What I’ve Been Reading (Non-Football)
I did one of these a couple months ago, covering July-October, and now I’m going to cover everything I feel like mentioning I read in November and December 2012, plus my favorites of 2012. First, November and December reads.
I’ve enjoyed Tom Wolfe’s novels before, but Back to Blood was a disappointment. Some of the set pieces aren’t bad, but it never coheres into a proper whole the way I thought his other books did. The Bonfire of the Vanities is of course his most famous novel, though I preferred A Man in Full.
Tom Ricks’ The Generals is important for its main thesis, that the United States Army is overly invested in a particular type of general officer and, to its detriment, is unwilling to relieve underperforming senior officers, especially in comparison to World War Two practice. The case that both of these are true is pretty convincing, but I still ultimately found The Generals an unfulfilling read. To the extent armies are reflections of the societies they serve, how have Army personnel policies influenced and been influenced by civilian personnel policies? Further, Ricks seems to portray senior officer relief as almost a panacea when it is clearly no such thing. On the whole, this a somewhat frustrating book.
Mark Bowden has written several very good to excellent books, including one on football. (I still have yet to read his book on the 1958 NFL championship game.) The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden is not one of them. It should have been a long magazine piece or Kindle single-sized, as perhaps 60 of the 260 or so pages are any good and not completely derivative. Go read Black Hawk Down or Killing Pablo or Guests of the Ayatollah instead if you haven’t done so.
After making The Map and the Territory my first Michel Houellebecq book earlier in the year, I went back and read his earlier The Elementary Particles and didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. Like Map, I have a hard time putting it into proper context with the rest of my reading.
Notwithstanding its ambitious subtitle, Thomas McCraw’s The Founders and Finance is essentially dual mini-biographies of Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin. If you want a full life of Hamilton, I recommend Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, which I read about eight years ago. Had I read it more recently, some of McCraw’s material, which covers Hamilton’s entire life and not just his work as Treasury Secretary in putting the young United States on a firm footing, would probably have seemed unnecessary and duplicative. Gallatin has not been the subject of a massive recent biography and was a figure I wanted to read more about; this book will do unless and until there is such a book and I have the time and inclination to read it. The footnotes in this book are of especially high quality and should not be skipped.
The Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin is a darkly comic dystopian novel of a day in the life of a Russian bureaucrat. Leonard Fleisig’s review on Amazon does this book better justice than anything I would write could.
Best of 2012
After graduating law school and returning to the world of the excellent public library, I gorged on a bunch of fiction. Since 2007, when I read two novels for every non-fiction book, I’ve been trying to tilt my way back toward more non-fiction, and got most of the way there this year.
For my fiction reads, I tend to favor plot-heavy narratives, generally eschewing particularly serious works. Beyond minimums, literary quality is a plus but not a priority. Genre is ok. It suffices and cleanses my palate for the serious books to come, but few of the works of fiction I normally read reach or even aspire to particularly high heights. The closest thing to a great novel I read this year was the aforementioned The Map and the Territory.
My nonfiction reading proved more fruitful. Three books in particular stood out.
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt is focused on how the basic divides among American political groups are largely the result of particular moral attitudes that are generally held by people of different political persuasions. Given that people tend to think of themselves as in the center, at least in the sense that everyone is the hero of their own narrative, and where you stand depends on where you sit, the seemingly-deep cultural divides that separate Democrats and Republicans are put into a proper context. In terms of what this divide means for public policy, I’ve wrestled with that idea since finishing the book in April without reaching any conclusions.
Uncontrolled by Jim Manzi discusses the limits of our ability to create capital-K Knowledge in the social sciences in particular. To use one of Manzi’s examples, it’s not just that Republican-leaning and Democrat-leaning economists had different predictions of the effect of the 2009 stimulus bill before it was passed, but that several years after it was passed each side would claim their prediction was right no matter what happened. Given the contrast between this state of affairs and something like gravity in physics, it’s very hard to distinguish even ex post better and worse policy options. Manzi’s proposal then is that government engage in more experiments in controlled (such as they can be) circumstances in order to make these kinds of policy determinations. As Manzi recognizes, this wouldn’t work for all types of policy, but it could work for some. Then again, is politics really about policy anyway?
Liars and Outliers by Bruce Schneier covers the subject of trust, or just why and in what circumstances do people cooperate and defect from social norms and standards. Schneier’s background is in computer programming and that kind of security, but he’s been sort of expanding outward since then, as many successful computer attacks are really attacks against people who use computers. This is not really a book about trust as a question of philosophy but about the social engineering of situations where people can trust other people.
Aside from, of course, Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, my favorite football books of the year included Three and Out by John U. Bacon, The Essential Smart Football by Chris Brown, and North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent. The worst book I finished this year was The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. The best book I didn’t finish (as opposed to merely deciding to read later) this year was Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.
As always, de gustibus non est disputandum.