Wednesday, May 29, 2024
Culture & LanguageLifestyle

Handbuilt Summer Reading List

Okay. You’re locked down, quarantined, or unemployed. Stop scrolling mindlessly through the feed and read! It’s a great opportunity to get yourself learned. I also wanted to put together a COVID reading list that wasn’t all books about nerdy urban planning and finance stuff. Only, you know, mostly about nerdy urban planning and finance stuff. 

  1. I just finished Mehrsa Baradaran’s “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap.” The book is 384 pages of historical exploration of the fraught notion of “Black capitalism” in the United States. Baradaran’s narrative is matter-of-fact, legible for a reader of any knowledge level, and comprehensive, though she isn’t likely to win any awards for what is often quite clunky and repetitive prose. The crux of the book, focusing on the limited successes of fractional reserve banking in the Black community, is that American capitalism hasn’t worked for American Black people because American Black people have never been sufficiently included in American capitalism and, indeed, have been too often actively excluded. Postwar programs, especially, Baradaran notes, have disproportionately favored white Americans. This is reflected in federal mortgage lending policy and in infrastructure investment. Baradaran spends very little time– but a nonzero amount, nonetheless- on hope for the future, which, she suggests, will come from renewed interest in narratives of financial empowerment beginning with Black banking. Her argument is really that capitalism can’t work if it only works for a few, and the narrative of the virtues of capitalism never lines up with the way it is implemented at a policy level. This is interesting as it mirrors Naomi Klein’s argument in The Shock Doctrine (book #2 in my COVID reading list– see below!).
  2. Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” was written in 2008, but it still has a lot of lessons that are valuable for today in understanding the Reichstag Fire moments that politicians increasingly exploit as vehicles for implementing austerity. I’ve become very interested in the origins of austerity, and Klein and Baradaran both imply in their books that the problem is not capitalism itself, but in the unmitigated greed of a powerful few. The sins of neoliberalism, Klein suggests, are not actually sins of capitalism, but rather that neoliberalism virtually always accomplishes the exact opposite of what it ostensibly sets out to do– lower costs to consumers, make markets more competitive, and increase market access across the board. Using numerous examples from throughout the 20th century, she shows that it usually results in less competitive markets without improving the economic bottom line for the average citizen. Perhaps the most stark example is from the gradual privatization of the US military, from about a percent of the total budget before the Reagan era to about a third today. That’s hundreds of billions of tax dollars funneled directly to private companies in the name of “innovation.”
  3. My dear friend, theater aficionado and racial justice advocate Starleisha Gingrich, bought me a copy of Will Hunt’s “Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet,” which is so far pretty interesting– and less flowery to boot than Underland: A Deep Time Journey, another book about underground stuff that I also started. (Must be a trendy thing these days). 
  4. Capital in the 21st Century (Thomas Piketty).
  5. Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter” came up as my Googletron started recognizing that I was spending a nonzero amount of time in the gaming space (I fall back into this every couple of years and COVID was a great excuse) and started feeding me articles about it. In particular, I’ve become interested in a couple of things. One, I’ve spent some time thinking about how video games portray elements of the built environment and infrastructure in video games. And two, I’ve been interested in a controversy within the gaming industry over what they call ludonarrative dissonance, in which the player’s own agency is undermined by the direction that the game pushes them in. The gaming industry is stuck between a renaissance that allows easier access for independent developers and an increasing quest toward next-level elegance and depth by big budget games. Depth often fails when it tries to give a player an enormous amount of control in an “open world” but ultimately forces them into a narrow plot track. This was a complaint about The Last Of Us Part II, a post-pandemic survival game that is popular because 2020. The question of market access by small game developers is also particularly interesting to my (limited) gaming sensibilities and to my MBA brain.
  6. “I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It: How Accounting Information Undermines Profitability.” Can’t wait to read this one. I’m basically a CPA seeing as I got an A in financial accounting last quarter, right?
  7. “Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street.” This is so far pretty interesting. I’m increasingly interested in this question of how to save capitalism from itself. The authors argue that private equity is deployed in the name of profitable development of assets, but it’s often a matter of dismantling successful companies to make a small group of people very wealthy. Different lens, same story, right? We have hometown examples of PE in the form of Shinola. Another company in the US-made space acquired by PE in recent years is Washington-based, legendary shoemaker Allen Edmonds.
  8. “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change.” Recommended from my moms and invariably important in the age of COVID as unqualified policymakers publicly undermine highly qualified scientists over questions of public health.
  9. James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” I read this in 2018 and it is ever more relevant today.
  10. “Hood Feminism: Notes From Women That A Movement Forgot.” Really looking forward to this one as well, from Chicagoan Mikki Kendall.
  11. “The Ebenezer Project’s Come As You Are: An 8-Week Guided Digital Racial Justice Journal for Allies of BIPOC.” Starleisha also recommended this one as it is a friend of hers.
  12. “The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations.” I just started this for school, and it seems to have this premise that states increasingly interact via markets, and more specifically, through transnational corporations as proxies. I’m interested in this in my research as I increasingly think about the shifting role of the state from working to protect its citizens to working to protect private property increasingly concentrated in fewer hands. We see similar microeconomic trends, as corporations work to maintain the supremacy of their executives and shareholders even, quite often, at the expense of the corporation itself. This is a quick read as a corollary to David Korten’s “When Corporations Rule The World,” which I read in Monty Roper’s Global Development Studies class in 2008.

I’m working on a fiction COVID reading list, but it’s so hard because I’m picky. Taking suggestions. What are you reading? What’s keeping you inspired during these strange times? ~NZ

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Nat Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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