- Kim Kashkashian – J.S. Bach: Six Suites For Viola Solo. This adaption of Bach’s cello suites for the viola is beautifully played, and succeeded in making me hear these classic pieces differently.
- Art Ensemble of Chicago – We Are On The Edge. Like basically every Art Ensemble album, their 50th anniversary celebration is a pretty mixed bag–but the high points are indeed very high, and the recording is gorgeously clear. The two surviving founding members have gathered a huge cast of Chicago jazz stars around them, making for a very different sound than their past recordings (the string players in particular stand out).
- Jackie McLean – Action. One of a series of outstanding albums the great vibes player Bobby Hutcherson (RIP) made for Blue Note in the 1960s, in groups variously led by himself, the trombonist Grachan Moncur III, and alto player McLean. All of the albums are worth hearing, this one is especially fine.
- Espen Aalberg – Basement Sessions Vol. 4 (The Bali Tapes). These joyful jam sessions, led by the Norwegian drummer Aalberg, hark back to the enthusiasm for world music that swept the jazz world in the 1960 and 70s. A worthy addition to the very short list of attempts at jazz-gamelan fusion.
- Masada String Trio – The Circle Maker. John Zorn’s decades-long Masada project produced both a distinctive set of themes for jazz improvisation, and distinctive ensembles to play them. The unique sound of the Masada String Trio–violin, cello, bass–is perhaps the best match of ensemble with this “radical Jewish” repertory. I’ve been listening to all of their recordings again recently, and this may be the most consistent.
This is my second Chinese epidemic. In 2003, I was living in Beijing when the SARS outbreak happened, and in 2020, I was in Heilongjiang province visiting family for the holidays when the coronavirus outbreak went national. As we watched the streets empty and facemasks become obligatory, the sense of SARS deja vu was very strong: here we go again.
As the days went on, and we struggled to make our way across the northeast back to Beijing and back to the US, it became clear that this in fact was not SARS all over again. The government’s response has been much more heavy-handed and extreme: it has locked down cities and closed businesses across the country to stop the spread of a virus that, on all the evidence, is much less dangerous to human life than SARS.
The proliferation of guards and barriers everywhere, the ostentatious temperature-checking in public places–all recall the “security theater” that enveloped the US in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (the term was apparently coined by security expert Bruce Schneier, and popularized by James Fallows). Who really knows if all these procedures help, but they make us feel safer, so we have to do them. The historian Maura Cunningham dubbed China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak “quarantine theater“.
But I feel there is more going on here than the usual human overreaction in the face of crisis. The commands cascading down the chain of the Chinese government, from Xi Jinping’s meetings of the Politburo Standing Committee down to the management of individual city districts and even individual residential compounds, are not simply technical public health measures. They are the product of a mindset that perceives the virus outbreak as a challenge to the power and authority of the Chinese party-state, to which the only appropriate response is to demonstrate that the Chinese party-state indeed has the power and authority to overcome it. As Xi Jinping himself declared, the outbreak is “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.”
No global public health expert advised locking down the city of Wuhan, or forbidding people to leave their homes even in other cities with very few cases. Indeed some experts think the whole focus on drastic measures to stop the spread of infection is misguided. So there is clearly an element of theater, of performance for the public, in China’s response, but the theme of this theater is not so much security or health as it is state power. By its overwhelming response and massive disruption of everyday life, the Chinese party-state is showing just how much power it has, and that this power is being used to stop a feared enemy.
The leaders of the Chinese party-state believes their distinctive version of socialism is superior, and that this superiority consists of an ability to exercise state power more forcefully and effectively than other governments. What then-Premier Wen Jiabao in 2010 called “the incomparable superiority of the socialist system” manifests itself in the Chinese government’s ability to “make decisions efficiently, organize effectively, and concentrate resources to accomplish large undertakings.” (I chose a quote from Wen rather than Xi Jinping to make the point that this kind of thinking is a characteristic of the Chinese leadership as a whole, rather than Xi personally.) Therefore the instinctive response to any challenge to China’s “capacity for governance” is precisely to demonstrate this forcefulness, this effectiveness, this capacity for doing big things.
In my experience at least, many Chinese people do find the theater of state power reassuring rather than threatening. The Western media, which is ideologically predisposed to look for discontent with authoritarian rule, has unsurprisingly emphasized the doubts and worries among the public about the handling of the outbreak. But much of this public discontent in fact reveals how effective the theater of state power actually is. Most of the complaints are about how the promise of all-encompassing and effective state power has failed to be achieved in every instance: the fact that the government has not, for instance, somehow been able to instantaneously supply everyone in the country with facemasks every day.
Fewer people question the premise that the handling of epidemic disease should be an occasion for the overwhelming display of state power. While worries over the economic impact of the unprecedented closures are certainly growing, the central leadership is already painting the most extreme measures as misguided efforts of local officials that will be corrected.
Ultimately, I suspect the coronavirus outbreak will go down in official history as another victory for Chinese state power–just as the response to SARS did, or the relief effort for the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. The outbreak is very likely to burn itself out eventually as rising outside temperatures and humidity decrease the viability of the virus (the same reason that flu season naturally ends in the spring). When that happens, you can be sure that the propaganda machine will give full credit to the efforts of the government.
One thing that the China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has conclusively demonstrated is that the Chinese state is in fact more powerful, more effective, and more organized than it was in 2003. Its response to this outbreak is more forceful than the response to SARS because, in part, it can be.
I feel like this increase in state power should be a bigger part of the standard narrative of how China has changed over the past two decades than it now is. (In this regard I must recommend Xu Jilin’s brilliant 2011 essay “The Specter of Leviathan: A Critique of Chinese Statism since 2000” as an indispensable piece of intellectual history; it is available to English readers thanks to David Ownby’s translation in Rethinking China’s Rise: A Liberal Critique). What it not yet so clear is whether the Chinese state is getting better at deploying that power in service of the public interest.
Ideological struggle in China is not dead, only hidden. That is perhaps the shortest possible summary of Jude Blanchette’s lively intellectual history of China’s neo-Maoist movement, China’s New Red Guards. He aims to demolish the simplistic idea that China’s populace has agreed not to ask political questions in exchange for economic prosperity, and show how fierce debate over ideas has been a consistent feature of Chinese political life even after the death of the Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution.
His book contains a lot of fascinating and little-known history, starting with the left-wing criticisms of the renewed economic reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin in 1992. Those critics were quickly muzzled, but they sowed the seeds for what would become, in the late 1990s and mid-2000s, a lively intellectual movement that challenged China’s government for not being socialist enough. Blanchette vividly captures the ferment of the period. A particular highlight is his account of the public furor that a few clever intellectuals stoked with allegations of corruption in privatization of state firms, which led the government to ban management buyouts of SOEs. The substantive and symbolic victories for leftists accumulated even faster after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, and at times the neo-Maoists can barely contain their glee. One of the most striking passages comes toward the end:
“We won,” the nationalist writer Wang Xiaodong told me. “Maybe I didn’t win personally, but our ideas won.” Looking at the policies Xi adopted in his first five years in power, Wang saw much to commend. China had moved away from relying on the market to allocate resources, it had reversed what he saw as a decade-long trend of restricting the growth of China’s state sector, and the party was now embracing the idea of “national champion” firms serving China Inc. “The state of SOEs today is strong, roughly what I called for in the 1990s,” Wang said. “My position has basically been realized.”
It is tempting to read Blanchette’s book as a narrative arc in which the leftists move from despair in the 1990s to triumph in the 2010s. The structure of the book encourages this reading, as does the fact that it is often written from the perspective of the neo-Maoists themselves.
That would not be correct. It is hard to say the neo-Maoists have triumphed when they are still regularly censored and when Xi is still pursuing “rightist” policies like opening up China’s stock markets to more foreign investment (Wang Xiaodong’s victory lap is also from the perspective of a strong-state nationalist; he is not really a neo-Maoist). Blanchette makes this quite clear from the start, pointing out that the government is happy to use neo-Maoists as internet attack dogs when they serve its purposes, and happy to shut them up when they are not.
In short, Xi Jinping is in control of the neo-Maoists, not the other way around. Indeed, the neo-Maoists are well past their prime: they thrived in the more unfettered online environment of a decade ago, and like other schools of thought they now have very little space for open discussion. There is no longer any serious battle of ideas in public. So the story of ideological struggle in China over the past decade is not exactly one of the triumph of a fringe leftist intellectual movement. Rather, it is really the story of the triumph of Xi Jinping, who has imposed an increasingly stifling uniformity on the intellectual sphere. Like it or not, understanding the intellectual world of China today requires grasping Xi’s ideology.
While Xi is proficient at delivering “dog whistles” that excite the neo-Maoists, he is not one of them. Rather, his ideology draws on multiple sources, as the excellent book Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping, by the French journalist François Bougon, makes clear. Bougon seems to have constructed his short and vividly written book through the simple strategy of reading a lot of Xi Jinping’s speeches and articles, and taking them seriously. By tracking down Xi’s various inspirations, he provides a more comprehensive overview of the important strands in China’s intellectual scene over the last couple of decades.
In addition to the neo-Maoists, these include the so-called “New Left” and “Neo-Authoritarian” thinkers, who tend to endorse nationalism and a strong state but without following the neo-Maoists into nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution. The most important of these is undoubtedly Wang Huning, a law professor from Shanghai who advised many previous leaders and has now been elevated to the ruling Politburo Standing Committee. Wang is credited with helping former leader Jiang Zemin draft his “Three Represents” policy that led to the admission of private entrepreneurs to the Communist Party–a decision seen as a disastrous mistake by the neo-Maoists. If someone were to write a book profiling the neo-authoritarians, Wang’s rise to top echelons of power would surely also deserve a “we won” moment.
Xi also regularly cites classical Chinese sources, including those from the schools of Daoism, Legalism and Confucianism. In doing this he of course he goes very much against the example of Mao, who wanted to expunge Confucius and other feudal remnants from modern China. The revival of traditional culture is another important recent intellectual movement in China, and one with wide influence and popular appeal. Bougon observes that “the alliance of Confucianism and Marxism…defies logic to an outside observer.” But to an insider, the political logic is quite clear: Confucianism and Marxism are in different ways both sources of national pride for China, and a nationalist government should harness them both.
Bougon perceptively argues that Xi’s ideology is ultimately an attempt to combine three distinct traditions: the socialist tradition originating with Mao; the heritage of Chinese traditional culture; and the prosperity-focused reformist tradition of Deng Xiaoping. All three traditions have appeal in today’s China, and attempting to combine them is not an original strategy. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao also tried to merge invocations of traditional culture with appeals to both socialism and economic modernization. Xi’s political skill is demonstrated by how he can better command support from adherents of all three traditions, and by how he has more convincingly combined these threads into a ruling ideology.
One of the best examples of the daring and verve of Xi’s intellectual fusion is one of his very first speeches, given on January 5, 2013 but not published until some time afterward (you can read Tanner Greer’s translation of the whole thing, or my translation of the key passages). This speech has become famous for its insistence on the equal status of China’s “two historical periods”: the 1949-78 period of socialism, and the post-1978 period of reform. Xi argued that “these two periods are not separate from each other, and are not at all fundamentally opposed” and that neither period can be used to “deny” or “repudiate” the other. Many people initially took this as a sign that Xi wanted to reverse economic reforms and bring back Maoism. In fact, as Bougon explains, it was political triangulation, Chinese-style:
He calls for a synthesis of the two first eras of the regime, the Mao era and the post-Mao era—between the Revolution, and ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’. He wants to perpetuate a form of capitalism that is under the aegis of the Party, as imagined by Deng Xiaoping—even if this involves glossing over the Party’s blunders under the rule of Comrade Mao.
In political terms, this meant that Xi struck a blow to both the left and the right. … It is also absolutely forbidden, therefore, to use one past to spite the other; to invoke Mao against opening up, or to criticise Mao in the name of opening up.
In this speech, Xi rejected the liberals’ call for jettisoning Mao–but he also rejected the neo-Maoists’ call for a reversal of economic reforms. In my view, this political synthesis is in the end not so different from the one imposed by Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin in the 1990s. Jiang made it clear that conservatives nostalgic for the 1950s would not be allowed to stop economic development, and that liberals sympathetic to the 1989 protesters would not be allowed to erode Party rule. Despite a lot of twists and turns since then, China’s ruling ideas in some ways have not changed very much.
China’s car industry seems to defy the logic of specialization. The industry had its origins in two big state-owned facilities founded decades ago: First Automotive Works, based in Changchun, Jilin province, and Second Automotive Works, based in Wuhan, Hubei province. Now known as FAW Group Corp. and Dongfeng Motor Corp., their corporate successors are still among China’s leading automakers. But auto production has spread far from its original locations: Guangdong and Shanghai are now the leading producers, and in fact most of China’s 31 provinces produce at least some cars. Rather than clustering in a few specialized regions, auto production is spread across the whole country.
This pattern holds true for many other industries, from steel to solar panels, and has long been seen as a sign of how China’s peculiar institutions distort market forces. From the Maoist push for local self-sufficiency in the 1960-70s to local protectionism and the debt-driven drive for growth in later decades, political pressures are seen as having led to unnecessary and duplicate investments across regions. As Ronald Coase and Ning Wang write in their 2012 book How China Became Capitalist:
Through specialization and trade, any specific industry will be concentrated in a few areas and different areas will specialize in supplying different products in accordance with their particular advantages. As a result, the fact that many regions in China make duplicative investments in the same industry is taken as unambiguous evidence of the presence of policy distortions in the economy, contradicting the economic logic of specialization and trade.
There are many interesting things about their book, starting with its authorship: Coase was over 100 years old at the time of its publication, and it was his last major work before his death in 2013. Rather than a theoretical treatise, most of the book is a quite detailed historical account of Chinese economic policymaking based on primary sources in Chinese. It is distinguished from more standard accounts both by its factual narrative, which de-emphasizes the role of Deng Xiaoping and emphasizes the contributions of local figures and other leaders, and by how it places these those developments in a clear analytical framework.
Their discussion of the pattern of duplicative investment across regions is the occasion for one of the more interesting and unconventional arguments in the book: that these seemingly superfluous investments are actually a sign of regional competition, and that this regional competition is an important motor of China’s economic development. The fact that every locality in China seems to want a car plant and a steel plant is not, on their argument, a sign that Maoist self-sufficiency still holds sway in China, but an indication that every locality can now participate in a unified national market. The competition among regions may seem wasteful from the perspective of returns on capital invested, but it has benefits to human capital and overall development:
Without some degree of duplicative investment across regions, it would be impossible to allow regions to compete with each other head-on. If we view the development of a market economy as an open learning process, in which economic actors must figure out what to produce and how to organize the production, some “waste” in duplicative investment on the part of firms is inevitable.
While duplicative investment has led to the underutilization of physical capital, it has at the same time helped to spread manufacturing technologies and significantly improve workers’ skills all over China. The gains in human capital outweigh the losses from the underutilization of physical capital. From a different angle, the repetitive and duplicative investment across China can be seen as an effective mechanism of social learning: quickly spreading industrialization to a largely agrarian economy.
This is an interesting and persuasive argument. China does have many patterns that tend to look bad at the firm level but are good at driving overall economic development–a distinction that Coase and Wang refer to using Alfred Marshall’s distinction between “internal economies” (within the firm) and “external economies.”
But I wonder whether this is another example of an argument that works for one phase of China’s development, and not for all. The narrative of events in their book mostly ends in the late 1990s, and does not deal with post-2008 events at all. The patterns of local government-led investment in China has changed substantially with the explosion of debt-driven infrastructure projects since 2008. The dynamics of elite politics and policymaking are also quite different these days, and have lost many of the positive features that Coase and Wang highlight. It is not a given that gains to human capital will always outweigh losses on physical capital, and the balance may have shifted by now.
I listened to over 250 new recordings this year–new to me, that is, not necessarily newly released in 2019. This is a highly subjective list of the ones that really stood out, in alphabetical order:
- Joshua Abrams – Mandatory Reality. Long, gorgeous, slow pieces from a large ensemble, mixing jazz improvisation with African drones and minimalist patterns.
- Don Byas – Giants of the Tenor Sax. Byas bridged the swing and bop eras, and his style on tenor sax marries the best of both eras: a gorgeous tone and great invention. This out-of-print CD is the only place I have found all of Byas’ legendary 1945 duets with bassist Slam Stewart; his other work is available on various anthologies.
- Bill Dixon – Intents and Purposes and Tapestries For Small Orchestra. These two suites, from 1967 and 2009, bookend Dixon’s long career. Although he gets amazing sounds out of his trumpet, Dixon is also a composer of genius, creating complex moody soundscapes that are like nothing else in jazz.
- Gamelan Pacifica – Nourishment. The Seattle-based gamelan ensemble’s 1994 recording Trance Gong was a landmark in combining Indonesian modernism with American new music; this 2015 disc has more excellent and intriguing work.
- Charlie Haden – The Ballad of the Fallen and Not In Our Name. Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra is a famous piece of radical 1960s jazz, but these two follow-up albums are even better: true classics of large-ensemble writing. Carla Bley’s arrangements and clever transformations of classical and Latin American sources are the highlight.
- Keith Hudson – Playing It Cool. Dark, rhythmic dub experiments from 1981. Almost everything I’ve heard by Hudson is essential: funky and strange in equal measures.
- Frank Kimbrough – Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk. All 70 Monk compositions are given full and respectful readings by a jazz quartet. Kimbrough’s clever arrangements and Scott Robinson’s promiscuous multi-instrumentalism ensure variety.
- Lee Konitz – The Lee Konitz Duets. A startlingly original and diverse recording that matches Konitz up with several different partners. It still sounds completely fresh 50 years later.
- Warne Marsh – Ne Plus Ultra. A masterpiece of jazz counterpoint. I’ve always loved Marsh’s ability to play off other horn players, and this pianoless quartet recording from 1969 has beautiful interaction between Marsh and altoist Gary Foster.
- Myra Melford – Snowy Egret. Melford’s compositions take many surprising turns while remaining very listenable. Another great bunch of contemporary jazz compositions is played by a similar lineup of trumpet, guitar, piano, bass and drums on Jonathan Finlayson’s Moving Still.
- Paul Motian – On Broadway Vol. 1,2,3,4,5. Motian’s transformations of the old warhorses are startling and beautiful. Altogether a major musical accomplishment by one of the most distinctive drummers in jazz.
- Herbie Nichols – Herbie Nichols Trio and Love, Gloom, Cash, Love. I am late in discovering these classics, but not too late, thankfully. Every one of Nichols’ tunes is a gem. All of Nichols’ too-scarce recordings are also available on this compilation, and Ethan Iverson’s appreciation is a good listeners’ guide.
- The Savory Collection 1935-1940 – A huge pile of great jazz from the swing era, most of it unheard since it was first broadcast on the radio.
In September 2001, when he was still merely the governor of Fujian province, Xi Jinping published an article on development economics in the journal of the Fujian Academy of Social Sciences. This is not perhaps as unusual as it might sound: Chinese leaders are expected to be scholars as well, and to make their own contributions to Marxist-Leninist ideology. The article has recently been recirculated on the Chinese internet, and makes for fascinating reading.
The General Secretary has never been a specialist in economic policy, and these days appears to spend most of his time on foreign affairs, the military, and ideology. But he clearly does have views on the economy, and this piece gives us a glimpse of their foundations. Xi seems to be a very consistent thinker: many of the key elements of later policy and rhetoric are already apparent in this early work. The most fundamental of these is that China is essentially different from the West, a difference that has deep roots in both Chinese traditional culture and the post-1949 socialist system.
The article is titled “Development Economics And Developing Economies: On The Theoretical Lessons From Development Economics For Developing A Socialist Market Economy” (the Chinese citation is 习近平, “发展经济学与发展中国家的经济发展—兼论发展社会主义市场经济对发展经济学的理论借鉴” 福建论坛 (经济社会版) 2001年09期4-9). While Xi praises development economists for paying attention to real problems and making progress in understanding them, his overall take on the field is not hugely positive:
Although development economics has developed into one of the newest, most exciting and most challenging branches in the field of contemporary economics, on the whole it has not achieved the status of a mature and perfected scientific discipline, and still has some obvious defects.
Many development economists use a large number of hypothetical assumptions in their research, allowing them to derive conclusions by assuming what they wish to be true. …It is incomprehensible that although some people already know that it is incorrect to assume that the market economy of developing countries is mature, complete and unified, they are still eager to use a theory derived from this incorrect assumption to guide practice.
This is…not all that wrong. Xi sees that development economics as a discipline was largely created by Western economists using their own economies as a model, rather than being an indigenous creation of developing economies. This history supports his view that development economics has rarely been able to successfully prescribe a course of action that would allow developing nations “to raise their overall national strength and throw off the control of Western developed economies.” Nonetheless he recognizes that in more recent decades, development economics has gone through a process of self-reflection and correction, and has come to a “deeper understanding” of the problems of developing countries. And he does think it has come up with some useful insights, the most important of which is the following:
Economic development cannot be simply equated with industrialization and the growth of gross national product or national income: economic development is not equivalent to economic growth, but includes economic growth. …Economic development refers to a level of social development, that is, a process of economic growth that is accompanied by changes in economic structure, society and the political system. It includes growth in output, changes in the structure of output and income, and change and development of economic conditions, political conditions and cultural conditions.
Almost two decades after writing this piece, Xi would put this idea into practice. In his report to the Nineteenth Party Congress in 2017, Xi broke with the practice of his predecessors and declared that the “principal contradiction,” in Marxist jargon, was no longer how to meet the Chinese people’s material needs, but instead how to meet their desire for a “better life.” This broader concept encompasses social, cultural and environmental factors, and is as much about quality as quantity. While bound by his predecessors’ promise to double China’s per-capita GDP by 2020, Xi reinforced the shift by not setting a new goal for GDP after that. And indeed since Xi’s speech, it has become quite clear that goals for economic growth, while far from being ignored, no longer trump all other policy aims.
Yet aside from the important idea of development as a multidimensional rather than solely economic process, Xi does not not actually seem to find much of value in development economics. Much of his article is devoted to undermining the premise of the title: although he says that China needs to make use of theoretical tools to plan its development, he does not think that it can directly apply insights from this academic discipline. Theoretical ideas from abroad are only useful after they have been adapted to Chinese conditions. This discussion is worth quoting at length:
China is a socialist country, and the market economy we are building and developing is a socialist market economy. There is an essential difference between the socialist market economy and the capitalist market economy. This is that the socialist market economy is an organic combination of the basic socialist system and the management system of the market economy: it is using the means of the market economy to develop the basic system of socialism. The relationship between the two is that socialism is the foundation, the basis. Therefore the essential difference between the socialist market economy and the capitalist market economy is that the basic social system is different.
Since development economics was born in Western developed countries, its theoretical basis is bourgeois economics. Its purpose is to use the market economy to develop capitalism in developing countries. This value orientation runs through all the research and practice of development economics, which makes some of its theories not suitable for guiding the development practice of the socialist market economy.
For example, the catch-up strategy based on the model of Western developed capitalist countries, the radical “shock therapy” reform based on the premise of changing socialist public ownership, and the so-called international economic integration theory that completely accepts the rules of the game of Western monopoly capital, and so on, are not suitable for China’s specific situation.
Using a Chinese idiom, Xi sums up his argument by saying that the “shoes” of development economics should be cut to fit the “feet” of socialism, and that socialism cannot be cut to fit the ideas of Western development economics. Since the “basic socialist system” means the rule of the Communist Party, this means that economic reforms cannot be allowed to challenge the nation’s political framework.
More generally, Xi clearly believes that the economic ideas and practices of the West are based on its particular interests, rather than being based on universal values or truths. They do not automatically have any validity outside of the context in which they were created. China can and should study these ideas, because it should try to learn from the experiences of all human civilization. But ultimately these are just raw material that China will use to learn its own lessons and find its own way:
In our building and developing of the socialist market economy, we must be good at absorbing nutrition from the independent discipline of Western development economics, study and learn from its useful results, use them to guide our practice, and combine them with our own explorations to establish a socialist development economics.
All told, this article could not be a clearer statement of the view that China’s model will not and cannot converge with that of Western developed countries. And Xi had all this worked out all the way back in 2001, at the height of the euphoria surrounding China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and its integration with the global economy. You can’t say he didn’t warn us.
This is now the eighth year in which I’ve written up my favorite reading (see links below for previous installments), and every year it ends up being one of the things I most enjoy writing. 2019 is no exception: I have lots of good books to share. Since there isn’t a good way to rank books I like, the lists are in alphabetical order by author:
- Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea. Though usually described as a memoir, this book could not be more different from the personal confessions that lately typify the genre. Instead, it is a lovely set of interconnected essays about nautical life, and more fundamentally about the joys of craft and profession. I also enjoyed another classic 19th-century nautical memoir, Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, which has some amazing moments although also many longueurs.
- Fuschia Dunlop, Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking. I enjoyed Chinese food for years, but it was not until I ate at home with my Chinese family that I really got it. This book captures that delightful hidden culture: not just cooking techniques, but a whole way of eating and structuring meals. I did not know recipes could be beautifully written, but hers are: concise, precise, poetic. And every one has been a hit in my house.
- Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States. The United States is not quite accurately named. The country is composed of states, but not only states: there are also various territories and possessions, and also, at one point, colonies. Immerwahr’s history of the US from the perspective of its margins is eye-opening, and includes not only lots of little-known information but much fascinating analysis of foreign policy, war, and even technology. A further appreciation is here.
- Timothy Larsen, The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith. As an undergraduate in anthropology, my intellectual heroes were the British social anthropologists of the mid-twentieth century. They combined deep immersion in empirical research with systematizing intellectual ambition in a way that few social scientists have since matched. Larsen’s lively intellectual history of the period brings their debates and ambitions to life, and his focus on religion is unusual and illuminating. I wrote more about this book in my post “Atheism and the objective understanding of society.”
- Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet. An overstuffed masterpiece from the brilliant science writer. I couldn’t believe how ambitious Mann’s structure was, combining a dual biography with in-depth discussions of technical issues in agriculture, energy and climate change, but somehow he pulls it off.
- Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness and Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales. My favorite parts of these posthumously-published essay collections are Sacks’ pieces on the history of science, which are some of the best I have ever read. Sacks beautifully conveys his deep and affectionate engagement with a tradition of intellectual inquiry stretching back to Freud, Darwin, Davy, and others. I wrote more here.
- Christina Thompson, Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. How did humans come to settle all those tiny islands scattered across the Pacific? Just as interesting as the answer to this question is how the answer was arrived at. Thompson’s fascinating book is a great example of how effective it is to approach a question historically.
- Ted Chiang, Exhalation. The second collection of mind-bending and heart-rending vignettes from the master of the science-fiction short story. Perhaps not quite at the exalted level of Stories of Your Life and Others, but still very good.
- Tom Franklin, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. A pitch-perfect evocation of growing up in the Deep South in the 1970s. That is where and when I grew up, and I can tell you that Franklin gets every detail exactly right. Oh, but technically it’s a murder mystery.
- W. Somerset Maugham, Ashenden, or the British Agent. One of the very first portrayals of espionage in fiction (from 1929), and still one of the best. I pulled this one from Ethan Iverson’s amazing list of recommended crime, detective and spy fiction; another very good one from his list is Brian Garland’s Hopscotch.
- Daniel Mason, The Winter Soldier. A startlingly vivid portrayal of a young Polish doctor’s travails in the Great War, emotionally wrenching and free of cliché.
- Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. A dreamlike piece of historical fiction following a traumatized soldier’s search for normalcy after his return from the Napoleonic Wars.
- Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha (translated by Lisa Hayden). The best novel I read this year: huge, engrossing, enthralling. Winner of multiple prizes in its Russian original, its appearance in English translation should also be a major literary event.