I got to 48 books this year. Most of them were really good, but I’m not going to go overboard reviewing the standouts like I did last year. Instead, I’m going to recommend two thematic groups that could be read as loose trilogies on topics I find important. I hope you enjoy them!
And before you leave, let me know what you read this past year and what I should put on my 2023 list!
Trilogy One: Family Values
American society has a skewed approach to family values.
Too often, we mandate one acceptable path for everyone and punish those who deviate from it, rather than supporting and empowering people to make the best of where they find themselves.
We withhold tools for avoiding difficulty and then penalize people for encountering it.
We build slippery ramps into poverty and then punish people for being poor.
We create impossible hurdles and then punish people for non-compliance.
These points were drilled into me by several books I read this year, two of which I already summarized in my final post on abortion. Gabrielle Blair’s Ejaculate Responsibly shows how we erroneously and unrealistically place the full responsibility for avoiding unwanted pregnancy on women, while providing them too few resources to either prevent them or support the children that result. That point is made even more strongly by Diana Greene Foster in The Turnaway Study, which shows that women denied an abortion are overwhelmingly worse off as a result than women who received one at the same gestational age. Anyone who makes any decisions about abortion policy at all—from writing laws or deciding Supreme Court cases to simply voting—should read both of them.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking book I read this year was Dorothy Roberts’s Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. It is a searing indictment of the child welfare system as a fundamentally racist and classist institution that subjects poor and non-white parents—and mothers especially—to intense government surveillance, control, and punishment.
Families can attract the attention of CPS on the smallest of pretexts, and from there can be separated for anything from real abuse to non-compliance with unrealistic court requirements. And family separation does not reliably improve children’s lives. There are many wonderful foster parents—I know quite a few—but many separated children find themselves in situations as harmful or more than the ones they left. Group homes especially are associated with higher levels of incarceration, institutionalization, and sex trafficking.
Critics argue that Roberts underemphasizes the seriousness of child abuse and neglect. To be clear, she doesn’t deny the problem or pretend it isn’t important. She does think, however, that the current child welfare system does more to exacerbate the problem than to lessen it. Earlier in her career, Roberts urged reform to the system, but in this book she argues for its complete demolition and a whole new approach to family welfare.
This is the thread that ties these three books together. They advocate for reversing our approach to family and the law. Instead of issuing punishments after things go wrong, why not use those resources to prevent problems in the first place? Upstream support and care can make a far more profound difference than downstream consequences.
Robust sex education, contraception, and trust in young people’s reproductive agency reduces unexpected pregnancy rates and prevents the psychological, social, educational, and economic struggles associated with parenting unwanted children. Supporting parents who have children in difficult circumstances with child care, health care, nutritional support, etc., reduces rates of neglect (and, by lowering parental stress, probably abuse as well).
To me, family values means valuing and supporting actual families, not using the state to mandate a rigid archetype of the ideal family.
Trilogy Two: Climate and Cultivation
It took me almost a year to wend my way through Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. I listened to her read it in her own voice and, unlike most of my reading, I listened to it at normal speed. The book and her reading of it were calm and meditative, and I dipped in to it from time to time when I was in the right head space rather than plowing straight through. I won’t lie: I have some low-key climate anxiety that needs somewhere to go, and this book helped push it in a productive direction. Kimmerer is both an accomplished academic ecologist and a student of indigenous American land stewardship practices. She combines these two aspects of her life in this book, a sprawling mix of memoir, ecology, history, and philosophy. It’s a beautiful book, and I am grateful for the ways it expanded my imagination regarding the climate crisis and its potential solutions.
In the chapter titled “The Sacred and the Superfund,” for example, she ruminates on the shortcomings of mainstream environmentalism:
We are deluged by information regarding our destruction of the world and hear almost nothing about how to nurture it. It is no surprise then that environmentalism becomes synonymous with dire predictions and powerless feelings. Our natural inclination to do right by the world is stifled, breeding despair when it should be inspiring action…
“If people only knew that snow leopards are going extinct,” “If people only knew that rivers are dying.” If people only knew … then they would, what? Stop? I honor their faith in people, but so far the if-then formula isn’t working. People do know the consequences of our collective damage, they do know the wages of an extractive economy, but they don’t stop. They get very sad, they get very quiet… [The] toxic waste dumps, the melting glaciers, the litany of doomsday projections—they move anyone who is still listening only to despair.
Kimmerer pushes past this despair, igniting an imagination that recognizes thrilling potential for mutually beneficial relationships between humans and the “more-than-human world,” as she calls it. We can hope for more than mere mitigation when it comes to our environment—more than just curbing our harmful effect on global and local ecosystems. Yes, we do need to cut extraction and pollution, but human activity can be a net benefit to the world of plants and animals if it is properly conceived and organized.
This leads nicely into my other mini-obsession: permaculture. I’m interested in restorative agriculture more broadly, but since I’m not likely to be in charge of any large-scale restoration projects any time soon, I’ve been learning about things i can do in my own yard.
The best book I read in this vein this year was Toby Hemingway’s Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. Hemingway adapts the principles and findings of permaculture to the real challenges of small spaces, ranging from a few acres on the large side to apartments in urban spaces on the smaller end.
What is permaculture? It is an approach to gardening/farming that minimizes the need for human labor and interference by designing communities of plants that work together in harmony with their landscapes. It moves away from homogenous plots with tidy rows of single plant varieties, which require inordinate amounts of fertilizer, water, weed killer, and insect repellant, and toward mixed plantings of varieties that support and protect each other.
Plant some crops that deplete the soil of nitrogen alongside ones that add it to the soil, along with low vines that prevent weeds and repel insects. Add some flowers that attract pollinators and repel pests, and you have a nice, low-maintenance plot that will produce better yields than single-variety plantings!
At least, that is how it works in theory. I’m starting small with some experimental hugelkultur beds this year, and I’ll let you all know how it goes.
Climate activists are quick to point out that individual solutions are too small to counteract the systemic and industrial degradation of our environments. Honestly, they are right. My backyard hugelkultur beds are not going to slow climate change.
I still think it’s worth it, though. To build habits of nurturing the Earth, rather than just taking from it. To learn to use our little parts of it to produce food and build ecological resilience. And of course, it doesn’t preclude support for climate policies that have more systemic impact. In fact, the work of permaculture and restorative agriculture can point the way out of our current extractive and destructive practices.
But let’s be honest. Chances are good that we are facing some rough years ahead. The climate is already changing and its effects will get more pronounced as they ripple across the globe. If you are worried about the societal implications of climate change, I recommend Chris Begley’s The Next Apocalypse: The Art and Science of Survival.
Begley is an archaeology professor and wilderness survival instructor who has lived and worked in Kentucky, Honduras, and the Mediterranean. In recent years he has seen increased interest in his survival courses, motivated by fear of the looming climate crisis. In his opinion, though, people will not need the skills they think they need if climate change causes societal collapse.
In this book, he surveys the archaeology of collapsed societies to show that the process looks nothing like we imagine them in our apocalyptic film and fiction. And since civilizational collapse doesn’t look like our fiction, the best candidates for survival don’t look like our post-apocalyptic heroes. Prolonged survival in a period of collapse probably won’t depend on combat skills or fortifications, but on collaboration and mutual aid. It is not the rugged individual who will make it through, but the interdependent community that values unique skills and contributions, knows how to select prudent leaders, and makes wise corporate choices.
Two More on Education
I love Elizabeth Berkshire and Jack Schneider’s podcast, “Have You Heard?” so I was excited to read their book on the school privatization movement, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. It’s a great look at the problems underlying charter schools, voucher programs, and their deleterious effects on American public education.
Will Bunch’s After the Ivory Tower Falls is a helpful look at the cultural fracas surrounding higher education. Is college the pathway to opportunity and economic mobility? An indoctrination machine and the root of all cultural ills? Or something else entirely? Bunch looks at what college is, what it has been, and what it has become in diverging popular imaginations, and makes some excellent suggestions regarding how it can function as part of a healthy and thriving democracy.
The Whole List
- The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow
- Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West
- Black Disability Politics by Sami Schalk
- The Next Apocalypse: The Art and science of survival by Chris Begley
- The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy by Anand Giridharadas
- Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want by Ruha Benjamin
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- ejaculate Responsibly: A Whole New Way to think About Abortion by Gabrielle Blair
- The World We Make (Great Cities, #2) by N. K. JemisinΩ
- Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West by John M. Riddle
- Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America by Christian Williams
- The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin (re-read)
- The Fifth Season
- The Obelisk Gate
- The Stone Sky
- After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up our Politics, and How to Fix It by Will Bunch
- On Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters and Why You Should Care by Victor Ray
- The performance of Doom: Ritual in Deuteronomy by Melissa Ramos
- Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families, and How Abolition can Build a Safer World by Dorothy Roberts
- The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, A Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having—or Being Denied—an Abortion by Diana Greene Foster
- Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe by Hugo Mercier
- Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities by Rogers Brubaker
- East of Eden by John Steinbeck (re-read)
- Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy by Derek W. Black
- The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids who are Grounded, Generous, and Smart about Money by Ron Lieber
- A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire
- The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. LeGuin
- A Wizard of Earthsea
- The Tombs of Atuan
- The Farthest Shore
- Tales from Earthsea
- The Other Wind
- White Evangelical racism by Anthea Butler
- Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World by Peter S. Goodman
- You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and our Polluted Media Landscape by Whitney Phillips and Ryan Millner (re-read)
- Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemingway
- Building a Better World in your Back Yard, Instead of Being Angry at Bad Guys by Paul Wheaton
- Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution by Elie Mystal
- The Golem and the Jinni (Golem and the Jinni, #1) by Helene Wecker
- Complaint by Sarah Ahmed
- A Master of Djinn (Dead Djinn Universe, #1) by P. DjÈlÍe Clark
- Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant
- God: An Anatomy by Francesca Stavrakopoulou
- Abolition for the People by Colin Kaepernick
- Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design by Bess Williamson
- Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel Perry
- Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Minority Religions by Megan P. Goodwin
- The 1619 Project by Nicole Hannah Jones
- A Song for the Wild-Built (Monk and Robot, #1) by Becky Chambers