The year of counterfactual history.
Recently, while watching a lecture by Niall Ferguson, I learned a new concept with an unfamiliar name: counterfactual history. The human mind tends to find causal narrative in everything, and we tend to think of the way things are as the way they ought to be. But actual history isn’t like that at all. History is not preordained. Where we are today was never inevitable. We are constantly confronted with a selection of choices about our actions. Only by reconstructing the full spectrum of choices — and the perceived cost of each one — that people faced at the time, can we get a full understanding of the meaning of history and the magnitude of the actions those historical actors took. Counterfactual history turned out to be a frequent theme in my reading this year.
Here are all of the titles I read this year in rough chronological order.
1. Homeland, by Cory Doctorow (2013)
This sequel to Little Brother continues the story of young kids fighting against an oppressive law-and-order regime in San Francisco. If you are a white, middle class straight man, it reads as wild science fiction. If you are anyone else, it’s only a slightly exaggerated quotidian story.
2. The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies, by Matthew Parker (2011)
In the 1800s, the amount of money generated for the Caribbean sugar barons was greater than the amount of money generated by all of the 13 American colonies combined. The sugar business was highly profitable for two reasons: it destroyed the land, and it destroyed millions of black lives. The foundation of the American slave trade was sugar long before it was cotton or tobacco. As the massive edifice of the United States’ self-aggrandizing history is slowly chipped away by black, brown, red, yellow and other clear-eyed voices, a more authentic image of how our great nation was built. The sugar trade in the Caribbean is far less well-known than the other slave economies in the new world, and this book sheds useful light on our history.
3. Three Ordinary Girls: The Remarkable Story of Three Dutch Teenagers Who Became Spies, Saboteurs, Nazi Assassins — and WWII Heroes, by Tim Brady (2021)
In the Twentieth Century, Nazi occupation of European countries confronted millions of ordinary citizens with monumental choices, mostly disguised as simple, daily acts. This triple biography tells how three very young people made the extremely difficult choice to actively fight against their fascist oppressors. A book like this makes you wonder what choices you would make in the same situation. Would you coast along? collaborate? suicide? Or fight against terrible odds for something that isn’t clearly in your best interest? The stories of these three brave young women is a powerful example of counterfactual history.
4. Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks (1987)
This is the first of Banks “culture” novels. It was a good read, but rougher than his later culture book, Use of Weapons (that I read a few years ago). I kinda wish I had read this one 30 years ago.
5. The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt (1951)
This dauntingly long and intellectually challenging book kept me from reading it for many years, but the breadth and number of other authors who reference this book made tackling it inevitable. It was certainly a slog, but ultimately a slog worth slogging. The book consists of three lengthy essays: Anti-Semitism, Imperialism, and Totalitarianism. All are enlightening and worth reading but it was the third and final essay that really opened my eyes. I’ve always imagined that authoritarianism, dictatorship, and totalitarianism were synonymous. This book disabused me of that notion. The essence of authoritarianism is a rigid hierarchy of authority, originating and descending from one all-powerful person. The essence of totalitarianism is violence and coercion and constant contradiction. It’s fear and distrust and a general lack of any rigidity whatsoever. The chaos, uncertainty, and fear is what drives people to abandon self-rule and give over to a totalitarian leader. Hitler and Stalin were totalitarians, as is Donald Trump.
6. Maiden Voyages: Women and the Golden Age of Transatlantic Travel, by Siân Evans (2020)
This was a fun read about a long-forgotten era. In the first half of the Twentieth Century, transcontinental travel was accomplished by steamship. These giant ships carried penniless immigrants and wealthy oligarchs. There were lots of wives and mothers in the former category, and lots of actresses, mistresses, and debutantes in the latter. While this book describes all of them, it devotes the lion’s share of its attention to the women who worked on the massive ocean liners. The very nature of the work — caring for people — made it ideally suited for the contemporaneous roles of women in western society. Yet, at that time, women were largely considered only useful if they were subsumed in a subordinate role in a patriarchal relationship. The newly available jobs on ocean liners took young (and older) women away from those cloying, protective relationships and sent them to distant shores and far flung outposts. And the job put these women at sea alone, insulated from their constrained upbringing. Generally, the women loved their work and accomplished remarkable things while afloat. In particular, the great Atlantic fleet of ocean liners continued sailing across the pond through two world wars, and more than a few women were lost at sea due to enemy action.
7. The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, by Erik Larson (2020)
A friend loaned me this book and I really appreciated it. I’ve enjoyed other books by Larson before, but I had never heard of this one. I’m very pleased to have read it. We all know the story of England’s defiance of Hitler’s Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940–41 and of Churchill’s heroic leadership during this time (In an address to the House of Commons in the midst of battle, the Prime Minister famously said, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few”). In hindsight, it looks pre-ordained that the plucky brits would vanquish the cartoonishly stiff Nazis in the dogfights over London and Coventry, but counterfactual history leads us to a different conclusion. The fight was anything but certain. The consensus at the time was that the Nazis would invade at any moment. Pretty much everyone in the world thought that Great Britain would collapse with the same alacrity as had France, Belgium, and Poland, including the English themselves. Their citizens formed into Home Guard units to “fight on the beaches, in the fields, in the streets.” This book is an intimate diary of the life of the British leader during these bleak months.
8. The Peripheral, by William Gibson (2014)
I have enormous respect for the author of this book. I heard him speak at a conference years ago and he blew my mind with the way he highlighted connections in the world that had been invisible to me. I looked forward to reading this book, but ultimately it made no sense to me and I failed to even finish it. I felt like if only I had tried harder to understand which character was speaking and what truths they were illuminating, I’d get it. But neither the story nor the “truths” seemed worth it to me. I am sorry about this, and feel like I failed Gibson more than he failed me, but then I remembered that it is the author’s responsibility to make the reader want to turn the page. So, there you have it: a personal disappointment but your mileage may vary.
9. Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, by John Markoff (2022)
John Markoff has been writing about Silicon Valley for as long as it has existed. He writes clearly and truthfully about complex technologies and the people that populate their worlds. In this excellent book Markoff gives us the full biography of one of the most important figures in the development of our current digitally-informed world. Stewart Brand isn’t a scientist, nor a capitalist, nor an engineer. Rather, he’s formed from the same mold as Buckminster Fuller: a futurist, a person who sees the shape of what is to come looming out of the darkness years before others can even detect its presence. Brand’s particular specialty is tools, and his seminal publication, The Whole Earth Catalog, was subtitled “Access to Tools”. As Markoff has chronicled elsewhere, the progenitors of Silicon Valley were hippies and counterculturalists, and Brand was an archetype of the intelligent, energetic, questing, norm-breaking, and self-medicating 1960s counter culture. In that guise he helped to bring together the disparate elements that created the microcomputer revolution, the ecology revolution, and the social media revolution. In hindsight, Brand’s eclectic choices make sense, but viewed counterfactually, we can see just how remarkable they were. Brand struggled with many of the issues familiar to men of that era, and with studied sensitivity Markoff shows how Brand addressed, ignored, or justified his patrician, white, male upbringing. As a biography, it firmly but gently describes a fully formed human, warts and all, a human who illuminated the future world we inhabit today.
10. The Robots of Dawn, by Isaac Asimov (1983)
As I boy I devoured Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and his robot stories. As an adult, I fondly but firmly set those books aside. Several months ago I found this book in a jumble sale and bought it for a dollar expecting to rekindle my love of the puzzles posed by the Three Laws of Robotics. Sadly, that didn’t happen. The characters in this book seemed unrealistic and as flat as cardboard. The situations seemed too artificial and contrived. The storyline was unappealing. I can’t say whether the problems were there all along and I just matured as a reader, or whether Asimov’s robots — created in the 1940s — simply haven’t aged well enough to work in the 21st Century.
11. Dear Miss Kopp, by Amy Stewart (2021)
Another chapter in the long, fictional-but-fact-based tale of the amazing Kopp sisters in the early years of the Twentieth Century. This volume is written in the epistolary manner which befits the story’s era. The sisters are separated by World War One, but all are doing their part for the war effort. Norma is in France training homing pigeons, Constance is catching German spies in Washington, and Fleurette is entertaining the troops at home. As are all of the novels in this series, it’s light and fun to read with a solid core of relevant history.
12. Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town, by Charles L. Marohn Jr. (2021)
This book is a followup to the author’s previous book, Strong Towns (which I have not yet read). It’s a more personal look at his professional journey from urban traffic engineer doing conventional street design to an enlightened advocate for designing streets and roads that create more socially and economically viable living spaces. Like most good lessons, he learned this one the hard way: by first doing it wrong and being forced to justify those errors to its victims. His main takeaway is the understanding that roads are mechanisms that allow autos to go from town to town, while streets are mechanisms that allow autos to go from building to building within one town. He shows how conventional transportation design conflates the two very separate purposes into a single, omnipresent entity that he calls “stroads.” The author shows how stroads are inefficient and ineffective — and often deadly — in either the road or the street role. He details the institutional mechanisms that continue to create stroads all across the country, wasting lives, opportunity, and treasure. He proposes effective and achievable solutions. He then describes how the professional society of transportation engineers has engaged in a campaign of character and career assassination against him for his forthright and public stand.
13. The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, by Serhii Plokhy (2015)
When Putin invaded Ukraine in February of this year I realized how ignorant I was of the situation. I tweeted a request for a recommendation of an introductory history book about the country, and this one received multiple shout-outs. The book is dry and tough and thorough. I forced my way through it and am glad I did, but I don’t recommend it as an introductory history (There’s a briefer, better, more useful capsule history of Ukraine in Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine). Plokhy’s book is very purposefully named The Gates of Europe to drive home a fundamental point: Ukraine is a European nation, not an Asian one. Russia has never really been a European country and — while it would like to own Europe — it doesn’t want to be a part of it. Ukraine, on the other hand, has always been a part of Europe but for both survival and for socioeconomic reasons, has allied itself with various neighbors and empires over the centuries. Its marriage to the Soviet Union was never a happy one, and Ukraine was forced into the role of a Soviet colony more than that of a member state. This history starts as far back as history is recorded and comes right up to the present day, the author having added a postscript about the current Russian invasion.
Several months after I read this book, the brilliant Yale historian of Eastern Europe Timothy Snyder streamed on YouTube a for-credit class entitled The Making of Modern Ukraine. I watched all 20 lectures. The primary textbook for the course was The Gates of Europe. Snyder’s lively chronology added some much needed perspective to the too-dry reading of the book.
14. Why the New Deal Matters, by Eric Rauchway (2021)
This book is a survey of the contributions programs of the New Deal made to the United States. Because such contributions are voluminous, a book mentioning every one of them would be thousands of pages, so the author merely presents a representative sample. From electricity to bridges to monuments to theatre to sidewalks, the New Deal made America a much nicer and more supportive place to live. To me, the most striking and wonderful thing about the New Deal was the way it embraced cultural contributions as much as it did infrastructure. In many ways the 1930s understood better than we do today that a sound society is built on more than commerce.
15. The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t, by Julia Galef (2021)
This intriguing book discusses how people assess the world around them and how they use that information to form opinions and strategies for life. The author uses a metaphor of scouts versus soldiers: soldiers are given a description of a situation and then told to execute a plan. Scouts, on the other hand, go into the field without a known situation. They are ready to learn and their learning can become the basis for soldierly action. Essentially, soldier mindset is motivated thinking: that is, the soldier tries to fit the observed world into their mental model of what the world should be. Conversely, scouts need tools that allow them to see what is there without forcing it into a pre-conceived narrative. I liked this book.
16. Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World, by Oliver Bullough (2019)
While I enjoyed this book a lot, I found it a bit frightening at times. I’ve come to believe that economic inequality is — if not the root of all our troubles — the path to solving all of our troubles. Bullough’s book is a look at how difficult implementing that remedy will be. His central point is that, while laws stop at national borders, money doesn’t. If the thing you want to do with your money is not legal where you live, it’s all too easy to move it somewhere where it is permitted. There are no international controls on the movement of money. If you make a billion through monopoly, bilking widows and orphans, or through plain vanilla genocidal grifting, there’s a place that will house your billion safely and let you spend it without question where ever and on whatever you please. The author calls this stateless state “moneyland.”
17. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (2017)
In 1932, Josef Stalin, the totalitarian leader of the Soviet Union, decided to collectivize all of the farms in the nation. This was to be an essential proof of the validity of the communist economic system and was projected to increase grain yield by significant amounts. While the agricultural and economic benefits of communist collectivization can be debated endlessly, this particular implementation was a ham-fisted failure and the resultant food shortage was a massive practical and political problem for the relatively new USSR. Stalin decided to solve the political problem by blaming the victims. He demanded impossible amounts of grain, then when the peasant farmers failed to deliver, he accused them withholding their grain to raise prices and extort profits. Stalin then sent cadres of unsavory people into the Ukraine to force the farmers to surrender their non-existant hoards of grain. When the unsavory cadres failed to find grain they knew that Stalin would be unhappy, and that meant death. So they took what grain the peasants had including their seed for next season. They ransacked the peasants houses and stole anything edible. They poisoned wells, killed farm animals, and even confiscated cooking utensils. They created an enormous famine. By the end of 1933, somewhere between four and four-and-a-half million people died a horrible death of starvation. Every trace of this genocidal massacre was erased from the public record and it remained largely unknown until the USSR collapsed in 1991. Slowly, the survivors unearthed evidence and told their stories. The truth of Stalin’s famine, called the Holodomor, has finally emerged into the light. Not only does the author relate this gripping narrative, but in the early chapters she sets the stage with a capsule history of Ukraine and why Stalin resented it so.
18. City of Thieves, David Benioff (2008)
I first read this book years ago and loved it. Over the years I’ve recommended it to countless friends, and I looked forward to rereading it someday. This year I managed to find that “someday,” and thoroughly enjoyed it a second time. The novel is a fictionalization of the formative years of Benioff’s grandparents’s lives: when they first met each other during the siege of Leningrad during World War Two. The Nazis starved millions of Russian civilians in Russia’s former capital city during the years-long siege. The citizens, already subject to Orwellian Soviet rule, were starved into death and depravity, which they faced with a combination of black-humored stoicism and Russian ingenuity. Benioff is a Hollywood screenwriter (some years after writing this novel he created the smash TV hit Game of Thrones), so the plot moves smoothly and inexorably through scenes of tender love and grisly death to a satisfying conclusion.
19. Up Against It, by M. J. Locke (2011)
A plot-driven, hard-science-fiction story. Readable, but not deep. I’d call it a beach book.
20. M: Son of the Century: A Novel, by Antonio Scurati (2022)
It took me many weeks to finish this novel. I suspect my struggle was due to its being an English translation of the original Italian. If I knew more about Italian history and culture the real-life characters and subtle references would have been clearer. With those caveats, the book was worth the effort. It’s a fictionalized account, but it is firmly based in documented history, and covers the years 1919 through 1924. It was in that time that Benito Mussolini, a journalist, a war veteran, and a former socialist, invented modern fascism and took over the reins of power in Italy to rule for the next two decades.
Geopolitically, the peninsular nature of the Italian boot makes Italy a sideshow to internecine European wars. Italy could easily have sat out World War One as a neutral. But Italy was once the Roman Empire, and dreams of past glory haunted the nation, and the opportunity for national expansion created by the war’s confusion enticed the Italians. It would have been natural for them to join the Central Powers, the neighboring alliance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany. But Italy waited on the sidelines until they could pick the winner. Somewhat surprisingly, they joined up with the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Great Britain (and eventually the United States).
The Italians spent the war engaged in one of the most bullheaded and suicidal campaigns in a war infamous for its bullheaded suicidalness. They assaulted north and east against the Hungarian army that was dug into impregnable mountainous redoubts. For years the Italians threw millions of their best against stony vertical cliffs guarded by deadly machine-guns and artillery. The Italian army made little headway and yet they paid dearly for their failures.
No thanks to the Italians, the Entente won the war (no real thanks to the other Entente nations either, mostly the nations of the Central Powers simply retired from the field spent and exhausted), so Italy was — nominally — one of the victors. But to the Italians, in every real way the war felt like a defeat. The territorial gains they hoped to acquire failed to materialize, the respect they wanted from the English and Americans failed to materialize. Their military strategy had failed, the politicians had failed, the economy had failed, the hopes of Italian citizens for a proud new era were dashed, and the veterans who had fought courageously and tenaciously against terrible odds walked home with their heads bowed. It was from these disillusioned victorious/defeated veterans that Mussolini built his fascist movement. The fascist veterans, supported by Italian businessmen, began a nationwide campaign of violence against socialists and communists. Mussolini’s lieutenants created squads of tough, angry, nihilist veterans to roam the countryside, beating and killing anyone who sympathized with socialism. Citizens were cowed by the violence, and eventually the politicians were also. As fascism’s popularity grew, the fascists marched on Rome and forced the King and Parliament to recognize Mussolini and the fascists as their leaders. Adolf Hitler admired Mussolini greatly and modeled his totalitarian state after the Italian leader.
21. The White Company, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1891)
I first read this book when I was 12 years old. The Old English phrasing, metaphors, and figures of speech were difficult but entrancing. It’s a coming of age novel set during The Hundred Years War in the Europe of the 1360s.
It is unabashedly Anglophilic, glorying in the pastoral beauty of Southern England. It’s filled with quirky but lovable characters, presented in vignettes where good always triumphs and bad behavior is punished. The hero of the novel is Alleyne Edricson, a young man raised inside a catholic abbey sheltered from the complexities and vicissitudes of real life. Upon leaving the abbey he is quickly educated by all of the strange and wonderful people he chances upon. But it is the archer Samkin Aylward, by far the most colorful of the people Edricson chances to meet, who recruits him to join The White Company and follow the famous knight Sir Nigel Loring off to the continent to fight the Spanish and French. The novel follows Alleyne’s adventures across the channel, through France, and into Spain. There are pirates, chivalrous fights, chaste maidens, spooky seers, peasant uprisings, and fierce battles.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is justifiably famous for inventing the world’s most famous crime fighter, the detective Sherlock Holmes. Since A Study in Scarlet was first published in 1887, the character of Sherlock Holmes became widely loved. Doyle responded by writing more Holmes stories, eventually totaling 4 novels and 56 short stories. But Doyle never really liked Holmes all that much, feeling that the detective was keeping him from writing more important works. Eventually, in the 1893 story The Final Problem he threw Sherlock Holmes to his death off the Reichenbach Falls. There was such a public outcry that Doyle had to resurrect Holmes and continue writing about him.
The White Company is what Doyle meant by “more important works” and he considered this novel his masterwork, an important historical document that extolled the virtues of English chivalry. Today it’s regarded as juvenile fiction too biased and simple to be literature, but even after multiple re-readings over the years, it’s still one of my favorite stories.
22. The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World, by Charles C. Mann (2018)
The human population is exploding and some see this fact as a death knell while others see it as a great opportunity. The author presents both sides of this conundrum through the contrasting biographies of two little-known but highly influential 20th Century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. Vogt was a pioneering environmentalist who believed that humankind needed to adapt to the constraints imposed by the natural environment. Borlaug believed that science could innovate humankind out of such constraints.
The great value of this book is how deeply and how even-handedly the author plumbs the works and the beliefs of these two scientists and their opposing viewpoints. While their names may not be known outside of academic circles, each man had significant effect on the world and their beliefs have spawned organizations and controversies over the years. It would be easy for the author to take sides but he refuses to do so, and it is this impartiality that gives the narrative such power to make the reader reflect on their own prejudices and beliefs.
23. The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915–1919, by Mark Thompson (2009)
During World War One the Italians attacked north and northeast in a quixotic bid to cross the Isonzo River and conquer the Tyrolian Alps and lands on the north and eastern shores of the Adriatic. They particularly coveted the city of Trieste. The Italians waited on the sidelines of the war until they could pick a winner: the Triple Entente forces of England, France, Russia, and ultimately the United States. But Italy’s performance on the field was incompetent and failed at every battle. None of Italy’s allies liked or respected them, and at war’s end, Italy was shut out of any territorial gains, even those solemnly promised.
The terrain where the Italian army fought for four long years is stark, rocky, vertical, and deadly. It was called the “white war” because the escarpments were so rocky and bare. Small groups of Hungarian soldiers entrenched in the heights could hold off wave after wave of attacking Italians because they were shooting nearly straight down on the Italians as they tried to climb the rough stone escarpments. The Italian soldiers performed heroically and well, but they were in a no-win situation. The campaign was long, arduous and deadly — nearly 700,000 Italians died — for no practical gains.
The references to the Isonzo campaign in the novel M: Son of the Century led me to this non-fiction book. Reading these two books concurrently certainly rounded out my understanding of the motivations of the original fascists. Although technically the victors, the Italians lost everything: their sons, their territory, their treasure, and the respect of their peers. It’s easy to see how Mussolini could entice and mold the dispirited veterans into a band of violent men who cared only to beat people into submission.
24. The Kid Stays in the Picture, by Robert Evans (1994)
I don’t watch a lot of television drama, and I haven’t seen the movie The Godfather for about 30 years, but an advertisement for a new show called The Offer caught my attention. The Offer is a 10-episode mini-series that purportedly tells the story of the making of The Godfather way back in 1972. The series is great! I watched it twice through. I can’t say how well it conforms to reality, but it’s a great story well told. A couple of the characters were really fascinating, particularly Charlie Bluhdorn, the CEO and founder of Gulf+Western, and Bob Evans, the head of production at Paramount Pictures. Both of these men were larger-than-life players and neither took “no” for an answer. Their portrayal in the TV series inspired me to read more about them.
Bob Evans genuinely loved making movies, and with the moral and financial support of Bluhdorn, he empowered young writers and filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Al Ruddy, and Mario Puzo to create their best work. This book, The Kid Stays in the Picture, is not well-written and has significant gaps, omissions, and — probably — gross exaggerations, but there’s nothing like reading the man’s own words to get a sense for who he was and what he accomplished. Some years ago the United States Library of Congress compiled a list of the 100 most important movies made in the USA. Evans was proud to point out that he is the only person who has two films on that list: The Godfather and Chinatown.
25. American Fascism: How the GOP Is Subverting Democracy, by Brynn Tannehill (2021)
More than any other book I’ve read this year discussing the ills of contemporary America, this one presented the clearest case for how we have come to grief as a nation. Certainly the book is a polemic, but one scrupulously backed by research and presented with clarity and insight. If you want to understand how and why our nation is suffering, this one book will clarify how we got here.
26. Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold (1988)
A workmanlike science fiction story.
27. The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, by Sam Wasson (2020)
Shortly after finishing Bob Evans’s memoir, I read this book about the making of the 1974 hit movie, Chinatown. Unlike Evans memoir, this one is excellent. The author is a pro, the writing is clear, the story is compelling, and the characters are rounded out. Wasson tells the stories of the four men closest to the creation of the movie: the director Roman Polanski, the scriptwriter Robert Towne, the lead actor Jack Nicholson, and the producer Bob Evans. All four men have complex and engrossing life stories, and they came together at a singular moment in Hollywood’s history when a movie like this could be made. Recommended.
28. Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey, by James Rebanks (2021)
I greatly enjoyed Rebanks’ first book, A Shepherd’s Life, and this book is similar but different. Both books are semi-autobiographical and both talk about how the old ways of agriculture are sustainable while modern methods are not, but this one is more explicit about the process. As usual, it’s a powerful story well-written.
29. Glucose Revolution: The Life-Changing Power of Balancing Your Blood Sugar, by Jessie Inchauspe (2022)
The author is skilled at explaining complex but vital things about how the food you eat affects your body. The core of the book is a series of “hacks” that you can use to improve those effects, by lessening the bad ones and increasing the good ones. Very helpful stuff.
30. Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex, by Rachel Feltman (2022)
An amusingly written survey of the many splendors of sex. Not prurient sex, but sex viewed through the eyes of an amateur scientist. You’ll like it.
31. Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives, by Jeff Schmidt (2000)
This book is a polemic, a screed, a painful yelp, yet its central idea is critical to understanding both the contemporary meritocratic world and why it fails so universally. The author argues persuasively that both the academic and on-the-job training professionals receive is not so much to teach them the “how-to” of their disciplines as much as it is to inculcate in them the values of the owners of the organizations that employ them.
32. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, by Lisa McGirr (2015)
A detailed study of how today’s right wing extremists came into being. After World War II, vast billions of federal dollars flowed into the burgeoning cold war military-industrial complex. Many of those miltech companies were founded in Southern California, particularly in Orange County, just south of Los Angeles. They recruited technical expertise primarily from two regions: the racist south, and the christian fundamentalist midwest. Both of these inherently conservative groups populated the newly built tracts of low-slung ranch houses with their sliding glass doors, prominent lawns, and sparkling swimming pools. Their owners, lately from bitterly cold Iowa or oppressively hot Texas, reveled in their good fortune. Rather than attributing their improved lifestyles to government largesse, they credited their own efforts, thus giving birth to modern libertarianism. Because they knew their livelihood depended on the cold war, they naturally adopted a rabid anti-communist stance. They entered politics with local school board races, then graduated to backing Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan.
This book strongly buttresses Heather Cox Richardson’s arguments in her excellent book How the South Won the Civil War.
33. Miss Kopp Investigates, by Amy Stewart (2021)
Another amusing chapter in the on-going story of the amazing Kopp sisters. Set in 1919, the war has ended and the three sisters are back together again. This volume focuses on the youngest sister, Fleurette. With health problems stymieing her plans for a singing career, she inadvertently gets involved in sleuthing work. All of Stewart’s Kopp novels are sweet, gentle, historical, and readable.
34. The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis (2018)
Apparently lacking a center of gravity, this book meanders along leisurely, and yet the author’s deft descriptions are powerful enough to keep the reader turning pages. Through the use of brief biographies of seemingly unremarkable characters, the book describes a few of the most vital yet most obscure functions of the United States Federal Government. Just as the author makes clear the breadth and importance of these functions, he juxtaposes it with the right-wing extremist forces working diligently to destroy them.
35. Tomorrow The World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, by Stephen Wertheim (2020)
A scholarly book that describes in detail how a cadre of thinkers and politicians in the United States government changed the course of world history and America’s role in it. Even before the tide began to turn in the favor of the Allies during World War II, forward thinkers grasped the looming opportunity offered by the massive restructuring of global power that would occur in the wake of the war. In a few short years, they conscientiously converted the determinedly isolationist United States into the largest and most successful world power. After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations fell flat on its face. Even the United States didn’t join. By contrast, in the 1940s, the architects of post-war America created the successful United Nations. America not only accepted its new role as world leader, but most of the rest of the world did too.
I hope you find a title in this list that sparks your imagination. Nowadays, I listen to a lot of them on headphones, but I’m still very partial to reading hardcover books. I read a ton of stuff on the Web, but there’s nothing like the long form of real books.