Maybe there’s a certain political nerd on your list this year, or you’re just looking for a good read over the holidays. Naturally, The Politics of Crazy should be at the top of your list for them, but here are a few other titles that either caught my attention this year or seem particularly timely.
Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South
Assembled from the records of Robert Bunch, Britain’s Consul in Charleston in the Civil War era. Bunch grew fiercely opposed to slavery as his exposure to the practice deepened. Life in Charleston for a slavery opponent was delicate and at times dangerous, even for a representative of the crown. His observations of Southern politics are depressingly timely as some habits of delusion, racism, and propaganda just won’t die.
While Jefferson ran from combat and slept with his slave, Alexander Hamilton was busy being a badass in every conceivable manner. He learned economics at night while fighting with Washington’s army. He developed economic plans for the new Republic that eliminated a debt crisis and put the Northern states on the path to capitalism. He rescued new nation from a rebellion that nearly tore it apart. And he played the leading role in developing a Constitution that could allow the new country to survive. Chernow’s comprehensive biography of our most important founder is essential reading.
Empire of Cotton: A Global History
How could a Republic built on the notion that all men are created equal sustain a slave economy for most of its history? Beckert takes a close look at the development stages of capitalism to find an answer. He uses cotton to illustrate how capitalism forces the evolution of the political cultures around it and how the needs of capitalism evolve with rising wealth. He also introduces the idea of “war capitalism” to describe that strange stage of semi-free market capitalism that marketed Southern states up to the end of Jim Crow.
Across fifteen years of “war on terror” our most profound success remains little known and largely secret. Nevertheless, its impact casts a shadow over the future of our national security and war-fighting efforts, threatening to eliminate completely the boundary between combatants and non-combatants in global conflicts. Zetter manages to make a complex technical subject – the development and proliferation of digital weapons – remarkably accessible while telling a story that’s tough to put down.
The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee
Few of us seem to be aware of the ways that our technological development is outstripping our political and cultural evolution. The Second Machine helps explain why our world seems so much faster than in the past, why that’s a good thing, and what we need to do to adapt.
Between the World and Me
Composed as an answer to James Baldwin’s 1963 work, The Fire Next Time, in many ways it seems more in the tradition of The Autobiography of Malcom X. Coates book has earned attention for its beautiful expressive prose delivered in an unapologetically grim and defiant tone. Beneath the surface sits a message that this blogger desperately wishes conservatives would recognize. Coates, like Malcolm X before him, is defining a black identity that is fundamentally conservative in nature. With its emphasis on independence and economic progress, Coates is quietly revealing an opportunity conservatives could seize if we could move past our deeply embedded racism. This is some of the best writing I read all year, absolutely brilliant.
One day, with no warning, a global event occurs that shatters the credibility of both science and religion. Perrota has devised the perfect metaphor for the human condition in our era, where neither religion nor reason seems capable of providing a reliable basis for meaning. In The Leftovers, a sudden disappearance of a significant portion of the population, with no conceivable relationship to merit, faith, or theology and no scientific explanation leaves a population grieving and disoriented.
Most people muddle on more or less as before, but a creeping insanity lurks beneath the surface. Disruptive and sometimes dangerous cults emerge to fill the void. Tension between those struggling to go as they did before and those desperate to find meaning at any cost fray the social fabric of a small town, hinting at larger and more dangerous tensions in the wider world.
Perrota’s book is the basis of the brilliant and deeply unsettling HBO series which I highly recommend. Season two is particularly powerful and disturbing. And by the way, if you ever wondered why the Romans were so hostile toward early Christians, this book delivers a subtle and convincing answer.
Super Sad True Love Story
This book becomes more relevant with each passing year. Shteyngart’s relentlessly and purposely vulgar take on the shallowness of Internet culture is darkly hilarious and prescient. It makes a fine counter-point to The Second Machine Age. If you like Vonnegut or Heller you’ll love Shteyngart. It’s as funny as Catch-22 or One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.
Lord of the Flies
You probably had to read this in the 7th grade. In light of all that’s happened since, it might be a good idea to read it again. For decades George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm defined our worst vision of what we might experience in the world. Turns out we should have paid more attention to Golding. Between Lord of the Flies and The Leftovers, we have everything we need to understand the global strategic threats we face in the world after Communism, from the Middle East to Mississippi.