A list of recommended tomes to help ease, or perhaps to justify, bubble-induced ennui. Suggestions from our readers are always welcome. Updated irregularly, but frequently!
Jean Baudrillard, America (1989)
In the spirit of Tocqueville, French theorist Jean Baudrillard recounts his sojourn in the United States. His observations, often cryptic, often hilarious and invariably warranted, reveal a nation shot through with paradox and grotesque excess. The sort of chronicle only a Frenchman can write. Definitely not for the Fox-News crowd.
Mark Bauerlein condenses long experience as an English professor into this pungent diatribe on generation bubble. Vain, helpless nincompoops all, they believe themselves nonetheless entitled to the cream of the social surplus. And this, according to Bauerlein, is precisely the problem. They bring their self-centered, incompetent ways to every context, leaving every context poorer for it. In their sheer vacuity they represent a force of overwhelming Spenglerian decline. The reader dismisses Bauerlein as a curmudgeonly boomer at her peril.
Jack Beatty, Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900 (2008)
No cultural path is so sucky as to discourage our going down it again, it seems. Beatty’s historiography, politically inflected in the best sense, compares favorably to Marxian British historians of previous generations like E. P. Thompson and Gareth Stedman Jones. What is past is incontrovertibly, depressingly prelude; Beatty’s treatment of the Gilded Age offers the perceptive reader as many insights into his own moment as of historical ones. To his credit Mr. Beatty wears his learning and convictions lightly; the polemic is always subtle, never heavy-handed, and is seamlessly integrated into the prose; the gusto with which he tackles his subject proves infectious. Some chapters, such as those treating the rise and spectacular collapse of the Populists, and the labor unrest at the Carnegie steelworks, have a tragic sweep to them that will leave only the most jaded eye unmoist.
Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” (1940)
This essay, really a series of vatic theses, will make any Progressive reconsider the “Progress” part of the this descriptor. According to Benjamin’s mystical brand of material historicism, progress in its flight toward the future becomes a means not of greater human emanicipation but of greater exploitation. In a time of increasingly invasive technology and ever more exotic “investment vehicles,” each of Benjamin’s theses is in itself an exhortation to a more considered historical subjectivity.
Joseph Conrad, Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (1904)
A novel for specie-currency advocates out there. Charles Gould, capitalist and “sentimentalist,” believes that silver from his mine will ease the political plight of Costaguana, the South American suzerainty he calls home. He designates as his lieutenant the incorruptible Nostromo, who proves to be . . . well . . . corruptible. The fate of Gould’s silver-laden ship stands as an extremely prescient allegory of these days of TARP and TALF.
Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1992)
Davis’s book reminds you that life in the West wasn’t always about strip malls and subdivisions. He close reads Los Angeles’s fascinating and politically subversive past as a means of suggesting future possibilities for overcoming the economic and social strife that continues to plague not just Los Angeles, but also the United States.
George Raymond Geiger, The Philosophy of Henry George (1931)
Geiger’s thorough, accessible study introduces the modern reader to the most influential economist of whom he’s never heard — Henry George. In his tumultuous, too-short career, George made lasting impressions on such notable contemporaries as Leo Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw. George sought to harmonize capitalism and socialism with the elegantly simple solution of taxing land values at a high rate as a way of compensating society for exclusive title to a finite resource — the earth. If you’re sick to death of an economy that offers only house-flipping and gentrification as paths to prosperity, then George’s ideas are certainly worth a look. He’s every slumlord’s nightmare!
Mel Gordon, Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (2006)
Gordon’s delightful account is filled with rare photographs and vivid details of life during the last days in Berlin before the National Socialists shut the party down. Considering the Fed’s recent decision to fire up the printing presses, Gordon’s book could prove a useful primer on how to navigate a hyperinflated world.
David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005)
A lucid, depressing exposé of the greatest swindle of our time — neoliberalism, otherwise known as political economy Pinochet style — those heady fetid years when financiers somehow managed to convince working stiffs and trailer trash that the government was their greatest enemy. Harvey pursues a classically Marxian thesis of class warfare waged by Goldwater-inspired thinktanks and their lobbyist axemen, but does so with such scholarly aplomb that you’ll find yourself crying, “Forward, Soviet!”
Doug Henwood, Wall Street: How It Works and for Whom (1998)
A prescient and enlightening read, Henwood’s book takes the reader on a tour of Wall Street’s skeleton-filled closets while educating her in the fundamentals of modern finance. It’s worth taking a look at Wall Street alone for Henwood’s Freudian reading of the pathologically avaricious doings of finance.
Robert Kuttner, The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity (2007)
The American Prospect‘s Robert Kuttner shines a penetrating light on the tenebrous associations among legislators, lobbyists and financiers. The result of his examination? We in the U. S. most certainly have a representational form of government. Problem is, it doesn’t really represent us. Kuttner’s acrid exposé leaves little doubt that we little people are in deep doo-doo, indeed. An excellent, more up-to-date complement to Doug Henwood’s Wall Street.
Ed Park, Personal Days (2008)
In this spirited send-up of postmillennial drudgery, Park manages nothing less than the invention of an entirely new narrative point of view — first-person corporate — which he marshals to astonishing effect, giving new impetus and texture to Dilbertian anomie. After reading Park’s jocund yet unsettling tale, you’ll no longer think Richard Florida’s so-called “creative class” so fortunate.
Kevin Prufer, National Anthem (2008)
National Anthem signals Kevin Prufer’s bid to become as important a poet to his historical moment as Dante and Eliot are to theirs. Prufer weaves a somber, often macabre, tapestry of loosely related poems that limn the American collective psyche, a tumultuous place where piety, perversity, hope and despair collide to form most unusual compositions, to whose notes he shows himself pitch perfect. Prufer peoples his verse with some of the most indelible voices and some of the most arresting images you’ll find, and these voices raise as one to sing the American dream to its long home.
Mike Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution (2008)
Rapport takes the reader on a brisk jaunt through this annus mirabilis, bringing to life the actors and events from the soggy reaches of the British Isles to the oogy recesses of the Carpathians. Rapport’s is a decidedly activist history writing; he peppers his narrative with enough allusions to recent times that you’ll find yourself wanting to man the barricades.
Nothin’ says “bubble” like a Potemkin village, Disney style. Ross takes up residence in this master-planned wonderland to peer into the Truman-Show lives of its denizens. He finds that all is not celebration in Celebration; shoddy craftsmanship and suffocating covenants lead to a degree of friction no amount of pixie dust can lubricate. In portraying the seamier side of reclaimed-swampland paradise, Ross pulls of the impossible — bringing a sense of the organic to the eminently pre-fab.
Wallace Shawn, Essays (2009)
Wallace Shawn’s Essays is a collection of thirteen essays and two interviews. Though written over the course of 25 years on such diverse topics as personal morality, the politics of 9-11, the war in Iraq, theater, poetry and art, the book is unified by its concern with the question how to live a good and moral life when that life is predicated on barbarity and death. Essays stands as a sort of record of Shawn’s attempts to live such a life in spite of his own human failings. Shawn represents his struggle to live through the conflict between reality and dreams that figures as the book’s structural conceit. Reality and engagement must be tempered by dreams and disengagement. In this dialectical repetition, from reason to dreams and back, without ever staying with one for too long, Shawn finds a sort of accidental method to retain and maintain his own humanity.
Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (1875)
A Ponzi scheme, Victorian style! Trollope’s snarky, sprawling chronicle of financial adventurers will have you both laughing and nodding knowingly. Dissolute peer Felix Carbury aims to recoup his family’s fortune by capitalizing gambling debts owed him, and the mysterious swell Melmotte is all too willing to bring him into his latest scheme — a Salt-Lake-to-Mexico-City rail line. Catastrophes financial and romantic ensue. Believe us: despite its nineteenth-century vintage, The Way We Live Now looks a lot like the way we live now.
Rob Walker, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are (2008)
In Buying In, Walker discusses how the relationship between marketer and consumer has become profoundly dialogic, giving rise to a pas de deux that Walker calls murketing. A portmanteau for murky marketing, murketing denotes “the increasingly sophisticated tactics of marketers who blur the line between branding channels and everyday life,” as well as the “increasingly widespread consumer embrace of branded, commercial culture.” Reading Walker’s exposé will leave readers with the single depressing impression that for all its dazzling technological wonders (each a potentially lucrative murketing vector, of course), the new world order coming into view is one that promises monotony — monotony adorned with various “Xtreme,” “aggro” or chic publicity spectacles, but monotony nonetheless.
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996)
David Foster Wallace, whose recent passing has robbed us of one of the most incisive diagnosticians of the contemporary situation, engages in Infinite Jest in a little fictive crystal ball gazing. Set in the not-too-distant future, Wallace’s tale of a terminally entertaining film, while it frequently shows the anxiety of Pynchon’s influence a bit too plainly, rewards readers with a hilarious, keenly observant panorama of modern life’s abiding absurdities. Which is a good thing, because its 1000-plus pages of fractured multiple narratives represent a serious cognitive as well as time commitment.
Viviana A. Zelizer, The Social Meaning of Money (1994)
Zelizer’s study ranges among the many ways in which money takes on varying, often unexpected significance. Her discussion leans heavily on Georg Simmel’s Philosophie des Geldes (Philosophy of Money) written decades earlier. But Zelizer tempers Simmel’s ideas for a popular audience, and situates them in familiar contexts. Indeed, her account leaves little doubt that money is anything but an inert medium of exchange.