When provinces fought back against reform

Here is an interesting and little-known episode from the early days of China’s reform era, dealing with the early days of the household responsibility system in the 1980s. The adoption of this system, a fancy name for allowing individual farmers to manage their own plots, is one of the most storied episodes in Chinese economic reform, and is often portrayed as a kind of bottom-up revolution by farmers fed up with collectives.

The household responsibility system did indeed spread rapidly once Deng Xiaoping and the central government endorsed it, but there were some holdouts. The governments of the three northeastern provinces–sometimes called the “little Soviet Union”–had a strong attachment to Soviet- and Mao-style collectives that could practice large-scale mechanized farming, and fought back against the household responsibility system:

Because the problems of collective farming were so widely recognized for so long, unless the center’s preference did not differ, many provinces were willing and eager to adopt the system of household farming. If the new policy could bring about enhanced productivity and increased income, there would be little lost on the part of the provincial authorities. Furthermore, household-based experiments of the 1960s provided some assurance about the workability of the new system.

The same could not be said of a few “resisters”: Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning. The average compliance rate for these three provinces was only 26.9 percent in December 1982. Even in December 1983, the rate stood at 92.1 percent, still lower than the national average by 6.2 percent. The common factor for these Northeast provinces was a complex relationship between the size of land available to individual households, the average size of a production team, and the specific type of mechanization pursued there. Unlike elsewhere in China, the Northeast provinces had an exceptionally large plot of land for each household, which was not susceptible to manual labor or even small machinery-based mechanization.

Spread of HRS

Heilongjiang, for instance, highlighted the unique characteristics of the province as follows: “Our province has one outstanding difference from the rest of the country: our province is a region of modernized large-scale agriculture…with a mechanization level of 60 percent…. This indicates the advanced level of our production forces. Therefore, the implementation of the household responsibility systems should proceed in accordance with these local characteristics.”

Even after Central Document No. 1 [of 1982] was issued, Heilongjiang was still of the position that the scope of household-based farming was to be confined only to poor teams (accounting for 15 percent of all teams there) with low levels of mechanization and that the pace of implementation should be gradual in accordance with the principle of safeguarding local interests. Liaoning’s and Jilin’s positions differed little from that of Heilongjiang throughout 1982–1983.

Over time, Beijing came to identify the pace of local compliance with the legitimacy of the policy, thereby raising the level of urgency for the reform. Soon, Beijing put political pressure on the noncomplying provinces, starting in the second half of 1982. In July, Premier Zhao Ziyang visited Liaoning and called for an immediate popularization of the household responsibility reform in the Northeast. In August, Hu Yaobang went to Heilongjiang, where he criticized the sluggish pace of decollectivization there. In October, Du Runsheng of the Rural Development Research Center issued a stern warning: “In carrying out the household responsibility reform, we have to continue liberating our ideology and relax control…. A few regions are still unwilling to act on the demands of the masses by refusing to change the ‘one big bowl’ situation.”

Beijing’s pressure reached its apex with the speech by Wan Li, vice-premier in charge of agriculture at the National Agricultural Secretaries Conference in November. Wan remarked: “Comparatively speaking, the household responsibility reform has not been successful in all corners of our countryside. In fact, there exists certain ‘passivity’ in many areas and, in some areas, such passivity is of a very bad sort…. The implementation of contracting to the household has not been very smooth due to the obstruction on the part of some leading cadres.”

Heilongjiang and its first party secretary, Yang Yichen, did not succumb to the pressure from Beijing. One day after the publication of Wan’s speech, Yang delivered his own at the Prefecture, County and City Party Secretaries’ Work Conference: “In determining which responsibility system to implement, we have to value the opinions of the masses that will eventually choose a system on the basis of their local conditions.”

The center drew the last card: personnel reshuffle. In February 1983, Yang Yichen was transferred to Beijing as the supreme people’s procurator-general. Given that his transfer had already been decided in December 1982, Yang’s speech was apparently the last expression of his firm stance on the household responsibility reform. With Yang’s departure, Heilongjiang’s pace of implementation skyrocketed within two months, from 12 percent in December 1982 to 73 percent in February 1983. Because Yang’s successor, Li Li’an, was known to be sympathetic to the decollectivization reform, Heilongjiang’s household responsibility reform took off thereafter.

The quote is from Jae Ho Chung’s Centrifugal Empire: Central-Local Relations in China.

The topic of local resistance to reform seems timely, as it’s emerged as a persistent theme under Xi Jinping. Premier Li Keqiang made headlines in 2014 when he called local officials “passive” and “lax,” and this year Xi Jinping devoted much of a meeting of his reform task force to urging better implementation of reform plans.

The comparison with the 1980s episode helps clarify some of the differences: it doesn’t look like China is experiencing ideologically driven local opposition to specific reforms. Rather, as investigations into the resistance to reform have found, the central government is making huge numbers of contradictory demands on local officials, and then punishing them severely when things go wrong. The result is an understandable lack of willingness to take risks and make commitments, quite the opposite of the valorization of local initiative and experiments in the 1980s.

On Nightfall, What It Is, and Whether It Falls on Us

I enjoyed these passages in A. Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: Night in Times Pasta well-known and well-liked work of social history, where he describes how the term “nightfall” reveals an older way of thinking about night. Not as the absence of light, but as an actual substance descending from the sky. As he points out, “falling” is not in fact an accurate visual description of what happens at sundown:

Rather than falling, night, to the watchful eye, rises. Emerging first in the valleys, shadows slowly ascend sloping hillsides. Fading rays known as “sunsuckers” dart upward behind clouds as if being inhaled for another day. While pastures and woodlands are lost to gloom, the western sky remains aglow even as the sun draws low beneath the horizon. …

Darkness signified more than the temporary absence of light. According to popular cosmology, night actually fell each evening with the descent of noxious vapors from the sky. Night, wrote Richard Niccols in 1610, “did powre grim darknesse downe.” Kept at bay by daylight, descending mists reportedly contributed, no less than the sun’s departure, to the onset of darkness. In Herefordshire, nightfall was known as “drop night.” Some individuals described themselves “within night,” as if enveloped by a mammoth black cloud; in fact, criminal prosecutions in Scottish courts routinely referred to offenses having been committed “under cloud of night.” …

In his essay “On Nightfall, What It Is, and Whether It Falls on Us,” the sixteenth-century French physician Laurent Joubert derided popular fears… he disputed the prevailing notion that “nightfall is a certain rheumatic quality in the evening and night air that falls from the sky.” “There is no evil quality in nightfall air,” he insisted, with night itself being “nothing more than the obscurity or darkness of the air as a result of the absence of the sun.” All the same, the traditional wisdom about nightfall persisted for many years.

The idea of sixteenth-century pamphleteers duking it out over the reality of nightfall, in a sort of archaic version of internet flame wars over climate change, is somehow very pleasing.


The socialist urbanization series

In 2014, China adopted what it called a “new-style” urbanization policy. But it was more like “everything old is new again.” Rather than resetting priorities, the policy reinforced many of the existing tendencies: a desire to control and even reduce the population of the largest cities, and a preference for pushing population flows into smaller cities.

These goals are now being backed by ever more forceful measures, as the government adopts coercive methods to reduce the population of Beijing and Shanghai, and launches megaprojects to resettle people in entirely new cities. Understanding this development has been a recent obsession of mine. Here’s what I have learned so far:


Soviet urbanization was highly coercive

If there is a consensus view of the first decades of Soviet economic history, it probably goes something like this: Stalin oversaw a dramatic transformation of the Russian economy from agrarian to industrial, but at enormous and unnecessary human cost. The most famous example of his coercive policies leading to terrible human costs is probably agricultural collectivization, but in recent reading I learned that the early urbanization drive was also highly coercive.

A long 2012 report by Charles Becker, S. Joshua Mendelsohn and Kseniya Benderskaya, “Russian urbanization in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras” is a very useful overview, and touches on this question:

The magnitude of the USSR’s economic transition during the Stalin and Khrushchev eras can be difficult for outsiders to grasp: in 1928, some 75 per cent of Russia’s labour force were self-employed farmers and craftspeople, 18 per cent were manual workers, and only 3 per cent were members of a kolkhoz or cooperative. By 1939, only 3 per cent of the labour force remained as own-account farmers, while 47 per cent were members of a kolkhoz or cooperative, and 50 per cent were manual workers. …

In 1926 there were still no large regions where even one-quarter of the population was urban. … This setting changed dramatically in the next 13 years, when the USSR’s urban population as a whole rose by 119 per cent. By 1939, urbanization rates above 40 per cent were recorded in the Northwest and Russian Far East, while most other regions were between 25 and just under 40 per cent urban.


This explosive urbanization in the 1930s reflected both crash industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation, which drove many people from the land. To urbanise rapidly during a period of rural upheaval and declining productivity could occur at that time only in a command economy whose directors were willing to suppress consumption, especially by the rural population. …

It is also important to recognise than much Russian migration was not fully voluntary: studies cited by Mkrtchian (2009) suggest that ‘migration organised by the authorities’ peaked at about 40 per cent of the total in the late 1940s, and even in the late 1970s and early 1980s accounted for as much as 15 per cent of the total. A considerable but uncertain share of this organised migration involved forced labour (of political prisoners and conventional criminals). After sentences were completed, it was common to prevent convicts from returning to their original homes, forcing them to settle in remote, northern areas. …

There is more detail in the following passages from Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold:

Soviet statistics deliberately masked the fact that the achievements of the USSR’s industrialization campaign were based on slave labor. Forced labor camps in the GULAG system that exceeded 3,000 or 5,000 people (depending on location) were classified as towns. This meant that to the outside observer, regions like Siberia were experiencing unprecedented population as well as industrial growth.  In their book on prison labor in the USSR, David Dallin and Boris Nikolaevsky note that forced migration was an essential component in this population growth— underscored by the fact that the fastest urban growth was recorded in the Russian North and the Far East, where most of the labor camps were located.

Even after their release, prisoners still contributed to the population growth of regions like Siberia. On the completion of their sentences, former prisoners were given a new provisional status of “special migrant.” As such, they were legally prohibited from relocating or moving back to their original homes. Everyone who passed through the GULAG system east of the Urals became part of the “migration” wave that swept through Siberia and the Far East, whether they liked it or not.

The town of Norilsk and the giant mining company Norilsk Nickel are probably one of the most famous result of this type of forced urbanization:

Noril’sk consisted of a series of labor and construction camps that operated from June 1935 to August 1956. The early numbers of prisoners were small, around 1,200 in October 1935, but swelled to a peak of 72,500 in 1951. The camp construction brigades built the giant Noril’sk Nickel foundry, the city of Noril’sk itself, most of its basic municipal infrastructure, and other small processing factories that served Noril’sk Nickel. Camp labor extracted and processed local resources including gold, cobalt, platinum, and coal; produced cement; and provided the labor pool for a whole range of local industries.

Hill and Gaddy argue that this forced urbanization, with its concentration on populating the cold Siberian wastes, led to a city pattern that is highly costly and inefficient. And because of path dependencies–cities rarely shrink once they are established–the legacy of that forced urbanization continues to impose costs on the Russian economy.

For me, this urbanization evidence weakens the view that “Stalin killed lots of people, but at least he urbanized and industrialized the country” and gives more weight to the argument that “Stalin killed lots of people, and screwed up the industrialization process.” An excellent recent and data-driven assessment of the Stalin era, “Was Stalin Necessary for Russia’s Economic Development?” also generally supports the latter view.

Friedrich Engels is still shaping Chinese cities, 120 years after his death

In my last post I wrote about how China’s distinctive urbanization policies–capping the population of big cities and encouraging population flows to smaller and inland cities–are a holdover from the planned-economy era. In the 1950s, the new People’s Republic adopted much of the Soviet model including its urban strategy, which guaranteed good benefits to the existing residents of big cities but tried to avoid extending those benefits to many more people, instead promoting the growth of smaller urban centers.

But where does this distinctive set of ideas about the right way to organize cities come from? After doing some more reading, I have come to the conclusion that these are not just arbitrary choices of authoritarian governments, but part of the intellectual heritage of socialism itself. It goes all the way back to the founding fathers.

Marx’s collaborator and editor Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) argued that socialism should pursue not only the public ownership of the means of production, but also a significant geographical redistribution of population and industry in order to reduce their concentration in large cities. These ideas are stated most clearly in a passage from his Anti-Dühring. Although long by blog standards, I’m reproducing all of it here so that the logic of the original is not lost:

Water-power was local; steam-power is free. While water-power is necessarily rural, steam-power is by no means necessarily urban. It is capitalist utilisation which concentrates it mainly in the towns and changes factory villages into factory towns. But in so doing it at the same time undermines the conditions under which it operates. The first requirement of the steam-engine, and a main requirement of almost all branches of production in modern industry, is relatively pure water. But the factory town transforms all water into stinking manure. However much therefore urban concentration is a basic condition of capitalist production, each individual industrial capitalist is constantly striving to get away from the large towns necessarily created by this production, and to transfer his plant to the countryside. This process can be studied in detail in the textile industry districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire; modern capitalist industry is constantly bringing new large towns into being there by constant flight from the towns into the country. The situation is similar in the metal-working districts where, in part, other causes produce the same effects.

Once more, only the abolition of the capitalist character of modern industry can bring us out of this new vicious circle, can resolve this contradiction in modern industry, which is constantly reproducing itself. Only a society which makes it possible for its productive forces to dovetail harmoniously into each other on the basis of one single vast plan can allow industry to be distributed over the whole country in the way best adapted to its own development, and to the maintenance and development of the other elements of production.

Accordingly, abolition of the antithesis between town and country is not merely possible. It has become a direct necessity of industrial production itself, just as it has become a necessity of agricultural production and, besides, of public health. The present poisoning of the air, water and land can be put an end to only by the fusion of town and country; and only such fusion will change the situation of the masses now languishing in the towns, and enable their excrement to be used for the production of plants instead of for the production of disease.

Capitalist industry has already made itself relatively independent of the local limitations arising from the location of sources of the raw materials it needs. The textile industry works up, in the main, imported raw materials. Spanish iron ore is worked up in England and Germany and Spanish and South-American copper ores, in England. Every coalfield now supplies fuel to an industrial area far beyond its own borders, an area which is widening every year. Along the whole of the European coast steam-engines are driven by English and to some extent also by German and Belgian coal. Society liberated from the restrictions of capitalist production can go much further still. By generating a race of producers with an all-round development who understand the scientific basis of industrial production as a whole, and each of whom has had practical experience in a whole series of branches of production from start to finish, this society will bring into being a new productive force which will abundantly compensate for the labour required to transport raw materials and fuel from great distances.

The abolition of the separation of town and country is therefore not utopian, also, in so far as it is conditioned on the most equal distribution possible of modern industry over the whole country. It is true that in the huge towns civilisation has bequeathed us a heritage which it will take much time and trouble to get rid of. But it must and will be got rid of, however, protracted a process it may be.

This is a complex and not totally consistent set of ideas. Both Marx and Engels did on various occasions praise the intellectual and other advances that accompanied 19th century urbanization. But, as in the above passage, they also criticized environmental degradation and the living conditions of the urban proletariat. Engels saw urbanization and industrialization as a necessary part of progress, but not as the ultimate end goal. So while he did not oppose urbanization and industrialization per se, he thought they should be done differently under socialism. It’s this commitment to pushing back against the natural dynamics of urbanization that became a hallmark of socialism.

These ideas would likely have remained vague and unformed suggestions had they not been put into very forceful practice by the leadership of the Soviet Union. The following remark by Lenin in 1914 show particularly clearly how he was influenced by this strand of Engels’ thought:

Capitalism breaks for all time the ties between agriculture and industry, but at the same time, through its highest developed, it prepares new elements of those ties, a union between industry and agriculture based on the conscious application of science and the concentration of collective labor, and on a redistribution of the human population–thus putting an end both to rural backwardness, isolation and barbarism, and to the unnatural concentration of vast masses of people in big cities.

Lenin was particularly fond of talking about what Engels called the “abolition of the antithesis between town and country”. Agricultural collectivization was a big part of this concept: making agriculture more like industry, organized into big, capital-intensive state farms. The enormous suffering and dislocation that were caused by collectivization in both the Soviet Union and China are well known. But the drive for geographic redistribution of industry and the urban population is a less widely appreciated aspect of the same concept. Since cities spring up around industry, spreading industry evenly around the country also means spreading cities evenly.

The evidence for how important these ideas about geographical redistribution is less in what leaders said than in what the Soviet Union did. It did in fact pursue a massive redistribution of the population across Russia’s vast expanses, founding many new cities and attempting to limit the concentration of population in Moscow. Even today Russia and Ukraine have much less concentrated and more distributed urban populations than is the global norm:


China today has an even lower degree of urban population concentration than Russia, probably because it has been practicing socialist-style urbanization policies fairly consistently since the 1960s. Indeed, Mao followed Lenin and Stalin in being a proponent of Engels-style “equal distribution of industry.” Here is a passage from his famous 1956 speech on the economy, “On the Ten Major Relationships“:

In the past our industry was concentrated in the coastal regions. By coastal regions we mean Liaoning, Hopei, Peking, Tientsin, eastern Honan, Shantung, Anhwei, Kiangsu, Shanghai, Chekiang, Fukien, Kwangtung and Kwangsi. About 70 per cent of all our industry, both light and heavy, is to be found in the coastal regions and only 30 percent in the interior. This irrational situation is a product of history. The coastal industrial base must be put to full use, but to even out the distribution of industry as it develops we must strive to promote industry in the interior. …

It does not follow that all new factories should be built in the coastal regions. Without doubt, the greater part of the new industry should be located in the interior so that industry may gradually become evenly distributed; moreover, this will help our preparations against war. But a number of new factories and mines, even some large ones, may also be built in the coastal regions.

What scholars politely call China’s “distributed” pattern of urbanization could therefore more accurately be called the “socialist” pattern of urbanization. Given that two of the world’s largest countries have this pattern, a big chunk of the Eurasian landmass is affected. It is rather amazing that some 19th century polemics against urbanization would have such an enormous effect on the physical landscape and living conditions of hundreds of millions of people.

Is this just a costless esthetic preference for a different type of urban layout, or a more serious economic problem? I increasingly incline to the latter view. The World Bank’s unbelievably thorough Urban China report from 2014 amounts to an extended argument about the economic costs and lost opportunities resulting from a distributed urbanization policy and the limits to migration in the hukou system:

In an economic sense, these administrative barriers work like an expensive tax on migration; based on current productivity differences between agriculture and urban occupations in industry or services, every 1 percent more migration from rural to urban areas would yield 1.2 percent more GDP. At the current level of mechanization, agricultural surplus labor is estimated to be 105 million people, and this could increase as China’s agricultural modernization accelerates. If China’s migration rates had matched those of Korea’s in the past, China’s economy would be nearly 25 percent larger today.

The report argues that China does not need to particularly favor big cities, but that it should adopt neutral urbanization policies rather than continuing to try to limit overall migration and redirect population flows into smaller inland cities. But that argument has not been successful: the “new-style” urbanization plan adopted in 2014 in fact reinforced measures to restrict growth of the largest cities, in the much the same terms as in the 1950s. China is becoming more not less committed to the socialist pattern of urbanization.

In Beijing’s population cap, echoes of the Maoist and Soviet eras

One of the most visible Chinese government policies of late is the campaign to reduce the population of Beijing (and Shanghai); in order to push out migrants, their children have been expelled from local schools, and the shops and markets they work at have been demolished. Lucy Hornby at the Financial Times has a good summary:

The Chinese capital will cap its population at 23m “long-term residents” by 2020 “and keep it at that level for the long term”, a city government notice said. The permanent population of Beijing’s central districts dropped by 353,000 last year, according to municipal data released last week. The capital’s official population is now close to 22m. …

In the past two years Beijing has torn down wholesale markets and made it harder for children to attend school in order to force out migrant families. In 2016 the capital tore down 30m square metres of small shops, restaurants and fruit stands deemed “illegal construction”. It is targeting the destruction of 40m sq m this year, shrinking the land zoned for construction to 2,760 sq km by 2030 while expanding parks and gardens.


Former shops in Beijing’s Tuanjiehu neighborhood

In both the population caps and the increasingly harsh methods used to implement them, it is easy to hear echoes of the planned-economy era. In 1955, for instance, State Planning Commission chairman Li Fuchun launched China’s first five-year plan with an exhortation to control the size of large cities and shunt population elsewhere:

Our present task in urban construction is not to develop the large cities on the coast, but to develop medium and small cities in the interior and to restrict appropriately the expansion of the large cities. The present blind development of the coastal cities is a problem that has to be corrected.

60 years later, the government is still capping the growth of China’s largest cities, and Premier Li Keqiang is still saying “We will promote the development of small towns and small and medium-sized cities in the central and western regions”–a rather striking continuity.

The justifications that 1950s planners offered for controlling the growth of big cities also sound very familiar. Here is an excerpt from a 1958 article in the Workers’ Daily by one Zhao Qingwu, entitled “Why Must We Reduce Urban Population?” (translated in Christopher Howe & Kenneth R. Walker, The Foundations of the Chinese Planned Economy: A Documentary Survey, 1953-65):

Urban public communications, hotels, restaurants, department stores, hospitals, cultural establishments, and many other public places, were overcrowded and inconvenient. None of the measures proposed to alleviate this were able to keep pace with the requirements of the increased population, and this has placed a heavy burden on the cities. Moreover, since the rural population, which is blindly flowing into the cities, cannot find work, hardships easily arise in those peoples’ lives. They drift about the streets to such an extent that a minority get led astray by bad elements. They steal, swindle and engage in other criminal activities that endanger the normal social order of cities. From analysis of the above circumstances, we can see clearly that we must reduce urban population, restrict peasants from blindly flowing into the cities, and lighten the cities’ burden.

Again, the contemporary narrative about overcrowding and the “city disease” is very similar.

Chinese planners seem to have inherited this distaste for large cities from the Soviet Union, which was the direct inspiration for much of what China did in the 1950s. The following discussion is from Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold, a very interesting book on Soviet economic geography:

In addition, in the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet urban planners became concerned about the impact on the USSR of trends in the West toward increasingly large cities. They attempted to prevent the development of so-called “city-giants” by trying to cap the population of large Soviet cities at 250,000– 300,000. …

From the very beginning of the Soviet regime, state planners sought to limit Moscow’s population. The internal passport and propiska system of 1932 [a Soviet analogue to China’s hukou system] was designed not only to control internal migration in the USSR, but also to prevent a massive influx into the Russian capital. In 1935 the Communist Party Central Committee tried to cap Moscow’s population at five million, but in the aftermath of World War II, postwar reconstruction efforts drew more and more villagers from surrounding areas to Moscow.

The interesting question is why there is such a strong continuity in how Chinese officials think about cities, since so much else has changed in China. For instance, one of the planned-economy justifications for controlling urban populations was that it was necessary to economize on “unproductive” investment in housing in order to put more money into heavy industry. Contemporary China has if anything completely reversed this logic, going to ever greater lengths to continue high levels of investment in housing. But it is still trying to “economize” on urbanization by limiting access to the higher-quality and more-expensive social services offered to residents of the big cities.

The decision to cap the population of Beijing and Shanghai also shows a very clear judgment that the potential decrease in welfare of existing residents (through crowding and congestion) is more important than the potential increase in welfare of new migrants (through higher incomes). The government thinks it should provide more amenities to the extremely well-off residents of megacities rather than allow more people to become well-off residents of megacities.

Such a deeply inegalitarian value judgment is embedded in China’s hukou system, which divides the population into groups with different rights and privileges. Increasingly the hukou system is not just enforcing a division between urban and rural people, but between different tiers of urban people. Here is a passage from “The Origins and Social Consequences of China’s Hukou System,” a 1994 article by Tiejun Cheng and Mark Selden, that I found enlightening:

Throughout the People’s Republic policymakers have consistently assumed both that the countryside could absorb virtually unlimited supplies of labour, and that feeding the rural population was the responsibility of each locality. The administrative and welfare responsibilities of the state would in essence be confined to the small minority of the population living in urban areas. One reason for this hypersensitivity to urban problems is the fact that the new state accepted more or less axiomatically from the start (presumably derived from Soviet practice) a responsibility that no previous Chinese state had ever assumed: to provide jobs and subsidized food and housing for all urban residents.

While the planned economy that guaranteed jobs and housing for all urban residents may be gone, it seems that some of the underlying political assumptions–that the state should look after the welfare of some urban residents first–still remain.

“Impatient with ordinary sunsets”: Eve Babitz’s one-liners

Winning the award for the book most unlike what I usually read is Eve Babitz’s Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A.a sort of impressionistic mini-memoir of Los Angeles in the early 1970s. I can’t say that I had a particular interest in Hollywood party people before picking it up, but it sucked me in nonetheless, mainly because she is such a brilliant writer. One example:

A long time ago my mother and I were driving to a wedding. I had been engaged to both the groom and the best man at one time or another. I was twenty-three, a clerk-typist by day and a groupie- adventuress prowling the hot Sunset Strip at night. I’d broken off with both of those guys because I was impatient with ordinary sunsets; I was sure that somewhere a grandiose carnival was going on in the sky and I was missing it. But still, it made me feel funny having those guys slip away like that.

“Impatient with ordinary sunsets” is just a wonderful turn of phrase.

Once I start excerpting it’s hard to stop, so I’ll confine myself to one of her classic one-liners:

She was an actress, and like all actresses, she was only real when she was pretending.

OK, one more, just because:

Art is supposed to uphold standards of organization and structure, but you can’t have those things in Southern California—people have tried.

The general theme is that Babitz works very hard to seem superficial while actually cutting to the chase.