2020: The Year in Books

The last two years I’ve talked about my favorite books of the year on Twitter (here’s 2018 and 2019). In 2020, I’ll begin by noting that I came to an important realization this year about reading itself. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the incentives and culture of academia, and began to understand at some point that a lot of social science books should be no longer than an article, but are extended to 200-300 pages often by repeating the same ideas in different words. I always sort of new this, but never admitted to myself how much time I was wasting with books that did not need to be read in their entirety.

To take a concrete example based on what I’m reading now, I’m enjoying Racial Realignment by Eric Schickler. It argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom that our modern political divisions can be traced to the 1960s when the Democrats embraced civil rights, actually the connection between economic issues and racial views in national politics goes back to FDR. It’s convincing, and the book is worth “reading.” But not worth reading cover to cover! I suggest skimming and looking at the figures.

Just leafing through the introduction and the first page of Chapter 1, here’s example after example of the author repeating the same argument.

“By contrast, I show that the realignment began with mass and midlevel party actors, that it was rooted in state and local politics rather than in Washington, DC, and that much of the important work was complete by the mid-1940s.”

“This reshuffling of party coalitions launched the post–New Deal party system in which Democrats were identified with African Americans and racial liberalism, while Republicans were associated with racial conservatism.”

“Rather than viewing the 1960s as the critical moment in the partisan realignment on race, I argue that much of the political work involved in bringing racial liberalism into the Democratic program was undertaken decades earlier.”

“By the late 1930s, however, racial liberalism had become tied to New Deal liberalism.”

Not just this argument, but other ideas are repeated ad nauseam. Some social science books are still worth reading cover to cover: sometimes a rare author actually has enough ideas and evidence to fill out a book or the ideas are important enough that it’s worthwhile to put time into going on a journey while absorbing the message (Reich, Pinker, Phil Tetlock, Judith Rich Harris). Sometimes, an author is just entertaining or funny (Nassim Nicholas Taleb). Most of the time though, even interesting books could be much shorter, and are extended too long for reasons of career incentives.

So I’ve read fewer social science books this year, getting my ideas mostly from the papers they are based on (often just the methods section, papers are also usually too long!), and then at most leafing through the book versions. Being a smarter reader frees up some time that I’ve put towards reading more history. I’m skeptical of history actually having many “lessons” to teach us, given how much the world has changed in recent decades. Nonetheless, I don’t think history has to be useful to be justified, any more than the appreciation of art does.

Here’s a list of books I was reading as of October. The following highlights others from 2020.

I recommend two books on the Middle Ages, Medieval Europe by Chris Wickham and The Crusades by Abigail Archer.

I particularly enjoyed The Great Siege, Malta 1565, by Ernle Bradford (Twitter thread). Bradford was, in the tradition of Gibbon, an author who wrote history in the heroic style. I always worry such authors lose something in accuracy, but they make up for it by preserving what makes history worth reading in the first place. Like literature, such works takes us to times and places we can never live through ourselves.

Another decades old book I’m reading right now is The Sultans by Noel Barber (thread). The industrial-style, routinized cruelty of the Ottoman Court, including towards the most important actors in it, is absolutely shocking.

On a different note, I enjoyed Garett Jones’ 10% Less Democracy. I certainly didn’t need convincing that democracy is not perfect, and we in the U.S. would benefit from more checks on it. If anything, Jones doesn’t go far enough.

A book that does take the anti-democracy argument much further is The China Model by Daniel Bell. It’s mostly a work of political theory, which I usually don’t enjoy, but the author is extremely knowledgeable about the Chinese system and it is worth reading for the information. Looking back, I think my interest in China and more distant history has grown out of my pessimism about the institutions of the US and Europe. Thus, I’m looking elsewhere for inspiration, or at least some evidence that things can be different. But having also read about the barbarism of the Ottoman court, perhaps our institutions are not so bad after all!

Finished The Republic for the first time. Sorry, never been a philosophy person, and this didn’t make me into one.

Matt Yglesias’ One Billion Americans makes a bold argument that is easy to mock, but must be taken seriously. Its main value as I see it is in shooting down Malthusianism, an idea that was once a brilliant discovery about human civilization but no longer applies to modern societies, to a large extent holding us back. A remarkably high percentage of bad economic takes can be attributed to people being unable to realize the world is not zero-sum.

Here’s a thread on Ian Davidson’s The French Revolution, and another on Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers. I was struck by the extent to which the Dulles brothers were responsible for creating the American norm of undertaking the most blatant forms of intervention across countries all over the world for reasons of questionable national interest. Kinzer’s book showed what a break with the past this was, and convinced me that history might have been very different had Eisenhower just chosen another Secretary of State.

Stephen Kotkin’s Armageddon Averted (see here) is on the collapse of the Soviet Union. Once again, you see how much historical contingency matters; with a leader other than Gorbachev, the democracy movement could have been easily crushed. This year I reviewed Kotkin’s two volume biography of Stalin, couldn’t find a publisher for it, and ended up just posting it on Medium.

The City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish by Peter Parsons is a one-of-a-kind book. Based on preserved papyri south of Cairo, it takes us into the lives of common people in ancient Egypt.

I reviewed John Bolton’s memoir for The American Conservative. Unsurprisingly, I was critical. I also have been listening to Obama read his memoir, and it is quite boring (thread). He is in fact an insightful and reflective observer when actually writing about the presidency, but spends a lot of time filling space. For example, before Obama tells about his first time meeting with the Russians as President, he will give you a long story about Mongol invasions, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin’s days as a KGB agent, etc. Before talking about Iran policy, he talks about ancient Persia and the Shah. I can read newspapers and Wikipedia, why do I need this from an Obama memoir? This is the academic in the former president, wasting space and his reader’s time to signal how smart he is. Still, worth reading since, given that the other presidents of the last two decades have been Bush, Trump, and soon, Biden, this will be the only memoir we get from an intelligent non-senile American head of state in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. A sobering thought.