May Reads

Another month of good reads (speaking of which, friend me on goodreads!)

  1. The Language Animal by Charles Taylor (HUP)
    • Continuing my reading in the epistemic injustice area. From HUP, “For centuries, philosophers have been divided on the nature of language. Those in the rational empiricist tradition—Hobbes, Locke, Condillac, and their heirs—assert that language is a tool that human beings developed to encode and communicate information. In The Language Animal, Taylor explains that this view neglects the crucial role language plays in shaping the very thought it purports to express. Language does not merely describe; it constitutes meaning and fundamentally shapes human experience. The human linguistic capacity is not something we innately possess. We first learn language from others, and, inducted into the shared practice of speech, our individual selves emerge out of the conversation.”
  2. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  3. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
    • This is the first fiction work of hers I’ve read (shamefully enough). Absolutely remarkable. I’m tempted to read it again in a few months. The first book I can recall where I felt compelled to take photos of passages and send them to my sister! A certain Proustian sensibility in it (she was a huge fan of his) but with its own unique voice. Loved it.
  4. The Secrete Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James W. Pennebaker
    • More in the epistemic injustice space, I thought this would be a good for thinking more about how the way we communicate shapes how others perceive/siganls our place in social hierarchies. This book could have been a bit shorter, I’d say. But, nonetheless, enjoyed.
  5. The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
    • Just received the Man Booker International Prize a few weeks ago. Great story about how it got translated – Smith was a PhD student, read it in Korean, loved it, and decided it just had to be translated. She spent the next year learning Korean better, translated ten pages, sent it to a publisher, publisher loved it, and the rest is history!
    • As I’ve said before, it is tragic how little opportunity English speakers have to read translations of Asian authors. Kang, a woman author from South Korea, is one of the very very very few South Korean authors we have access to. The loss is ours. The way she writes about relationships (indeed, the family dynamics especially), the way her characters see the world, the symbolism, themes, etc., all open up new ways of being and thinking.
  6. The Workplace Constitution from the New Deal to the New Right by Sophia Z. Lee (CUP)
    • So great – I only wish I had read this before I taught private discrimination this quarter. Broadly, the book looks at the history of constitutional rights in the workplace. Today, in the private sector, most of us are under an at-will employment regime. We can be fired for almost any reason or no reason at all. While most Americans *think* their constitutional right to free speech and, more at stake in this book, a Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment right to not be wrongfully discriminated against, are protected in the workplace, that’s just not true. This book traces the battles that got us to this point. It’s a fascinating combination of labor, race, and the rise of the New Right. And what I really enjoyed — a fantastic explanation of the pros and cons of an expansive state action doctrine. Originally, pro-labor wanted an expansive doctrine so the constitution could reach the workplace. Then, as the New Right gained power (esp. with Rehnquist and the Burger Court), the move to a colorblind Constitution meant that an expansive state action doctrine would preclude some of the affirmative action policies workplaces adopted. Expansive state action also meant government intervention in the inner-workings of unions, which itself gave industry a new and powerful anti-unionization tool (companies argued that if unions were discriminatory, the NLRB couldn’t certify them as workers’ exclusive representative as it would violate the Fifth A) [state action = certification as exclusive rep]). I have pages and pages of notes and questions. If you’re interested in state action, labor, civil rights, the history of right to work (the Right’s adoption of an expansive state action doctrine), and rights in the workplace, this is a must read.

April Reads

  1. The Afterparty by Daryl Gregory (Tor Books)
    • Fun. If you like Cory Doctorow, I suspect you’d enjoy this.
  2. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing by Miranda Fricker (OUP)
    • After hearing about this book for the better part of a year, I finally read it myself. Pages and pages of notes. Inspired the rest of my reading this month – a connection between hermeneutic injustice, alienation in the wake of trauma, the role of language in self-creation and understanding, autonomy, etc.
  3. Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of Self by Susan Brison (Princeton University Press)
  4. The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein, M.D. (Penguin Press)
    • At the intersection of psychoanalysis and Buddhism
  5. Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections by Robert Stolorow (Analytic Press)
  6. Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism by Sarah Conly (Cambridge University Press)
  7. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press)
    • Just won the Pulitzer this month. Absolutely worth reading.

Currently Reading: The Language Animal by Charles Taylor (HUP)

March Reads

Another month, another post of books! In chronological order:

  1. Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious About Serious Books by William Germano (University of Chicago Press)
  2. Saving the Neighborhood: Racially Restrictive Covenants, Law, and Social Norms by Richard Brooks and Carol M. Rose (Harvard University Press)
    • Really enjoyed this book and assigning it to my students in the private (non-government) discrimination seminar. Tells the story of how, in the wake of the Great Migration, whites used restrictive covenants and other mechanisms to signal their views on non-whites moving into the neighborhood. Most interesting to me was the discussion of the tensions between racially restrictive covenants and fundamental property law doctrines that, for instance, disfavor restraints on alienation. Written extremely clearly and (mercifully) only uses game theory concepts in ways that elucidates how racism works in the private context. Absolutely recommend.
  3. The Racial Contract by Charles W. Mills (Cornell University Press)
    • You know that feeling when you drink super cold water when you first get up in the morning and you can feel it tickle all the way down your throat and into your stomach? This book feels like that on your mind. As neo-republicans have to acknowledge that their theory of freedom relied on the enslavement of many for that freedom, social contract theory must acknowledge and grapple with its origins and ongoing relationship to white supremacy.
  4. Stoner by John Williams (republished by NYRB Classics)
    • The book I had to rant about mid-month. In reality, there’s a lot to like here — just also a lot to criticize. I did not actually hate it!
  5. Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information by Eva Hemmungs Wirtén (University of Chicago Press)
  6. Crossing the Class and Color Lines: From Public Housing to White Suburbia by Leonard Rubinowitz and James Rosenbaum (University of Chicago Press)
    • All about the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program (if you’re unfamiliar, it’s what moved over 7000 low-income black families from Chicago’s very poor and very dangerous inner cities into middle-class white suburbia. All from 1976-1998. Showed yet again that where you live matters to life outcomes.
  7. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books)
    • Fiction (finally!). This book just came out this past September and has been on tons of should-read lists. It tells the story of one marriage from both sides, with the first half of the book from the husband’s perspective and the second from the wife. The wife was *such* an interesting character. Enjoyed.
  8. The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom by John Gray (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
  9. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor)
    • Recommended by one of the lovely people at Borderlands, the best SF bookstore I’ve ever been to and the place I beelined to once I returned the other day. A novella, with themes that reminded me a bit of Octavia Butler’s xenogenesis trilogy. Totally enjoyed but wish it was longer!



February Reads

February was another good month of books. In chronological order:

  1. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf Press)
    • Winner of tons of awards, The Argonauts is a powerful book in the memoir/digester-and-reflector-of-culture vein. Reading, you feel the force of Nelson as she fluidly thinks through her own intellectual development, relationships, sexuality, gender fluidity, family, motherhood,  art, and what one woman’s attempts at a happy life looks like.
    • Side note: I’m a big fan of Graywolf Press and I highly recommend you take a look at some of their catalogs the next time you’re looking for something worthwhile to read.When I get their catalogs, it’s always a big treat to see what they’ve got coming out. They also published The Empathy Exams, which I wrote about a while back and two other book I read this month.
  2. A Theory of Discrimination by Tarunabh Khaitan (Oxford University Press)
    • I’m teaching a seminar this spring on private (that is, non-government) discrimination and writing an essay examining and ultimately rejecting the autonomy argument against government regulation in that space (much inspiration drawn from Susan Brison’s work); this is one of the many books I’ve read in preparation for the class and for the paper. Helpful read though the section on private discrimination (framed as a discussion of the duty bearers of antidiscrimination laws) wasn’t ultimately of much help. The author more or less attempts to philosophically ground the status quo without questioning whether it really is justifiable. Nonetheless, helpful. Surprising number of typos.
  3. A World of Letters: Yale University Press, 1908-2008 by the one and only Nicholas Basbanes (Yale University Press).
    • I love Nicholas Basbanes. Love. If you have any interest in books, libraries, book collecting – frankly, if you have any interest in joy – you must read his books. All of them. His writing is one gorgeous love letter to books and, more than that, book people. Here he writes about the history of Yale University Press. Not my favorite of his books but still totally enjoyable. Through this I also learned the controversy surrounding the publishing of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night – and now I’ve got it to read and tickets to see the play this month! If you enjoy learning a bit about the history of the spread of ideas and how publishing houses contribute to that, I recommend!
  4. The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine; Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan (Graywolf Press)
    • Saw this while perusing Graywolf Press’s site. I found it so depressing. Here’s the description: “Shutov, a disenchanted writer, revisits St. Petersburg after twenty years of exile in Paris, hoping to recapture his youth. Instead, he meets Volsky, an old man who tells him his extraordinary story: of surviving the siege of Leningrad, the march on Berlin, and Stalin’s purges, and of a transcendent love affair. Volsky’s life is an inspiration to Shutov—because for all that he suffered, he knew great happiness. This depth of feeling stands in sharp contrast to the empty lives Shutov encounters in the new Russia, and to his own life, that of just another unknown man.” What I wrote in the back: “Shutov is this passed-his-prime writer who a young aspiring (woman) writer idolizes until she realizes he isn’t the literary master she imagined. He is then supposedly transformed by his encounter with Volsky but it isn’t so clear how that transformation happens. We hear the same story Shutov hears but it never felt like I knew Shutov well enough to fill in the gaps and credibly imagine how he understood that story.” I will say that the Volsky story was moving and awful. Through him we see this meaningless nightmare merry-go-round where we eternally repeat (contrast Mila Kundera) awful, awful things. He is subject to the merry-go-round but stands outside it, content to live a simple life with his love, Mila. Mila and Volsky vaguely reminded me of Axel and Beatrice from The Buried Giant. There’s this stillness, the deadness of winter that kills everything. Then, a finding of another, and the fragile tenacity of that connection. And yet here, in contrast to The Buried Giant, that stillness and fog seems to only contain the two of them – the rest of the world standing in violent relief. In the end: I’m mixed on the book and had to take a break from fiction afterward. I can only feel so sad for so long!
  5. On Liberty by Mill
    • For my essay on the autonomy defense
  6. Curiosity by Alberto Manguel (Yale University Press)
    • Came across this on YUP’s site. Then read a recommendation that said if you like Nicholas Basbanes, you’ll love Alberto Manguel. Totally agree. This book is nothing if not a long beautiful musing on curiosity and language, using Dante’s Divine Comedy as a backbone for the journey.To say more than that is hard. I’ve never read Dante (shame, I know) but reading this has forced it onto my list. I have pages of notes! I wish I was as widely read as Manguel. Hopefully there’s still time!
  7. Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka (Graywolf Press)
    • Just published Feb. 16 of this month, I got my copy that day. So so so depressing. If you’ve read Dept. of Speculation, it shares something with it — that New England cold, still, icy blues and gray kind of loneliness. The book will make you physically ache. Hurt. Ugh. Proceed with caution.
  8. The Imperative of Integration by Elizabeth Anderson (Princeton University Press)
    • I had the great fortune of meeting and eating dinner with Liz Anderson when she presented at the Law & Philosophy workshop this month. I read a few chapters of her book for the workshop and then decided I needed the whole thing. Really enjoyed this (and more pages of notes!) and it’ll be required reading for my students this spring. Inspiring to see work in non-ideal theory that really engages with the facts on the ground while maintaining such clarity of thought. I aspire!
  9. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
    • Richard recommended and I loved it! Super fun and clever. If you like Cory Doctorow, I think you’d like Robin Sloan. And if you’re from the Bay Area (or ever worked at Google), you’ll love all the references. Fun fun fun and happy. A good way to end the month!

January Reads

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 1.01.22 PM.pngMy goal is to read 52 books in 2016. Here are the January reads:

  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez)
  2. Strangers Drowning (Larissa MacFarquhar)
    • Highly recommend. If you’re interested in etiological/genealogical critiques of beliefs, it’s an unexpected must-read. In multiple stories you see how effective altruists seem especially concerned when they realize that if they had been, for instance, raised in a different country or with a different family what they believe would be different. They often respond to this revelation by immediately abandoning their own beliefs. Given the sort of god’s eye view utilitarians are disposed to take, this makes some sense (though it’s still surprising to read about).
  3. Middlemarch (George Eliot)
    • Truly incredible, written with exceptional compassion. I have pages of quotes I wrote out, and even more pages of notes.
  4. All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)
    • A fast and lovely read. Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner.
  5. Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (Bernard Williams)
    • This was mentioned in a very thoughtful article I read so I ordered it straight away. A quick read. Clever, moves quickly (sometimes too quickly).
  6. The Business of Books (André Schiffrin)
    • Written by the founder of The New Press. Interesting perspective on changes in the publishing industry. Another quick read.
  7. A History of the Oxford University Press, Vol. I (Harry Carter)
    • Run. Away. It’s somewhere between a reference book and what I imagined – a readable overview of the history of the OUP. It was a slog. Fragmented and assumes lots of prior knowledge. The Appendix is exceptional. Not to be read straight through.

Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests

book coverFinished Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests. Toying with writing a full book review so will wait on saying too much here.

The book takes aim at anti-commodification theorists and stakes out two claims: (1) if you may do it for free, you may do it for money, and (2) there are no inherent limits to what can be bought and sold, but only restrictions on how we buy and sell. If the anti-commodification theorists really are essentialists about markets (that is, think that, no matter what, in all possible worlds, markets are corrupting, bad, etc.), then Jason and Peter present some problems they need to respond to (though some of the arguments against essentialism are better than others. That in some cultures men leave money on the pillows of the women they’ve just had sex with is expected and it’s failing to leave money that’s a sign of disrespect might not be such a great example of money operating well. I suspect gender relations in that context aren’t what feminists are hoping for). However, if anti-commodification theorists are instead objecting to markets in the world we currently live in, given all its imperfections, it strikes me that the most this book can say is something like “well, maybe they’re bad now, but then we should change those conditions because markets can actually do some good.” Fair enough but I hardly think that a devastating critique of those scholars.

That said, I do think they are pointing out some common mistaken critiques of markets that are in certain need of being pointed out and corrected.

And I’ve already said too much!

Aesthetics and Ethics: Dorian Gray and The Unbearable Lightness of Being

book cover book cover Read both in the last two weeks and while they are in many ways worlds apart, the authors share an interest in the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, and between human connectedness and the private/public hidden/disclosed lines. Dorian Gray was good (and has enough witty-yet-profound quotable passages to fill pages), but The Unbearable Lightness of Being was one of the best books I’ve read this year. I have about 8 pages of notes in the back of it. It also connects up with my favorite essay in the Empathy Exams about kitsch, authenticity, meaning, aesthetics, and morality. The book is a must read. But warning: keep the tissue box nearby.

The Empathy Exams

book coverJust finished — a solid read. The book is a collection of essays that loosely have an empathy theme. With some emphasis on the loosely. I’d just say it’s a collection of essays that all fall into the thinking-against-oneself genre — a genre that some find self-indulgent but I find comforting and insightful more often than not.

My favorite essay was In Defense of Saccharin(e). In it she reflects on sentimentality (like an artificial sweeter), anti-sentimentalists, irony, aesthetics, the use of metaphor to describe emotion (as a tool for deflecting and diffusing “the glare of revelation”), and a favorite line that I will now be using frequently, “big crude crayon-drawing feelings that could actually render us porous to one another.” Love that. Enjoyed thinking through the issues in that essay.

Purchasing Power: Consumer Organizing, Gender, and the Seattle Labor Movement, 1919-1929

book coverI’m behind on book reviews (very, very behind) but I finally read the last pages of this today and just had to say something. And that something is: this book is fascinating and quite relevant to my own work (how great when that happens!)

The book traces the Seattle labor movement’s transformation from incredibly powerful and fairly radical leading up to the 1919 general strike to the fairly toothless business unionist AFL version of the mid to late 1920s. Frank attributes the decline to a variety of factors, but racism and sexism are front and center. As is the government’s suppression of radicals leading up to and during the Red Scare (something covered more extensively in Paul Avrich’s books on anarchism).

What was most relevant to me in all this was the consumer-based strategies Seattle labor used, first in 1919 and then again in the mid/late-1920s. In both cases, the idea was to use consumer (working class consumer) purchasing power via boycotts, “buy union” labels, etc. to advance the union cause. Now there are two super interesting things about this for me: (1) how a consumer strategy lends itself to both radical (1919) and conservative (mid-1920s) visions of labor and (2) why consumer strategies mostly failed.

On (1) — the radical version was possible only when the consumer-focus was a complement to resistance and the point of production, as part of a larger and broader vision of a working class society. In this version, labor also didn’t *just* use things like the union label and shop cards, they also engaged in super interesting experimentation with things like cooperatives, which allowed for some distance to be maintained between labor and capital (because via the cooperatives, labor could attempt to compete directly with capital as a source of goods). I’ve now purchased about a half dozen books on the use of cooperatives in US history. When do they work? Can they? Why don’t we see more of them? Who uses cooperatives today? As costs lower, why don’t we see a co-op version of Uber? Or any of the other zillion “on-demand economy” companies?

On (2) — the failure is tied to, among other things, ongoing sexism and racism. As an example, women did 80-90% of all family shopping, which meant that for consumer organizing to work, women had to be on board. But in both 1919 and the mid-1920s, women were almost wholly excluded from labor. Women who worked outside the home were almost invariably excluded from unions [married women were rejected from unions in 1919 and funds were withdrawn for female organizers in 1922] and women who worked in the home were not even considered workers at all. It’s thus no great surprise that women did not identify with the movement and thus had little motivation to spend the extra time and energy (i.e. work) necessary to seek out pro-union shops and goods. As for race, it’s a similar issue. Seattle labor was by and large unwilling to admit non-whites into membership. But that meant that non-whites had little motivation to support a white-only consumer movement.

Long story short: the book was fascinating and has left me with (literally) pages of notes and questions. So much more to know! Highly recommended!

Go Set A Watchman

book coverFinished last weekend. I’d write more but given the endless sea of stuff that will be written, I can’t motivate myself to do so. So here’s the best I can do:

  • I thought the first hundred or so pages of a much higher quality than the rest.
  • Perhaps because I haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird since I was a kid, watching Atticus fall from god to human was touching and heartache-inducing because I felt the pain Jean Louise (Scout) felt as it was happening. Not because I went into the book with a strong vision of Atticus as infallible hero.
  • Throughout the book JL is referred to as “color blind” and I wonder how a child reading the book today, where “color blind” has a particular (and different) meaning (think about equal protection, affirmative action, theories on how to stop racism, etc.), will understand it. My own thought is it’ll be an important teaching moment.
  • Harper Lee adds in some quite amazing passages that have to do with social hierarchy and the freedom to ignore social norms. I haven’t seen anybody write about this aspect yet but I hope they’re on their way. In short: JL is an elite while some around her (I’m thinking of Hank in particular) are considered trash. When JL is screaming at Hank about his choice to involve himself in a clearly racist and oppressive organization, Hank says some pretty interesting stuff about what it’s like to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy. But as interesting and complicated as it is, it does not register at all for JL. It’s not an excuse for his behavior by any means but it does open the door for a fascinating analysis of how the role of class in racism.
  • The title is a biblical reference: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” Isaiah 21:6. I hope to see some reviews looking at that connection, too.

If this were a standalone book, I’d not be keen to recommend it. But because it’s connected to TKAM, a book that almost every kid in US schools has read, it seems a virtual must-read.