The books I can’t finish

I’m reading (to use the word as loosely as possible) three separate books I can’t seem to finish.

It’s not because the books aren’t well written, well researched, or eminently readable. Nope. It’s because they’re a kind of distressing that makes me fear, once I begin reading, that things are now too bad to possibly be reparable.

These books are:

  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Despite having written about this on my main blog, I’m only halfway through. I can read 3-5 pages at a time before setting the book aside for a month to consider. This book is a great example of how the devil’s in the details. Don’t look too deeply into the details and everything’s fine enough; look into them and feel yourself being swallowed whole.
  • This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. The fact I can’t get past the 10th page feels kinda ridiculous. I read her The Shock Doctrine, which was about as cheerful as the title suggests (and explains so, so very much about the U.S. as a bringer of democracy “free” market agony*). No Logo was an easy read by comparison to either book, but especially This Changes Everything. The funny thing is that TCE is supposed to be inspiring; we really can do a lot to make the world more habitable for our children and grandchildren, if we make it a priority. Unfortunately, getting to that good stuff requires getting through everything that’s super-grim about where humanity now stands.
  • They Were Soldiers by Ann Jones. I bought this as an ebook, which I downloaded to my phone. This made me want to throw my phone in a toilet and walk away; to be tethered to those atrocities in even such a pathetically fragile way hurt. To understand soldiers are often destroyed by their time in battle, it turns out, is very, very different from reading exactly how deeply they are destroyed.

The devil really is in the details. And in these books particularly, the (metaphorical?) devil’s handiwork is revealed meticulously in all its minute horrors.

* In the next few days, I’ll be sharing one or two older posts about The Shock Doctrine. They’re currently private elsewhere, but they’re too important to understanding where I’m at now to keep that way.


Personal pitfalls of political reading

Last Saturday, my husband and I watched The Book of Mormon in Los Angeles. Many months before, we’d bought Pantages season passes to (1) get cheap Hamilton tickets and (2) force incentivize ourselves onto dates. Since our second son was born, we’d hardly gone out. One or both of us was always too tired, which wasn’t great for our relationship. We ended up being home co-administrators more than true partners.

Usually, we drop off our boys and spend the ride talking. We slowly transition from our parent to partner selves, so that the ride’s a delight.

This time was different. Anthony had a work brunch, so that he was focused on finding it on time. He’d transitioned from parent to director mode, leaving our ride mostly pretty quiet. Chatter didn’t fit.

We ended up parting ways abruptly, he into a top-secret guild parking lot and me on foot with my books. Romance tally so far: 0. Continue reading “Personal pitfalls of political reading”

The Fourth Shelf

On Friday evening, I finished reading both Requiem for the American Dream and Is Just a Movie. The latter was the final book on my fourth shelf of reads since I began delving into politics-plus.

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“This fourth shelf? Some of the best books I’ve read so far! Doughnut Economics may well be my favorite yet (so much compassion, humor, and hope!), but Requiem for the American Dream is possibly the most readable, succinct entry point to current affairs yet. Both these books are especially conversational, informative, and humane.”

This shelf was full of reads that stretched my mind and heart, from Just Mercy to How Did We Get into this Mess? to The Age of Inequality and Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. I’d love to say a little about how each broadened my range of intellectual and emotional perspectives, but “a little” never remains just that. Once I start typing, I find dozens of things I want to say about each book.

I’ll definitely write a standalone post about Doughnut Economics. There’s so much to say about this book, the little bit I’ve already written doesn’t even scratch the surface:

More than any other book I’ve read so far, Raworth looks squarely at what’s wrong and asks not, “How do we incrementally chip away at these problems?” but “How do we look at these problems in fundamentally different ways, so that our new perspective guides us toward a more just and sustainable world?” More than asking the questions, she offers suggestions while inviting readers to join in on both the dialogue and the action.

I called this blog Returning by Book for a reason: “As a child, I found hope by reading. Two decades into adulthood, it’s a joy to be Returning By Book … to hope.”

In a shelf full of excellent reads, Raworth especially has expanded my horizons, and in so doing nudged me toward sustaining, sustainable hope.

Learning how to learn

Earlier this week, someone sent me an apt twenty-year-old quote about adapting to rapid change. I replied that I have a fifty-year-old book on the subject that could have been written yesterday. I said I’d look through it again and see if I could find any good quotes to share.

While Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is full of quotes that stand well alone (a decontextualization he’d protest!), his and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity is harder to break into written soundbites. Rather than sharing a pithy quote or two in email reply, I wanted to share a few words about it here.

A few weeks ago, I made a request of my husband. “If something happens to me, you’ll need to look at tomorrow as well as today to ensure our kids are safe. To best do that, I’d ask that you please read Teaching as a Subversive Activity.”

(He promised to do so, but quickly forgot which book I’d recommended. By writing it here, perhaps I’ll improve his chances of remembering!) Continue reading “Learning how to learn”

Requiem for the American Dream

Despite having listened to Noam Chomsky’s Requiem for the American Dream on Netflix a half-dozen times recently, I bought his book of the same title. Sometimes I catch different things seeing words than I do hearing them.

Where other books on politics, poverty, and inequality can be hard to read and demand a lot of background knowledge, this starts from ground zero. It’s short and conversational, like the movie, but it goes beyond the movie by including source materials excerpts.

The book is physically beautiful, inside and out. But, of course, it’s its content that stands out: a laying-bare; a plain-spoken transference of knowledge from a sage whose days left to transfer knowledge are dwindling.

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Like Arundhati Roy, there’s seldom a day that passes without my thinking, “Chomsky zindabad” (“long live Chomsky”). When that is no longer a viable wish for his body, I’ll remain grateful that so much of his tenacious spirit and intellect will endure in his words.

Not just days, but decades

Last summer, I saw a sizable rift between the Democratic party as I’d envisioned it and as it actually existed. This meant I’d either imagined my own version of the Democratic party forever, or that it had once been–but no longer was–what I’d envisioned.

I dove into reading, and found confirmation as I read. Usually I found little kernels of confirmation in any one book; Winner-Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, on the other hand, provided a wealth of information and details. It also gave me a name for the phenomenon whereby a political body (whether a party or a country) is still perceived as one thing while having become quite another: drift.

“Since around 1980, we have drifted away from that mixed-economy cluster and traveled a considerable distance toward another: the capitalist oligarchies, like Brazil, Mexico and Russia,” write its authors. Later, they define “drift” as “systematic, prolonged failures of government to respond to the shifting realities of a dynamic economy.” In the U.S., drift is a tool intentionally–not accidentally–wielded by politicians to satisfy their owners’ needs.

(The authors don’t describe lobbyists and their funders as politicians’ “owners.” That’s a designation I find more and more fitting with each page I read.)

A concept like drift is central to Sheldon S. Wolin’s 2008 Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Early on, he asks, “how would we go about detecting the signs of totalitarianism? how would we know what we are becoming? how, as a citizenry, would we set about separating what we are from the illusions we may have about who we are?” Envisioning the U.S. as a democracy, we instead live in “a system that legitimates the economic oppression and culturally stunted lives of millions of citizens while, for all practical purposes, excluding them from political power.” Continue reading “Not just days, but decades”

Information and inspiration

Last weekend, I went on a rare date with my husband. Drinking a beer before our show began, I explained that I’ve reached the point where I need two things from each of my political reads: information and inspiration.

Inspiration without information, such as are found in pretty-picture memes, are insipid. They paper over reality and encourage people to see only what it comforts them to see. Such reads neither enhance my understanding of the world as it really is, nor leave me more optimistic about the world my children will inherit. So many people actively choose denial because it feels better now, never mind that the costs (of a barely habitable planet) will be borne by our children and grandchildren.

I’m often reminded of an apt quote by Gavin de Becker: “Denial is a save now, pay later scheme.” He wrote these words about personal safety, but they apply no less to humankind’s future. Continue reading “Information and inspiration”