This year has been a year of change, to put it mildly. And so, the books that have captured my attention in 2017 have focused on an America that could have been in “American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace," about FDR's Vice President and the architect of the New Deal; the reasons for the America that exists, in “Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation;” and the forces that have shaped our current culture in “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.” Having understood this context I also read “In Praise of Idleness,” by Bertrand Russell which provides clear solutions to many of our core issues. Finally, I read several of George Simenon's “Maigret” novels, which show what can happen when (an admittedly fictional) someone applies intelligence and context to solve a problem, rather than resorting--as happens in our present information-obsessed culture--to raw data alone.
Happy New Year.
American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace
By John C. Culver and John Hyde
"The Wallaces have prospered and been successful, he said, because “we have never thought of wealth or social position as ends in themselves, but merely as means of enlarging our possible usefulness to the community at large."
"The question I would raise is whether a new unity can be built which is based on the principles of economic balance and an advancing culture. Is it possible to hope for an educated democracy, capable of making the necessary key economic decisions in a spirit which does not have its origins in hatred or greed or prejudice?"
"Probably the most damaging indictment that can be made of the capitalistic system is the way in which its emphasis on unfettered individualism results in exploitation of natural resources in a manner to destroy the physical foundations of national longevity."
Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation
By Nicholas Guyatt
"Abraham Lincoln, in the first years of his presidency, did more to secure government support for black emigration than any politician since James Monroe."
"Wayne was confronted by extraordinary sights. The “banditti” had cleared five hundred acres for the cultivation of crops. Most of them lived in log houses, neatly arranged in a fashion that would put to shame many white frontier settlements, and used the same utensils and manufactured goods as the soldiers who had defeated them."
Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology
By Neil Postman
"What extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people? To steelworkers, vegetable-store owners, teachers, garage mechanics, musicians, bricklayers, dentists, and most of the rest into whose lives the computer now intrudes? Their private matters have been made more accessible to powerful institutions. They are more easily tracked and controlled; are subjected to more examinations; are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them; are often reduced to mere numerical objects. They are inundated by junk mail. They are easy targets for advertising agencies and political organizations.
new technologies compete with old ones—for time, for attention, for money, for prestige, but mostly for dominance of their world-view."
"New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop."
In Praise of Idleness
By Bertrand Russell
"People have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part."
"Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle."
As a diversion from history and philosophy I read George Simenon's Maigret detective novels. This year I have read around 10 of them. Each one of them captures a time and place and allows you to imagine yourself in a particular place in Maigret's Paris. The novels capture the small details of both a place and time but also of human nature. I find a detective's process to be very similar to a designer's; you piece together the clues to the problem, try out different hypotheses, and then find the solution. The only difference being that in a murder case there is only one right answer, only one murderer; design allows for many right answers.