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  • Ken Ilgunas

Best Books I Read in 2019

[I only read 21 books in 2019, my lowest total in the fifteen years I've counted the books I've read. But, of these few, I was lucky to have selected several books that were great enough to make this list.]

American Nations by Colin Woodard (2011)

Colin Woodard’s, American Nations, is one of the best books on American history I’ve ever read. It urges you to think of America less as Democrat vs. Republican, urban vs. rural, or liberal vs. conservative. Rather, America, he argues, is made up of eleven distinct nations, including “Yankeedom,” the “Deep South,” “New France,” and “El Norte.”

“First Nation is a highly communalistic society. Most tribal land in the far north is owned in common under a form of title that prevents it from ever being sold to an individual or exploited in such a way that diminishes its value to future generations. In Greenland there is no private property at all: everyone is allowed to responsibly use the people’s shared land, but it is thought the height of absurdity that any one person should “own” it, which would be comparable to someone’s asserting ownership of the wind. Inuit—whether dwelling in Labrador, Nunavut, Greenland, or Alaska—still hunt, fish, and gather a substantial amount of their food, and all of those “home foods” and the implements associated with them are generally regarded as common property as well. If a hunter kills a seal, it’s handed over to whoever needs it. Villages have communal freezers that anyone can access—free of charge or accounting—because food cannot belong to one person. If the tribe engages in an industrial enterprise, the proceeds belong to everyone… Communalistic, environmentally minded, and female-dominated, the people of First Nation will have a very different approach to the global challenges of the twenty-first century from that of the other nations of the continent and the world. And starting in Greenland, First Nation is building a series of nation-states of its own, giving North America’s indigenous peoples a chance to show the rest of the world how they would blend postmodern life with premodern folkways.”

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)

Braiding Sweetgrass should be considered to be a part of the essential environmental-writing canon, alongside Walden, A Sand County Almanac, and Silent Spring. In an era of cynicism for our species, Kimmerer encourages us to imagine a future in which humans can play a leading role in developing a more sustainable way of being and promoting an ecologically prosperous worldwide ecosystem.

"What I mean of course is that our human relationship with strawberries is transformed by our choice of perspective. It is human perception that makes the world a gift. When we view the world this way, strawberries and humans alike are transformed. The relationship of gratitude and reciprocity thus developed can increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal. A species and a culture that treat the natural world with respect and reciprocity will surely pass on genes to ensuing generations with a higher frequency than the people who destroy it. The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences."

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018) Haidt's previous work put me off a bit, so I went into this one cautiously. However, I enjoyed this quite a bit, as Haidt and his co-author do a really good job with reporting crazy events that happen on college campuses and explaining why they happened. I think it really helps that he has a co-writer for this book, as the book just seems centered and well balanced and with none of the radical centrism that seemed to imbue his previous work. "Safetyism is the cult of safety—an obsession with eliminating threats (both real and imagined) to the point at which people become unwilling to make reasonable trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. Safetyism deprives young people of the experiences that their antifragile minds need, thereby making them more fragile, anxious, and prone to seeing themselves as victims."

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall (2015)

Prisoners of Geography is a fine introduction to modern-day geopolitics, which I was terribly in need of. The overall thesis is that so much of geopolitics comes down to simple geography. The good soils, waterways, and climate of France, Germany, and England, for instance, help to explain their consistent hold on power. The U.S, is not going to decline, as we always feel inclined to say, because we are in just about the most fortunate geographic position a country could ask for. Brazil will never be a major international power, despite its size, because of its jungles, poor soil, and un-ideal waterways. Russia is about to make a big play in the arctic to obtain fossil fuels. This is made possible partly because of technology (ice-breaking ships) and largely because of increasingly navigable waterways due to climate change. The great powers of China and India have long been at peace largely because they're separated by the Himalayas, and the Chinese occupation of Tibet was carried out largely to ensure this. Africa is a mess for a hundred reasons (colonial legacies for starters), but geography may be the central.

The Problem with Everything by Meghan Daum (2019)

Meghan Daum is one of my favorite memoir writers and her latest is very good. It’s a memoir/manifesto/cultural critique of our modern culture wars, in which she defiantly flicks away creeping ideological groupthink and casts a critical eye on 21st Century moral panics, on what she calls “fourth wave feminism,” and on how younger generations have seemingly abandoned toughness as a character quality.

“But something was different back then. I shared a planet with those elders. We occupied the same universe. We breathed the same air. I had the great gift of being able to look up to my elders because it was possible to be like them. We may have been of different generations, with different problems and preoccupations and ideas about what constituted paying a lot of rent, but we still all grew up holding books in our hands. We called our friends from pay phones and negotiated sexual situations without technological assistance and registered opinions without being smacked down on social media moments later. We made mistakes in private and, in turn, respected the privacy of others in their mistakes. The same cannot be said for the relationship between my generation and those that are coming up behind us. Young people don’t want to be us because they’re not even the same species as us. Even if they did want to be us, the proposition would be absurd, like a human trying to emulate an orangutan. The world has changed so much between my time and theirs that someone just ten years younger might as well belong to a different geological epoch. In this epoch, there are no pay phones for calling friends at the spur of the moment. The contact highs from walking down the street have been replaced by dopamine hits from Instagram likes. To a young person, someone like me is not so much an elder as an extinction. Is it any wonder, then, that older generations’ contributions to the conversation are, at best, a kind of verbal meteor shower, the flickering, nattering remains of planets that haven’t existed for eons?”

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (2018)

Nick Drnaso's Sabrina is the most 2019 book you could possibly read. It's about conspiracy theory culture, suburban malaise, and how the truth has become something to be reshaped and marketed for consumption. It's cynical about our country, but there's a whiff of optimism in how the characters operate, person-to-person. Though atomized, fragmented, and mostly connected by screens and usernames, you can sense that these characters are dying to connect, help, and be helped. This was my first graphic novel and I couldn't put it down.

Against the Grain by James C. Scott (2017)

This is a very readable history of both barbarians (who, unburdened by taxes, were typically semi-nomadic pastoralists living outside of the state) and all those early farmers, who tended to live much more miserably than their hunter-gatherer forebears.

"The burdens of life for nonelites in the earliest states, the subject of Chapter 3, were considerable. The first, as noted above, was drudgery. There is no doubt that, with the possible exception of flood recession (décrue) agriculture, farming was far more onerous than hunting and gathering. As Ester Boserup and others have observed, there is no reason why a forager in most environments would shift to agriculture unless forced to by population pressure or some form of coercion. A second great and unanticipated burden of agriculture was the direct epidemiological effect of concentration—not just of people but of livestock, crops, and the large suite of parasites that followed them to the domus or developed there. Diseases with which we are now familiar—measles, mumps, diphtheria, and other community acquired infections—appeared for the first time in the early states. It seems almost certain that a great many of the earliest states collapsed as a result of epidemics analogous to the Antonine plague and the plague of Justinian in the first millennium CE or the Black Death of the fourteenth century in Europe. Then there was another plague: the state plague of taxes in the form of grain, labor, and conscription over and above onerous agricultural work. How, in such circumstances, did the early state manage to assemble, hold, and augment its subject population? Some have even argued that state formation was possible only in settings where the population was hemmed in by desert, mountains, or a hostile periphery."

A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik (2019)

A Thousand Small Sanities is a history of liberalism (starting with John Stuart Mill). Gopnik proposes categories of conservatism that help us understand our moment, and he makes me proud to be a liberal. There is something in my DNA that makes me a reformer (or one who wants to make our laws and institutions more just), and this self-affirming book rang true on every page.

"Reform our language, our pronouns, our cafeteria menus, our forms of addressing each other. Reform sexual acts so that they demand step-by-step consent. Some of this is ridiculous or can be ridiculously enforced. But our experience shows that reform is almost always necessary. On the whole, the reformers have got it right, even when no one thought they had. It is hard to recall how many even reasonable-seeming people thought slavery was tolerable. Or what a subject for laughter votes for women once was. Or how easily self-approving conservatives like William Buckley were perfectly content with perpetuating apartheid in the American South. For that matter, we only need look at the fight for marriage equality to recall how recently even liberal-minded people were suspicious of gay marriage. Now, the remaining arguments, except among hard-core resistors, are about how we fold gay marriage into a larger social blend. We may or may not be indignant about the refusal of a baker to make a cake for a gay wedding—but that we are arguing about this is in itself proof of how acceptable marriage between people of the same sex has become."

We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safron Foer (2019)

I really enjoyed Jonathan Safron Foer’s We Are the Weather, a ruminative book about climate change. His ruminations about his approach to something so enormous and devastating (climate change) is a theme that runs through my book Trespassing across America, but Foer’s thoughts are more developed. What I admire about Foer's nonfiction is just how innovative he is with style (his Eating Animals is stylistically dynamic as well). Some chapters are written in bullet points. In another chapter, he has a Socratic dialogue with himself. The gist of the book is that we have little control over climate change, but the decision we can make on a day to day basis is to finally stop eating meat.

"Clearly, facts aren’t enough to mobilize us. But what if we can’t summon and sustain the necessary emotions? I’ve wrestled with my own responses to the planetary crisis. It feels obvious to me that I care about the fate of the planet, but if time and energy invested are expressions of caring, it’s undeniable that I care more about the fate of a specific baseball team on the planet, my childhood-hometown Washington Nationals. It feels obvious to me that I am not a climate change denier, but it is undeniable that I behave like one. I would let my kids skip school to participate in the wave at opening day of baseball season, but I do virtually nothing to resist a future in which our home city is underwater."


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