These are the books that have made the greatest impression on me this year.
1. The idealist, by Justin Peters
Aaron Swartz was an IT prodigy who hacked the scholarly literature database J-Stor. Brought to trial for doing so, he killed himself before the lawsuit was over. Much of this book is actually a primer of intellectual copyright law, a subject that sounds dry as can be, but which comes to life in relation to Swartz’s story. His idealism centred on a (fairly commonplace) belief in the power of technology and ideas to improve humanity, and a (more radical) conviction that “information should be free”. The lawsuit that serves as the hinge of the plotline opens up important questions about ownership. Who owns ideas? Writing? (Authors? Publishers?) Questions on which a lot hangs.
2. Cadillac desert, by Marc Reisner
Have you seen Chinatown? That classic movie is an allegory for the history of the American west, which rests in large part on the heroic measures taken with the region’s great rivers, variously dammed, rerouted, stolen, resold, and sucked dry. It’s an epic and tragic story of grand visions and wild successes, but also of profligacy and ruin. Despite the cautions that might be drawn from the experience, it’s also a history that’s being energetically emulated and repeated the world over, notably in Ethiopia. A good TV documentary based on the book was made in the 1990s.
3. Ecological imperialism, by Alfred Crosby
This could be read as a prequel to Cadillac Desert: it’s about the making of what Crosby calls the Neo-Europes, a process that included genocides in the Americas, Australia, and elsewhere. This is the original sin of Western civilization. Acknowledging it reframes what justice looks like in the present, for example at Standing Rock.
4. Writing for social scientists, by Howard Becker
This book is useful. Thanks to it, I’ve gotten more writing done this year than I would have done otherwise. Becker advises not just how to get published but how to write well — or at least, how not to write in the standard, turgid way. His advice, in a nutshell, is: Draft, and redraft. Avoid unnecessary citations. Don’t use five words where two would do. Write in your own voice.
5. The Faber book of children’s verse, edited by Janet Adam Smith
At bedtime my son likes to hear poems. This book contains some great ones. Although it’s compiled with children in mind, the anthologist made her choices on the assumption that children shouldn’t be condescended to, and that they can handle profound themes like love and death. (I’m increasingly led to think that children deal better with these aspects of life than many of us adults do.)
I leave you with a poem that’s helped me this past year, when despair has sometimes felt inescapable.
Everything changes. We plant
trees for those born later
but what’s happened has happened
and poisons poured into the seas
cannot be drained out again.
What’s happened has happened.
Poisons poured into the seas
cannot be drained out again, but
everything changes. We plant
trees for those born later.
— Cicely Herbert