Category Archives: Books

In Praise of Epistemological Skepticism: On Alfred Hirschman (plus obligatory thoughts on the failure of Chinese liberalism)

To say that Jeremy Adelman’s Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman changed my life is not an exaggeration: after lugging the enormous 740-page hardcover book back and forth to Asia, I finally convinced myself that it was time to buy a Kindle. In 21st century America, this is a major life step.

Given that I did not produce an “annual list of unsolicited book reviews for the best books I read this year” in 2018 (a sincere apology to all zero of my readers), and that it is already halfway through 2019, I will replace a list of unsolicited book reviews for one unsolicited book review. I read plenty of books in 2018—I’m a graduate student, after all—but Adelman’s biography of Hirschman stands out. Adelman’s book is a chronicle of both an extraordinary life and of a powerful, action-oriented liberal worldview that allowed Hirschman to see through the facades of conventional wisdom while remaining both humble and sane.

Hirschman is a clear contender for the title of “Most Interesting Man in the World” (see also: Simon Leys). Born into a secular Jewish family in Germany in 1915, Hirschman was active in the youth socialist movement and opposed fascism with such visceral force that he opted to join a regiment of non-Spaniards fighting against Franco in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. (Adelman’s retelling of Hirschman’s experiences fighting for the socialist POUM in Spain mirror those of George Orwell, who detailed the internecine battles between socialists and communists on the anti-Franco left in Homage to Catalonia. Hirschman, like Orwell, survived the war, but not unscathed: both came away with injuries and a deep distrust of Communist dogma. “It was no surprise that the Nazis were awful,” he noted, “But to see people whom one expected to contribute to one’s own struggle turn into the opposite was in some sense worse” 138). Hirschman then wrote a dissertation on international finance while casually helping smuggle 2,000 Jewish artists and intellectuals out of Europe. Hirschman is an atypical economist for many reasons, but perhaps the most obvious of which is that he is simply not boring. (No offense, economists. Ok, a little.)

When Hirschman finally made it out of Europe, he launched a career as an economist in the United States—only to be stymied by Cold War fears, which, in opposing anything possibly communist, could not differentiate between communism and Hirschman’s anti-communism. (As the story goes…) Hirschman’s efforts to save European Jews doubles as an excoriation of mid-century America: not only did U.S. policy make it impossible to find safety across the ocean without incredible acts of subterfuge, once they arrived in the U.S., no good deed would go unpunished. Hirschman volunteered to fight for the U.S. army once again in an effort to defeat the scourge of European fascism, but, he was shunted away from the main action; then, upon returning to the U.S., unsubstantiated suspicions of communism prevented him from moving up the ranks as an economic adviser within the U.S. public sector. Needing a job, he wound up moving his wife and two small children to Bogota, Colombia, to do research. He would spend his entire life globetrotting, mixing work, leisure, and a keen sense of observation wherever he went. Where Simon Leys found a home on the high seas, Albert Hirschman found one anywhere on land, wherever there were projects to observe and people to learn from.

Continue reading

Second Annual List of Unsolicited Book Reviews for Books I’ve Read (2017)

At the end of 2016, I vowed to read at least 50 books in the coming year. This would be an unachievable goal for anybody except in the most exceptional of circumstances; namely, that they are either Vaclav Smil or are enrolled in a humanities or social sciences Ph.D. program in the United States. I am not Vaclav Smil, but as of September my book count shot skyward with no signs of changing course in the next five to seven years, plus or minus a handful of nervous breakdowns.

The benefit of academic study is first and foremost the realization that there are far more excellent books already in existence than you ever thought possible. The thought that, hey, maybe someone should write a book about that – they have, and it’s yours to peruse at your leisure until some obnoxious undergrad “recalls” it from the library and forces you to return it post haste.

This year’s list of book recommendations that nobody asked for will thus be economized into a few select recommendations. If this year’s batch of obscure essays on Chinese politics and the 19th century trajectories of the British and American trade unions doesn’t quite fit meet your interests, let me assure you that next year’s selections are bound to be more esoteric and even less applicable to normal human beings.

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell
Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell
George Orwell: A Life in Letters, by George Orwell

Unsolicited review: Orwell, “the conscience of a generation,” is the greatest Anglophone essayist of the 20th century (don’t argue with me). I say essayist because his essays are better than his novels; and even his novels are essays, in the sense that, as Simon Leys astutely distinguishes in Broken Images, the essay tries to convey a clearly formed idea while a work of fiction succeeds only when it creates room for multiple interpretations. Homage marks a transition in Orwell’s politics and contains the seeds from which his later hallmark essays and novel-essays grew: the perpetual unreliability of elites in the struggle to empower the working class. Although Down and Out is far from a masterpiece, the anthropological deconstruction of the workflow of a hotel restaurant in Paris alone makes the rest of the book worth reading.

The Chairman’s New Clothes, by Simon Leys
Chinese Shadows, by Simon Leys
Broken Images, by Simon Leys
The Burning Forest, by Simon Leys
The Analects, by Confucius (translated by Simon Leys)

Unsolicited review: The ghosts of Orwell (and Lu Xun, “China’s Orwell“) pervade the writings of Simon Leys—so much so that I couldn’t write a description of Orwell without citing Leys at least once. The scholar of Chinese art and poetry, frustrated by Francophone intellectuals heaping praise on Mao from the other side of the world, penned what became a tetralogy of essay collections unmasking the destruction taking place during the Cultural Revolution in China. Maoism eventually fell out of fashion, but Leys’s writings have not—they stand the test of time not only as political polemics but also paragons of lucidity and elegant prose.

River Town, by Peter Hessler

Unsolicited review: When I read one of Peter Hessler’s books before moving to China, I thought it was decidedly mediocre. When I read one of Peter Hessler’s books after living in China for a few years, I took back everything negative I ever said. What is striking about reading River Town twenty years after it was written is that much of the cultural attitudes Hessler describes remain omnipresent today, even as China’s economy and physical infrastructure have undergone a complete
makeover.

Continue reading

First Annual List of Unsolicited Book Reviews for Books I’ve Read in 2016

If the year 2016 were a novel, any reasonable editor would reject it for its unrealistic plot lines. An insecure bankruptcy-loving real estate scion insults or offends hundreds of millions of people, admits to paying basically no income tax for two decades, is caught bragging about sexual assault on camera, and is still elected to the most powerful position in the entire free world—helped, in part, by an unrelated investigation into a disgraced former congressman’s lewd texts to a 15-year old girl and Russian hackers. Not to mention, of course, an unrelated and even more ridiculous story: Pokemon Go. That was a thing. Really.

Books come in handy for making sense of this world we live in, for retreating from the craziness when it becomes overwhelming, and for killing insects. It also helps me read more if I write things down. Here’s some of what I read in 2016, accompanied by brief reviews that nobody asked for. Continue reading