February 29, 2020

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, February 2020

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine about epidemiology, sociology, or the history of ideas. Also, I'm writing book reviews during faculty meetings downtime.

István Z. Kiss, Joel C. Miller and Péter L. Simon, Mathematics of Epidemics on Networks: From Exact to Approximate Models
My attempt at a summary grew to a full-length review (which needs a better title).
Erik Olin Wright, How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century
This is Wright's last book; it continues a long and (unironically) proud tradition of socialists re-writing the Manifesto: start by saying why capitalism sucks, while admitting some of its virtues; then explain how it can be bettered; identify the existing social force(s) which will replace it; and talk about how those forces will undertake the revolution. Wright says sound things about how capitalism molds people into selfish jerks (or crushes them), is undemocratic and (for most) unfree, and offends basic notions of fairness. (He sensibly refrains from asserting that capitalism either causes or requires racism, sexism, imperialism, etc., which is at the very least a highly debatable generalization, though of course racist and sexist capitalists can be expected to exploit workers in racist and sexist ways on top of everything else.) He then sketches what he'd like to see instead, which is a market economy with lots of public provision, some collective ownership, and a lot of worker and consumer cooperatives. Fantasies of central planning are, rightly, not part of his socialist vision. (He does not touch on the delicate problem of how to coordinate the democratic decisions of the members of a cooperative with the democratic decisions of the wider socialist commonwealth when the two disagree [e.g., about whether or not to shut down an oil company], or how to delineate the right scale for the cooperatives [is the oil company one cooperative, or does each rig, refinery and gas station become its own cooperative?].) He also delineates different ways of attacking or at least trying to replace capitalism, ranging from frontal assaults by violent revolution to separatist utopian communities to temporary carnivals of defiance to quietly trying to build alternative institutions that can grow to take over the larger capitalist ecosystem, a sort of vision of socialism as algal bloom. (That is not his image.) The end of the book looks at what would be required for a "collective actor" to try to effect such a transformation --- and there it ends, with a promise that he was just about to say how the trick would be turned.
We will never get to hear Wright's thoughts about how to solve that last riddle, because he died while the book was still incomplete, and what we have here was polished to publication, but not exactly completed, by friends and disciples. This is a fitting tribute to a scholar of real distinction, who made his reputation by combining sound* sociology with unorthodox, "analytical" Marxism that wasn't afraid to actually think, and who tried to remain connected to real-life struggles for a better world.
*: More waspishly, no worse, methodologically, than the rest of post-1960s American sociology.
Jane Langton, The Memorial Hall Murder, Natural Enemy, Good and Dead, Murder at the Gardner
Classic mysteries from the early 1980s, where the very particular settings, and often specific works of literature or art associated with them, are just as important as the murders. I read all these as a boy, but return to them now with delight, and perhaps more appreciation for their non-murder-mystery aspects. (For instance, Good and Dead is also a fine novel about the decline of "mainline" Protestantism, which rather passed me by as a teenager.)
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Lines of Descent: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity
A fine study of what Du Bois took from German thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries, especially from German Romanticism and from the "professorial socialism" of his teachers in Berlin. It'd probably help to have at least read The Souls of Black Folk (which Appiah suggests we could gloss as "the geist of the black volk"), but Appiah's exposition is so skillful that no deep knowledge of either Du Bois's life and work, or of German thought, is really needed.
--- There is a longer story here, which Appiah hints at, at how relevant early Romantic nationalism (like Herder) remains for contemporary ideas in fields like "ethnic studies", despite gestures towards acknowledging the internal heterogeneity and diversity within any such "community". (It's easy to see how a Herderian would be upset by "cultural appropriation", and hard to give a coherent account of the offense otherwise [cf. Richard Thompson Ford, Racial Culture: A Critique].) Whether this is historical continuity of tradition, and if so whether Du Bois was one of the channels of transmission, or whether on the contrary it is parallel re-evolution, would be a fascinating thing to know.
Allison Brennan, If I Should Die
Mind-candy thriller: in which outsiders try to start a legitimate business in a deeply criminal town in upstate New York, and plot ensues. A bunch of the soap-opera among the characters presupposing reading the earlier books in the series. (To be clear, I enjoy the soap opera.)
Tarquin Hall, The Case of the Reincarnated Client
Mind-candy mystery, the latest installment in Hall's "Vish Puri" series in contemporary Delhi. Delightful as always, and I think full enjoyable without the prior installments. (Read before sectarian riots in Delhi became topical again.)
Walter Jon Williams, Quillifer the Knight
Mind candy fantasy, but high quality mind candy. Quillifer (introduced in the book of that name) is an opportunistic social climber with a tragic backstory and a supernatural nemesis in a formerly-medieval fantasyland undergoing a renaissance. He's charming, deceptive, clever, realistically concerned with money and finance, and a convincing mixture of scoundrel and creature of his own conscience. I suspect that Williams owes some debt to such Renaissance-setting competence-porn as Hilary Mantel or Dorothy Dunnett, but as always he makes the material fully his own, so it's not just "Wolf Hall with magic".

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; The Progressive Forces; Commit a Social Science; Writing for Antiquity; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Networks; Enigmas of Chance; Complexity

Posted at February 29, 2020 23:59 | permanent link

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