This has been some year, huh? We’ve had a pandemic, an election, a bizarre economic situation that’s produced a boom in the markets and near-depression among service workers, and who knows what else. Now it’s finally coming to an end, at least on the calendar. 2020 will live on as a bizarre fugue state in our memories, however, simultaneously compressed and lengthened by the Groundhog-Day nature of pandemic living.
Over the course of the past dozen or so months, however long it’s actually been, I’ve read some great stuff. This hasn’t exactly been a banner year for my book consumption: I’ve come up laughably short of my goal of reading one book for pleasure every month, mostly because my brain has continually felt melted by the ongoing state of things. Most of the non-specialist reading I did this year was still work-related, preparing to interview guests for Tides of History. Luckily, I managed to book some absolute bangers, so things worked out pretty well!
My Favorite Books of the Year
1) Zach Carter, The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes
My May interview with Zach Carter, a veteran journalist and a really sharp observer of finance, the markets, and the economy more generally, is one of my favorites I’ve ever done. His book The Price of Peace, which examines the life and work of the legendary economist John Maynard Keynes, is even better than the interview. Leaving aside his influence on economics and political economy - and he’s almost certainly the most influential figure of the 20th century - Keynes’s work is best understood as a decades-long meditation on political philosophy. It provides a coherent approach to the function economies should actually have for the people embedded in them.
Unlike Adam Smith, Marx and Engels, or Friedrich Hayek, Keynes never wrote an overarching masterpiece that encapsulated his thought. His General Theory is dense and hard to parse, designed to convince the priesthood of economic specialists rather than spread the gospel of Keynesianism. Carter’s great accomplishment in The Price of Peace lies in identifying and weaving together the threads of political philosophy that run through Keynes’s many different works. Explained clearly and cogently by Carter, Keynes is far more than an evangelist for deficit spending; scarcity, Keynes argues repeatedly and forcefully, is an artificial constraint. Economies provide more than enough for everybody, when their resources are properly redistributed. They should improve people’s lives, account for their basic necessities, and free them to pursue the higher arts of humankind.
The great tragedy of Keynes’s life and legacy, in Carter’s telling, lies in the fact that the economist’s methods became de rigeur, but the reasoning behind them was forgotten. What’s the point of countercyclical spending and state investment in hard times if the overarching point of it all - allowing common folk to live a good life - is ignored? Keynes, in fact, wasn’t wedded even to the methods that eventually bore his name; he advocated whatever policies were necessary at any given pint to reach that coherent end goal. Carter follows these threads all the way from World War II, past Keynes’s death, into the era of neoliberal ascendancy, and through the 2008 Financial Crisis to the present.
It’s here that we see the unrealized potential of Keynes’s vision for both the economy and humanity as a whole, and this is what raises The Price of Peace from the status of “excellent biography” to “my favorite book of the year.”
No matter your political and economic leanings, there’s an enormous amount of value and insight in The Price of Peace, and you won’t regret reading it.
2) Douglas Boin, Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome
When we ran into each other on Twitter, I recalled Douglas Boin’s specialist work on Rome’s port city of Ostia in late antiquity, and his upcoming book on the Gothic king Alaric sounded like an interesting read. It turned out to be great, one of my favorite popular books on Rome in the last decade.
Alaric the Goth is built on a basic inversion: What if we considered the Roman Empire not from its own point of view, but from that of an outsider? And not just any outsider, but one credited with a great deal of the work of its destruction?
This simple shift in perspective, to that of the man who brought about the infamous sack of Rome itself in 410, sounds simple. It’s actually incredibly difficult to pull off, because the sources are invariably written from the Roman point of view. This is what scholars of the period call the interpretatio Romana, loosely meaning the Roman lens; their assumptions about civilization and barbarism, order and chaos, and right and wrong color every aspect of the source material. Their way of looking at the world is inseparable from what they wrote about both themselves and their adversaries on either side of the frontier.
Yet Boin manages this inversion it aplomb and style, creating a convincing and compelling portrait of Alaric and his milieu. There’s real compassion in his depiction of the Gothic king and the Goths more generally. They, and Alaric in particular, didn’t set out to rampage through Roman territory and destroy the birthplace of Roman civilization; they were refugees who had made a deal with Roman authorities, were repeatedly mistreated by those authorities, and turned to violence in an attempt to better their situation. Their sack of Rome was a negotiating ploy gone wrong rather than the work of cultural vandals. We don’t have to treat them as either villains or heroes; they were just people stuck in a bad situation, and their attempts to get out of it led to some pretty world-altering consequences.
Alaric the Goth is a delightful and relatively brief read. Boin is a gifted writer and an excellent scholar who transports the reader into this long-lost world, providing the rare fresh take on a well-trodden topic.
3) Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art
There are a lot of different ways to study and understand the past. An archaeologist might study the material record of rural Roman Gaul in Late Antiquity and come away with a much different portrait than someone who specializes on Julius Caesar’s writings in the late Republic. That’s true with regard to the deep past as well: An expert on archaic human fossil remains probably views the world differently than one whose focus is technology or behavior. When it comes to producing a synthesis of the available knowledge, a summary of the state of the field, neither of those varying specializations precludes a scholar from producing a readable work.
But knowledge isn’t what makes a synthesis great; it takes some flair, whether that’s pure writing skill or something else. Rebecca Wragg Skyes’s Kindred is beautifully written, but even more than that, the Neanderthal specialist brings a fantastic sense of empathy for her subjects. This takes her book out of the ranks of the merely solid and makes it something special: the rare up-to-date synthesis that manages to say something profound about its subject.
For Sykes, the Neanderthals were many different things over their more than 300,000 years of existence. Some thrived in subtropical environments during eras much warmer than today’s; others made a meager living in the frigid Altai Mountains of Siberia during an icy glacial period. There was no single Neanderthal way of being, no single Neanderthal culture or even physiology. That’s because they lived at many different places for a very long time. Their technologies varied, as did their behavior. We shouldn’t expect them to be homogeneous.
But what the Neanderthals always were over their long existence, in Sykes’s telling, is a lot like us.
The stereotype of the primitive, brutish Neanderthal has been out of date for decades, and Sykes’s book should kill it for good. They made art, buried their dead, loved, and lived, all in ways that are far more familiar to our way of understanding the world than foreign to them.
They weren’t exactly like modern humans - their bodies were different, for one - but the idea of baseline modern human normalcy is illusory. As a species, we encompass multitudes, and Neanderthals don’t fall far enough outside the bounds of past and present human behavior for us to see them as anything but our kindred. A few hundred thousand years is a good run for any human species, and some of their genes live on in billions of modern humans today.
Two Specialist Works
1) Li Liu and Xingcan Chen, The Archaeology of China: From the Late Paleolithic to the Early Bronze Age. Another entry in the Cambridge World Archaeology series, this is a readable but technical introduction to the later prehistoric archaeology of China. Much of the recent scholarship isn’t accessible to people who aren’t fluent in Chinese, and the findings of the last three decades of intensive archaeological work in the region have upended our understanding of the transitions to agriculture in China.
2) Peter Bellwood, First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective. This isn’t an exciting read, but its arguments for migration as a ubiquitous feature of the human experience - backed up with copious research from global prehistory - are fascinating. For Bellwood, language, agriculture, and migration all go together as a neat package. He’s probably more right than wrong about that basic contention.
Bonus #1: My Favorite Podcast of the Year
Odd Lots: Bloomberg’s “Odd Lots,” hosted by Joe Weisenthal and Tracy Alloway, is just wonderful if you have some interest in economics and finance. I’ve learned a ton, and been exposed to a wide variety of unconventional and cutting-edge thinking, thanks to their insightful interviews and guests. (I’m also a guest on next week’s episode, talking about the economic fallout of the Black Death - first-time caller, long-time listener.)
Bonus #2: My Favorite TV Show of the Year
The Mandalorian: I have two little kids, wrote a book, write this newsletter, do my podcast, and lift weights in my garage. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for scripted TV, unfortunately, so The Mandalorian was one of maybe three shows I actually watched this year. It was really fun, though!
That’s enough about what I’ve read and watched. What books did you like in 2020? What are you reading now? Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to in 2021? Let’s see if we can get a good discussion going in the comments.