Books for the rest of 2022

recommended by Nick Bovee-Gazett

Summer is over and 2022 will be gone before you know it. Here are five books to close out 2022 covering ancient civil wars, the future of work, classic fantasy, and more.

  • 1


    The Civil Wars (Penguin Classics)
    by Appian, John Carter & John Carter

    Appian was a Greek historian living in the Roman Empire in the 2nd century AD. He wrote 24 volumes on Roman history of which only some survive. The volumes in this book cover a period of turmoil in Rome between 133 B.C. and about 27 B.C. This is when Rome is the main power in the Mediterranean after defeating Carthage in the Third Punic War. Despite or perhaps because of its superpower status, internal tensions tore at Roman politics and society. Problems came to a head when Tiberius Gracchus, a Roman politician who Appian describes as "an illustrious man, eager for glory" and "a most powerful speaker", introduced a law that redistributed land away from the wealthiest Romans. From then on, Roman society would be convulsed by a series of disturbances and all-out civil wars that wouldn't end until Gaius Octavius (later Caesar Augustus) defeated his rival Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. What is interesting about Appian's history is that it shows how civil war can be a drawn-out process of cycles of violence and tense domestic peace that erodes political institutions over time. Americans tend to think of civil wars from the context of our own historical experience involving pitched battles and a noble cause fought out over a relatively short time frame. Appian shows us that it can be a lot messier. In the end, Rome survived its civil wars but it was never a republic again. At a time when surveys are showing that half of Americans think a civil war is likely in the next several years, understanding the history of civil wars is important. There is plenty of good social science on the subject (How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them by Barbara F. Walters is a recent example) but I think ancient history holds insights that are just as useful. Appian will give you plenty to reflect on for the rest of 2022.

  • 2


    The Work of the Future: Building Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines
    by David H. Autor, David A. Mindell, Elisabeth Reynolds & Robert M. Solow

    This book is a report of findings from the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future. There are a lot of graphs and economic figures, but if you stick with it you will find that this short book contains a trove of valuable insights into where the future of work is going. There are three insights in particular that stuck with me. The first was the authors find no strong evidence that higher levels of income inequality lead to faster economic growth or innovation. Other countries with lower levels of inequality seem to do just as well if not better than the United States. The authors say that we're getting a poor return on income inequality in America. Second, when it comes to worker voice and income, different political and economic institutions make a big difference. Low-skill workers in places like Britain and Germany tend to fare better than their counterparts in the United States largely due to differences in labor laws and union representation. The authors highlight the historically contingent and politically motivated way that labor laws failed to keep up with changes in the economy. The good news is that these things can change and workers can regain greater security even in an era of automation. Finally, the authors report on several case studies of automation involving AI and robots. They find that these technologies do indeed carry the potential for economic transformation but that in some cases it is going slower than the many "future of work" pundits suggest. Part of the reason is that new technologies tend to follow a J-curve with slow adoption at the beginning followed by a takeoff. Much of this has to do with organizational friction as companies figure out how to use the new tech. A great example of this can be found in a working paper published on NBER ( late last year that looked at how it took 90 years for automatic telephone switching to be fully adopted.

  • 3


    A Brief History of Equality
    by Thomas Piketty & Steven Rendall

    An excellent synopsis of Piketty's much longer works, Capital in the Twenty-First Century and Capital and Ideology also includes some new thoughts on the origins of global inequality and recommendations for creating a global social democratic future. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the origins of inequality between European and non-European countries. The literature in this area can be a bit technical and dry but Piketty enlivens it and synthesizes a variety of perspectives. Piketty shows how European divergence owes much to the particular forms of inter-state competition that consumed the continent in the 17th - 19th centuries, and the role of colonies in enriching European powers. There's so much more as well. The footnotes alone are worth the price of this book. I found myself disagreeing with many of Piketty's recommendations for addressing current problems of inequality. Some struck me as totally unfeasible. For example, he suggests a global federal fiscal system to address climate change and racial inequalities. Others seemed to carry too much potential for corrupt state control, such as increasing the social ownership of private firms. That being said, Piketty is a brilliant economist and interdisciplinary scholar so all his suggestions are at least worth consideration, if for no other reason than to stimulate thinking about alternative ways to address the problems of global capitalism that he raises. Piketty does hit on a few policy recommendations that I think are feasible and could go far in addressing issues around inequality and race in America. Piketty discusses the important role of progressive income and inheritance taxes in reducing inequality both on the back-end through redistribution and the front-end through "pre-distribution" which is the change in economic behaviors driven by anticipated taxation. His discussion of affirmative action based on economic and social criteria instead of race is worth considering.

  • 4


    The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One Vol. Edition
    by J.R.R. Tolkien

    I've been enjoying the Amazon series The Rings of Power and will be re-reading Lord of the Rings this fall. I first read Tolkien's saga in middle-school as the Peter Jackson trilogy was coming to theaters and would re-read each book as the next movie was released. It was a great introduction to his fantasy classic. Like so many others, I find Tolkien's universe a joy to step into. I've periodically come back to both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit whenever I'm in need of a good story of adventure, friendship, and overcoming great evil.

  • 5


    The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln and the Struggle for American Freedom
    by H. W. Brands

    A study of character and leadership that compares Abraham Lincoln as he rose to the presidency through Illinois politics and the debates over the Fugitive Slave Law and Kansas-Nebraska Act, and John Brown, an anti-slavery zealot who saw slavery as such a great moral evil that it had to be resisted with force. H.W. Brands is in the top five American historians for me. This book is an example of why. Not just a biography, Brands situates Lincoln and Brown in the fraught politics of their times that saw the breakdown of the nation's compromise on the spread of slavery and a global movement to abolish the practice. The book covers Great Britain's abolition of slavery in 1833, the Lincoln-Douglas debates that propelled Lincoln to national prominence, and a political crisis in Kansas that included election fraud, partisan agitators, and the murder of pro-slavery settlers by Brown and his followers. In this book, Brands asks us to confront a timeless moral challenge. Should leaders work through the existing political system to achieve their goals, even if it means deeply immoral compromises, or be willing to justify violence for a moral cause?

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