A round-up of June books
- Girl, Woman, Other — Bernardine Evaristo won the 2019 Booker Prize for this set stories about twelve interconnected lives — mostly Black, mostly British, mostly women. Each one is a really richly drawn character study that could almost stand alone as short stories. It was super compelling and readable. I’m not sure if it needed the epilogue at the end.
- All the Devils Are Here — And so ends my quest to read all of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels in order. In this edition, we leave behind pastoral Quebecois villages for corporate intrigue in Paris. It’s all a bit overwrought. That is fine for the murder plot — what am I reading a murder mystery series for, if not its essential overwroughtness? But the personal storyline with Gamache and his son seemed implausible and extraneous. And then, at the end, we’re back in the Eastern Townships, and it’s like the whole foray to Paris never happened. As for the series as a whole, I do think they benefit from being read in order, but actually reading all 16 novels from the start is strictly for Three Pines completists.
- Things Fall Apart — Chinua Achebe’s novel was first published in 1958. It is considered a classic African novel, and was one of the first books to tell the story of pre-colonial Africa from an African perspective. I liked it well enough, and I’m glad I read it. But I think it’s a case of a book being so influential that it loses some of its impact. Obviously you can still encounter books that are fundamentally colonial in outlook, but the anti-colonial or postcolonial voice is now common enough that I think the impact of this specific book was diluted for me.
- The Tyranny of Merit — In this book, Sandel argues that meritocracy is fundamentally a flawed idea on an individual level because it conceals the contingency of our lots in life. But more importantly, it’s a flawed idea on a societal level because it takes morality out of civil discourse, replacing moral questions with market-value assessments. Because of a ‘rhetoric of rising’ —promising you can go as far as your talents will take you—we don’t need to concern ourselves with the plight of the less fortunate. We just need to offer them a potential opportunity to escape that misfortune. Sandel’s policy prescriptions feel most robust in the area of selective higher education (unsurprisingly, as that’s his milieu). I am looking forward to picking up some of his threads on the welfare of producers (vs. consumers). Compared to Markovits’s The Meritocracy Trap, it is less focused on practical, measurable effects of meritocracy, and more concerned with the philosophical underpinnings of fairness and democracy.
- When More is Not Better — I read Roger Martin’s new book immediately after The Tyranny of Merit, and it was a great contrast. Martin and Sandel are using very different frameworks and academic traditions to diagnose the same societal symptoms. Their conclusions are complementary, but at their core, they both identify the same threat to western democracy — a status quo that rewards a small minority disproportionately, while the majority is squeezed. For Martin, the paradigm to be disrupted isn’t meritocracy, but rather efficiency. We treat the world (and especially the business world) as if it were a predictable machine that can be optimized. Martin argues that society is a complex, adaptive system that requires different strategies to achieve the outcomes we seek. Much of the book is devoted to outlining those strategies — for business executives, political leaders, educators, and citizens. I was pleased to see a call for higher taxes in the list, because it had seemed conspicuously absent from Sandel and Markovits’s books on meritocracy.
- Small is Beautiful — I read this book because Zita Cobb recommended it in a talk a couple of years ago. It’s a real trip to read an economic policy book that’s nearly 50 years old. On the one hand, some of E.F. Schumacher’s arguments for ‘economics as if people mattered’ feels like they could have been written last week. His 1973 advocacy for economics that considers the producer—not just the consumer— is very much aligned to Sandel’s similar writing in 2020. On the other hand, his concern that Britain miscalculated in phasing out coal mining seems deeply silly from the vantage point of our current climate emergency. On other topics like nationalization, the specifics of his policy prescriptions no longer resonate, but his broader philosophy on structuring company ownership feels very relevant to the current moment, and particularly to discussions about privilege and equity.