This is part 3 of my 2021 reading list, following on from parts 1 and 2, and the final one reaching a total of thirty books for the year. Given that last year I only read twelve, I would call that quite an improvement, and I somehow doubt I’ll read quite as many in the coming year, fingers crossed. Part 1 was fairly good, part 2 was hit and miss, but the last ten books I read this year were all great reads that I’d recommend, for the most part. Enjoy!
Political Ideologies: An Introduction – Andrew Heywood
A first-year political science textbook, basically a 101 on different political ideologies and what they entailed. There are no comparisons (except on the technical differences between some) and no “sides” taken (although fascism’s poster children were obviously condemned implicitly, if not outright), and it is quite a fair overview of each idea and system, if a little lacking due to its inherently basic premise. It even had a chapter dedicated to anarchism, which was a pleasant surprise, distinct from socialism (although the inclusion of anarcho-capitalism was cringe). Amusingly, social democracy was included under socialism’s broad umbrella, which I know would make some of the “online left” (read: Twitter bubble denizens) angry.
The War on Journalism: Media Moguls, Whistleblowers and the Price of Freedom – Andrew Fowler
This was a good book, centred on the US, UK, and Australia (it is about Western journalism in the West, not global). It covered quite a lot, including scandals in the UK under the Wilson Labour government, the retaliation of the Howard government in Australia against opposition to the Iraq War (including smears of the ABC despite independent reviews showing no particular bias), the case of Julian Assange, and the media empire created by Rupert Murdoch. Had it been written a year or two later, I am sure there would be a chapter on distrust of institutions and the role journalists play in reporting elections and controversy. Perhaps in a revised edition or new book.
Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack – Richard Ovenden
From a war on journalism to a war on knowledge itself, this book covers instances of knowledge lost – and saved – from antiquity to the modern day. Whether it’s a clay tablet from an early civilisation, texts held in churches in Medieval Europe, or the “digital deluge” we are flooded with in the information era, intentional or accidental loss of information, of knowledge, has been a consistent trend of history, often for the worse. Some chapters were a bit of a slog, particularly if you don’t care for the particular time period or historical figure, but overall it was fascinating and a great call to arms to protect libraries and archives as public and revered places.
Four Degrees of Global Warming: Australia in a Hot World – Peter Christoff, Ed.
There are two main takeaways from this book that I got. The first was that we absolutely must avoid an increase of more than 3 degrees or Australia will become an agonising place to try live, let alone the damage and migration that will take place in the Pacific and throughout South East Asia. In every metric across every sector and region, it would spell catastrophe – catastrophe we have known about clearly since the 1950’s, and at least logically since the late 1800’s given what we knew about greenhouse gases.
The second point is that this book was written in 2013. Before the Coalition was elected to government with Tony Abbott at its head. The book’s hopeful optimism that Australia seemed to be veering in the right direction under a Gillard-led minority Labor government with regards to climate policy now comes across as abstract and utopian. If we were not doing enough then, our duopoly today has most certainly crashed any sense of recovering the damage and averting crisis in the long-term. In simple terms, we are quite fucked.
Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists – Julia Ebner
This was a rather small and interesting book, providing insights and a bit of history on groups ranging from jihadi brides to fascist and white supremacist forums and events. While it does not condone or accept the actions and ideas presented, it offers a window to observe how and why people end up embroiled in these groups. Given the personal element involved, the most vivid was Ebner’s own story while investigating the “trad wife” community, the women who centre their entire lives around the men in their life, so much so that abuse is seen as a result of their failings and their sense of self is essentially removed. Ebner had to force herself out of that space because she felt herself drifting towards their rhetoric and reasoning, despite her knowing and being trained to spot it.
So while the groups and ideas may be detestable and should be exposed for what they are, the message I took was the sympathy and understanding that is required to approach people caught within. It might be difficult, but necessary.
Blue Collar Frayed: Working Men in Tomorrow’s Economy – Jennifer Rayner
This book, written by a woman, as the title suggests, is unapologetically about men in the workforce – simply due to the fact that most of the jobs and work involved are done by men, and the effects of policies and events target these men and men going into those industries. It reminded me of A Economy Is Not a Society by Dennis Glover, mentioned in part 2. Glover talks about vibrant towns with employment centred around a few major factories, followed by the destitution left behind when corporations and government ran into globalisation and neoliberalism without look back. Here, Rayner talks about that and the toll it takes on individuals and industries.
Many men who lose these blue-collar jobs can spend months or years looking for work, if they ever get it. The cost and quality of new apprenticeships and training due to the privatisation of the TAFE sector has left a rupture in the workforce. People in industries and workplaces that are facing closure do not have many options afterwards, and the government supplies limited support or opportunity through this period of change. New industries, particularly in the renewable energy sector, are not being invested in enough despite the massive economic and societal benefits. The past and present are bleak, but there is plenty of opportunity – if only those with the power to implement it could see it.
Power and Terror: Conflict, Hegemony, and the Rule of Force – Noam Chomsky
A usual Chomsky book, this one covering how the use of force and terror by the US and its client governments furthers their interests in certain parts of the world. As with others, once you get Chomsky’s political premises, his books are mostly interesting for their historical information and attention to detail regarding how and why things occur as they do.
Origins: How the Earth Shaped Human History – Lewis Dartnell
A brilliant book, if perhaps trying to hype itself up too much in some sections. For instance, it says that the site of an ancient sea helps map American election results – it turns out there is a particular part of the American south where this sea left its mark, resulting in it being an excellent location for plantations. And so, with the departure of the Dixiecrats and the higher black vote for the modern Democrats, there is a line of blue counties that fairly closely resembles the location of the old waterbed. Interesting, but hardly democracy defining stuff as anticipated.
But, I digress. It was excellent, explaining how tectonic shifts in Africa gave rise to the conditions that allowed our homo ancestors to evolve as they did, why there are uniform bands of iron around the world due to a great oxidisation of the earth, causing the oceans to essentially rust and deposit it on the ocean floor. It talks about the uneven distribution of certain flora and fauna, which in part helps explain the advantages Eurasia tended to get over other parts of the world with regard to farming and technological advances. The final chapter wasn’t’ as revelatory, but talks about how our sources of energy – particularly coal and oil – came to be.
It also included what is now my second favourite fact of evolution – that the ancestors of camelids and horses came from North America and took the Bering Strait to Eurasia millions of years ago. There they became the animals we know today. Some camelids went south through what in now Panama into South America and became modern llamas and alpacas. The camelids in North America, along with the horse ancestors that stayed behind, all died out. This is second only to the fact that whales used to be land animals, with vestigial bones inside that used to be legs.
Mortals: How the Fear of Death Shaped Human Society – Rachel Menzies | Ross Menzies
Fear death? Well now you can fear death with an increased awareness of why and remove the veil of comfort from things we use to cope with it. As with many books like this, the authors get a bit carried away and point to a fear of death, an awareness of mortality, as a fundamental, if not sole, driver for a number of things from mental health to religion. While there is incredibly convincing evidence that a fear of death impacts all of these things, it is just one aspect one needs to consider. For example, religion is most certainly a means of coping with the concept of death. Reincarnation, immortality, or eternal life with a divine being all offer escapes or defeats of death itself – the early popularity of Christianity was, in part, because the afterlife it offered was “better” than other alternatives.
But religion does also serve a number of other purposes, like the fostering of communities as social animals, and the abilities to create and tell stories, both as a means to explain the world around us but also to pass on useful information through these stories. Obviously these things have evolved alongside us and more “modern” versions perceive themselves as superior and more transcendent than their primitive origins or opposing belief systems, but they are multi-faceted. While viewing them as a means of escaping or coping with death is a valid interpretation, that goes alongside the other avenues of reasons for their invention.
The book was enjoyable to read, if obviously just giving much more awareness to the constant existential crises one faces, and it prescribes a simple solution – stoicism. The authors reject suicide as a viable option (I disagree with parts of their approach but wholly agree with the conclusion), and admit that there is no inherent meaning to anything – a call back to Greene and Krauss in part 2 should be noted. Their remedy for this fear of death is to face and accept it. Neutral acceptance was the way of the Stoics, including Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius whose Meditations constantly referred to his mortality and his brief time both in person and in memory. Ironically, he is remembered today, but the point is salient.
Neutral acceptance that you and everyone you know will die is, the authors say, the only way to start living and finding and making meaning in what you do. As the physicists previously note, humanity is a mere blink of an eye with a blink, the Earth a small rock in a vast universe that will continue on trillions of years after humanity, our sun, our galaxy as we know it, has ceased.
The Historian’s Conscience: Australian Historians on the Ethics of History – Stuart Macintyre, Ed.
And the final entry is not as doom and gloom. This was a small collection of essays and writings by historians in Australia (not necessary historians of Australia) on some questions about what the purpose of history is and some of the conflicts within the field and in the public eye. I have a short list of ideas for pieces I want to write in response or bouncing off of some of the essays, but overall, it was a thoughtful little book. It is a bit dry, so perhaps if you’re not into the theory of history itself I’d probably skip it.
Read my previous book lists: