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Tue, Jul. 5th, 2016, 10:41 pm

Bill Browder, Red Notice: Would-be master of the universe goes to Russia, makes millions of dollars investing for clients in part by exposing corruption in Russian businesses, then gets too close to Putin’s interests. When he’s driven out of Russia, he manages to save his clients’ money, but his associates in Russia are threatened. As he struggles to figure out what happened to his stolen companies, one of his associates is killed, and he becomes a human rights activist in his search for justice. It’s got a bit of numbing detail; Browder’s not a prose stylist. But his story of corruption and looting is powerful and distressing—this is what it means that Putin is in power.

Calvin Schermerhorn, The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860: A little too clever in trying to turn a phrase/extend a metaphor, but overall a compelling and distressing story of the way that the North and South collaborated to extend and rationalize (in the sense of making standardized) slavery in the service of economic growth. Slave traders were marginalized or even despised in Southern accounts lauding slavery; even less common was a recognition of the slave trader as a core kind of capitalist—even abolitionists “presented slavery as a social institution rather than an economic one.” For example, the newly remembered Solomon Northrup presented his enslavement as a human drama, which led to less attention to the ways in which the violence was systematized—not that it wasn’t also personal; Schermerhorn records some of his subjects joking in their correspondence about the enslaved woman they raped and passed between them.

The Southern slave economy required pro-business national policies to support it, little as Southerners were prepared to admit it: they needed New York banks to provide credit, and roads/railroads/steamships to efficiently move both slaves and the products slaves created. In the period Schermerhorn covers, in fact, loans were more often secured with people than with land, which made sense because it was easier to sell enslaved people than to sell land. One slave trader Schermerhorn studies created an in-house finance arm to help enslavers buy on credit (as he points out, this was “[f]our score and seven years before General Motors” did the same for cars). The same steamship operators (including Cornelius Vanderbilt) whose business thrived on slavery also stabilized as a result of contracts to deliver the U.S. mail, and plotted to expand their influence, and the scope of slavery, by supporting U.S. imperial expansion and the overthrow of Latin American governments. Not surprisingly, they also agreed to allow each other to monopolize certain routes, enhancing profits. However, contrary to what secessionists in the South expected, Northern capitalists made a quick pivot to profiteering from the military once the Civil War came, and the economically dependent South couldn’t survive alone. The book provides a lot of detail about this most horrific trade, including how it must have smelled and sounded.

John McWhorter, Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally): Engaging, readable book about language drift, in terms of meaning, grammar, and pronunciation. I really enjoyed his explanation of grammaticization (how something that looks like a word with meaning becomes a bit of grammar, such as “used to”—if you think about it, “he used to go there” doesn’t have meaning directly derivable from the other meanings of “used,” but it has a perfectly cromulent function). And I didn’t realize how systematized vowel shifts were, as a rule. Lots of tidbits about the histories of particular words. Recommended.

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