I have been blogging non-stop for a year and several months. I need a break for the summer. So we are off on safari to the southern cone of Africa. Too bad the State Department has a travel warning for Kenya, but Victoria Falls, the Serengeti, and Olduvai Gorge sound pretty great…
So here is some reading for you. The following is heavy beach stuff – i.e., it is not so dumb for the beach that it wastes your time, but it is not so serious that you need to read it with a pen and can’t take it to the beach to begin with.
1. Rising Sun, by Michael Crichton, 1992. This is the ‘best’ book I have read about Asia in the last year, in that I enjoyed it a lot for the sheer paranoia and camp value of it. If you want to read seriously about Asia, there are lots of good books out there, but nothing gets to Western paranoia about ‘rising Asia’ in such an entertaining way as this. I remember reading 20 years ago, when people actually believed it. It freaked me out then too, but now, it is just a laugh riot: Japanese cowboy-wannabees buying up the Great Plains, the Japanese businessmen ‘Tuesday meeting’ where they control the US economy, omnipresent surveillance at work, sell-out American pols. It’s all there, so much campy goodness. It’s like the Red Dawn-version of Asian business. Who can’t enjoy this nationalist feeding frenzy that, today, looks irresponsibly badly researched? And no, the movie can’t replace the sheer camp, japanophic paranoia of the book.
2. The Conservative Soul, by Andrew Sullivan, 2006. This is the best book on US conservatism I have read in a long time. I used to think of myself as a conservative in the 90s, but W was so bad, that I drifted. This is the best analysis of what happened. I see myself as conservative in temperament, but disgusted with the course of the Republican Party in the last decade. Bush was a nadir in the history of the presidency. Many serious conservatives know this. Sullivan and David Brooks particularly played a critical socratic gadfly role for the American right during the Bush years. Occasionally I watch Fox for an ‘ideology fix,’ and I leave consistently disturbed at what passes for conservative commentary on the right’s central media organ. But I left the book saddened. Sullivan’s image of the conservative as doubter and skeptic was accurate to my mind, but also enervating and tragic. It presents what Charles Lindblom famously called ‘muddling through’ – depressingly mundane enough – plus, a tragic eye thrown backward on what we have lost both in civilization and in our own personal lives. This vastly transcends the Fox-Palin variant that has taken over in the US with the Tea Party and such. It is as insightful as Lind or Phillips’ work, but much philosophically richer.
3. China Rising, by David Kang, 2008. Ok, this one is a little academic, but it is the best title I have read on Asia in awhile, and that is all I read these days. Way too much of the literature on Asia is journalistic and boosterish, with titles like ‘China will rule the world soon,’ or the ‘inevitable power shift.’ Too often, CNN-style trend-spotting substitutes for analysis, and I troll through far too much of that c— everyday in my daily reading. Yawn. I am sick of being told about power shifts, tectonic changes, new orders, etc. in an easy journalistic fashion (maybe that includes my blog…). How about some rigorous analysis for a change? Kang is one of the best Asian IR scholars, and I think this book gets a lot right, even if China worries me more than him.
4. Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond, 2005. If you haven’t read this, then you have missed one of the most important popular social science books in the last decade. The prose is elegant. The case work exciting, new, and reasonably convincing. But most importantly, it is good macro-theory, which is so rare these days. Macro-theory is easy; anyone can pose as Hegel or Marx and claim to ‘unlock’ world history, with just a few variables, but usually it is self-serving bunk (think religious fundamentalism, e.g.). Diamond actually does it convincingly, and he can reach the non-social scientist. You’ll never get a better explanation for the sad fate of so many indigenous peoples. It can be heart-breaking.
5. Civilization, by Kenneth Clarke, 1969. I am an amateur in art, but if I read the above stuff all day, my head would explode – so here is something that has absolutely nothing to do with Asian security or US foreign policy. Clark connects meaning to art in way that really helps you understand why so much art is ‘great’ when you really don’t know why yourself. You’ve heard the Mona Lisa is amazing your whole life, but it just looks like a smiling woman, right? I have this same problem, which is why I am a social scientist I imagine. But Clark will walk you through it, teach you what you don’t see in so much of what you have been told is a ‘classic.’ By the time you finish, you’ll think about just how pointless your profession really is compared to the timelessness of the something like Chartres or Guernica.
I will try to post a bit from the travels, but I imagine that will be hard. Check back again in August. REK