objectively wrong)
  33. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (charming and delightful. I just loved this. If you, like me, love books about books and book culture and book collecting, you would absolutely treasure this one)
  34. Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters (3-stars ok)
  35. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (I loved American Gods back in the day and was motivated to read this while watching the American Gods show. I love this world and would like to pay it more visits)
  36. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff (the follow-up book to 84, Charing Cross Road. Also enjoyable but not nearly as much so as the original)
  37. The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch (Not hating men for about a week after reading this was a challenge)
  38. The End of the Story by Lydia Davis (it’s not often that I explicitly think about form in literature. This book changed that. When trying to talk about, make senes, etc. of very painful times, the truth is we often don’t have one clear overarching narrative that runs in chronological order. Instead, we have fragments. Pieces from different moments run together. There can be a certain stillness and painful fog hanging over us. This book perfectly captures this through, in part, experimenting with form.)
  39. Virginia Woolf by Hermoine Lee (without question the best biography I have ever read in my entire life. The only negative is that I don’t quite love Woolf-the-person so much anymore. But honestly, if you read Woolf, give yourself the gift of reading this book.)
  40. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling and Jack Thorne (A goddamn tragedy. I was angry when I finished it. It was so bad, so unbelievable, so unfortunate. Oh, it hurts me still. I consider this outside the Canon and a flukey horrible mistake (that is making lots of people very rich). It’s so bad. Save yourself the heartbreak.)
  41. Conversations on Art and Aesthetics by Hans Maes (A collection of interviews with some of the leading aesthetic philosophers around. For someone with no prior background in the topics, I found it a super helpful primer that sparked tons of ideas for future exploration
  42. Boundaries and Allegiances: Problems of Justice and Responsibility in Liberal Thought by Samuel Scheffler
  43. My Brilliant Best Friend by Elena Ferrrante
  44. The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
  45. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
  46. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (my reading these back-to-back over the course of *maybe* a week and a half speaks for itself. The relationship between the two main characters was so fascinating and rich and challenging. I kept thinking about these books for months.)
  47. Beauty by Roger Scruton
  48. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (worth reading multiple times and so much to say about it. The betrayal at the end (having to do, I think, will a desire to destroy what you feel controls you), our extremely limited access to Miss Brodie’s life outside the views of the girls — it was all just so psychologically interesting.)
  49. Private Wongs by Arthur Ripstein
  50. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Nagata Kabi (translated by Jocelyne Allen) (an autobiographical manga. I just wanted to give her a big hug)
  51. The Course of Love by Alain do Botton (long-term relationships are hard and the more books we have that talk about different ways to make them work, however they might work for those individuals,  the better)
  52. Sourdough by Robin Sloan (I *loved* Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookshop and this was Sloan’s next book. Totally fun. Delightful. I felt like I was back in the bay area working at Google. Dear  Robin Sloan, I love you. Sincerely, me.)
  53. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (rich, sad, and with a real sense of place)
  54. By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano (a step into more experimental-y writing styles.)
  55. On Beauty by Elaine Scarry
  56. How Fiction Works by James Wood (if you read fiction, you should read this book)
  57. Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art by Alexander Nehams (yes yes yes)
  58. The Tyranny of the Ideal by Gerald Gaus (I saw him present at the NYU Law & Philosophy Colloquium this Fall and was absolutely fascinating with what his work on complex systems could mean in epistemology. That talk and this book inspired an entire paper of mine, and inspired me to take a course with Scott Page’s Modeling Complex Systems course on Coursera
  59. Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noe (Many little morsels of interesting thought but, alas, I felt like there was not enough depth. I wrote a review where I tried to help rationally reconstruct some of his arguments and provide some more nuanced accounts.)
  60. The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee (recommended by a friend. It’s a two-part lecture Coetzee gave at Princeton for the Tanner Lecturers. But instead of a normal lecture, he delivered a fictional novella. I think this could pair nicely with Unspeakable Conversations by Harriet McBryde Johnson [NYT link here])
  61. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Plays by Mitchel Resnick (read to help with my epistemology paper. Quick and enjoyable)
  62. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (better late than never. Read to help provide some context for my reading of Charles Mills’ White Ignorance and The Racial Contract)
  63. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch (Enjoyed)
  64. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith (I mean, the book is magical. The idea that octopi might be the most alien conscious creatures we ever encounter is striking. That nature could produce such different kinds of intelligent life, basically totally separate from each other is beautiful. It also provides me hope that there are aliens out there and they will find us!)

May 2018 bring more great books!

Thoughts on The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class

My quick thoughts on The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett (PUP 2017). Originally posted on Goodreads (here), hence the talk of star ratings.

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If you’re interested in the interplay between consumption and status, you’ll like (three stars) this book. The problem, though, is that while the author provides some interesting information (and is thus worth picking up for the references alone), I found myself confused about the ultimate normative argument and dubious about some of the descriptive claims. Here are some of my lingering questions/comments:

– What is her normative evaluation of the aspirational class? On one hand, she seems to think it’s worse because these people are spending money on the kinds of inconspicuous goods, like education for their kids, that is more likely to reproduce inequality than if they spent on clothes. So, she argues, they are exacerbating inequality. But… is that right? As compared to what? In other words, is this more likely to increase or perpetuate inequality than a world without this class? I suspect it matters a bit whose in the class. And, as we see, it’s not just (or really, primarily) the uber wealthy. Instead, it’s populated by people who have invested a lot (often, though not exclusively, with the serious financial aid of their parents) in the accumulation of social and cultural capital. They have advanced degrees, know all the cool music, read the right stuff, etc. But if these people aren’t coming primarily from the super wealthy, then doesn’t that mean that the aspirational class gives more people options for succeeding in the class wars? That is, you don’t *have* to be born rich to be high-status because you can develop your cultural capital instead. Indeed, the author points out numerous times that one interesting this about the aspirational class is that it cannot be easily delineated by economic capital. That is, these people aren’t all themselves or the children of people with lots of money. If that’s right, why is the creation of this class *worse than the alternative* for inequality? Does the opening up of new ways to raise your status instead help challenge the status of the uber-wealthy? Does it move us in the direction of equality?

One theory you could have about why this is bad (though not one she provides, though one I’m interested in) would compare the fracturing of class and status to the fracturing of the American corporate elite. (See Mark S. Mizruchi’s book, The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite – HUP 2013). Today, we see class and status power fractured – where once the same individuals were vested with all capital (economic, social, cultural), today those are split. Some people have social but not economic, economic but not cultural, etc. (See Mike Savage Social Class in the 21st Century [discussing the UK but the same idea would hold]). The problem with this is that fracturing makes it harder to identify and fix issues of inequality, or to regulate for whatever end you want. It also makes collective action more difficult. If lots more people have ways to get at least some capital (economic or social or cultural) maybe they are less likely to think the status games are problematic (because they can play more easily). Maybe this dynamic exacerbates long-term inequality. That’d be an interesting argument but it’s not there.

– But moving back to the book, in addition to asserting that the aspirational class is bad of equality, she also suggests ways that their consumption habits might *decrease* inequality. She talks about “conspicuous production” (clever catchphrase that I will use!) and how those within this class care about where a product is from, who made it, etc. Now, that can lead to market demand for animals treated well, or improved labor practices (consider the strategies used by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers). If that’s right, isn’t this new class helping?

Now, one concern is that these people don’t actually care about e.g., the environment, workers, happy animals, etc. they just want to paint a pretty picture in their head of those things. If that’s right, then of course conspicuous production isn’t likely to help those picking the organic fruit. But she never gives us data to understand if this is what’s happening. She mentions one other scholar who takes this view (and I have worried about this in other work) but what does she think? Where is the data?
And, again, if this enjoyment of conspicuous production *does* help make the world a slightly more just place, isn’t that at least kinda-sorta good?

– One possible concern (and one she very briefly mentions but does not develop) is that the aspirational class, because its fueled by belief in meritocracy and its members have often gotten into the class by working hard, thinks they deserve their status in the world and others deserve their status too. And this desert will help them justify their own position and their not-helping those who got screwed in the where-and-t0-whom-you-were-born lottery. But 1) this stands in contrast to her argument that the aspirational class cares a lot about those less well-off than them (she mentions Maslow’s hierarchy here) and 2) is belied by their spending on conspicuous production (unless she thinks they don’t *really* care about production, but she never gives us data to show this).

In short: there are a lot of internal contradictions in the description of this group. (I am interested in the ethics of consumption and was thus a bit disappointed by the internal tensions in her characterization of these people).

– Lastly, I don’t get the title. Her point isn’t the sum of *small* things, it’s the sum of *invisible* things. Or invisible things made visible. Or big-invisible things. Part of the argument is that the aspirational class, while still spending on conspicuous consumption spends more these days on 1) conspicuous production and 2) inconspicuous consumption (e.g. healthcare, education, outsourcing domestic labor (childcare, housework, etc.)). Both of these are supposed to stand in contrast to the gaudy (accd. to the aspirational class [and me]) Louis Vuitton logos, Chanel labels, etc. in that they aren’t conspicuous. The operative trait of aspirational class spending is that the most important segment of it lacks visibility. And as for size, this spending is the opposite of a sum of small things. One of the bigger problems for the author is that those lower down the status food chain cannot replicate the purchases of the aspirational class because they are so not-small! You can save your money and get a decently expensive purse but most can’t save enough to put their kids through college today. You can’t, if you are poor, buy yourself the free time necessary to read all the hip books, reviews, and online articles. So while a minor thing, the title makes no sense to me.

There are some incredibly interesting and challenging questions raised by the consumer behaviors. In our current political climate we see, from #boycottuber to massive pushes to get big companies to pull ads from sites like Breitbart, consumer purchasing power being treated as a political tool. It’s also, as this book details, considered by those within the aspirational class to be a moral issue as well. Or, at least, maybe. How to think about this, especially in a purportedly liberal democracy where the market is thought distinct from the political sphere, is exciting and important. But this book didn’t help me think more carefully about these issues. Nonetheless, the data provided on how various groups spend is itself valuable for those interested in these questions. Overall, I enjoyed the book and will cite it in future work.

March – May Reads

  1. The Taming of Free Speech by Laura Weinrib (HUP 2016)
  2. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  3. Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets by Debra Satz (OUP 2010)
  4. NW by Zadie Smith
  5. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World by Melvyn Dubofsky
  6. To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization by William P. Alford (Stanford University Press 1997)
  7. Orlando by Virginia Woolf – loved this
  8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  9. The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand – loved this
  10. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer
  11. Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives by Elizabeth Anderson (PUP 2017) – this combines her Tanner Lecturers with commentary by scholars from various fields. I’m hoping this is a sign that philosophers are becoming more interested in theorizing about work relations and private-ish law.
  12. The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture by Bonnie J. Morris (SUNY Press 2016) – Books on lesbian culture are hard to come by so I was quite happy to have stumbled upon this one. Very interesting. The discussion of conscious raising and how it resulted in intra-group fights(e.g. concerning women-born-women only spaces) and factions pairs well with the documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, which covers the rise of the women’s movement, focusing on 1966-71.
  13. Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil (University of Chicago Press 2017) – better to know a bit about these women before you read this.
  14. Food Justice by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi (MIT Press 2010) – some helpful information for those with limited knowledge about the issues. I found it repetitive.
  15. Attached by Amir Levine

February Reads

  1. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee
  2. Prejudicial Appearances: The Logic of American Antidiscrimination Law by Robert Post and others (a collection of responses to a Post essay)
  3. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  4. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (Fun but also sad. I now would like to own the complete OED. Note: very expensive)
  5. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
  6. The Second Shift by Arlie Russell Hochschild (a must read)
  7. Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (great to read after finishing her biography)

January Reads

I’ve decided to do another 52 book challenge this year. While last year I read more than 52, I didn’t want to set a higher goal this year because, in short, I’d like to avoid creating conditions that disincentivize the reading of both longer and more complex books. With a goal of 52, last year I was able to read a number of long books (e.g., Middlemarch and the biography of Chavez) and a number of complex books — books that I wanted to read very slowly (e.g., To the Lighthouse and a number of the more philosophical texts). This year I’d like to ensure I have the space to do that again.

With that, my January reads.

  1. Autumn by Ali Smith (embarrassing confession: I’d never heard of Ali Smith before reading an LGBTQ newsletter for Boston-area people that just happened to include a list of lesbian authors. After seeing her described as “Scotland’s Nobel Laureate-in-waiting”, I had to look her up. This book was a real treat. So much ‘high’ literature is depressing but this was quite the opposite. While the book is set in post-Brexit England, and while many of the characters have painful memories of past relationships, and live with an awareness of the narrowing of opportunities for them as time goes on, there is something quite hopeful and, I thought, joyful in these pages. Perhaps not so different from the conflicting feelings of closure, nostalgia, regret, and possibility that Autumn itself can evoke.
  2. How to be Both by Ali Smith (I read that the book is published in two versions. One version has the story Francesco del Cossa, the Italian renaissance artist, first, and the other has the story of George, a modern girl living in England, first. I happened to get the Francesco story first. I suspect I would have enjoyed it more the other way around and recommend the same to future readers. If you do insist on reading Francesco first, I think it best to read Francesco again, after you read George. Either way, I enjoyed Autumn more than this one.)
  3. Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant by Andrea Dworkin
  4. The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri (my close friend was going to buy me this book but I thankfully ended up buying it for myself first. Thankfully because otherwise I’d feel bad saying the following: it’s not worth buying. I’ve not read her other work (work I’ve heard is fantastic, for what it’s worth) but this should not be a book. It was originally a lecture and there simply aren’t enough ideas in here to merit publication in book format. I wish her editor would have encouraged her to put forward a few ideas and then spend some time really developing them. As it stands, it could have been a nice (and easily shortened) Slate article. Disappointing. Though the book cover itself is appealing.