At the beginning of this month, Alex Bayley suggested the idea of writing an Annotated bibliography of the inside of my head:
You know those books that you can’t stop thinking about, won’t shut up about, and wish everyone around you would read? The ones that, if taken in aggregate, would tell people more about you than your resume? I decided I wanted to write a list of those. Then I told some friends, and they wanted to write their own lists too. So we’re going to do a little blog carnival, and I’d like to invite you (yes, you) to join us.
I'm a librarian with a blog, and my fellow library blogger Alissa egged me on: how could I possibly refuse? So here it is, my annotated bibliography of the inside of my head (for now). I hope it's not too alarming to my new bosses.
The Empire Trilogy
The Empire trilogy was co-authored by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts after Feist completed his Riftwar Saga, but I read the Empire Trilogy first. I quickly grew bored with Feist's increasingly derivative works, but the Empire Trilogy was a revelation to a teenage boy who loved Lord of the Rings but found the fantasy fiction range on offer at Kingston Public Library in the 1990s frustratingly beige. The books feature a strong woman as the lead character, political intrigue almost on par with Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire, and a series of political and moral questions that Mara of the Acoma solves more by cleverness than force. I suspect I'd find the books disappointing if I re-read them now, but they helped me to expect more from fantasy fiction at a formative time.
The lies of Locke Lamora
Alas, having ascertained my preferences in fiction ran primarily to 'alternative reality political intrigue with minimal-to-nill magic', I struggled to find much of it around (though that doesn't necessarily mean there's not a lot out there). Eventually I discovered the alternative-reality-Oliver-Twist-meets-swashbuckling-adventure The lies of Locke Lamora and follow-up Red seas under red skies. I don't read much fiction these days, for various reasons, but I'm constantly on the hunt for something like these Scott Lynch masterpieces.
The name of the wind
I actually can't remember whether I read The lies of Lock Lamora or The name of the wind first, but I found them both gripping. I was distraught when I got the end of Patrick Rothfuss's The name of the wind to discover the second book in the series (The wise man's fear) hadn't yet been published. I'm still waiting, impatiently, for the third book. The name of the wind is an extraordinary book: almost nothing actually happens, yet I was completely gripped from start to end.
The Cranks bible
Nadine Abensur is a vegetarian chef who lives in the UK, and was born in Morocco to Jewish-French parents. When I was vegetarian for a couple of years I bought her The Cranks bible (Cranks being a restaurant group). This book completely changed how I thought about cooking. Abensur's background naturally led her to produce recipes that are based on traditional foods without being overly concerned about 'authenticity'. But more than that, she feels no compulsion to justify their vegetarian basis. The Cranks bible is a cookbook for delicous food that just happens to be vegetarian. It taught me to cook without apologies.
I have a Bachelor's degree in History, but it wasn't until well after I graduated that I really found the stuff I was interested in. Part of the reason I read less fiction than I used to is that it turns out there's enough speculative non-fiction to last several lifetimes. The further back into human existence we go, the more questions there are rather than answers, and the questions become less and less "what might have happened if X didn't occur?" and more "did X even happen at all?" All of the books in this section completely blew my mind.
Through the language glass
Perhaps some people would be utterly unsurprised by the revelations in Guy Deutscher's Through the language glass: why the world looks different in other languages. I was not, when I read it, one of those people. Deutcher's central thesis is that our reality is shaped by our languages as much as the other way around, but his book also revealed to me the complications of understanding what ancient peoples meant and thought even when they have left written records. Until reading this book it had never occured to me that different languages group colours differently: that a language might have a word for 'grellow' or 'grue', rather than all three of what I think of as yellow, green, and blue. Deuthscher's book was also the first time I became aware of the Guguu Yimithir language from what's now known as the Endeavour River on Cape York Peninsula: specifically its use of pure geographic directions (North, South etc) instead of egocentric directions like 'left' and 'right'.
The great divide: history and human nature in the Old World and the New
Peter Watson's book contrasting the development of human cultures in Eurasia and the Americas doesn't offer much for students of Australasia, but is a fascinating study of comparative culture and how climate, plants, animals and even volcanic activity might have played a part in the very different cultural outcomes in Eurasia and the Americas.
Deep time dreaming: uncovering ancient Australia
Despite receiving a university degree in history, I was left deeply cynical about Australian history books by my formal education and the History Wars that were raging during and to some extent after that time. It was only this year that I finally felt ready to re-engage: partially because there's some amazing stuff coming out. Billy Griffiths' Deep time dreaming is essentially a history of formal Australian archaeology. Reading this left me feeling amazed, humbled, and quietly angry. I was never taught any of it during my school years, despite most of what Griffith's writes about occuring well before I was born. Every Australian should know this history, including what's still unclear and controversial.
I read Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu straight after Deep time dreaming, on something of an Australian history bender. I hesitated to place Dark Emu in this "Deep Time" section, both because nearly all the evidence Pascoe cites is from the early colonial period, and because of the problematic nature of seeing Aboriginal culture as "in the past". What Pascoe has identified, however, is compelling evidence of many thousands of years of intensive and sophisticated human management of plants, animals, and landscapes. I'd always been unsatisfied with the scant information and implausible explanations mainstream Australian education provides about the pre-invasion lives and diets of Aboriginal people, and Pascoe's book is the first thing I've read that really makes sense.
States and power
1835: the founding of Melbourne and the conquest of Australia
The third book in my Australian history binge was James Boyce's 1835, a book that had been languishing on my shelf for quite a while. Once I started reading it I couldn't believe I'd left it there for so long, nor that this was the first time I was reading so much of what it said. Boyce clearly outlines not only the brutal realities and astonishing speed of the genocide within what became the colony of Victoria (and New South Wales), but also the links with what was happening in the British Isles around the same time, with the 'settlement' of Australia in some ways simply an even more brutal example of the 'Enclosures' happening in England and Scotland.
Thirst: water & power in the ancient world does what it says on the tin: it's a book about ancient (though since reading Billy Griffiths' book I will always mentally put "ancient" in air quotes when it refers to anything fewer than 10,000 years) states and the nexus between controlling water and controlling people. The reason I keep thinking about this is partially that I live on the driest continent on the planet, in a time when dry climates are becoming even drier, and partially because every single state in the book continued to expand until it collapsed due in part or in full to simply running out of water.
Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed
I discovered James C Scott's Seeing like a state through the bibliographies of other books and articles. It's somewhat academic, but much more readable than one might imagine from the title and the layout. Even career bureaucrats like me generally acknowledge that central governments are often indifferent to local circumstances and antagonistic to particular exceptions or differences, but Scott's analysis shows why states are like this. In contrast to the common charge that governments are 'uncaring', Scott makes the opposite claim: states care very much about understanding the people and places within their borders - it's just that they care about different things to those people. States must make their subjects or citizens legible in order to function as states at all. This is what leads to weird outcomes like being able to determine the geographic area a Filipino person's family comes from based on the first letter of their surname (a legacy of the process the Spanish colonial government used to enforce Hispanic surnames): these names were not particularly useful for the Filipinos, but did allow the government to more effectively track them.
Command and control
The extent to which centralised states are deluded about their ability to see and control even what's happening in their own military forces is outlined in Eric Schlosser's terrifying Command and control, outlining the many, many times the United States has almost accidentally nuked itself. It is horrifying, fascinating, and difficult to put down. This book left a profound impression on me because it drove home the point that even when dealing with something as extraordinarily dangerous as thermonuclear weapons, safety and control are as much an illusion as in any other field.
Against the grain: a deep history of the earliest states
James C Scott appears again here, because this year I read his latest book, Against the grain, and it had a similar effect on my to reading Dark emu (🤯). Scott's argument here is, in essence, that the earliest known settlements in what is referred to as the 'fertile crescent' of Mesopotamia appeared there because - despite it now being a dustbowl - it was at the time a junction between coastal wetlands and freshwater alluvial floodplains. Instead of moving between ecosystems, people here could simply stay put and let the ecosystems come to them. Scott makes other startling claims that upend the 'traditional' story of how the first states came about, and it's a compelling and fascinating book.
Venice: a new history
Thomas Madden's Venice: a new history is pretty interesting, but doesn't necessarily mount an argument in the same way as a book like Against the grain or Dark emu. The reason it appears in my annotated biography, however, is that it includes a detailed explanation of the Venetian system for choosing the Doge - the head of the Venetian republic:
A boy plucked randomly off the Venetian streets pulled wax balls out of an urn until thirty members of the Great Council from different families had been randomly selected. Those thirty were then reduced by another random lottery to nine. The nine elected a committee of forty, who were promptly reduced by lot to twelve. The twelve voted in twenty five new electors, who were then randomly reduced to nine. These nine elected a new committee of forty five, who were then reduced by lot to eleven. These eleven then selected the final committee of forty one councillors who would finally elect the Doge. I thought this was a pretty great system to wring out as much partisanship and power games as possible. And then, later, I read Against elections.
Against elections: the case for democracy
This Venetian electoral system was immediately attractive to me, but it was several years later (this year, in fact) that I discovered Liz Waters' translation of David Van Reybrouck's Against elections. I'd been thinking more and more about sortition as a viable and attractive alternative or at least addition to elected parliaments, but randomly appointing people to serve multi-year parliamentary terms was still unsatisfactory to me. Van Reybrouck's short book outlines firstly what problems sortition solves, secondly its effective use in ancient Greece, and thirdly how sortition could realistically work in practice in a modern state. The key is to forget about large bodies with multiple governmental roles and long terms, and instead create a system of interlocking bodies with very specific roles. It's compelling, and provides a clear rebuff to those who scoff that ordinary people can't govern ourselves.
Agitation and propaganda
Start with why
Simon Sinek turned an eight minute TED talk into a 231 page book, and whilst I generally consider TED talks akin to junk food, I do keep going back to the central point in Sinek's talk/book: "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it". It's all very Business School, but Sinek is right.
Two hundred Pharaohs, five billion slaves
Writing in a call centre, Adrian Peacock knew his 'why'. Two hundred Pharaohs, five billion slaves was the first anarchist polemic I ever read, and I remember being shocked, exhilarated and horrified all at the same time. I'm far too much of a natural born bureaucrat to be a real anarchist, but Peacock's argument that the history of capitalism is simply a series of Ponzi schemes certainly rings true - and he was writing in 1999, before the Enron collapse, let alone the global financial crisis of 2008.
In Assembly, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that for horizontalist, 'leaderless' Left movements to succeed, they need to be organised in such a way that temporary leaders determine tactics, whilst the mass movement - the assembly - determines strategy: exactly the opposite of a traditional organisational hierarchy. I found some of this book hard to follow, to be honest, and I'm not sure I even agree with or quite understand their argument. But that's exactly the point: I keep thinking about it because I'm not sure what I think about it. If you're interested in reading this, you probably should do the opposite of what I did, and read Zeynep Tufekci's Twitter and teargas: the power and fragility of networked protest. first. Tufekci gives a pretty clear explanation of how the 'horizontalist' protest movements of the last decade have actually worked in practice, whilst Hardt and Negri are talking about how they might optimally work in future.
Trigger warnings: political correctness and the rise of the Right
I really wasn't sure what to expect from this book, but it was written by Jeff Sparrow and endorsed by Roz Ward, so despite my reservations about the title I bought a copy. Sparrow's book is a tour of Left politics in the US and Australia since the 1990s. Reading Trigger warnings whilst the reverberations of the Victorian Greens' self-induced implosion were still fresh, Sparrow's phrase summing up what has happened to the mainstream Left - "Smug Politics" - felt all too real. Trigger warnings is worth reading just for Sparrow's analysis of what has happened to Left politics in the last couple of decades. But it's also a clear argument that what is needed is a bit of old fashioned solidarity. It's a theme that Jodi Dean has also written on in her new book Comrade: an essay on political belonging (I haven't actually read Dean's book yet, just the article in the Chronicle). With 2019's national election results in Australia and the UK, it might be time to reflect on what this really means, and what needs to be done.
Hope in the dark: untold history of people power
Rebecca Solnit wrote Hope in the dark in response to the 're-election' of US President George W Bush. I can't do justice to this collection of essays, other than to say Solnit is an extraordinarily gifted writer, and if you are feeling listless and in despair by the politics of our time, this is the book to read. It's neither saccharine nor unrealistic, but is indeed hopeful.
Work and money
Capital in the twenty-first century
It seems a long time ago now, but for about a year Thomas Piketty's Capital in the twenty-first century was the most talked about book in politics and economics. It's political salience was not so much in what it says as the form it takes: 580 pages of patiently argued text, 85 pages of notes and references, and plenty of charts. Piketty lays out the intuitively obvious point that progressive taxation of income is insufficient to creating more equal societies without redistribution of overall wealth, i.e. capital. Obviously his argument is rather more sophisticated than that, and I don't agree with what I consider to be his rather centrist policy proposals, but I still think about his explanation of how European capital stocks were built up through colonialism, and the effects of inter-generational wealth accumulation.
Scarcity: why having too little means so much
Piketty outlined how and why some have far too much, but Scarcity is about what happens when you have too little. Sendhil Mullainathan (an economist) and Eldar Shafir (a psychologist) essentially argue that the right-wing trope that poor people make bad decisions is supported by research: but that the causation is the complete opposite of what conservative commentators claim: living in poverty makes people more likely to make bad choices, rather than people who make bad choices being more likely to end up in poverty (though that's sometimes the case too, and then it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle). This book convinced me that something like a universal basic income (UBI) - a social safety net applying unconditionally to all - is a good idea. I keep thinking about it because I'm still not completely sold on UBI, but also because the studies described in this book help to move past arguments over what 'rational' behaviour looks like for those who are poor and/or living in poverty (which as Jane Gilmore notes, are not quite the same thing). The Sam Vimes Boots Theory of Economic Justice is still true, but it's also an insufficient explanation for why poverty is so hard to escape.
How to be idle
Tom Hodgkinson's How to be idle was published in 2004, the same year as Carl Honoré's In praise of slow, and something of a meditation on the same subject. I can't remember which I read first, but whereas Honoré's book is a journalistic report on the various 'slow movements', Hodgkinson's is a celebration of the good life. I think of it whenever I'm starting to feel guilty about not being busy enough.
Work: the last 1000 years
I ended up (not coincidentally) reading a few books this year that all referenced each other, and Andrea Komlosy's Work was one of them (another being Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton, of which more in a moment). Refreshingly, although Komlosy's history is very much based on the European experience, it's Central Europe (specifically, the German-speaking parts) on which Komlosy concentrates, rather than the view from Western Europe that we mostly get in English language books. This is essentially a description of how 'work' has been defined, organised, recognised, and rewarded over the last thousand years, and what caused those things to change. I found it fascinating to read about models and conceptions of work that were very different to our own - often in surprising ways. It was here that I learned that early factory work was often treated as seasonal, and why it was so often children and women who worked in them. I continue to think about this book because it provides concrete evidence of alternative ways to think about work, power relationships, and living arrangements.
Empire of cotton: a new history of global capitalism
This book is not for the faint of heart, sprawling over more than 400 pages. On occasion I did wonder whether Sven Beckert needed to go into quite so much detail, but it really is a fascinating explanation of many of the big moments and issues of world history from the early-modern period onward, and how they are all related: from the North American slave states to the Indian famines of the 1890s, the 'Scramble for Africa', how Britain ended up controlling Egypt, and the initial drivers of the Japanese occupation of Korea. This is an extraordinary book and well worth investing the time in.
Spam: a shadow history of the Internet
"Every time we go online," reads the blurb, "we participate in the system of spam, with choices, refusals and purchases, the consequences of which we may not understand." Finn Brunton's book on the history and meaning of spam is one of the briefest books in this bibliography, but I keep being reminded of it. It was only later that I read of Paul Virilio's concept of "the integral accident", but that is essentially what Brunton means by his subtitle, "a shadow history of the Internet". For every step towards convenience, openness and increased power for 'legitimate' use of the Internet, the 'integral accident' of spam has similarly gained sophistication and power. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide what now constitutes the legitimate Internet, and what is merely spam.
Debt: the first 5000 years
Debt: the first 5000 years was the first David Graeber book I ever read, and I've left it until last because it is probably the most influential book I've read in the last decade. Graeber is an anthropologist rather than an economist, which is probably why his ideas about the meaning of money, debt, credit and economies seem so fresh and interesting. Graeber opens with a vignette of a cocktail party where an attendee states that "surely one has to pay one's debts", and he immediately declares for the contrary position. Indeed, says Graeber, the global financial system would collapse if everyone was forced to repay their financial debts regardless of the circumstances. What follows is a revisionist examination of the global history of morals, money, exchange, trust, and reciprocity. If you were to read only one book from this list, make it David Graeber's Debt.