Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: Well, I see why people like him—he’s vicious about people, including himself, while loving the desert around him far more, and describing it with equal wit. Discussing physicists (and riffing on the atomic bomb) he talks about scientific disputes that were “peaceful,” in that “only bystanders” were harmed. Et cetera. It is a bit disconcerting to have environmentalism side by side with various racial stereotypes (the noble/degraded Indian in particular), heterosexism (no fairies for him), and condemnation of cars as mere wheelchairs—if you’re too infirm to see the great outdoors, you should have gone before you got that way. Also his insistence that overpopulation was about to destroy the United States—half a century ago—making mandatory contraception necessary, reads a little differently now.
Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution: Through pamphlets and other written documents, Bailyn explores the ideas percolating in the American colonies—about the legitimate basis of authority, the nature of representation (whether it was local or general in nature, and thus whether an elected representative was supposed to work for the general good), and the appropriate division between king and legislature. Bailyn emphasizes that a lot of the men who ultimately became revolutionaries didn’t have a particularly well-worked out theory, but that they pushed theory in the direction of their concrete thinking about disobedience.
Jonathan Taplin, Move Fast and Break Things: I’m not a good reviewer for this book because I am very much Taplin’s enemy, the kind of person he describes as bought off by Google and its lackey the EFF (which opposed SOPA/PIPA in the name of stealing stuff from artists). That’s too bad in a way, because I actually agree with him that the collapse of antitrust enforcement is a huge problem. But the book is a list of everything wrong with the internet, blaming mostly Google and secondarily Facebook for the fallen state of the world, when not all the problems are problems of monopoly—click fraud, for example. This book is not about making actual arguments addressing the counterarguments Google makes about why it’s not a monopoly, or addressing any other counterarguments really. You should read Zeynep Tufekci and Evgeny Morozov instead for sophisticated (but still really mean, for the latter), internet-skeptical arguments that engage with the complicated reality and don’t just whine about how hard it is to get financed in the way that artists were (for half a century) financed.
James Forman Jr., Locking Up Our Own: Focusing on DC, where Forman lived and worked for a number of years, Forman tells a story that applies in many places in the US: the reasons that African-Americans supported, at least initially, harsh-on-crime policies that produced the New Jim Crow, exploding prison populations and ensuring that huge numbers of young African-Americans were involuntarily involved in the criminal justice system. Forman argues: (1) The pioneers who joined and rose in the police were often looking for good jobs, not to transform policing; you wouldn’t expect a rise in black firefighters to change the way fires were fought. (2) Class divisions in the African-American community made it easier for upper- and middle-class blacks to endorse policies that kept poor blacks overpoliced; it’s no accident that the policies they fought the hardest were the ones, like racially motivated traffic stops, that they were likely to experience, while policies that targeted poor neighborhoods got more of a pass. (3) Poor African-Americans were often underpoliced as well; there were huge crime and drug problems in poor communities, and while African-Americans asked for all kinds of resources—including education and economic development along with improved police presence—to fight them, all they got was the police presence. Then policies directed at those neighborhoods, often initially to combat violence, ended up criminalizing a lot of behavior that whites just wouldn’t be caught for, like possession of small amounts of pot. It’s a thought-provoking read.
Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory: Sometimes quite insightful, sometimes twee memoir from a woman whose obsession with death started when she was very young (in the 90s: I am old) when she witnessed a child’s death. She tells stories from the crematorium at which she worked, full of the squishy details of death, and argues that our modern Western unwillingness to confront death as a real and inevitable part of living is the source of many of our problems. Recommended if you like squishy details.
Eric Foner, Battles for Freedom: Foner’s essays for the Atlantic in recent years, often relating history to current events. E.g., Obama never really learned that movements, not leaders alone, change politics. “[U]nlike Lincoln, who respected people to his left such as the abolitionist Frederick Douglass … and took their objections to some of his policies seriously, Obama seems to view criticism [from the left] as little more than an annoyance.” Foner also asks “what exactly constitutes political practicality?”—pointing out that Lincoln for a long time advocated compensated emancipation and colonization of freed blacks, a “harebrained scheme [that] had no possibility of enactment.” It was the wild-eyed abolitionists who put forward the actual program that passed. In terms of southern irredentism, he notes that “in Tennessee there are more memorializations of Nathan Bedford Forrest than any other figure in the state’s history (including president Andrew Jackson) despite Forrest having been a slave trader, founder of the Ku Klux Klan and the commander of Confederate troops that massacred black Union soldiers after they had surrendered.” I’d only quibble with the “despite”—the proper conjunction seems to me to be “because.” Foner discusses the personalization of the political in TV documentaries and their willingness to address race but not class; he also discusses the history promoted by public memorials (where unions are overrepresented but the Union and African-Americans underrepresented). He also points out that he has yet to meet a white male who doubted his own abilities because of the special favoritism he received due to race, class, or the old boys’ network—affirmative action is only degrading to some people. And he needles conservatives by pointing out that it’s the greatest proponents of American exceptionalism who want to get rid of one key exceptionalist feature, birthright citizenship.