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A Novel
Marlon James
read on December 24, 2020

I made it halfway through this before calling it. The half I read wasn't bad, per say, it just has a terribly steep learning curve. The book follows maybe ~10ish main characters, and each chapter is told from their first person perspective. Most of the stories don't directly relate to one another, at least for the first quarter of the book or so, and so every single chapter is like starting anew. Additionally, the writing style isn't very expository - it's the kind of book that just drops you into the action, and you need to figure out the context and history yourself, which is generally fine but harder to do when you're mentally juggling 10 different characters. Add to that that most of the characters are Jamaican, and written using borderline nonsensically heavy accents. I often had to re-read sentences several times to even figure out what what trying to be said.

Anyway - the first 20% of the book was a hard slog. I had started it earlier in the year and bailed because it was so slow-going. I picked it back up in December and made good progress. By the halfway point I had all the characters pretty well figured out, and was making good progress with the accents. But then I hit Part II, where all new characters are introduced, and the whole learning curve started over, and I just didn't have the patience for it again. This might be a great book, I'd certainly believe anyone who said they loved it. But you really need to fight for it and I didn't have it in me.

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Maria Popova
read on December 31, 2020

I've known about Brain Pickings for a very long time, well over a decade. I've occasionally dipped in and out, but never been a frequent reader of the blog. I'm not certain why, possibly because it was so overwhelmingly well done that it's intimidating just to read. When I read a book, I may have a couple disjointed thoughts about it. But when Maria Popova reads a book, she writes incredible essays about them, often illustrated, and always linking heavily to other contextual items - contemporary or adjacent works - that she's read and reviewed before. Reading Brain Pickings makes me feel like a bad reader myself. That said, Brain Pickings is easily the single biggest influence I had on making this site. The platonic ideal of Addabook has always been to provide a platform to democratize Brain Pickings quality personal write-ups of books. Obviously Addabook falls very far short of that. Both technically in terms of design and appearance, but primarily, of course, because Brain Pickings relies on the incredible genius and wonderful, passionate writing of Popova.

When I saw Popova wrote a book last year, which it's unique cover, I knew I would read it eventually. I purposefully stayed away from learning anything about it, and since I'm not that frequent a reader of Brain Pickings itself, all of the content was entirely new to me. And wow, what an experience.

Here is how Maria Popova summarized her book, Figuring.

Figuring explores the complexities, varieties, and contradictions of love, and the human search for truth, meaning, and transcendence, through the interwoven lives of several historical figures across four centuries — beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists — mostly women, mostly queer — whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.

 

Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Caroline Herschel, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman — and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.

As a matter of summarizing the book, she's done it far better than I could ever. Though on her own personal bio she boils it down to "a very long, very yellow book" which I adore as well.

I'll just call out two additional comments:

First, I loved how well Popova interconnected the histories of these individuals throughout the book. Too often history is told from a single perspective, or focused on a single character, and the greater context of each person and their actions in the rest of the world, and onto other people, is lost. Popova just does a masterful job illustrating the surrounding context in each person's life, and connections to the other focal characters, without being awkwardly explicit about it. The book bounces around telling the stories of maybe a dozen different people through history, but it never feels disjointed or anthological — it reads as a single threaded story all the way through. It's an incredible literary achievement that works so well it is almost unnoticed.

Second, I'm just embarrassed to have not known of almost literally any of these incredible people before. Pretty much just Emily Dickinson had previously been on my radar. These women are incredible. Their achievements are unbelievable. Their accomplishments to science, art, and culture are inarguable. How are they not all household names? (Unsurprisingly, almost 100% of the contemporary men that these women worked with would be recognizable to any middle schooler).

This book was absolutely incredible. Certainly the best book I've read in a long time, but additionally just an incredible achievement of intellectualism and art. A wonderful pleasure to read, easily my book of year.

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An Essay in 40 Questions
Valeria Luiselli
read on December 24, 2020

This was an interesting essay on the immigration crisis in Central America, and more specifically how the US is reacting to it. The book focuses on child immigrants who are generally fleeing CA countries (south of Mexico), primarily from gang violence. Luiselli very briefly tells a few stories of the travel experience across Mexico (coyotes hired to help ferry children across the region, riding la bestia across Mexico alone), and then the experience in the USA. Generally, in the US children immediately turn themselves in to border patrol (rather than risk dying in the southwest desert). They are put into ICE boxes, then usually joined with a guardian, and then await immigration trial. The bulk of the essay has to do with the hardship that these children face during these trials, and how difficult it often is for them to secure a lawyer in the US willing to defend them (often for free), particularly if they can't produce physical evidence of the violence they are trying to flee from (e.g. a police report from their home country, which most cannot). Luiselli and her daughter are volunteer translators for the children.

Obviously, this isn't anywhere near comprehensive either as a description of current immigration practices, or of the immigrant experience. It isn't meant to be. Nor does it propose any kind of policy prescription. But it is a compelling and deeply human set of anecdotes that clearly illustrate the problem.

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Cixin Liu
read on November 14, 2020

Really, just a terrible book about nothing. I don't even know how to criticize it. This book has a lot of very interesting setups that just go nowhere. Almost every single mystery or problem that's presented in the book is resolved in a hilariously unsatisfying way. It almost feels inspired by mad libs. 

I can't really imagine how this made it onto Obama's list of recommended books, or how apparently it's going to be a Netflix series soon.

The one thing I did like was the premise that the people of Earth figured out that an alien armada was coming to destroy them, but that it would take 400 years to get here. The story revolves around the first generation of scientists who made that discovery, and there are very brief good sections of the book with how the struggle with the responsibility of saving the future, knowing that whatever effort made in their present won't actually affect their own lives. However, this thread really doesn't go anywhere. An awful book.

 

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How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay
Emmanuel Saez
read on October 29, 2020

It's been quite a year. After the last series of books, and given current events, I've been selfishly looking forward to a book more about brass tacks, as it were. Numbers and policy that I can understand from an "economics" perspective (i.e., equations and graphs), vs an "IPE" perspective (behavior and justice). But I should have known better than to think that any problem in the USA wouldn't trace back to social injustice, and here we go right on page 27.

As in the North, there were variations in tax policy among various states, but in general taxes in the South were more regressive. ... A fear haunted the slaveholders of the SouthL that non-slaveholding majorities would use taxation to undermine -- and eventually abolish -- the "peculiar institution". They particularly feared wealth taxation: at a time when 40% of the population in Souther states was considered property, property taxes were an existential threat for slaveholding planters. They fought such taxes tirelessly, and for two centuries wielded their power to keep taxes and public institutions archaic.

Early in the book there is a primer on the general types of taxes people pay, which I found very helpful. They are (in order of proportion of total tax):

  • Individual Income Taxes: This is what people generally think of as "taxes", and this is specifically (and exclusively) what Republicans refer to when they say that half the country doesn't pay taxes. This tax amounts to about 1/3 of total tax. This tax includes tax on wages, interest, dividents, capital gains, etc. About 63% of national income is taxed via the income tax. The rest is exempt (e.g., dividends/interest earned in tax-free retirement accounts). The income tax is progressive, though much less so today than historically. All but 7 states (including WA) have additional state income taxes, as do some individual cities.
  • Payroll Taxes: Aka social security & medicare taxes. Today SS is taxed as 12.4% of wages, for all wages up to $132,900 per year. Then it drops to zero for wages after that. This is insanely regressive. Medicare taxes are 2.9% of wages, with no cap. Note that employers functionally pay half of these taxes (you only see a 6.2% and 1.45% tax on your paycheck, respectively), but it is a direct cost for employers that otherwise could be paid as a wage. These taxes combined started out small, but now account for almost the same portion of total tax as income taxes, which has been a driver in the regressive tax shift in recent decades.
  • Consumption Taxes: This is about 50% sales taxes, and 50% license taxes (car tabs, etc).
  • Capital Taxes: This covers corporate income tax, property tax, and estate taxes. 

Other thoughts from the book:

  • Saez/Zucman say (p134) that the optimal highest marginal tax rate on the rich is around 75%. Apparently, a (un-cited) "body of work" suggests that that rate optimizes the total tax revenue collected. E.g., the lost revenue from reduced income is offset exactly by the increased revenue of the higher rate.
  • The authors advocate for a wealth tax, but I did not find their arguments for it convincing. I say that as someone desperate to tax the rich more. I just don't really like that there isn't a clean valuation system (I don't think the marginal value of the last share sold is representative of the overall value of the firm), particularly for illiquid assets. The authors put forward a system where the wealth tax can be paid using a portion of the wealth itself (e.g., shares in your private company), but now it just feels like theft. I don't know, I don't like it.

I loved, loved, loved their no-nonsense description for why we should tax the rich:

Extreme wealth, like carbon emissions, imposes a negative externality on the rest of us. The point of taxing carbon is not to raise revenue but to reduce carbon emissions. The same goes for high tax rates on the very highest incomes: They are not aimed at funding government programs in the long run. They are aimed at reducing the income of the ultra-wealthy. They prevent or impede the various forms of rent extrction associated with extreme and entrenched wealth and with the reality of the market economy in unequal sociaties. What's the point of ... earning millions by creating zero-sum financial products, of spiking the price of patented drugs, when out of any extra dollar earned, 90 cents will go to the IRS?When in place, quasi-confiscatory tax rates redistribute economic power, equalize the distribution of pre-tax income, and make the marketplace more competitive.

I'm not a tax wonk so don't have great perspective on how rare this may be, but it's soooo refreshing to see someone just say this out loud. This continues to drive me crazy w/r/t carbon taxes, where politicians need to instead sell them as "carbon pricing" or as productive revenue generating programs. I recall texting campaigns for carbon taxes in WA, where people voted no because they didn't like what the money would be spent on. AGGGH. Who cares what it's spent on?! Likewise, we spend a lot of energy hand-holding ignorant people into ideas that taxes are tied to valid programs, or the idea that we want want to punish the rich, but just want them to pay their fair share, etc. But that's not true! We should tax the rich for the single purpose of disincentivizing the rich. We want fewer rich people. I understand that this is politically poisonous to say - but damn is it nice to finally read.

Lastly, there is an accompanying website that is just fantastic: https://taxjusticenow.org/

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Inside the World of Spring Migration
Kenn Kaufman
read on October 20, 2020

A fine, peaceful book about birds and birding. Not a lot of takeaways, though I did have a couple.

  • The Black Swamp Bird Observatory sounds fantastic, and I'd love to visit if ever making a trek through Ohio.
  • Kaufman wrote a bit about fighting against wind power - he chronicles one specific project where the local government wanted to build wind power in his area in northeast Ohio. This was in a major migration flyway, and he and BSBO fought it in court and won. He may have been right to do so, (and also argues that wind power can be great in other areas), but I wish he had made a better case against wind here. It comes off a bit as NIMBYism, and I'd genuinely like to understand better if wind turbines are a material threat to birds, in the sense that should we really be spending our political and personal energy fighting such projects?

The book was free through Audible. It was fine, but I can't say I would ever recommend it.

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The Lies That Divide Us
Isabel Wilkerson
read on September 10, 2020

For the most part I thought this was a great book. In some ways it was predictable, in some it was confusing, and in some it was genuinely new and thought provoking. It was, of course, consistently depressing. The central idea is that America has forever been built on a caste system, which remains intact today, and which has generally been defined by a persons race, though need not be limited to that. My brief notes were:

  • Interesting Indian caste explainer. India's caste system is based on karma and reincarnation. I.e., you reincarnate into the caste commensurate with how you have lived your prior lives (you get what you deserve). This is fascinating. If bought in, takes a lot of the morality out of it, making all participants much more likely to believe in the justice of the system.
  • Wilkerson documents how the Nazis literally modeled their laws for Jews around US segregation.
  • I had quibbles / confusion over the 'race doesn't exist' language. Wilkerson goes on for some time how race is not a biological classification, it apparently does not exist in science. That might be true, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. A person can have physical features that I would call "black" or "Asian", and which are hereditary in nature. Can we not call that "race"?
  • I think the very interesting discussion here in the book is around the questions of what constitutes a 'white' or 'black' person, which has changed dramatically over time. E.g., was Italian, Sicilian, Irish, etc, always "white"? (No). Were literal Caucasians white? (per SCOTUS, no). Are Japanese (with skin whiter than EUs) white? SCOTUS said no.
  • I wish there were more discussion around the inclination of humans to develop caste systems. Wilkerson focuses on India, Germany, US - but no counter-examples. Are there examples of complex societies that didn't have castes at all? Why? Why not? The focus tends to just be "look how vile this is" rather than understanding why humans tend to organize in this awful way.
  • Not sure I understand the difference between "caste" and racism. I understand conceptually, but not clear on how what we have in the US isn't just racism. Caste can certainly exist without racism, but can racism exist without caste?
    • Slight counterpoint to this, I liked the examination of racism in terms of relative positioning in the caste system. E.g., it's poor whites who are going to be the most racist, because they have the most to lose from the dissolution of a race-based caste system. They may be poor, but they're still white, so they're not at the bottom rung. It is in fact highly rational, if obviously disgusting, for them to perpetuate race-based caste as much as possible.
    • Additional point: Interesting discussion of race vs class in terms of recent black immigrants (Jamaica, Caribbean) who purposefully try to keep their foreign accent, to remain in an 'immigrant' class, and be treated as only 'black' and not 'African American', the lowest caste.
  • The anecdotes about American military racism were largely new to me and somehow surprising. Wilkerson writes about how black (American) troops were popular with the French during WWI, and that the US military explicitly instruct the French to treat American soldiers like shit, particularly when/if American whites were around.

Language toward the end of the book, on the post-WW2 German reaction to Nazism compared to post-1865 American reaction to the Confederacy is amazingly considered and written. One long section below, while Wilkerson was speaking to a German about their reaction to their own actions after WW2:

And then, we have the stumbling stones. These are the micro-memorials of discrete, brass squares the size of ones palm, inscribed with the names of Holocaust victims and placed throughout the city. More than 70,000 of these stumbling stones, known as stolpersteina, have been forged and installed in cities across Europe. They are embedded among the cobblestones in front of houses and apartment buildings, where the victims whose names are inscribed on them are known to have last lived before being abducted by the gestapo. "Here lived Hildegarde Blumenthal. Born 1897. Deported 1943. Died in Auschwitz." reads a stumbling stone clustered among others outside an apartment building in western Berlin. Nearby are the stones for Rosa Gross and Arthur Benjamin, who were deported in 1942 and who perished in Riga. The stumbling stones force the viewer to pause and squint to read the inscription, force the viewer to regard the entry doors the people walked through, the steps they climbed with their groceries and toddlers, the streets they strolled that were the everyday life of real people, rather than abstractions of incomprehensible millions. Each one is a personal headstone that gives a momentary connection to a single individual. Leaning over to read the names on the stumbling stones forces you to bow in respect.

And then this:

There is no death penalty in Germany. We can't be trusted to kill people, not after World War II.

That quote absolutely floored me. I was making coffee while listening to the book, and I literally had to stop and brace myself against the counter after hearing it. I have never before heard anything so succinctly wise and empathetic, and it made me so angry and sad that the United States has instead chosen to ignore our own history rather that to confront it.

One of the last things that book touches on are the changing race demographics in the US, and how in a few decades we're expected to be a majority minority nation. How will that affect caste and politics? Prior to reading this book, I've read and heard a lot about this, and how it seems inevitable that Republicanism is charging towards oblivion, since it is doubling down on whiteness and racism in a country that is clearly moving demographically in the opposite direction. (And why R's today are pushing so hard for anti-democratic rule, like gerrymandering, senate malapportionment, judiciary control, keeping electoral college, etc.) Anyway, by looking at it through the lens of caste instead, Wilkerson argues that the nation will just instead expand the upper caste before risk losing it. That is, we would slowly accept that Asian's or lighter skinned African Americans, (or whatever other group) can be full-fledged upper caste, such that sufficient demographics remain in place to protect the caste system. I wish Wilkerson had gone into more detail here (e.g., is there historical precedent?) but this continues to linger with me.

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Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Michelle Alexander
read on September 10, 2020

I read this months ago and went too long without writing anything about it. Suffice it to say, this is a terribly sobering, sad book about our absolute failure as a society. 

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Is There No Alternative?
Mark Fisher
read on September 11, 2020

This was a very short book, but one that I very reluctantly finished. It's not bad, per say, it's just so self-referentially academic that I couldn't follow large portions of it. Fisher makes references to other authors and ideas without adding any surrounding context, and I was often left confused in exactly the same way as while reading The Left Hand of Darkness, for exactly the same reason. One random example:

Postmodernism can be construed as the name for the complex of crises that the decline in the belief in the big Other has triggered, as Lyotard’s famous formulation of the postmodern condition – ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ –suggests.

It is baffling to me that the above sentence could mean anything at all, and the book is filled with them. That said, Fisher makes many points that I thought were interesting, and honestly just wished that someone could dumb down a bit for me.

  • Interesting point that Capitalism has had no intellectual resistence since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990. A whole generation of people today have no viewpoint for any alternative economic ideas other than capitalism.
  • "Interpassivity" as the idea that watching a film like Wall-E is actually damaging, is it "performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity."
  • Interesting discussion about the stress that capitalism puts on people:

I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.

...

In The Selfish Capitalist, James points to significant rises in the rates of ‘mental distress’ over the last 25 years. ‘By most criteria’, James reports, rates of distress almost doubled between people born in 1946 (aged thirty-six in 1982) and 1970 (aged thirty in 2000). For example, 16 per cent of thirty-six-year-old women in 1982 reported having ‘trouble with nerves, feeling low, depressed or sad’, whereas 29 per cent of thirty year-olds reported this in 2000 (for men it was 8 per cent in 1982, 13 per cent in 2000).

...

Specifically, James points to the way in which selfish capitalism stokes up both aspirations and the expectations that they can be fulfilled. ... In the entrepreneurial fantasy society, the delusion is fostered that anyone can be Alan Sugar or Bill Gates, never mind that the actual likelihood of this occurring has diminished since the 1970s – a person born in 1958 was more likely than one born in 1970 to achieve upward mobility through education, for example. The Selfish Capitalist toxins that are most poisonous to well-being are the systematic encouragement of the ideas that material affluence is they key to fulfillment, that only the affluent are winners and that access to the top is open to anyone willing to work hard enough, regardless of their familial, ethnic or social background – if you do not succeed, there is only one person to blame.

In general, I thought that this was an interesting approach to take. The internalization of these health problems onto the individual (you are not strong enough, you are not good enough, you need to work harder) is structural necessity of capitalism (after all, each of those are selling opportunities) that must be feeding emergent behaviors at the societal level that are hot garbage.

I did not like this book. It was needlessly obtuse and honestly I lost the thread on what the main points even were. However, I've often thought about the general human misery caused by the constant push for faster progress, and what possible alternatives would be. I think the core problem is actually one of foreign policy. We feel nationally compelled to lead the world, and there are obvious lifestyle and saftey benefits of doing so. If the USA slows down in order to prioritize equity and happiness, those values don't necessarily win - USA will just diminish on the world stage. Fisher doesn't stray anywhere near these considerations, and I'm not saying that there aren't answers here, but this is the far more interesting avenue of inquiry to me.

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Ursula K. Le Guin
read on August 27, 2020

I really wanted to get through this book, but just couldn't. I never for one second cared about anything that was happening. I made it to around the sixth chapter before I even realized that the book had been alternating main characters and storylines between the chapters. That's how difficult it was to know what was going on. The text is just absolutly riddled with people, places, names, verbs, etc that are imaginary and that the reader has zero context for, so nothing sticks. You read entire paragraphs without knowing what just happened. Who did what to whom? One random example:

Estraven’s house, sign of the king’s high favor, was the Corner Red Dwelling, built 440 years ago for Harmes, beloved kemmering of Emran III, whose beauty is still celebrated, and who was abducted, mutilated, and rendered imbecile by hirelings of the Innerland Faction.

This is a super tame example, but just something I highlighted as an example of "wow why should I care about this?". It was so tiresome to try to continue reading this book that I just called it.

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Carlo Rovelli
read on May 2, 2020

Appreciate that the discussion about the nature of time inevitably becomes about the nature of the self. The two are directly linked. That is, in what sense is time only a cognitive (and so subjective) measure between two events? What is a self, if different than a collection of memories?

This was a very interesting and accessible book. It stayed non-technical, but in places that was a huge handicap, e.g. when Rovelli referred to time being a "blurring" of reality. 

In the end, all I really got out of this was an interesting reminder that time isn't what we think it is, and that the self isn't what we think it is - but that we don't really know what either are... yet.

 

 

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