Best Books of 2021: The Mess We’re In

It’s no secret that we’re in a mess right now, politically, economically, and societally. In this third batch of favorite reads from 2021 (see 1, 2, and my full reading list), I’m sharing a few books that have helped me think through the present moment and how we get somewhere better together.

Front cover to Ill Fares the Land

Ill Fares the land, by Tony Judt

In this book, Judt tells the story of how the United States developed a faith in social democracy in the mid-20th century, then lost it in favor of a fetish for privatization and a devotion to free market solutions. The result is what he calls the ”eviscerated society,” characterized by private wealth and public squalor. Inequality has reached unsustainable and destructive levels through the consistent workings of unregulated capital markets (or more accurately, capital markets whose regulations are set by the most powerful interested players). His analysis is based on a life’s work as a historian of the post-war period, and his argumentation is lucid and eminently quotable. That said, it is not a perfect book—Judt is more statist than I am always comfortable with, and he falters on topics of race and identity as determinants of American economics and politics (see the forward to the 2020 edition by Ta-Nehisi Coates). On these, the next two books (and especially Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us) do much better.

Front cover of the 9.9 Percent

The 9.9%: The New Aristocracy that is Entrenching Inequality and Warping our Culture, by Matthew Stewart

This is another entry on the theme of inequality. However, Stewart takes a broader approach, examining a wide array of socio-cultural phenomena in addition to economics and politics. He argues that it is not only the 1% or the .1% of America’s wealthiest who are hoarding undue wealth and unraveling the fabric of society, but the 9.9%—the top decile in terms of net worth excluding the ultra-rich of the .1%. 

As inequality has grown, the upper decile has observed the shrinking chances of upward mobility and the increasing precarity of remaining in their place in the hierarchy. Stewart makes the case that this has led to a pervasive and corrosive anxiety that is spreading throughout every part of our lives and our institutions. To ensure their continued position near the top, 9.9 percenters (and those who wish to become 9.9 percenters) have imported ultra-competitive and anti-social logics into their child-rearing, education, marriages, living situations, health and fitness practices, etc., etc.

The tone can be a bit glib and some evidence and analysis could be disputed (his interpretation of ancient texts and archaeology made this scholar of the ancient Near East’s eyes twitch a little, for example), but Stewart’s overall case is strong. I learned a lot from this book, and it gave me a lot more to think about. Definitely worth a read.

For further reading in this vein, see Richard V. Reeves’ excellent Dream Hoarders (which was one of my top picks in 2017) and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s The Sum of Small things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class.

Front cover to The Sum of Us

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can prosper Together, by Heather McGhee

In this book, Heather McGhee gives not only a clear and convincing analysis of how racism has and continues to increase and entrench inequality in the United States, but also a compelling path forward.

She shows that the only way to an economy that does not tilt entirely in the ultra-wealthy’s favor is by building multiracial coalitions that work on behalf of everyone. She also provides communication strategies for getting past places where conversations on race in the US tend to stall or backfire.

The key is dismantling the myth of zero-sum racial progress. There is a common perception (particularly among white Americans) that any improvement in the economic wellbeing of black and brown people must be accompanied by a corresponding decrease for whites. This, as McGhee shows with much data and many examples, is entirely false. It is in those very places where legal and cultural oppression of black and brown Americans was most severe that we find also the poorest conditions for working class white people. In effect, capitalists and business owners exacerbated and exploited the social divisions and resentments between racial groups to preempt solidarity and thus, to keep wages low and benefits minimal. In places where racial division has been intentionally overcome in the creation of multi-racial labor and political organization, Mcghee identifies what she calls a “solidarity dividend”—economic benefit to the communities of color involved, certainly, but also to the white population and to the region as a whole. As one organizer she quotes put it:  “as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered. The only way we succeed is together.”

This book would pair well with Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness.

Front cover of Becoming Abolitionists

Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, by Derecka Purnell

Uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer brought police abolition and PIC abolition (i.e., abolition of the prison-industrial complex) into the public conversation in a way it had never been before. I have spent a lot of time reading and learning about what abolition means in theory and practice over the past year, and I have come to resonate with it as an ideal and a horizon toward which our society and our politics should always be oriented. I also understand that it can seem opaque, unclear, foolhardy, or destructive. Questions about public safety and protection are valid and deserve answers. In many cases, though, conversations and publications on abolition were being conducted by small groups of like-minded scholars and activists who shared common presumptions and language, and they were hard for curious newcomers to break into.

 Luckily, this year has seen the publication of several books that aim to make abolition more accessible and understandable to people who are curious but perhaps skeptical or uncertain about whether it can work in reality. I particularly like this book by Derecka Purnell, which conveys abolition theory through her own personal journey. Purnell is honest about the reservations she had toward abolition as her experience and consciousness have shifted over time and makes a compelling case for the insufficiency of reform and the need for an entirely new paradigm. I also enjoyed Mariame Kaba’s essay collection We Do This ’Til We Free Us and highly recommend Angela Y. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?

Front cover of You are Here

You Are here: A Field guide for navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and our Polluted Media Landscape, by Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner.

When we talk about this mess we’re in, the role of the internet in getting us here inevitably makes its way into the conversation. Many problems with the internet and social media cannot be solved by individuals making individual choices, but each of us who lives some part of our life online needs to know how it works, how it goes wrong, and how it can lead us astray. Phillips and Milner have written a short, clear, and very illuminating guide for internet users who want to consume, share, and publish information responsibly and productively. This is going to be required reading in my spring course on “The Bible, Politics, and the Internet,” so it’s fair to say I think it has something worthwhile to say!

 

And now some runners up in the education department:

Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch

Public schools are wonderful. Charter schools are vicious parasites that suck public dollars into wasteful, undemocratic, and often corrupt private ventures, impoverishing us all in the process. Read this book, support your local teachers’ union, and vote to fund public education.

Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from my Daughter’s School, by Courtney Martin 

A mom’s journey to make good educational choices for her daughter in Oakland, CA, where good means good for society too, not just for her own family. Good for anyone feeling squeamish about sending their kids to “bad” or “low performing” public schools.

Best Books of 2021: Disability and Embodiment

In today’s installment of Eric’s Favorite Books of 2021, we move into nonfiction. Stop 1: readings on disability and the body. Check out yesterday’s fiction picks and the full list if you haven’t already!

Front cover of Extraordinary Bodies by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

 

Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

It is no understatement to say that this book transformed my thinking on disability and embodiment. Garland-Thomson brilliantly disentangles, names, and examines physical, biopolitical, and socio-cultural aspects of living with a body in societies that do not view all bodies as equal.

For Garland-Thomson, the discourse of disability has little to do with the physical parameters of our bodies per se, and everything to do with “cultural rules about what bodies should be and do” (p. 6). Human bodies come in a dizzying diversity of forms, differing in myriad ways across a  variety of spectra. This alone cannot explain the concept of disability or its function in the differential allocation of status, power, and material resources in society. The discourse of disability, rather, does the work of collapsing that manifold diversity into manageable binaries—bodies that are essentially “normal” in contrast to those that are not. In short, it is “the attribution of corporeal deviance” (p. 6).

By beginning her analysis with the deviant, Garland-Thomson silhouettes the phantom majority against which this deviance is defined. She coins the concept of the “normate” body, one that bears no marked or stigmatizing characteristics within a given cultural frame. The normate presents itself as the universal subject, the unqualified and definitive human being. In reality, the normate creates the normalcy it claims to reflect, as only a small minority of people in any given society actually inhabit such bodies.

The first third of the book lays out her theory: disability and the normate identity, its connection with stigma and social limitation, and its interactions with gender and race. The remainder then explores the theory in relation to American culture (e.g., the phenomenon of freak shows) and literature (the writings of Harriet beecher Stowe and Audrey Lord). This should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to write about or just understand disability better.

Front Covers of the two Disability Visibility anthologies—one for adults and a second adapted for younger readers

Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories for the 21st Century, edited by Alice Wong

This remarkable collection is composed entirely of first-person narratives describing the experience of living as a disabled person in the early 21st century. Alice Wong, a powerful advocate and activist for disability justice and the volume’s editor, has done an extraordinary job ensuring representation of contributors with many diverse identities, living  in a broad variety of situations with many different disabilities. The essays cover many topics, including personal experiences of joy and struggle, discrimination and institutionalization, and disability activism and mutual aid. Struggle runs throughout, but it is often combine with strength, defiance, connection, and collective action—Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s “wild dreams of disability justice at the end of the world.” Read it yourself and buy it for all of your friends!

Front Cover of Their Plant Eyes

 

Their Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness, by M. Leona Godin

This fits broadly within the genre of “blind memoir,” as Godin tells the story of her progressive vision loss and life with blindness, but she interweaves it with stories and biographies of blind people at different points in history to very enjoyable effect. Come for the salacious story of how Athenian Tyreseus was blinded and given prophecy by the gods; stay for Helen Keller’s often-glossed-over Vaudeville years, and meet a host of fascinating blind people in between. My one small critique? Like everyone, she starts her history of blindness with the Greeks, those late-comers to history who somehow get first credit for everything. Guess I’d better get working on that book on blindness in the ancient Middle East!

Front cover of Down, Girl!

Down, Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate manne

I wasn’t quite sure which category to put this book into, but since it deals broadly with the ways we police people based on the bodies they inhabit, I thought it might as well go here. I first heard of this book in connection with its coinage “himpathy,” which denotes the excessive sympathy given to men who are accused or convicted of gendered or sexual violence against women. The term struck me as a little too cute and didn’t motivate me to read the book right away, but I’m glad I did.

Now I use Manne’s model of misogyny all the time. It is so clear and powerfully explanatory that once you have read it you see the pattern at work everywhere. Misogyny and its manifestations in gendered violence are not illogical, incomprehensible, or inexplicable, as news outlets tend to conclude when gendered atrocities take place. Rather, misogyny in its various forms serves, in Manne’s words, as “the enforcement wing of patriarchy.” Misogyny is not the same thing as patriarchy, then, and it must also be differentiated from sexism. Patriarchy specifically describes any system in which roles and possibilities are determined by gender, with greater authority and autonomy going to men and submission and subservience allotted to women. Patriarchal systems are justified by sexism—that is, beliefs regarding the different natures of men and women and their relative social positions and value. Within a patriarchal system, gender roles are policed on both sides for deviance. Improper manhood and womanhood can both be stigmatized and sanctioned. Here, Manne focuses primarily on misogyny—acts of aggression and violence intended to control women who venture outside the prescribed boundaries of their gender’s assigned role(s). As such, it appears most predictably when women seek to resist or escape the control of men. With detailed argumentation and plentiful examples, Manne develops the intricacies of this broad thesis and its manifestations in different areas of life. As a work of academic philosophy it can get pretty dense, but the payoff is 100% worth it.

Best Books of 2021: Fiction

Yesterday I shared the full list of books I read in 2021. Today I’m going to start sharing some favorites, beginning with the best from the fiction category.

Front Cover of the novel Piranesi

Piranesi, by Susanna Clark

Reading this book is an otherworldly experience—not only for the prosaic reason that it takes place in another world, but also because the writing creates a dreamlike atmosphere that is at once tantalizing and elusive. It takes the form of a detailed field journal kept by a man called Piranesi. He is mostly alone, navigating and charting a massive complex he calls the House. The House contains many halls, filled with thousands upon thousands of stone statues—some human, some animal, some creatures of story and myth. Through cracked roofs he sees an unending sky, and the floor below is flooded by an ocean of violent and interacting tides. Piranesi keeps meticulous notes, mapping the complex but always returning to the beginning lest he lose himself in the unending series of halls. Occasionally he is joined by a man he calls the Other, who is eager to hear the results of Piranesi’s exploration though he himself never ventures far into the House. This is a book I recommend highly, but mainly for the experience of reading it. The plot itself I found mildly disappointing, and the ending perhaps more so. I say perhaps because I haven’t been able to decide whether it ruined the book for me, and so perhaps this is also a testament to the novel’s magnificent indeterminacy.

Front Cover of the Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams

A book that hits the sweet spot for all you lovers of both historical fiction and lexicography. Williams tells the story of Esme, the daughter of a lexicographer working under Dr. Charles Murray to create the Oxford English Dictionary at the turn of the twentieth century. Esme’s father is a young widower, and She spends her early days playing at his feet under the large table in the Scriptorium while he works. Occasionally, she finds slips of paper with words and definitions written on them, sent in by the dictionary’s many volunteer contributors. As she grows and learns more, she begins working on the dictionary herself and notices that some words—particularly to do with the lives and experiences of women—are conspicuously left out or defined in ways that do not satisfy her. She begins a secret project of her own, collecting and defining women’s words that do not rise to the standards of masculine “importance” demanded by the intellectual giants of the dictionary. The novel is beautifully and gently written, yet uncompromising in its lament for the lost stories and language of women.

Front Cover to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the first book of the Wayfarers Series

 The Wayfarers Series by Becky Chambers

 This is a delightful science fiction series set in a vibrantly imagined and beautifully constructed universe. Each book is tenuously related to the last, usually picking up on and developing the story of a minor character from a previous book. Though events of extraordinary interplanetary significance are going on around her characters (and indeed they sometimes find themselves in the middle of such events), Chambers keeps the focus tightly on the characters themselves, navigating adventures they often did not choose and do not want within a complicated web of alien cultures and political agendas. It is exactly this quotidian bent and narrow focus that make the Wayfarers books so enjoyable to read—indeed, the final book covers a lot of ground even though it takes place during what amounts to a prolonged travel delay. If you want high-quality, character-centered sci-fi that explores issues of gender, intersectionality, colonialism and its aftermath, and a whole host of other big topics in little ways, give these a read!

Bambi: A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten

Honestly, I’d never had any desire to read this book. Never, that is, until I learned it was banned by the Nazis because they (rightly( identified it as n allegory for the persecution of European Jews in an era of accelerating anti-Semitism and fascism. Bambi was first published in 1923 to immediate success, but it was banned in 1935 lest it create sympathy for Germany’s Jews. The novel is a different animal entirely from the 1942 Walt Disney adaptation (pun intended)—an unflinching account of lives of forest animals born into a hostile, dangerous world and the price they pay to survive within it. Even its moments of joy and exuberance are muted by the tense undercurrents of threat that run through every page. The creatures of the forest fear death in every shadow and across every sunlit meadow, and even the leaves on the trees debate the mystery of death. Above all other predators is “He,” the human who brings death with his gun, who seeks only to kill and makes fools or traitors of all animals who serve him. In the end, Bambi learns not of love and the bliss of family life (as Disney would have us believe), but of life conditioned by constant wariness and the solitary sorrow of survival. It’s a masterful book, but I’ll probably wait a few years before I read it to my kids.