Books, books, books.
1. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer. Few writers could produce brief character sketches of about a dozen or so people, break up each sketch into five or six different parts, and then spread those parts out across different chapters. Somehow, Packer manages to paint vivid pictures of his subjects — who range from a tobacco farmer to a Washington lobbyist to a Silicon Valley icon. Collectively, these portraits lead to a vivid image of what’s happening in America today. As David Brooks wrote in his thoughtful review of the book, the “unwinding” that Packer refers to has to do with three large transformations:
The first is the stagnation of middle-class wages and widening inequality. Depending on which analyst you read, this has to do with the changing nature of the information-age labor market, changing family structures, rising health care costs, the decline of unions or the failure of education levels to keep up with technology.
The second is the crushing recession that began in 2008. Depending on which analyst you read, this was caused by global capital imbalances, bad Federal Reserve policy, greed on Wall Street, faulty risk-assessment models or the insane belief that housing prices would go on rising forever.
The third transformation is the unraveling of the national fabric. Depending on which analyst you read, this is either a gigantic problem (marriage rates are collapsing; some measures of social connection are on the decline) or not a gigantic problem (crime rates are plummeting, some measures of social connection are improving).
2. Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food by Jon Krampner. I love peanut butter. When I return home from trips, one of the first things I do is eat peanut butter. I eat it before going to bed. If that’s not comfort food, I don’t know what is. So skimming this history of Jif and Skippy and the other brands was fun. Hard core fans only. I did like these sentences: “More than Mom’s apple pie, peanut butter is the all-American food. With its rich, roasted-peanut aroma and flavor, caramel hue, and gooey, consoling texture, peanut butter is an enduring favorite, found in the pantries of at least 75% of American kitchens.”
3. How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. This book is high end self-help — it asks “How to live?” and each chapter focuses on a different theme, with the insights all derived from Michel de Montaigne’s classic Essays. It’s a stimulating collection and an accessible introduction to Montaigne’s work.
If you fail to grasp life, it will elude you. If you do grasp it, it will elude you anyway. So you must follow it — and “you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.”
The trick is to maintain a kind of naive amazement at each instant of experience — but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything. Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are. To look insidey ourself is to open up an even more fantastical realm. The philosopher Maurice Merlau-Ponty called Montaigne a writer who put “a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence.” More recently, the critic Colin Burrow has remarked that astonishment, together with Montaigne’s other key quality, fluidity, are what philosophy should be, but rarely has been, in the Western tradition.
4. Philanthrocapitalism by Matthew Bishop and Matthew Green. A solid introduction to the new generation of philanthrpists like Gates and the mega giving they are undergoing. Some good coverage of corporate philanthropy, too. Two random lessons:
- People are motivated to give in large part due to religious faith; this explains why Americans are more charitable than Europeans (Americans are more religious) and why people on the political right give more than those on the political left.
- Government aid usually requires broad consensus and adheres to political correctness; private philanthropy, Mike Bloomberg suggests, is unique in that it can pursue a diversity of agenda.
5. Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It by Kamal Ravikant. A very short and simple book that has generated some buzz amongst some Silicon Valley insiders. How simple? The point of the book is to tell yourself “I love myself” over and over and over again. That’s it. It’s almost laughably simple and almost certainly narcissistic. And I’m not sure I’d recommend the book. Then again, I tried it, and with some sheepishness, I must admit it does make me feel better when I’m feeling blue….
6. Fuck It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way by John Parkin. “Fuck it” is the Western expression of the Eastern idea of “let it go.” Let it go. Fuck it. Move on. Another extremely simplistic book I’m not sure I’d recommend, but kind of amusing to read in parallel with Love Yourself.
7. Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia.
This is an important book. Mackey and Sisodia present a framework for thinking about capitalism that involves multiple stakeholders and a do-good mission embedded in a for-profit structure. Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, believes we need to “liberate the heroic spirit of business” by letting free market enterprise flourish, because the businesses that themselves flourish are the ones that maintain elevated values, pursue a noble mission, and satisfy a variety of stakeholders (not just the shareholders). I expect we’ll see more and more books that seek to explain the default moral arc of capitalism.