- Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee
- Prejudicial Appearances: The Logic of American Antidiscrimination Law by Robert Post and others (a collection of responses to a Post essay)
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
- 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)
- Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
- The Second Shift by Arlie Russell Hochschild (a must read)
- Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (great to read after finishing her biography)
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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant by Andrea Dworkin
- 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.
A great year of reading.
Since my last post:
- The Crusades of Cesar Chavez by Miriam Pawel (fascinating, even-handed)
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
- If on a winter’s night a travel by Italo Calvino
- Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
- She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir
Excited to report that I completed my 52-books-in-2016 challenge this month!
But now onto the August reads…
- At Home in the Law: How the Domestic Violence Revolution is Transforming Privacy by Jeannie Suk (YUP 2011)
- Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (Harper 2016)
- After reading the author’s interview with the New Conservative, this got bumped to the top of the list. I laughed a lot more than I thought I would (some of the dialogue reminded me of what I heard as a kid, and reading about it somehow elicits, among other things, laughter). Instead of some memoirs where you either feel like the author barely sees him/herself as an agent (which then leaves you feeling depressed and helpless as well) or where the author tells a story of triumphing over all with god/John Galt-like control (unrealistic and fails to appreciate how we all depend on those around us, and how important it is to have support – as a kid and as an adult) this was much more in the middle. He acknowledges how some members of his family not simply “saved him” but, better than that, provided him with the conditions from which he could go on to succeed. Also, a refreshing comment on how the military can turn lives around (I don’t think people in elite institutions often understand how someone screaming at you, making you do what they say, can really *increase* agency, but Vance explains how much of a difference his time there made). (note: both my parents were in the Air Force and I’m pretty sure my dad would agree. Mom is a different story) In short: really enjoyed, very quick read, and I suspect will give a lot of people an insight into a culture of which they are ignorant but, if this election cycle has shown anything, they should not be.
- The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon (Scribner 2000)
- Atlas is not an inaccurate description. This book is massive, 570+ pages. And the font is small! Parts I enjoyed. Other parts, less so. If you want a now-slightly-outdated encyclopedic understanding of depression, here’s your book. Chapters go into detail about the author’s own experiences, the history of different drugs and treatments, the history of how we’ve understood depression over the centuries (I liked that part), and an unfortunately short look at what it’s like to deal with mental illness for those who don’t come (in contrast to the author) from such privileged backgrounds.
- The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (originally Putnam’s Sons 1966)
- A gift with high praise from Will B., though he hadn’t read the thing since he was a kid. Libertarians will enjoy. Enjoyed the alternate family structures, the conscious computer (Mike!), and the political and revolutionary strategy. A quick-witted sort of tone. No Ursula K. Le Guin (Dispossessed is better) and no Octavia Butler, but good. And let’s be real: that is an awesome title.
With the move back to Cambridge, writing, the start of GRE prep, and two weeks of fantastic cycling in Montana with The Cycling House (100% recommend them), reading was a bit light this month.
- The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations by José Medina (OUP)
- Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work by Gillian Thomas (St. Martin’s Press)
- Was putzing around the MIT coop bookshop and stumbled upon this. Started reading a few pages and decided I just had to finish it. If you like the Law Stories Series of books, you’ll enjoy this. Would be a great optional reading recommendation for students in an Employment Law-type class.
- Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (originally published by Nation Books in 2004 but my version, with a new foreword and afterword, was published by Haymarket Books [check out their site for lots of great reads] in 2016)
- I was feeling a bit depressed and decided to read something with a, well, more hopeful tenor than my newsfeed. Good tidbits on narrative ethics, conflict, clashing conceptions of self, epistemic injustice, and the necessity of imagination/role of imagination in social progress.
- Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
- Unbelievably good. The first Hesse I’ve read and I had to stop myself from taking pictures of every single page and sending them to friends. For those interested in narrative, multiple identities/selves, etc. this is absolutely positively amazing.
Another month of good reads (speaking of which, friend me on goodreads!)
- 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.”
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I’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!