Monday, January 1, 2018

Crisis Reading List

One of words that I notice being used a lot these days is "unprecedented" (usually with regard to some violation of long-accepted "norms").  I understand the logic, and the emotion, behind this phenomenon. After all, the past 12 months have seen a number of events -- Nazis marching in Virginia, the threat of nuclear conflict with North Korea, attacks on the media and other crucial civic institutions, etc. -- that have felt uniquely destabilizing.

Perhaps for this reason, my reading list for 2017 veered toward non-fiction grounded in crisis.  I started the year with The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. The Undoing Project is an intellectual history of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the two academics credited with creating the field of behavioral economics. Their friendship was forged in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s.  Even as he traces the arc of Kahneman and Tversky's career, Lewis takes pains to highlight the context that gave birth to their partnership: the sense of existential vulnerability experienced by Israelis during the early years of the country, which were marked by violence and conflict.

Next I turned to Thomas Ricks' Churchill and Orwell, a joint history of two legendary figures from England.  The context for the book is World War II, but Ricks seems to be writing with at least one eye on our present moment.  He lauds his two subjects for their shared commitment to truth over ideology and their willingness to take on political extremists on the Left and the Right.  In a way, it is a crazy book -- Ricks doesn't unearth any new historical material and his two central characters never actually interact with each other. But I thought the book worked on the strength of Ricks' storytelling and skill as a writer.  After reading the book, I saw that he went out of his way to credit his editor with helping him polish the manuscript.  Good on him.

I've written before about James Forman's Locking Up Our Own, my favorite criminal justice book of 2017, so I won't go into detail about it here, but it too describes a time and a place of crisis: Washington DC in the midst of the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

My calamity reading list reached its apogee with Alwyn Turner's Crisis? What Crisis: Britain in the 1970s.  This was actually the second book I read on this topic, along with Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out: What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies.  Both books offer a helpful  perspective on the current emergencies in the United States.  The winter of discontent...three-day work weeks...a series of disruptive labor strikes...trash piling up in Leicester Square...declining trust in government combined with a rise in political extremism -- the sense of a country coming apart at the seams was, I would argue, stronger in the UK in the 70s than it is now in the US.

I can't say that I have figured out some grand unifying theory or tidy set of lessons from all of these books.  But I have taken some (perhaps perverse?) comfort.  The times we are living through are challenging to be sure, but they are not wholly without precedent.  I am enough of an optimist to believe that better days are ahead of us if we can, collectively, summon the better angels of our nature. Best wishes for the new year.