The Education of a British-Protected Child (Chinua Achebe) – A collection of essays over the years by noted Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. On the one hand, one might say he has a number of central issues he raises over and over again, but on the other, it might be said that he repeats himself. This is not surprising — these essays were written in different contexts and for different purposes (op-eds, speeches, and so on) and represent a set of concerns Achebe has about the relationship between himself and Nigeria, the Biafran conflict, Joseph Conrad, and the effects of colonialism. One of the more interesting pieces is a strong disagreement with Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s decision to write only in Gikuyu — Achebe views denying the use of English as a kind of sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and saying “LALALALALALA.” Reading the collection, one is reminded that the easy distinctions we make here between revolutionary and conservative are just insufficient for understanding how one negotiates the legacy of colonialism. Worth a read!
The Taming of Chance (Ian Hacking) – A fantastic book and a must-read for those who care or are interested in the history of probability and statistical thought. A major point in the book is that as printing got cheaper and people were able to measure things, there was an explosion of publication of tables of counts — like how many loaves of bread were sold each week in a city, or the heights of soldiers, or… basically anything. People would survey and measure and publish all sorts of data. To make sense of this data deluge, people developed new ways of seeing populations in terms of aggregates. Individuals began to conceive of themselves in relation to the population. Notions of “statistical law” and “deviance” were a result of this process. It’s really fascinating stuff.
Tigana (Guy Gavriel Kay) — This book was extremely long and epic and I think would appeal to more literary minded Game of Thrones fans, but I found it too… consciously “aching” as it were. It’s a novel about loss and memory, and while that’s a rich field to plow, the book to me got a bit over-trodden (and overwritten).
Tomatoland (Barry Estabrook) — A rather depressing (but ultimately hopeful?) look at the tomato industry in Florida. Florida is not a great place to grow tomatoes, but it’s warm enough in the winter to supply mealy flavorless red baseballs to industrial kitchens further north. Estabrook spends a lot of time with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group that tries to get better conditions for agricultural workers. You know, things like not being enslaved, or being paid by the hour instead of by the bucket, or not being sprayed with pesticides because growers don’t want to spend the time to clear the field of workers. Little things like that. It’s harrowing but worth reading.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years (David Graeber) — Graeber gives an engaging and far-ranging discussion of the notion of debt and credit. He’s trained as an anthropologist and has an axe to grind against economics. I found it to be an important book to read for anyone who cares about how we got to the society we have now. Some major theses : human relations are structured around communism (sharing), exchange, and hierarchy, and the interplay of these is complex and drives notions of debt. Credit systems have been around for a long time and in many cases predate “money” as we think of it. Current credit systems are backed by the coercive power of the state. People take issue with how starkly he puts the last point, but I think that as an anthropologist, Graeber has a much better vantage from which to look at and critique where we are now. It seems daunting, but he’s a clear expositor.