I am wrapping up a 12-month sabbatical leave from my professor job, which means I didn’t teach or go to a lot of meetings on campus, and instead got to spend more time on the other parts of my job (at home, in loungewear), and try some new things as well.
At the beginning of the year I decided to read more books, and used Goodreads to set a reading goal of 42 (one per week, less 10 for slower books). One goal was to improve my Twitter-degraded attention span [just spent 5 minutes randomly flitting around, now I’m back], or at least expose myself to the feeling of having a longer attention span. And honestly, it was great. I hope this made me more of a book reader forever.
So this year, my year-end book post is about books I read, rather than just books that came out this year. Feel free to make suggestions for gift books in the comments (including your own!). Also, feel free to judge me for anything about this list.
Kakutani is a great writer, and this little book of 11 chapters in 170 small pages flies by. Since she left the New York Times, where she was book critic for many years, her Twitter feed has been a chronology of political crisis and social decay under Trump; reading it all together induces anxiety at the pace and scale of the descent, but also, surprisingly, some optimism that the situation remains decipherable with the tools of intellectual incision that Kakutani wields so well.
In that review I juxtaposed Kakutani’s intellectual rigor with Jonah Goldberg’s cartoonish simulacrum of erudition in the deeply awful Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy (2018). I reviewed that latter book in some depth in an essay titled “How conservatism makes peace with Trump.” I wrote:
Unfortunately, I found the book to be an extended screed against leftism with but a few pages of anti-Trump material grafted in here and there, which ultimately amounts to blaming leftism and immigration for Trump. And that might sum up the state of the anemic conservative movement. Goldberg’s own weak-kneed position on Trump is not resolved until page 316, when he finally concludes, “As much as I hold Trump in contempt, I am still compelled to admit that, if my vote would have decided the election, I probably would have voted for him” (316). In the end, Goldberg has charted a path toward a détente between his movement and Trump’s.
The Goldberg essay proved quite popular (almost 1200 downloads on SocArXiv) after a Twitter thread listing some of his errors took off:
Anyway, Kakutani pairs nicely with another small book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (2018) by philosopher Jason Stanley. He described 10 features of fascist politics, drawing from Nazi Germany and contemporary Hungary, Poland, India, Myanmar, and connecting them to Trumpism. I see Kakutani and Stanley as setting out framing for the moment, in light of history but without facile parallels. Having read these, for example, made Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House (2018), which wasn’t very insightful, more interesting to read.
Semitism: Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump (2018), by Jonathan Weisman, made a good addition to the contemporary fascism collection. It’s a personal reflection and description of alt-Right anti-Semitism, and a call for Jewish solidarity with other groups targeted by Trump and his movement, especially those with fewer institutional defenses. For both me and Weisman, the explosion of anti-Semitism inspired by Trump’s campaign and presidency reinforced our sense of both Jewishness and American otherness. Like me, only much more, Weisman was also the victim of anti-Semitic social media pile-ons when he spoke out against Trump. I never seriously considered myself a minority in America, or applied a consciously Jewish identity to my work, but there are a lot of anti-Semites around, and they think I’m neither White nor American.
In the wake of all this, I found myself staring at this picture from 1920s Poland of my great-great-grandparents, the Patinkins, with their grandaughter, my grandmother’s cousin (later the wife of my grandmother’s brother). And I grew my beard longer.
Anyway, the Trumpism book series was kicked off by We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (2017), by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is a brilliant and wrenching retelling of Coates’ own career as a journalist through the arc of Obama’s presidency, the era that made Coates a household name and also, now seemingly inevitably, birthed Trumpism.
It’s hard to believe I read Coates in the same year as Rebecca Traister’s excellent new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (2018). Although Traister does a good bit of history, especially about women’s suffrage, labor, and civil rights, it’s a post-2016 election book, inspired by the Women’s March in particular. The books is a dense but powerfully written treatise on all the ways women’s anger makes the world better — and its suppression is a mechanism of patriarchy. It was written fast, and you can read it fast, moving back and forth between 1848 and 2018, Trump and #MeToo, with interesting dives into intrafeminist debates about sex, intersectionality, and other topics.
In the category of feminist debates, but no longer about Trumpism, I also liked Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (2017) which was quite polarizing in feminist sociology circles. Even if you don’t buy her account of the excesses of campus feminism and the overreach of Title IX bureaucracy, you have to at least wrestle with it. Kipnis herself overreaches a little, in my view, but I agree that much of the rape-culture talk on campus is disempowering for women — even though rape culture is real. (Incidentally, Kipnis didn’t like Traister’s book, and I didn’t agree with her review.)
In April I wrote a review essay titled, “Public engagement and the influence imperative,” for Contemporary Sociology. The essay covered The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World (2016), by M. V. Lee Badgett; The Social Scientist’s Soapbox: Adventures in Writing Public Sociology (2017), by Karen Sternheimer; and Going Public: A Guide for Social Scientists (2017), by Arlene Stein and Jessie Daniels. All three books had good advice for using your research to reach more people and different audiences. In the essay I pressed for more reciprocal engagement, in which our “audiences” help shape the research itself.
In the sociology of population section of the American Sociological Association, I was on the award committee that gave the book prize to The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History, and the Future (2017), by Dalton Conley and Jason Fletcher. The book is excellent as an introduction to contemporary genetic analysis of social traits, which is completely taboo among many social scientists but is still real and not all bullshit. Conley and Fletcher offer compelling explanations of what current techniques can reveal and what they can’t (including race). For the non-expert social scientist, they also offer a review of the history of genetic analysis, from the now-discredited quests for target genes (e.g., the “warrior gene”), to twin studies, to polygenic scores, which use genome-wide analysis to generate propensities for both biological and social traits.
Also on the sociology shelf, I finally read Elizabeth Popp Berman’s 2012 book, Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine. It’s one of those books in sociology where the substance of the research is important an interesting even if you don’t know anything about the theories or disciplinary debates that comprise the immediate context for the book. Why did universities and researchers generally start to pitch themselves as primarily drivers of economic growth? The answer is important, and it’s in this excellent book. (Beth is a friend and colleague in the SocArXiv project.)
I was invited read, for an author-meets-critics session, The Triple Bind of Single-Parent Families: Resources, Employment and Policies to Improve Well-being (2018, also free), edited by Rense Nieuwenhuis and Laurie Maldonado. The book contains a series of comparative demographic studies related to the “triple-bind” experienced by single mothers in many countries: resource disadvantage, inadequate employment, and weak supportive policies. Specialized, but if this is for you, it’s very good.
In response to an invitation to participate in a meeting on Israeli demography and the environment, I read The Land Is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel (2016), by Alon Tal (who organized the symposium). The book is really interesting. I wrote about the whole thing at some length, with graphs and photos from my eye-opening trip, and audio of my talk, here.
Not sociology, but sociological, I rate highly I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street (2017), by Matt Taibbi. It’s an in-depth investigation into the killing of Eric Garner by New York City police, including much of his life and community, in the context of larger processes such as community policing, stop-and-frisk, mass incarceration, and urban redevelopment — and how that all led to the gaping wound of injustice after his death.
Also sociological, and recommended, is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer (2018). It’s an irreverent takedown of various wellness fads, but also preventative screenings, and the quest for longevity itself. In the process, she digs back into her microbiology roots to explore the self-destructive tendencies of our own cellular programming, which make an internal mockery of our futile attempts to forestall the inevitable. A very 2018 book.
Finally, in the category of truly terrible sociology, I put Mark Regenerus’s book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy (2017). From my review:
Cheap Sex is an awful book that no one needs to read. The book is an extended rant on the theme, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” wrapped in a misogynist theory about sexual exchange masquerading as economics, and motivated by the author’s misogynist religious and political views.
Last and not quite least, I read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016). Parts of it were interesting, but on the whole I just never found the qualities that made it so original or insightful or important as to justify the phenomenon it became. Not worth it.
You didn’t make it all this way to read my thoughts on fiction, so I’ll just say that books are a medium, a category of experience, and mixing in fiction affected the quality of the whole project. So I read some classics I never read before, like Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin, and The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger. I read the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French, which are on the literary side of murder mysteries; as well as a handful of Michael Connelly novels and the one Carl Hiassen novel I had missed. Lucky Jim, a 1954 academic satire by Kingsley Amis, is great if you like that sort of thing (which I do — ask me about my novel in progress.) Finally, I loved The Humans, by Matt Haig, which is funny and dark and thought-provoking.
Before the end of the year I need to finish Becoming, by Michelle Obama (sigh); Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century, by Tey Meadow; and a couple more novels.