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
The Vegetarian, by Han Kang
Unsolicited review: I couldn’t sleep one night and read this book start to finish in my living room instead of sleeping. I have not done that with a book in many years, and this one, with its unsparing portrait of the toll of a person’s mental illness on everyone else in that person’s life, worth every minute of lost sleep. Plus, I didn’t have a job—so who needs to get up at a reasonable hour?
The Incarnations, by Susan Barker
Unsolicited review: There is good reason to be skeptical of foreign authors writing about China, but Barker’s time-traveling take on both modern Beijing and ancient China hits the mark with its clever twists and realistic portrait of Beijing as it is experienced by the working classes.
Against Everything, by Mark Greif
Unsolicited review: The book is not actually against everything, much to my dismay. Greif’s criticisms of modern American culture are impressively wide-ranging, however. He is particularly trenchant on pointing out the ways in which, having beaten back basic needs, we create problems and then market the solutions until they, too, become requirements of daily living. Notable essays include “Afternoon of the Sex Children” on over-sexualization that is liberalizing, but not liberating; and “Learning to Rap” on seeing the importance of (and difficulty in performing) perhaps the most misunderstood musical genre.
The Souls of China, by Ian Johnson
Unsolicited review: The latest work from the premier foreign journalist working in Beijing echoes his award-winning Wild Grass (2004) in telling three distinct stories. This exploration of religion in modern China traces one calendar year through practitioners of three different faiths: traditional Daoist funeral musicians in northern Shanxi, whose craft is waning as peasants urbanize and shed their cultures and customs; organizers of the annual Buddhist pilgrimage to Miaofeng mountain outside of Beijing; and the charismatic leaders of an “underground” (not state-sanctioned) Christian church in the provincial capital of Chengdu. Unlike the earlier journalistic work, however, this book is much more explicitly literary (and in some ways also more academic): the sections on the Daoist musicians, which meticulously capture Chinese customs around death and how they are changing in light of modernization, are on par with the best anthropological studies of culture in modern China.
Power and Powerlessness, by John Gaventa
Unsolicited review: “This is what political science students dream of doing when they think of doing political science,” as one of my classmates reflected. The powerlessness of the white working class may be back in vogue after the 2016 election, but Gaventa was probing this topic a quarter century earlier in writing about the quiescence of coal miners in rural Appalachia. Invoking Steven Lukes’s three faces of power, Gaventa upends the idea that you cannot study what does not occur—in this case, why there was no rebellion despite clear exploitation and maltreatment.
Labor Visions and State Power, by Victoria Hattam
Unsolicited review: American trade unions, like the mining towns of Applachia, are rife with questions of what did not occur; after all, unions in the United States are weaker and less politically prominent than in any other advanced industrialized country. Hattam looks to the 19th century to trace the roots of why organized labor in the United States developed its narrow focus on shop-floor bargaining. It argues that any American “exceptionalism” rests in the hands of the courts: the outsize power of the judiciary in the weak American state of the 19th century, and courts’ repeated anti-union rulings, encouraged early union leaders to eschew broader political aims for “pure and simple” unionism whose shop-floor economic gains could not be overturned by the courts.
When Movements Anchor Parties, by Daniel Schlozman
Unsolicited review: American labor lacks its own political party, yet it continues to actively participate in American politics within the confines of the Democratic party. Schlozman argues that we should think of organized labor as an “anchoring group”—a movement that gives up autonomy to find a permanent home within a political party—alongside the Christian religious right across the partisan aisle. The anchoring group concept helps make sense of the most overlooked, but not unimportant, actors that have shaped the direction of American politics in the last century.
The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968, by Kevin Boyle
Unsolicited review: No history of America worth its salt can ignore Walter Reuther, the social democratic leader of the United Auto Workers from the 1950s until 1970. Kevin Boyle pushes back against the idea that organized labor in America absconded its role as the vanguard of the political left in favor of a more technocratic agenda after World War II; instead, he argues that Reuther and the UAW continued to fly the flag of social democracy on the left for decades. Reuther was instrumental in cobbling together a tenuous ‘coalition of conscience’ between labor, civil rights, and other progressive groups that was central to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. The unraveling of the coalition by 1968, not the end of WWII, marks the end of the peak of American liberalism in the 20th century.
Black and Blue, by Paul Frymer
Unsolicited review: Reuther and the national leaders of the UAW and CIO may have viewed economic and civil rights as inseparable elements of left-liberalism, but local unions had a much more checkered history in racial integration. Frymer argues that the courts play a central role in both widespread structural racism and eventual integration of labor unions. The bifurcation of labor law and discrimination law since the 1935 National Labor Relations Act created distinct spheres of justice for racial and economic injustice; and after the 1960s the courts became the only recourse for racial justice advocates to successfully integrate intransigent unions. The eventual subordination of labor law to discrimination law coincided with—and abetted—union decline.