Enough Human Misery, Let’s Talk about Some Recent Books
The books, in fairness, often concern human misery.
I’M GOING TO BE REAL WITH YOU: reporting on things like Majid Khan’s torture takes a toll on my mental health. There was a long time—really a very long time—when I denied it or considered it a mark of weakness. Robert Fisk once wrote that he cringed “each time someone wants to psycho-babble about the ‘trauma’ of covering wars, the need to obtain ‘counselling’ for us well-paid scribes that we may be able to ‘come to terms’ with what we have seen.” It took Michelle Shephard convincing me to attend a screener/discussion of Under Fire: Journalists in Combat at the Half King of blessed memory before I allowed myself to think I had the right to feel bad about bearing witness to human horror. I still hear Fisk’s cringe in my head—and his observation that those who are made to endure the wars we witness rarely get to have therapy—but now I talk it through with a professional.
So we’re going to take a breather with this post. Chances are you don’t want to read a non-stop chronicle of the worst that humanity has to offer, either. Let’s decompress with a few good books.
AT ANY GIVEN TIME, I’m reading five or six books. When reading any one of them feels like a chore, I put it down and switch to something that better fits my mood or my curiosity. Reading in a linear fashion, I’ve come to realize, makes me enjoy my favorite activity less.
Inevitably, I get something like 75-100 pages into several books that I don’t finish. But why slog through something unsatisfying when there are more books than any of us could ever possibly read? Still, it’s a struggle for me not to think that putting a book down is a dereliction. Just this weekend I had to give myself permission to return some library books that I reluctantly admitted I wouldn’t be able to read for several months owing to the stack I’ve already piled. The majesty of the library is that the books are going to be waiting for us when we are ready to read them. Better for now that Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Race for Profit: How Banks and The Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership be read by someone else in the Hold queue.
Here are six books I’ve read in the past few months that I think are worth your time. Please note that I’m not including two of the best books I’ve read in 2021—The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins and Overheated by Kate Aronoff—because I discussed them on Ezra Klein’s podcast. You should definitely read those, and The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr., one of the best novels I’ve ever, ever read (but also one about which I would have to write a longer essay than I can summon the energy for). I’m also going to fight the impulse to talk about thus-far-excellent books I haven’t yet finished, like Concepcion by Albert Samaha, the forthcoming Gangsters of Capitalism by Jonathan Katz, and my first-ever Orhan Pamuk novel, My Name Is Red. (Read 25-30 pages of that and tell me Pamuk isn’t one of the greatest novelists of all time. I’m resolved to be an Orhan Pamuk Guy, and my wife’s copy of Snow beckons.) Let’s not try to do too much here.
AFTER NATIONALISM: BEING AMERICAN IN AN AGE OF DIVISION by Samuel Goldman. Sam is probably the leading rigorous polemicist on the American right in 2021. I knew it would happen, because we’ve been friends for 25 years—we’re products of the tri-state area punk and hardcore scenes; more on that below—and I’ve watched him grow into his voice. His project in After Nationalism, a slim volume concealing great ambition, is to mitigate our current political and social fragmentation through exploring competing conceptions of America—America-as-covenant; America-as-creed; America-as-crucible—that operate as the shifting tectonic plates beneath these clashes. Two things distinguishing Sam’s book are that he doesn’t elide or explain away the American racial caste system, instead using it to puncture lazy myths about paths to American cohesion and the paths to it; and, relatedly, he considers America’s consistent patterns of bellicosity to be meaningful. He does not provide the standard treatment of violence as peripheral to the real business of America.
By “after nationalism,” Sam is riffing off of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue—I can remember Sam talking about that book in one of the apartments we shared at Rutgers—to observe that “our public discourse is characterized by appeals to various and potentially incompatible conceptions of the nation.” He’s alarmed at where that incompatibility can lead, and ends up arguing for “constitutionalism, the rule of law and civic equality” as a “high-stakes bet that we can get along after nationalism.” Sam doesn’t consider it to be a breakthrough fix, only the least problematic option available, and his candor about its limitations is refreshing.
Appropriately for a book about the difficulty of cohesion, you’re not going to agree with everything Sam focuses on or doesn’t, nor with everything he contends. However you approach his project, you’ll learn things about America, particularly from the way he weaves together literary and cultural traditions to give the book a timelessness that most polemics can’t attain. Americans may be eternally quarrelsome, but surely we can agree that Sam is selling punk rock out every day he doesn’t get covenant.creed.crucible. tattooed on him Unbroken-style.
WHAT STRANGE PARADISE by Omar El Akkad. If you listen to that episode of Ezra’s podcast, you’ll hear me say that American War is the greatest novel to emerge from the 9/11 Era thus far. If American War imagined a horrifying but familiar future as a way to expose what the Forever Wars are at their heart, What Strange Paradise is happening right now, as a ship of smuggled refugees capsizes in the Mediterranean and washes a young boy, Amir, ashore on a Greek island.