October 2, 2016

Some Recent Readings

Some Recent Reading

Safiya Sinclair’s “Cannibal”

Reading this made me want to compare her to Walcott,
With the islands in her voice. But that’s not so. She has
Her own voice, her own experiences. Distilled here through the
History of expectations for her to sound like Walcott,
To sound like Caliban.

Jennifer McCartney’s “The Joy of Leaving your sh*t all over the place”

This book is a comic book in reply to that other book.
Not sure if you need to to have read the other book for this to make sense. I think the thesis of the other book is simple enough that it’s not necessary. But this one stands in its own, It was a quick read that made me laugh.

Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe”

I picked this one up because I have been thinking deeply about tribalism and nationalism recently, a renewed interest after burning through texts like Anderson’s Imagined Communities several years ago. The election and the controversies about standing for flags and which flags to stand for really makes me think about the need for community that we lack - lonely crowd and bowling alone books really key this. Junger’s book hits on  this in terms of the military, in a group that has gone through actions that have defined their in-group status. My only issue is that Junger doesn’t go deep enough for me here, and the book leaves the reader wanting in a way because it raises so many issues that aren’t resolved.

Bohemians edited by Buhle and Berger

Verso was running a sale on their site, so I went ahead and bought this due to my love both of Bohemians and Graphic novels. Overall, it was an interesting book, with biographical info about some people I was familiar with and people I learned about for the first time. The only issue is that there is an unevenness to each of the stories in terms of quality of the art and the research that went into the story. For example, there is an example where the cartoonist is showing the Panama Canal (P. 11) - in a story that takes place prior to the digging of the canal. Little things like that in a book about history make you wonder what is wrong about what you don’t know. That said, the extended piece on Woody Guthrie makes it worth it for me.

Real Artists Have Day Jobs - Sara Benincasa

This little collection of essays is a nice readable book to show that you don’t have to have it all together to have it all together. The biggest problem with the book is that the type was set in a sans-serif type. I don’t know why that’s being used more and more lately. Its more modern, it seems. I’d bet that that typographical choice wasn’t the author’s so I’ll just point fingers at the designer. What the strength of the book is the honest Benincasa has about facing the various mental illness challenges in her life but not being wholly defined by them (through she did write a previous book about her agoraphobia, so maybe just a bit of that my illness defines me thing but not too much. She shows the struggle is real but it can work out. It is kind of self-helpy but not so much that if you’re the type of person to get self-conscious about those sorts of thing that it will really eat at you because you worry that people will think you don’t have it together enough that you need to read self-help books like some pathetic loser. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

What Do We Do About Inequality? WPC

The authors in this book approach the problem(s) of inequality in many different ways. One of the strengths of the work is the plurality of voices. This allows you to see the issue from multiple angles and experiences. If you don’t already, the voices here are important to follow across social media, especially twitter.

One weakness is that some of the writing is already available in other places. Tressie Cottom’s essay about the lived experience of being poor and making the wrong choices as perceived by outsiders is the most powerful essay in the book, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read it twice before this book because of people posting it on Twitter.

That said, there are other voices that I had not read in depth yet. There is an essay by Scott Santens, the first part of which is the best, most clear explanation of how a UBI would work - and this is something I’m very interested in as a potential response to inequality and I’m glad that in the last year or so that it has become part of the conversation.

Ultimately though, the book’s strength is also part of its weakness. Since there are a lot of voices, there is no one thing that we can take away as the answer to the titular question. Having this be an issue aired recently and on the tips of the tongues from economists like Deaton and Piketty and Milanovic is good, but it is at the grassroots that hopefully will move the needle. I just worry the robots will rise before we work out an equitable distribution to the gains of the productivity and that in ten years we will be asking the same questions from a scarier baseline.

I received an advance review copy, so I don’t want to talk too much about formatting, but a couple things stuck out. For one, there is no identification of the writers and their educational or professional background. This may have been a deliberate choice, but it diminished it a bit as a reader, since I wasn’t able to place the writer into my hermeneutic circle or whatever. Also, the notes are numbered sequentially and not broken up by the essay, making them a bit harder to get into if I wanted to chase a source.

Pound Foolish by Helaine Olen

The writer of the fine Trekonomics, Manu Saadia, pointed me to Olen’s work in a conversation (you can pick up that name, since I dropped it and am done using it). What this book is is a complete and thorough debunking of your favorite personal finance guru. Most are charlatans, it seems that the real question is to what degree are they charlatans.

What I take away is that like some presidential candidates, what is being sold is not success per se, but the idea of success. Wrap yourself in the rich dad poor dad millionaire next door Jim Cramer etc mindset and you too can be rich. Having long been skeptical of people searching for gurus, Olen’s book is a breath of fresh air.  What is missing is a bunking where the debunking went.

Aside from don’t follow these fools, I was at least looking for something that might guide what I should look for - the best advice Olen claims to have found is to short the stocks that Cramer pumps, as well as buying TIPS. Even my well-worn advice of buying index funds comes under some scrutiny here, and I want a guru. Wait, I think I get it now.

Karl Marx - A Life

A three or four years ago, I went to go on a walk in the woods with my wife. It was early spring and the sun was shining, so we hoped to take the day and make the most of it. Or she did, and I have problems saying no to her when she asks because she’s just so darn persuasive. The walk didn’t last long. No one told the snowpack on the trail that it needed to have melted so that we could walk on the trail.

I’m not sure how I managed it, but there was a mall with an actual physical book store close by the trail we were trying to walk. At one point I had at least a couple hundred dollars worth of books in my hand (hardbacks at bookstore prices). One of them was the new biography of Marx that had recently come out. I almost bought it but put it down because I realized that a life of Marx is one of those things that is hard to be objective about. I didn’t want to spend seven hundred pages with an author who was a staunch Hegelian mad about Marx’s subversion of their hero or some marginalist economist mad that the subject didn’t fully wrestle with the mathematics of their revolution. Or, you know, whatever else you could possibly see the life of Marx and his ideas being politicized somehow.

So instead of buying that unknown book, I went looking for people who had read various lives and what they would recommend to read. The Wheen biography came up a lot. So I bought that book, and then I put it on my shelf as a decoration and then forgot about it for the next several years. And recently, once I finished my MBA program, I found myself with time and inclination to go about reading some of the scores of books I own but haven’t read yet, and a familiar name looked out at me from the shelf.

For any student of the left, the life and career of Marx is knowable in broad strokes - youth in Germany, exile in England, friendship with Engles. Wheen fills all of those blank spots in. What Wheen does more than anything else is to humanize Marx from someone that is a boogeyman of the cold war to a guy with a family trying to make due in Victorian England.

I think Wheen, like myself, had already made his mind up about Marx before he approached this book. If there is any criticism to be had, I offer two. For one, it is only 400 pages. What lacks for me is a deeper engagement with the philosophy and economics of Marx. I’m not sure if that was a choice made to keep the book more accessible or why it was made. But I think it plays into my other criticism. I felt that the author may have been too sympathetic to Marx. He was a human who did make some bad choices (like maybe cheating on Jenny Marx) and I think glossing over that nuance in fear of attacking the subject makes the book less than what it could be. This sympathy is also evident where he addresses some of the more well-known intellectual rivals to Marxism, namely Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and  Mikhail Bakunin, so that these men and their followers are diminished in the book, the casual reader isn’t really let into why Marxian ideas are superior.

Overall, though, if you only know those broad strokes then the Wheen biography is a good entry point for learning about the life of Marx. If you want to get deeper into his ideas, there are other avenues, like the work of David Harvey or Paul D’Amato. Or you can just climb the mountain of Capital itself, something I need to do.