Reading Gist: January 2021

To get through 2021, I read a lot. 97 books to be exact. I believe that it takes time to digest everything you read and that something you loved or hated in the moment can become a gem or a pile of shit with a few months’ distance. So here’s some little reviews of the books I read in January 2021.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley: Half crime thriller, half political coming of age. Wonderfully written. X’s opinions on women are disgusting though he was changing his mind as he got older. Alex Haley’s afterword is just as important as the main text and adds some nuance to X’s opinions. Everyone should read it.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen: Witty with some interesting insights about society but ultimately overwritten and boring. I can understand why Mark Twain allegedly said you couldn’t pay him to read Jane Austen. I’ve tried reading Pride and Prejudice two or three times and every time I couldn’t get more than twenty pages in and I’m a sucker for love stories.

Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787 by Catherine Drinker Brown: A well written narrative of the Constitutional Convention. Full of great dialogue and funny quotes, especially about all the state pride during the American Revolution that led some militiamen to declare stuff like “I’m fighting for New Jersey, not General Washington!” Makes interesting case for viewing the American Revolution as a middle class revolution. Could have dived into Shay’s Rebellion more since it loomed over the minds of all the delegates. Tends to apotheosize some of the delegates, especially Washington (who I learned recently was a pretty horrible general due to his obsession with order and dismissiveness of guerrilla warfare). The image of Ben Franklin being transported to the Convention on a king carrier on the shoulders of prisoners has stuck in my head for months.

Pornography: Men Possessing Women by Andrea Dworkin: Reading this after reading a collection of The Marquis de Sade’s fiction was a good reality check. Dworkin made some horrible political decisions in the eighties and nineties but I can understand why she did it. Dworkin was a good descriptive writer but a lot of her conclusions never seem to stick the landing. Worth a read.

How to be a Fascist by Michela Murgia: This book is written like a fake political science manual for fascists. It’s very tongue in cheek but a good breakdown of how fascism can spread through innocuous means. It’s Italian, so some of the examples are specific to Europe. The audiobook was well done. There are a lot of books out there about fascism being on the rise. Most of these books are written by center-left or center-right thinkers who think the breakdown of liberal democracy is because of abhorrent extremist ideology. While this is partly true, they never dig deeper into what causes racism, homophobia, fascism, etc. They just say “this exists and learning about it stops it!” It’s funny when these center-orbiters think the return of the good ole days of liberal democracy will cure our ills, when, in fact, our democracy in name only is the source of these problems. It’s especially funny when these centrists criticize Trump for Make America Great Again and good ole days thinking when they commit the same sin. When were these liberal good ole days anyway? 1930s? 1960s and 70s? Early 2000s? I wish they would follow the money for once.

Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression by Robin D.G. Kelley: There are some history books that are collections of fascinating vignettes instead of a consistent account (Caste by Isabel Wilkerson comes to mind). Hammer and Hoe is one of them. There is a common misconception in American political history that people of color didn’t get involved in radical organizations beyond The Rainbow Coalition (Fred Hampton’s, not Jesse Jackson’s) and The Black Panthers. I believe this misconception stems from the current splintery mess that is the modern American Left, which can be characterized as every group trying to focus on their specific group’s issues instead of the shit that fucks us all over. This is more of the fault of political organizations rather than individual people, who are generally sympathetic social creatures, in my opinion. This book is full of stories of ordinary folks organizing and educating themselves, sometimes sharing one copy of The Daily Worker amongst dozens of people. With most radical literature easily accessible nowadays, it’s annoying how little it’s actually read and discussed. Favorite scene: “When I asked Mr. Johnson how the union succeeded in winning some of their demands, without the slightest hesitation he reached into the drawer of his nightstand and pulled out a dog-eared copy of V. I. Lenin’s What Is to Be Done and a box of shotgun shells, set both firmly on the bed next to me, and said, ‘Right thar, theory and practice. That’s how we did it. Theory and practice.'”

Capitalism and Disability: Essays by Marta Russell by Marta Russell: If you liked the Netflix documentary Crip Camp, this essay collection will be a theoretical protein shake. Besides being a practical introduction to the principles of socialism, it’s a great history lesson on the struggles of disabled folks to even get a modicum of respect. It changed my opinion on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “left wing street cred” and euthanasia. The essay on the Nazi’s extermination of disabled folks is harrowing. The essay on euthanasia makes the case that while euthanasia is a good assertion of the individual’s rights versus society, it also is a product of the failure of society to provide affordable healthcare and accessible infrastructure.

To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History by Edmund Wilson: This is a weird book, if you think about it. It’s ostensibly a history of radical thought from Vico to Lenin but it runs all over the place until it gets to Marx. That’s not saying it’s a bad book. It’s fantastically written. Edmund Wilson was an amazing critic and writer. Some of the earlier chapters could have been cut or given more page space, I’d have preferred the later especially when talking about the pre-utopian and utopian socialists. The narratives of Lenin and Trosky’s lives are vivid and stirring. Lenin’s caring side is never depicted in other books and he is regularly portrayed as an automaton (literally in the case of The Simpsons). Wilson makes clear why people followed him and still do.

Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou: A laugh out loud novel narrated by a down on his luck shmuck, who probably deserves all the beatings he gets. Full of great references and blue and black humor, equally eschatological and scatalogical. I found it interesting that the narrator doesn’t explain who he is until the book is almost over. There is quite literally a pissing contest in this novel. African literature doesn’t get enough love in the US. It feels like the publishers only publish tribal fantasies or emigration stories. Also: Mabanckou has a sick fashion sense worth a google.

Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman: I have complicated feelings about Emma Goldman. Overall, I think she was a great gadfly for late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. The titular essay lays out a poetic argument for anarchism. The latter essays whose topics range from a justification for terrorism to unorthodox educational systems to drama criticism are all good, but they never meld together into a coherent theory. While I have some sympathy for the anarchists, they never seem able to get their shit together and regularly attempt to create dual power systems that are destined to fail because they don’t actually threaten the capitalist system. Their stubbornness about governments, even a transitional one that would bring about their utopia, means they will never sustain political power and will be destined to small projects, easily crushed by their enemies.