Project Syndicate Commentators’ Best Reads in 2020
By Stuart Whatley
Andrew Marantz, Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, Penguin Books, 2020.
Although I did not expect to love this book when I picked it up, I found it to be one of the best recent accounts of how social media has come to dominate political discourse in the United States. A staff writer at the New Yorker, Andrew Marantz offers a prescient warning about the huge unintended effects that unregulated technology can have on our society. It is a book that all techno-optimists would do well to read and reflect upon.
Yuen Yuen Ang
Richard Haass, The World: A Brief Introduction, Penguin Press, 2020.
This book was released in the midst of a pandemic, at a time when the world was both more interconnected than ever but also increasingly divided. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that democratic citizens today must be more “globally literate,” becoming discerning readers with knowledge of the broad sweeps of history that brought us to our current moment. One of my favorite quotes comes at the end of the book, when Haass recalls asking his college professor how long he took to prepare his lecture. His professor replied: “Thirty years and thirty minutes.” A primer of this scope takes a lifetime to prepare.
Norman Lebrecht, Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947, Scribner, 2020.
In an entertaining journalistic style, novelist and historian of classical music Norman Lebrecht revisits the lives of a remarkable number of scientists and artists of Jewish origin who helped “change the world.” Perhaps carried away by his passion for the idea of Jewish genius, Lebrecht is less elaborative about the phenomenon’s deeper roots, and about the relevance of the Jewish story today. During an era defined by mass migrations and identity politics, it is only by escaping the straitjacket of religious orthodoxy and the ghetto mentality that displaced communities can release their own creative energies on the world. Lebrecht reminds us that the uniqueness of the Jewish story lies in the tragic dichotomy between Jews’ excellence as a diaspora civilization and the genocidal violence that ended that civilization’s love affair with the West. There is no better way to explain the rise of the State of Israel.
Paul Farmer, Fever, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2020.
In this highly relevant book, Paul Farmer of Harvard Medical School explains how the deadly Ebola epidemic of 2014 turned Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone upside down, ravaging their health systems, devastating their economies, and destabilizing their politics. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has had the same effect on a global scale, Farmer’s book provides an invaluable lens for analyzing health crises in light of specific histories and social structures. Through extensive personal narratives of Ebola survivors and a close study of the delayed, ineffective international response, Farmer criticizes the “control-over-care” paradigm that has guided most responses to public-health threats worldwide. Because this approach generally blames the victims, Farmer’s perspective is both timely and valuable, not least for its focus on strategies to redress injustice and inequity, and its emphasis on understanding the historical roots of health crises.
Brett Christophers, Rentier Capitalism: Who Owns the Economy, and Who Pays for It?, Verso, 2020.
Since this was a good year for books and for reading, it is difficult to pick just one. But of all the books I enjoyed, one in particular is worth highlighting: political economist Brett Christophers’s Rentier Capitalism, because it raises issues that are becoming ever more urgent in the growing debate about the future of capitalism. As his title indicates, Christophers is highly critical of the current economic system. But even if one does not share this outlook, it is well worth reflecting on his analysis of how the market system has become so extractive and exploitative that it no longer delivers broad benefits for citizens.
Thomas Orlik, China: The Bubble That Never Pops, Oxford University Press, 2020.
I have always thought that China’s development strategy has only ten more years to run before it ends in tears. In his new book, Bloomberg’s Chief Economist Tom Orlik explains why I have always been wrong – at least about this particular question. Through striking examples and insightful explanations of institutional patterns, he shows how China has managed to turn all four of the great economic cycles since Mao’s death to its own advantage. In spite of “ghost cities,” high levels of bad debt, a great deal of corruption, “white elephant” infrastructure boondoggles, and the rest, China’s government has proved that it has the tools to keep the bicycle upright and moving forward rapidly. And now, thanks to Orlik, we can all see how it works.
Ross Gay, The Book of Delights: Essays, Algonquin Books, 2020.
A poet decides to write a daily essay on a different delight, and discovers that “the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.” I won’t spoil this book for you with too much description, but here are just some of the titular phenomena that Gay describes: The beauty of a praying mantis dancing on an abandoned pint glass at an outdoor café table; nicknames; the handshake and the hug; looking into the slatted light entering a room through blinds; elegant hand gestures of other people.
My favorite of all: “What you don’t know until you carry a tomato seedling through the airport and onto a plane is that (it) will make people smile at you almost like you’re carrying a baby. A quiet baby.”
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III, Doubleday, 2020.
In this new biography, a journalist power couple aims to remind us that Donald Trump’s Washington, DC, is not the norm. Peter Baker of The New York Times (no relation to the subject) and Susan Glasser of The New Yorker focus their attention on a member of the US political nobility: James Baker, who served as US Secretary of State during the pivotal years of the late Cold War. In Baker and Glasser’s expert hands, Baker comes to life as a man committed to values that are in short supply today. A deliberative doer rather than a frivolous showman, Baker served his country with competence, integrity, and professionalism – qualities that have been sorely missing for the past four years. At a time when the world is eager to withhold any more praise for tall white men in the Western political pantheon, Baker and Glasser make a good case for why this particular eminence grise still merits our attention.
Christopher Cramer, John Sender, and Arkebe Oqubay, African Economic Development: Evidence, Theory, Policy, Oxford University Books, 2020.
Many books have been written about the complexities, challenges, and prospects of the African continent. What makes this one special is the enormous quantity of information that the authors have carefully curated with an eye toward contemporary policy relevance. The authors, who include two economists (Cramer and Sender) and a senior minister and special adviser to the prime minister of Ethiopia (Oqubay), offer readers just the right combination of the evidence, theory, and policy promised in the title. Their book would make for rewarding read any time, but particularly now that the world is preparing for the post-pandemic recovery.
Wole Soyinka, Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth, Bookcraft, 2020.
We live in a box of pain and dreams. Our minds are secluded in greed, self-hatred, and despair. Our societies are in embedded in humiliation, immersed in violence, and wrapped in the cult of emptiness. Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth, the first novel in 48 years from Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a manual for the art of unsettling. While the book is about Nigeria, which Soyinka calls “a sad piece of real estate,” it is also about Africa as a whole – its corrosive contradictions, dominant lynch mentality, indifference to evil, and solemn and joyous march toward death. Soyinka’s novel makes Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness seem like a mild, rosy, and naive children’s book. Strangely, it is a very fun read.
John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, Penguin Books, 2005.
Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, PublicAffairs, 2017.
As the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the world, each of these brilliant books helps to place the crisis in context for thinking about what works, what doesn’t, and what will happen next. They should be mandatory reading for anyone opining on the current global health crisis.
Thomas Homer-Dixon, Commanding Hope: The Power We have to Renew a World in Peril, Knopf Canada, 2020.
In a moment of deep uncertainty and staggering global challenges, hope is in distressingly short supply. But what is hope, really? Philosophers have debated the ambiguous character of this sentiment since antiquity. Today, hope is the province of liberals and progressives, yet viewed cynically by conservatives and with derision by the far right. In Commanding Hope, social scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon rehabilitates the idea for a world on the precipice of disaster. He calls for a more active interpretation of hope, which he believes can be mobilized to fight problems like climate change. To be sure, our approach to that crisis must also be informed by a clear-headed understanding of how others see the issue, and by a coherent moral vision and commitment to meaningful action. Though hope alone won’t bring about change, it can help us to elevate the task as a superordinate goal that can counter our era’s deep polarization. The COVID-19 pandemic might help trigger such a development, which requires a willingness to seize adjacent possibilities of change both large and small, but only if we choose hope over despair.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Margaret MacMillan, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, Random House, 2020.
In this short, beautifully written book, a distinguished historian of World War I (and other periods) broadens her scope to examine the entire topic of war from ancient to modern times, and even into the future. The book is eminently readable; yet, despite its brevity, it is full of interesting insights about everything from battle tactics to psychology and the literature of war.
David Sainsbury, Windows of Opportunity: How Nations Create Wealth, Profile Books, 2020.
I didn’t find many economics books to be particularly stimulating this year, perhaps owing to the peculiar circumstances of the pandemic. Still, between reading and re-reading a number of novels and travel books, I did quite enjoy this economic treatise by David Sainsbury, a former UK government minister who now serves as chancellor of the University of Cambridge. The book is highly relevant to the challenges facing Britain and other Western democracies that are trying to rediscover their soul and find purpose in a changing world. Many governments today are struggling to address the policy deficiencies of the past few decades, most of which have been laid bare by the pandemic. In the spirit of never letting a crisis go to waste, Sainsbury offers a number of worthwhile ideas for righting the ship.
Barbara Demick, Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, Random House, 2020.
In this absorbing account of the suffering of the Tibetan people under Chinese rule, Demick relies on interviews and historical materials to construct a tragic narrative of families torn apart, lives upended, and cultural legacies destroyed over the course of seven decades. Although it focuses on a single town, this is one of the best books on Tibet’s modern history I have read.
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Beacon Press, 2018.
We are all in denial of our prejudices and biases. It took the public extrajudicial execution of George Floyd and the extraordinary protests that followed for me to re-read and re-think the academic and consultant Robin DiAngelo’s searing indictment of the subtleties of racial injustice in America. She put me on notice that it is not enough just to say no to racism. As a so-called enlightened liberal, I need to work much harder at re-programming my own systemic shortcomings.
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Houghton Mifflin, 1998/2020.
We are living in an era marked not only by the pandemic, but also by great-power rivalry, ambitious political leaders, a new race for energy and raw materials, and racial reckonings. Thus, for me, Adam Hochschild’s recently re-issued bestseller has been a profound point of reference. Hochschild, an American journalist and historian, plunges you straight into the world of King Leopold of Belgium – a narcissistic and cunning leader – and the various explorers, missionaries, and “men of commerce” who colluded in (and sometimes questioned) the plundering of what we know today as the Congo. Not everyone in this spellbinding history is evil, but white European traders typically claimed the right to seize land and enslave people (including wealthy princes) because they were black. Hochschild provides a powerful reminder of how race and identity can be used, crudely and destructively, to satisfy a lust for power, status, and wealth.
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