2020: My Year in Books

A grid view of the covers of the 60 books I read this year

It’s time for year-end “best of” lists, and so here again is my annual rundown of books (see also the  2017, 2018, and 2019 versions).

2020 was strange and hard, but that did not keep it from bringing me some very good books. As I look back, i am struck by the excellent quality of this year’s reads. I would recommend nearly all of the 60 books I read and it’s not easy to choose my favorites, but I’ve pulled out some top picks below.

Let me know what you thought of these books in the comments, or which books were your favorites this year!. I’m always looking for new recommendations!

 

Top Picks

Fiction

The Daevabad Trilogy by S. A. Chakraborty

The world of this phenomenal fantasy trilogy builds upon medieval Islamic mythology from the Indian Ocean Rim. The story centers around Nahiri, a young orphan turned con artist in French-occupied Cairo. In the course of a hustle she accidentally summons the ancient jinn Darayavahoush (Dara for short), who recognizes her as part jinn herself. Together they journey to Daevabad, the jinn capital city, where she becomes embroiled in palace intrigue and the city’s volatile politics. The magical world is lush and nuanced, the characters are deep and engaging, and the writing is simply wonderful. These books will not disappoint.

 

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

This lovely YA read deals frankly and sensitively with topics of mixed heritage, teenage identity formation, and mental illness. Sixteen-year-old Darius Kellner lives with chronic depression, which complicates his efforts to negotiate his identity as a “fractional Persian.” He constantly feels too Persian for his white family, too white for his Persian family, and too awkward and nerdy for both. When his family travels to visit his grandparents in Iran, he struggles to find where and how he fits in the family, The saving grace of the trip is Sohrab, a neighbor with whom he develops a strong and meaningful friendship. Khorram does not trivialize or catastrophize depression, but writes a complicated main character who must live with it as one enduring feature of his life. 

 

A special shout-out goes to author Tamora Pierce. for getting me through election season. Even though she started writing her Alanna books in the early 1980s, I hadn’t heard of them until this October (thanks to M Tong and Matthew Chalmers). They were fun, quick reads that provided distraction in the days surrounding Nov. 4, and on top of it all they have aged really well over the past three decades—strong heroines, engaging characters, and imaginative world-building, combine with grand adventure to create delightful escapist rides.

 

Nonfiction 

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein

I read this book as March gave way to April. The Coronavirus pandemic was gaining steam and government and society were weighing options for potential responses. The process was a real-time illustration of Disaster Capitalism, Klein’s term for an economic strategy pioneered and propagated by economists at the University of Chicago in the latter half of the 20th century—most notably Milton Friedman and his students. These were the vanguard of the economic philosophy that has come to be known as neoliberalism—hardline support for privatization and market deregulation, general distrust of public goods and government interventions, and the elevation of competition over collaboration as an ordering economic and social principle. 

Friedman understood the value of disaster. In 1982 he wrote “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around” (cited on p. 140). He made it a point, therefore, to spread his students and his ideas to as many places as possible, where they would implement the same crisis playbook again and again until his brand of ultra-capitalism moved from fringe to mainstream and then to orthodoxy. This much happened, certainly, but neoliberalism did not bring with it the widespread prosperity and happiness that the Chicago Boys predicted. Klein uses in-depth case studies from Chile, South Africa, post-Soviet Russia, Argentina. and mid-2000s Iraq to show the pattern that unfolded in place after place: “an urban bubble of frenetic speculation and dubious accounting fueling superprofits and frantic consumerism, ringed by the ghostly factories and rotting infrastructure of a development past; roughly half the population excluded from the economy altogether; out-of-control corruption and cronyism; decimation of nationally owned small and medium-sized businesses; a huge transfer of wealth from public to private hands, followed by a huge transfer of private debts into public hands” (p. 86). In short, a pattern in which the wealthy leverage disasters to further enrich themselves at the expense of those most vulnerable to the crisis itself.

Klein’s theory of disaster capitalism has held up depressingly well since the publication of this book in 2009. The recent Rand Report on income inequality shows that fifty years of trickle-down economic policies have siphoned $50 trillion upward from the bottom 90% of the U.S. wealth distribution to the top 1%. The financial crisis of 2008–2009 created another massive wealth redistribution upward, and in 2020 America’s 644 billionaires have used the Coronavirus pandemic to increase their collective net worth by $1 trillion while pushing 8 million people from the middle class into poverty.

 Economic orthodoxy needs revision—or revolution. Privatization and competition will not save us. The problems we face now require collaboration and collective action for the public good.

 

The Surprising Design of Market Economies by Alex Marshall

Economic markets do not just happen. There is no such thing as a “free market,” proceeding in its natural state without government intervention or regulation. Governments do not only intervene in natural market processes; they set the parameters for market operation and participation from the ground up. All markets operate under sets of rules, and those rules can vary on every factor. What can be owned, and by whom? What can be bought and sold, and on what terms? Who can participate in the market and who is excluded? What obligations do the various parties in economic transactions have to each other and to society? None of these answers is fixed in stone or mandated by natural law. They are changing and changeable, as Alex Marshall demonstrates with this torrent of studies and examples from U.S. history. Investigating common law, intellectual property, the nature of the corporation, private/public partnership, and the enforcement of property rights and norms, he demonstrates the contingent nature of market behavior and the dramatic differences that changes in market governance can make. 

The analysis in some examples could be questioned, but Marshall makes his overarching point with strength and clarity. There is no neutral, unregulated form of a capitalist market economy, only different types of regulation that favor different parties in the system to greater or lesser extents. “In reality, deregulation means abdicating public governance in favor of corporate self-regulation, which tends to devalue workers and shirk responsibility for externalities. Luckily, we can choose different rules for our markets—rules that empower workers, ensure responsible production and consumption, and promote the public good.

 

How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson

Caricatures of American history often focus too heavily on either its high ideals of freedom and equality or its cruel patterns of exploitation and extraction. These two tendencies—one toward the concentration of wealth and power and the other toward equal participation and empowerment of all people—have coexisted in tension from the United States’s founding, and in this book Heather Cox Richardson uses the battle line itself as a through line in American history. Beginning with the Constitution, which propounds inalienable human rights and equal treatment at a time when both were denied to the majority of the population, she traces the tension forward to its crescendo in the Civil War and beyond to western expansion, Jim Crow, and our current battles over race, gender, religion, and economics. 

In their mythical self-representation, Southern slaveowners portrayed themselves as rugged individualists—strong and self-sufficient men who asked nothing from the government except to be left alone. In reality, their wealth and position (not to mention the entire slaveholding system) were propped up by government support and intervention at every level. The three-fifths compromise in the U.S. Constitution gave white men in slaveholding states outsized influence in national policy, and local law enforcement kept enslaved Southerners in check while protecting their enslavers from harm and insurrection.

Emancipation and abolition were important steps toward freedom, but they did not usher in full inclusion or equal rights. , Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, Southern ideology did not die out but spread westward into new territories and states. Western pioneers, like the Southern slaveowners before them, cultivated an image of rugged self-sufficiency that was actually propped up by a substantial government apparatus. Laws limited  the immigration and citizenship of Native American, Mexican, and Chinese populations. Courts prioritized the property rights of white settlers, and military and law enforcement tolerated and perpetrated acts of terrorist violence against all of these groups to the advantage of the white pioneers. In the 20th century the expansion of voting rights to women and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s both represented significant gains toward democratic and egalitarian ideals, but we are still far from embodying the highest values of a free, just, and equal society. Those striving to reduce entrenched disparities in power and status face ongoing opposition from those who would see them limited to a chosen few. Though Richardson’s framework may seem simplistic,  it helps to clarify the goals and stakes in the brutal tug-of-war of American politics. 

Heather Cox Richardson also writes an amazing daily newsletter that digests the day’s news and places it in historical context. It is an excellent way to get the news without all the frenzy, and you can find it on her Substack or her facebook page. I read it every day and you might like it too!

 

Jesus an John Wayne: How White Evangelicals corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Riffing on the title of a 2008 song by the Gaither Vocal Band, Kristin Kobes Du Mez traces the nature of masculinity and male role models in white American Evangelicalism across the past 75 years. She argues that Christian leaders and cultural icons have championed a rough and rugged male ideal defined by competition and domination. This masculinity affects all areas of life, from rigid gender roles and unquestioned male authority in the family to religious supremacy in society and militant imperialism abroad. Evangelicals have remade Jesus in the image of John Wayne, and the results have been disastrous.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the current state of evangelicalism in the United States. It does for gender what Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise has done for race—shows how unhealthy hierarchies and the pursuit of dominance are not alien intrusions upon American Christianity, but are central to its identity and functioning. 

 

The Full List

In chronological order from January to December

  • How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist by Kate Raworth
  • There will be no Miracles Here: A Memoir by Casey Gerald
  • Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini
  • Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong and the Research that’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone
  • The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein
  • From Dissertation to Book by William P. Germano
  • Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics by R. Marie griffith
  • The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole your Vote and how to get it Back by Tom Hartmann
  • The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
  • From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century by William A. Darity Jr. and Kirsten Mullen
  • So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Dwayne
  • TheWind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred E. Taylor
  • The Surprising Design of Market Economies by Alex Marshall
  • The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Rise of the People’s Economy by Stephanie Kelton
  • The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls by John J. Collins
  • Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story about Women and Economics by Katrine Marcal
  • TheFearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist by Marcus Rediker
  • The Formation of the Book of Psalms: Reconsidering the Transmission and Canonization of Psalmody in Light of Material Culture and the Poetics of Anthologies by David Willgren
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Whiteness in Higher Education: The Invisible Missing Link in Diversity and Racial Analyses by Nolan L. Cabrera
  • Critical Race Theory in Higher Education: Twenty Years of Theoretical and Research Innovations by Dorian L. McCoy, et al.
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
  • An Afican-American and LatinX History of the United states by Paul Ortiz
  • The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
  • Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
  • The Daevabad Trilogy by S. A. Chakraborty (The City of Brass, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Empire of Gold)
  • Evil: the Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side by Julia Shaw
  • The Passover Haggadah: A Biography by Vanessa L. Ochs
  • Resisting Neoliberalism in Higher Education, Vol. 1: Seeing Through the Cracks by Dorothy Bottrell and Catherine Manathunga (eds.)
  • Industrial Strength Denial: Eight Stories of Corporations Defending the Indefensible, from the Slave Trade to Climate Change by Barbara Freese
  • How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcom X and Alex Haley
  • Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives by Elizabeth S. Anderson
  • Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
  • Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women by Kate Manne
  • Song of the Lioness Series by Tamora Pierce (Alanna: The First Adventure, n the Hand of the Goddess, The Woman who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant)
  • White Rage: The unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
  • Immortals Series by Tamora Pierce (Wild Magic, Wolf-Speaker, Emperor Mage, and The Realms of the Gods)
  • Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
  • Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed
  • Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel
  • Metaphor Wars: Conceptual Metaphors in Human Life by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr.
  • Ableism in Academia: Theorizing Experiences of Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses in Higher Education by Nicole Brown and Jennifer Leigh (eds.)
  • Teaching to Transgress: A Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks

2019: My Year in Books

A grid of covers from some of the books I read in 2019

In the rush to finish my dissertation, I was sad to miss writing my annual book review post (see 2017 and 2018), so I’m just going to do it now…in May.

This year I read 37 books. Nowhere near the high mark of 67 books from last year; I didn’t even get to my goal of 40 books. But that’s ok, because the trade-off was, you know, finishing my dissertation.

 So here, without further delay, is my reading list from 2019. As usual, some favorites are called out on top, and the rest are listed below in the order I read them.

Top Picks

Fiction

Octavia E. Butler. Yes, yes, I know Octavia Butler is not a book, but I discovered her last year and read three of her novels and one short story collection. If you haven’t read anything of hers, you should. From Kindred, the story of a woman who has to literally navigate the brutal injustices of her family tree as she jumps back and forth in time, to Earthseed a prescient series set in a near-future America troubled by climate change, unchecked corporatization, designer drugs, and theocratic power-grabs, Butler’s writing perceptively explores many of the disturbing undercurrents that plague American society and culture and brings them to life in gripping narrative.

Non-Fiction

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch

This book on education policy came out in 2012, so some of the information is a bit dated. Nevertheless, its core message is still alarmingly relevant. Movements toward school privatization have continued in force since the book was written, and are only intensifying during the Coronavirus pandemic. Reign of Error gives important background and useful, data-backed arguments against privatization and charter and voucher school programs. Once an advocate for charter schools herself, Ravitch became disillusioned by their consistent failure to deliver on their grandiose promises and now offers clear and convincing arguments for revitalization and reinvestment in public education.

I first heard Diane Ravitch speak on the Pitchfork Economics podcast, She and host Nick Hanauer discussed their former advocacy for school privatization and the process by which their views changed. It is rare to witness people who have, by evidence and experience, become disillusioned with positions for which they have advocated strongly and systems which benefit them personally. I was impressed by the intellectual honesty and personal integrity they showed as they adjusted their beliefs, acknowledged their error, and worked to make amends. 

Atlas of Moral Psychology, edited by Kurt Gray

This colossal edited volume presents a current state-of-the-field survey of moral psychology. Unlike the field of ethics, moral psychology does not attempt to ascertain what is actually right and wrong; instead, it attempts to identify the psychological and socio-cultural processes by which humans decide what is right or wrong, and how to act and react morally in specific circumstances. It is a new and messy field, but it already offers valuable insights into many foibles of human morality, from the ethical systems we create down to the inconsistency with which we embody them. I was especially happy to see that this volume made a strong effort to include investigations across class, gender, and culture, the lack of which has historically been a weakness of psychological research. 

The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby

Tisby presents an excellent historical survey of the shortcomings of the American church as it relates to issues of race. Even when white Christians were not explicitly championing racist views or defending the institutions of slavery and segregation, their advocacy for equal rights and protections under the law were muted and weak. Few and far between were those who gave full-throated support to the liberation of Black, Asian, and Hispanic people, here or abroad. This book focuses only on the Christian church’s role in the history of racism in America, and may work best as a supplement to Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning and/or Paul Ortiz’s An African American and LatinX History of the United States.

The Whole List

  • Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism by Malka Z. Simkovich.
  • Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orisha #1) by Tomi Adeyemi
  • Women, Race, and Class by Angela Y. Davis
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  • The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
  • A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived: The Stories in our Genes by Adam Rutherford
  • The New Cambridge History of the Bible: Volume 1. From the Beginnings to 600 edited by James Carleton Paget
  • Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
  • This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies edited by Hector Avalos
  • The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book by Timothy Beal
  • The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory by Jesse Walker
  • Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics and How I learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway by Frank Schaeffer
  • The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next, #1) by Jasper Fforde
  • Atlas of Moral Psychology edited by Kurt Gray
  • A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielsen
  • Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement by Rich Karlgaard
  • The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Green
  • Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on Its Own Terms by Jacqueline Vayntrub
  • The Emily Series by L. M. Montgomery (Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest)
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
  • Blood Child and Other Stories by Octavia E Butler
  • Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1) by Octavia E. Butler
  • Parable of the Talents (Earthseed, #2) by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Big Disruption by Jessica Powell
  • Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan Metzl
  • Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch
  • What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? by Ziony Zevit
  • Moses Among the Idols: Mediators of the Divine in the Ancient Near East by Amy L. Balogh
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
  • White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin D’Angelo
  • A Short History of Iraq by Thabit Abdullah
  • Divine Bodies: Resurrecting Perfection in the New Testament and Early Christianity by Candida R. Moss
  • Biblical Corpora: Representations of Disability in Hebrew Biblical Literature by Rebecca Raphael
  • The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom by Candida R. Moss
  • The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy

My Year in Books: 2018!

Picture: A collage composed of the covers of many books i read in 2018

Continuing the tradition I began last year, I’ve decided to celebrate the increasing availability of books to the blind by sharing my full 2018 reading list, with some of the best and most meaningful given special comment.

In 2017 I read 59 books, and thought I might have to slow down. So of course in 2018 I read 67 books! Many of them were meaningful and formative, and I struggle to narrow down the list to recommend just a few. Below are some notable works in no particular order, followed by the rest of my reading list.

Top Picks

Fiction

The Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy by Cixin Lio (The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s En)

This imaginative, thinky trilogy is quintessential speculative fiction for super nerds. If you like your novels pumped chock full of wonky physics and written in a non-Western cultural idiom, these books are for you. 

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky)

I thought I had lost the taste for straight fantasy, but then I read this series by N. K. Jemisin. The world she builds here is spectacularly creative, and she delves deep into some very real and very rough parts of human nature. There’s a reason she’s just become the first author to win the Hugo award three years in a row (once for each of these books)—you won’t regret reading them. 

Non-Fiction: Race, Society, and Inequality

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

A detailed and masterfully-argued examination of the changing face of racial discrimination in America. Writing at the height of the Obama era, when many Americans were heralding the onset of a post-racial society, Alexander revealed their optimism to be largely unwarranted. Discrimination is still rampant, though it now adopts subtler and less explicit means than slavery or Jim Crow segregation. Alexander shows how the construction of an unnecessarily punitive and differentially-applied justice system has effectively created a new iteration of the same old racial caste system—exploiting Black Americans for free labor, diminishing their economic prospects, and reducing their access to voting and other rights and responsibilities of full citizenship. All of this goes on within a culture of nominal colorblindness, a thin veneer of propriety and unbiased objectivity that peels away under Alexander’s relentless scrutiny.

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

This book is dizzying in its scope and utterly surprising for many who learned a sanitized version of American history in school. Kendi defines three strains of thinking on race and traces them across four centuries through the life, work, and context of five paradigmatic American thinkers: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. DuBois, and Angela Davis. Each of these individuals exhibits one or (more often) more than one of Kendi’s three strains of thought: segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist. Kendi does an excellent job of showing how racist ideas were created and perpetuated to justify exploitative economic practices, as well as how the particular expressions of those ideas changed and adapted to new cultural, legal, and economic context. Racist thinking has changed, but never disappeared from American life.

I have a few residual questions about the nature and scope of Kendi’s assimilationist category, but they do not diminish the overall value of the book. This book would pair well with Paul Ortiz’s An African-American and LatinX History of the United States  or Karen Fields’ Racecraft, mentioned below.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

The world of big-money philanthropy operates under the assumptions that market solutions provide the best hope to rectify societal ills and that it is possible to become extremely wealthy in a way that also benefits society as a whole. Long an insider to this world, Anand Giridheradas has become disillusioned with these beliefs and argues effectively against both in this incisive book. He questions the basic premise that one can “do well by doing good,” that every problem has a win-win solution that allows for both the reduction of inequality and the accumulation of fabulous personal wealth. Instead, he urges the creation of more democratic and more egalitarian institutions and social structures to combat growing inequaltiy and the worsening prospects faced by many Americans. 

Non-Fiction: Bible

Womanist Midrash by Wilda C. Gafney

Gafney combines rigorous scholarship and imaginative storytelling in this quest to rediscover important female characters of the Hebrew Bible. She provides fresh and well-argued interpretations of the text and explores the evocative importance of its gaps and holes. This welcome and challenging contribution honestly probes the concerns and perspectives of biblical women, addressing in the process a host of neglected questions that will benefit all readers and interpreters.

The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek

The Bible was not always the Bible. Before the diverse texts we now call biblical were gathered into one binding, each of them had a life of its own (and some more than one). They existed alongside and together with a vast library of other writings—some were lost to history and others survived in non-biblical contexts. How did people think about these texts before there was a Bible, before there were even books? Mroczek approaches that question with clarity and creativity, suggesting a number of productive metaphors that can guide our thinking about the Bible before there was a Bible.  

Nonfiction: Blind Lit

Crooked Paths Made Straight: A Blind Teacher’s Adventure Traveling Around the World by Isabelle D. Grant

Dr. Isabelle Grant was a Scottish-born Los Angeles schoolteacher who was forced out of her job after she went blind as an adult. So of course she embarked on a trip around the world with her cane and Braille typewriter. Alone. In the 1950s. She visited five continents and many countries to observe and assess the quality of education for blind children, encouraging teachers and authorities to invest in blind youth and improve their self-sufficiency and self-determination.. Her intelligence, good humor, and openness to new ideas and relationships make for a delightful and surprising read. Foreword by Debbie Kent Stein, who found this manuscript decades after it was written and saw it through to publication. 

Non-Fiction: Personal Growth & Effectiveness

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris

A master class in humility. Tavris digs deep into wrongness—why it’s inevitable, why we have trouble recognizing it, and why we avoid doing anything about it. The process is so universal and so relatable that you can’t help but begin to recognize unwarranted certainty and misplaced confidence in your own life and thinking. Everyone should take the lessons of this book to heart.

Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by Annie Duke

This book can help address some of those pernicious human problems described in the last entry. Duke applies her experience as an international poker champion and Ph.D. in psychology to the problem of making good decisions in an uncertain world. Excellent theoretical frameworks as well as practical tips. Let’s all work on thinking better!

French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered Ten Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters by Karen Le Billon

A much more nuanced book than the title implies. I found it extremely helpful—not for definitive answers, but for opening up new avenues of thinking about food and food education within the family. French parents consider good eating a crucial skill to be acquired, and teach it as intentionally as reading, writing, or math. They do not consider children’s tastes to be immutable, but condition them by repeated exposure to and discussion of healthy and diverse foods. A great read for parents of young children trying to escape power struggles over food.

The Rest of the List

  • The Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, An Acceptable Time)
  • You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman
  • How to Write Short: Wordcraft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  • How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation by N. J. Enfield
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • R. J. Rommel: An Assessment of His Many Contributions, edited by Nils Petter Gleditsch
  • Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey
  • An African-American and LatinX History of the United States by Paul Ortiz
  • Can We Talk About Race? and Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation by Beverly Daniel Tatum
  • The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong
  • Rethinking Expertise by Harry M. Collins
  • God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says by Michael D. Coogan
  • Reality is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli
  • Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein
  • Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein
  • Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Timothy J Keller
  • The Formation of the Jewish Canon by Timothy H. Lim
  • Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary F. Marcus
  • What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker
  • The Talmud: A Biography by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer
  • Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life by Tasha Eurich
  • People of Vision: A History of the American Council of the Blind by James Megivern
  • Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success by Shane Snow
  • The Anne Shirley Series by L. M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne’s House of Dreams, Anne of Ingleside)
  • 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson
  • Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love by Rob Schenck
  • What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel
  • Manhood: How to be a Better Man or Just Live with One by Terry Crews
  • Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson
  • How the Bible Became Holy by Michael L. Satlow
  • The Akata Witch Series by Nnedi Okorafor (Akata Witch and Akata Warrior)
  • The Blind Doctor: The Jacob Bolotin Story by Rosalind Perman
  • Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse
  • Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance by Tom Digby
  • On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama
  • Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen E. Fields
  • How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley
  • Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind by Osagie Obasogie

What is the best book you read in 2018? Leave a comment and help me build my 2019 reading list (as if it isn’t 20 books deep already)!

2017: My Year in Books

An image collage of book covers for all the books I read this year.I set a goal to read 40 books this year, and according to my Goodreads Reading Challenge, I read 59!

I am profoundly grateful to be able to read this much and this widely, considering the historical “book famine” that has plagued blind readers. Only about 10% of English books ever make it into an accessible Braille or audio format, and in most world languages that number is closer to 1%, Advances in technology (like Bookshare and the NLS) and policy (the Chaffey Amendment to U.S. copyright law an the Treaty of Marrakesh internationally) are allowing for more books to be made accessible in Braille and audio more quickly than ever before.

And so, to celebrate, I have taken a cue from my friend Emily K. Michael and decided to share my full 2017 reading list. I’ve pulled out a few that I highly recommend to everyone and added a few comments (choosing which was hard—almost everything I read this year was good!).

Top Picks

(grouped by subject, not quality):

Fiction

 The Dream of Scipio, by Iain Pears

This intricate and well-crafted historical novel traces the lives of three men who live in southern France at different times in history: a fifth-century Roman philosopher-turned-Christian-bishop, a poet in the court of the fourteenth-century Avignon papacy, and a scholar of medieval French poetry in the years leading up to World War II. The three men’s lives parallel one another as each reads and interprets the work of the one who came before.

The King Must Die, by Mary Renault

Mary Renault is a master. This historicized novelization of the myth of Theseus is infused at every turn with her deep knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean world. It perfectly balances the foreignness of the past with the universality of human experience. Historical fiction at its finest.

Non-Fiction

Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass

I have thought of this book often since I read it. It is the third and last of Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical works, revised in 1892, three years before his death. Douglass’ life and accomplishments are, of course, astounding, and his prose is masterful. He is a model of the courage to risk everything for freedom, the passion to fight for justice and equity, and the strength to forgive even those who have harmed us most.

The only fault is Douglass’ meticulous effort to thank and acknowledge every abolitionist and freedom fighter he ever met, which results in long lists of names otherwise forgotten to history. Those aside, the writing is excellent, and this book is well worth the read.

Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, by Dr. Willie Parker

This is a must-read for all American Christians, and probably for most other Americans as well. Dr. Willie Parker is a Southern, African-American, Pentecostal Christian abortion provider—a unique perspective in a political landscape known for entrenched positions and hostility to productive discussion.

Dr. Parker argues from his life history and his Christian faith that access to safe abortions is a moral imperative in a loving and just society. It is precisely the Christian foundation for his beliefs and practice (often in the face of abuse and threats of violence) that makes this book so unusual and valuable. It defies the notion that Christianity can permit only one stance on reproductive rights, and I hope by the end readers will see that there is more to being truly pro-life than simply voting against abortion.

Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, by Roy F. Baumeister

Probably the best book I’ve read on the dark side of human nature. Baumeister’s broad synthesis of the research debunks the common simplistic notion that only unusual, intrinsically bad people (i.e., “bad apples”) can commit acts of horrific violence. He also avoids the emerging popular view that these terrible deeds are primarily the product of external, situational factors (i.e., “bad barrels,” an approach typified by Philip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect, below).

Instead, Baumeister presents a complex interaction between individuals and their contexts. The seeds of evil are present in every person to a greater or lesser extent, but how they manifest depends greatly on the social and cultural context. 

The theoretical backbone is strong, but it is still a 20-year-old book. I would love to see an updated second edition informed by more recent research and world events.

Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, by Michael Tomasello

This is a pretty dry, technical linguistics book, but I loved it so much. Tomasello blew my mind on nearly every page as he completely reconfigured the way I think about language and human interaction. If you are interested in fundamental aspects of what language is, how it works, and how we use it, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

The End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones

Important reading for pretty much everyone in the U.S. Whether the title inspires glee, fury, or anything in-between, it is difficult to deny that in the coming century the “default American” will no longer be both white and Christian. This book gives a good overview of the rise and decline of White Christian America over the course of the last century, with an insightful epilogue written after the 2016 presidential election.

Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What to Do About It, by Richard V. Reeves

Phenomenal book. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institute shows that rising income inequality cannot be blamed on the wealthiest 1% alone. The entire top 20% of the American income distribution have done their best to elevate their position and then “pull up the ladder” behind them. Laws governing taxes, housing, education, and inheritance have all been shaped to protect the upper middle class and their children from downward mobility, and have stifled upward mobility in the process. As the top 20% pulls further and further ahead of the rest, the meritocratic American ideal becomes less and less a reality. I was convinced, convicted, and inspired to reanalyze my policy views and voting choices.

Personal Development

Designing Your Life: Build a Lifethat Works for You, by Bill Burnett andDave Evans

This superb book applies design thinking to life choices, demystifying some of the most perplexing aspects of wayfinding in life and career in the process. I plan to reread this and work through the exercises in detail, probably multiple times throughout my life.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown

A strong argument for ruthless focus. If you, like me, have the tendency to make “a millimeter of progress in a million directions,” this book might help you reframe and refocus on the few essential things.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport

A practical guidebook for developing practices, habits, and schedules that foster deep focus and productivity. Great framework for getting things done!

The Rest of the List

(in the order I read them): 

  • Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, by Jill Lepore
  •  Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, by Paul Bloom
  • Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives, by Tim Harford
  • Empirical Models Challenging Biblical Criticism, edited by Raymond F. Person and Robert Rezetko
  • America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by Jim Wallace
  • Little Book of Restorative Justice, by Howard Zehr
  • Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild
  • The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
  • Why Wall Street Matters, by William D. Cohan
  • Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man who Dared to See, by Robert Kurson
  • The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Norman Doidge
  • Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than it Thinks, by Guy Claxton
  • On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt
  • The Shadow Series by Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, and Shadow of the Giant)
  • Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  • Dreamblood Series by N. K. Jemisin (The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun)
  • The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
  • Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet can tell us about Who we Really Are, by Seth Stephens Davidowitz
  • The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond
  • The Babylonian World, edited by Gwendolyn Leick
  • The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
  • The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  • What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly
  • When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
  • Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult
  • The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, by John McWhorter
  • The Song of Achilles, by Madeleine Miller
  • Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
  • The Giver Series by Lois Lowry (The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son)
  • Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law, by David Cole
  • The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield
  • The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo
  • The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics, by Jean Aitchison
  • The “Lotus Sutra”: A Biography, by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.
  • The Book of Mormon: A Biography, by Paul C. Gutjahr
  • Nefertiti, by Michelle Moran
  • The Reign of Nabonidus, by Paul Alain Beaulieu
  • The Time Keeper, by Mitch Albom
  • Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, by John Steinbeck

What is the best book you read in 2017? Leave a comment and help me build my 2018 list!

The Speed of Sound

Image representing the sound wave of an audio file.

On the recommendation of blog reader Margaret, I’ve been reading through Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself. The book investigates neuroplasticity, the process by which the brain rewires itself and changes its physical structure in response to specific demands. There are a lot of interesting insights in there for people with sensory loss, and I’m already planning to write a longer post about it once I finish. 

In the meantime, I just wanted to share a short passage that caught my attention, and a few thoughts about it. Doidge writes:

I was at a dinner party with a friend, whom I shall call Emma; her writer husband, Theodore; and several other writers.

Emma is now in her forties. When she was twenty-three, a spontaneous genetic mutation led to an illness called retinitis pigmentosa that caused her retinal cells to die. Five years ago she became totally blind and began using a seeing-eye dog, Matty, a Labrador. Emma’s blindness has reorganized her brain and her life. A number of us who were at the dinner are interested in literature, but since she has gone blind, Emma has done more reading than any of us. A computer program from Kurzweil Educational Systems reads books aloud to her in a monotone that pauses for commas, stops for periods, and rises in pitch for questions. This computer voice is so rapid, I cannot make out a single word. But Emma has gradually learned to listen at a faster and faster pace, so she is now reading at about 340 words a minute and is marching through all the great classics. “I get into an author, and I read everything he has ever written, and then I move on to another.” She has read Dostoyevsky (her favorite), Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dickens, Chesterton, Balzac, Hugo, Zola, Flaubert, Proust, Stendhal, and many others. Recently she read three Trollope novels in one day. She asked me how it might be possible for her to read so much more quickly than before she went blind. I theorized that her massive visual cortex, no longer processing sight, had been taken over for auditory processing.

Naturally this caught my eye, since I have RP and—like Emma—have taken to consuming most of my books in audible form. I too have increased the speed incrementally, and now listen at between 400 and 450 words per minute.

Anyone who has heard blind people use their phones knows this is pretty common. The advent of smartphone technology in the decade since this book came out has improved text-to-speech synthesis by leaps and bounds over the old Kurzweil machines. It is cheaper and more widely available, and the voices are more pleasant and natural-sounding, clearer and easier to understand at higher speeds.

Now that I’m used to it, I actually love using my phone to listen to books. For one thing, the high rate of speed keeps me engaged and focused. I know exactly how long it will take to read a book, because my reading app tells me, down to the second. And It makes note-taking easy—I just pause, highlight the text I want, and export all of my highlights once I’m done with the book. 

But there’s good news for those of you whose eyes still rule your brains: this is not some kind of blind superpower, and you can learn it too. I know, because my wife Kristin does it, and her vision is completely intact. She found herself getting impatient with the pace of audiobooks and podcasts and, since she knew I listened fast, she started increasing the speed. Now she listens to everything sped up anywhere from 1.5x to 2x normal speed, depending on what it is and what else she is doing at the time.

You can always learn new skills, even if large tracts of your cortical real estate haven’t been recently vacated. Much of the rest of Doidge’s book discusses how regions of the brain can be recruited for novel tasks, at the same time as they continue to do their old jobs. So it seems hiss explanation here is overly simplistic. Blindness had certainly prompted changes in Emma’s brain, but some—like fast-listening—could have happened even if she was sighted.

Brain function is not a zero-sum game, where gains in one domain can only happen at the expense of another. We haven’t found—or even gotten close to— the limits of the human potential to learn. We don’t know how many skills a person can master, or to what depth. The brain is glorious in its flexibility and ability to change, at any age and in any circumstances..

I’m excited to share more from this book and a few others I’ve read recently in the same vein, they all tend to show the benefits of that hard work I wrote about last week. The grueling work of learning to live again without sight not only allows us to lead happy and fulfilling lives. but could protect the health and longevity of our very brains.

Stay tuned!

What Would the “America First” Budget Mean for Me?

Ever since the White House released the blueprint for its “America First” budget, my email inboxes have been inundated with urgent pleas from organizations who would have their funding cut or eliminated under the new plan. After a few days, it became clear that these budget priorities would affect the work that I do and the ways that I do it on a daily basis.

Many things in this budget make me deeply uneasy, but this isn’t the place for a full analysis, and I am not a policy analyst. What I am is a person who works at the corner of blindness and academia, and I recognize things in this budget blueprint that would create very real difficulties for me on both of those counts. I will focus here on two specific cuts and the harm they would cause without creating any real benefit.

Research Funding

The “America First” budget blueprint calls for elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA; p. 5). These two organizations provide funding and support for projects and programs, large and small, in the arts and humanities. 

I have personally worked on research projects that were funded by grants from the NEH, and I have benefitted from many more. In a recent email to members, the president of the Society of Biblical Literature reported that SBL members have received over $7.2 million in research grants from the NEH. Further, the SBL’s Bible Odyssey website, a source for reliable, scholarly information on the Bible and Bible-adjacent topics, is made possible in part by a $300,000 NEH grant.

This is just one scholarly society. Scholars working in Egyptian, Syrian, Anatolian, and Mesopotamian studies also receive funding from the NEH. 

Their research links us to our shared cultural heritage. It connects us to the roots of Western society and the worlds from which our major religions sprang. If you cringe when ISIS bulldozes ancient gates in Palmyra, churches in Aleppo, or palaces in Nineveh, you should cringe when the humanities are dismantled at home. 

I might be more sympathetic to this budget reduction if the amount of money saved were not so extraordinarily small. The NEA and NEH each received about $148 million last year, meaning together they made up only 0.006% of the federal budget. Their elimination is an ideological and symbolic gesture that would do a great deal of harm while doing taxpayers very little good.

Educational Resources

According to the blueprint document, “[t]he 2017 Budget…continues support for the nation’s most vulnerable populations, such as students with disabilities” (p. 17). If only that were true. It seems that, in reality, these budget priorities would place a heavy burden on students with disabilities. For younger students, the emphasis on charter schools would probably end up reducing school choice and educational quality (see point 3 in this article). 

For me in particular, and other blind students, scholars, and citizens of all ages, it would mean increased difficulty in accessing books and other academic materials. The budget jeopardizes funding for the Educational Technology, Media, and Materials for Individuals with Disabilities Program, which benefits me through services like Bookshare.

Bookshare is an online library that provides accessible digital versions of print books to people who are blind, have a learning disability, or are otherwise unable to read print. Their catalog contains more than half a million books, and is growing quickly.

I use Bookshare literally every day—it is not my only source for accessible books, but it is a major one, and it has saved me dozens, if not hudnreds of hours of work in the past few years.

And this is why Bookshare is so important, for me and for everyone else: because it saves so much work. Bookshare is an incredibly efficient and economical program, and defunding it would make life more burdensome for students of every age and level, and would end up increasing costs for everyone. Here’s how:

Books enter the Bookshare library in two ways: either publishers send digital files directly, or volunteers scan printed books and submit their own files. When a volunteer digitizes a book, it takes a few hours to scan the book, OCR and edit the text, and prepare the file. After that, it can be downloaded and read in large print, Braille, or audio by students nationwide using any number of disability-specific apps and devices. There is some additional labor in maintaining the database and website, but it is minuscule in comparison with what would be required if Bookshare’s federal funding were cut.

If that happened, the burden of providing accessible materials to disabled students would shift to local school districts. Not all districts would be able to advocate with publishers as effectively as Bookshare, which would increase the burden on volunteers and paid school staff. That same 4-10 hours of work digitizing books would have to be done anew in every district in every area of the country.

This could only play out in two ways: either local taxes would increase to accommodate the increased need, or educational outcomes for disabled students would suffer due to lack of resources. More likely, both of these would happen to a greater or lesser extent in every school district, depending on the resources at their disposal.

I am a firm believer that U.S. schools should provide excellent educations to students with disabilities, so that they can become self-sufficient, contributing members of society. But I also believe that accommodations for students with disabilities should be made in the most efficient and effective way.

In the digital age, centralization is the best way to provide many kinds of accessible materials in the most economical wa  without compromising its quality or availability. A federal dollar simply goes much further than a state or local dollar. Cutting federal funding for accessible materials may appear to save money, but any savings will be offset by a manifold increase in costs at the state and local level. It helps no one, and hurts everyone.

Other Cuts

These are only two issues raised by the budget blueprint, but there are many other, darker parts of the White House budget priorities. The cuts to Legal Services could prevent citizens with disabilities from seeking and receiving justice from discrimination and mistreatment. Cuts to the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and various programs like Meals on Wheels could remove much-needed aid from the disabled, poor, elderly, or otherwise vulnerable populations in the U.S.

In short, these specific cuts and the “America First” budget priorities as a whole are hostile to academic learning and disabled citizens. Furthermore, any savings at the federal level would increase costs locally, creating a net harm to taxpayers. Pleas contact your legislative representatives and suggest budget priorities that do more than pay lip service to education and the idea of supporting vulnerable populations.

***

If you would like to help support Bookshare, I would appreciate it! They have provided this very easy to use tool to write your representatives about it: Support Bookshare