Discover more from ChinaTalk
A Year in Books
China, Sovietology, S&T, Spain, Turkey, Ancient Greece, and a Grab Bag
A honeymoon, Audible, and the Voicedream app that machine-reads PDFs to me when I’m doing practically anything besides working helped me power through a lot of text this year. Going fully dry this year also freed up a lot of time.
I feel a little less guilty than I did last year reading so widely instead of researching a book of my own. ChinaTalk couldn’t exist if I hunkered down to write long outside of work, and these arguments apply to the ideas I’ve had around US-China tech history.
Bolds are notable, bold stars are the best of the year. Hyperlinks are for interviews I’ve done with the authors.
Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s, Julian Gewirtz (2022). So few books that really read Party sources come out every year I feel obligated to devour each one regardless of the writing quality. But Gewirtz, who moonlights as a poet, can really write! Particularly in the second half of this one I was brought to tears by his retelling of the prospects for political reform in the late 1980s. While reading, I couldn’t help myself from drawing up a list of questions for a ChinaTalk interview (What if Deng died in 83? How can you see Chen Yun in Xi’s CCP?) I can’t wait to do whenever he leaves government.
Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man, Jonathan D. Spence (2007). There's no-one better than Spence at bringing Ming and Qing characters to life.
Writing in his final years, Spence handles Zhang Dai's final chapter with particular sensitivity and grace.
Innovate to Dominate: The Rise of the Chinese Techno-Security State, Tai Ming Cheung (2022). Cheung’s book did real yeoman’s work reading through reams of CCP planning documents around technology and national security. I’m still left wondering, particularly on the national security side, just how much can be divined from Xi speeches and, as Simon Leys calls it, “munching rhinoceros sausage” of party documents. I’d love to read a book delving deeper into China’s S&T megaprojects and more evaluation into how much these plans have really delivered. It’s still an open question to me just how much the Chinese state can really juice S&T progress and broader productivity growth with the current toolkit and set of constraints the system operates under.
Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA's Covert War in China, John Delury (2022). The first half on the intellectual history of the early Cold War is somehow even more gripping than the spy story. Will be having Delury on ChinaTalk.
Spies and Lies: A Groundbreaking Expose of China's Clandestine Operations, Alex Joske (2022). Book review thread below.
Xi Jinping: Political Career, Governance, and Leadership, 1953-2018, Alfred L. Chan (2022). Comprehensive! I have an interview with Alfred coming out soon.
China Watcher, Richard Baum (2010).
Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics, Perry Link (2013). 6.8.
*Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956, David Holloway (1996). Masterful reading of the source material coupled with thoughtful analysis of the social dynamics between Stalin and his scientists. It made me slightly more pessimistic on China’s S&T future given how potentially distorting authoritarian systems can be. China of course has made enormous progress from the days of Maoist science, but this sort of thing will necessarily lurk in the background. I’ll be interviewing Holloway in January.
Stalin's Library: A Dictator and his Books, Geoffrey Roberts (2022). I love the premise of a book about Stalin's marginalia, but he had way too little material to sustain the theme.
International Studies and Academic Enterprise: A Chapter in the Enclosure of American Learning, Robert A. McCaughey (1984). Fascinating chapter I scanned here on how the Ford Foundation, funded, of course, by America’s leading isolationist, became led by Cold Warriors who convinced themselves that funding Area Studies was the most impactful thing they could do.
Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations and the Rise of American Power, Inderjeet Parmar (2012). Interesting history of how institutional money helped shape the early Cold War wrapped in a frustrating and unhelpful colonialist critique.
Science and Technology
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick (2011). Breathtaking writing. The chapters on Ada Lovelace and semiconductors had me in tears.
Isaac Newton, James Gleick (2004).
*Men, Machines, and Modern Times, Elting Morison (1966).
Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting Since 1880, JoAnne Yates, Craig Murphy. (2019)
Chip War: Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology, Chris Miller. (2022) Particularly enjoyed the history-forward chapters and international component of how some countries (Taiwan, Japan) grokked chips while the USSR fell behind.
Soldiers Of Reason: The RAND Corporation and The Rise Of The American Empire, Alex Abella (2008).
The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics, Michael C. Horowitz (2010). ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ for defense ministries. My biggest takeaway was how getting there first and being the richest doesn’t necessarily leave you on top. Institutional capacity and flexibility to adapt away from technology or platforms that one you the last war or that you invested decades training on it’s easy to instill. If this sort of thinking is leaned on too hard, it can also go wrong! I’d like to read further about whether companies or defense departments took big, risky swings on new technologies that didn’t pan out. The worst tech acquisitions in history seem like a good place to start.
Now that I have Horowitz’s model in my mind, I’ve started to see its patterns play out everywhere. For instance, from Brad DeLong’s recent Slouching Towards Utopia:
Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II, Paul Kennedy (2022). He’s still got it! Pairs nicely with Horowitz’s book in that beyond raw industrial capacity to crank out ships, different Navies adopted with different levels of agility to the new technological and strategic demands of WWII warfare. I hope to have Kennedy on early next year.
España, Giles Tremlett (2022). Serviceable introduction.
The Spanish Civil War: A Very Brief Introduction, Helen Graham (2005). Excellent introduction.
Isabella of Castile, Giles Tremlett. (2014). Such a remarkable woman deserves a better biographer.
Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II, Geoffrey Parker (2014).
Moorish Spain, Richard Fletcher (2006). The ‘Party’ Kings phase after the first Muslim empire to conquer Spain collapsed, leaving city states in its wake ruled by small-town kings that liked to party and patronize poets sounded like a great time. Serious ‘Warring States’/500s BC ancient Greek vibes. Also they had ‘Winding Stream Parties’ like in ancient China! From Ibn Hamdis:
I remember a certain brook that offered the impiety of drunkenness to the topers sitting along its course, with its cups of golden wine,
Each silver cup in it filled as though it contained the soul of the sun in the body of the full moon.
Whenever a glass reached anyone in our company of topers, he would grasp it gingerly with his ten fingers.
Then he drinks out of it a grape-induced intoxication which lulls his very senses without his realising it.
He sends the glass back in the water, thus returning it to the hands of a cupbearer at whose will it had floated to him.
Because of the wine-bibbing we imagined our song to be melodies which the birds sang without verse,
While our cupbearer was the water which brought us wine without a hand, and our drink was a fire that shone without embers,
And which offered us delights of all kinds, while the only reward [of the cupbearer] was that we offered him to the ocean to drink.
It is as if we were cities along the riverbank while the wine-laden ships sailed the water between us,
For life is excusable only when we walk along the shores of pleasure and abandon all restraint!
Spain, A Unique History, Stanley Payne (2011). I like books by older historians who by the end of their career aren’t afraid to write a general history filled with hot takes. It’s so refreshing to get the author’s direct opinion on the questions I’m most interested in (Was medieval Spain really a happy melting pot? How much Moorish influence is there still today? Whose fault was the civil war? Why were the Republicans such a hot mess? How evil was Franco?). He may not be right on all or even most of these takes (the guy does rail on ‘political correctness’ and ‘multiculturalism’…) but I find I can learn more from this sort of writing, particularly in a field I’m not familiar with, than from an author who also has formed opinions that inevitably influence their telling of the narrative but isn’t explicit about them.
Istanbul, Thomas Madden (2016), 6.6.
1453, Roger Crowley (2005). 6.4
The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs, Marc David Baer (2021). 7.7.
The Ottoman Empire 1300-1650: The Structure of Power, Colin Imber (2002). I’d love to find a book that explicitly compares the Chinese imperial tradition and Ottoman Empire, but I’m not sure it exists. 7.9.
Ataturk, Andrew Mango (1963). A compelling enough character for me to want to read a good book about him, but this is not it. Choppy narrative and too narrowly scoped on his personal experience.
The Book of the Courtier, Baldassare Castiglione (1528). A lovely window into the values and preoccupations of the Italian Renaissance set in the form of accessible and clever dialogues. Castiglione features some strikingly modern views of gender dynamics and very acute observations of status games and small group dynamics. I'd like to read more high quality manners books. What's the analogous book to life in a Tang or Ming court? 8.3.
Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, Andrew Graham-Dixon. (2010). The first full biography I've read of a painter didn't quite do it for me but I would be interested in other recommendations. At what point did athletes start getting more leeway for awful behavior than artists in contemporary society?
The Tailor King: The Rise And Fall Of The Anabaptist Kingdom Of Munster, Anthony Arthur (1999). Fell asleep listening to this one once and had horrific nightmares. Humanity can get really dark.
Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World, Michael Scott (2014). I did not expect, when I read it this summer, that by the winter OpenAI would have given us a modern oracle.
The Odyssey. I listened to on Audible in Emily Wilson's translation read by Claire Danes. This time reading Odysseus came off as less likable, Telemachus as younger and the suitors as more sympathetic. Claire Danes wasn't quite as good as in her Anna Karenina reading, though she is fantastic at doing pained longing.
Plutarch's Lives. I re-read a handful of ancient Greeks (Theseus, Solon, Pericles, Themistocles, Alcibiades). Whereas I'm sure the Odyssey will be amazing rereading until I'm old, I think the peak time to read Plutarch is at 17. That said, some of the stories are still very fun.
Plato's Symposium. So much pederasty! It’s remarkable how much it also came up in the Ottoman Empire books as well.
Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City, Jorge Almazán and Joe McReynolds (2022). Fun stories of corner case political economy happenstance that led to some of the most perfect urbanization on the planet. Ever so slight NIMBY vibes which, in the case of what Tokyo has going, is completely justified. One of the authors is a PLA analyst!
Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1995).
This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1998).
The Beautiful and Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald (2002).
Legal Systems Very Different From Ours, David D. Friedman (2016). His chapters on the Cherokee and Roma legal systems were candidates for chapter of the year.
Expecting Better, Emily Oster (2018). What she’s doing in this book, reading papers from a smart outsider’s perspective applying common sense to a medical question, is so simple and so effective. From this book, Alexey Guzey’s writing, and my experience with brain injuries, I’ve dramatically adjusted down just how much I’ll defer to conventional medical wisdom if you’re willing to get into the literature yourself.
Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, Tracy Kidder (2004). One takeaway: virtue ethics only take you so far if you don’t also learn how to be effective. I would love to have heard Paul Farmer have a go with some EA leading lights.
The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, Adam Tooze. (2006). Review here. How can the world create more Adam Toozes? 9.4.
The War That Doesn't Say Its Name: The Unending Conflict in the Congo, Jason K. Stearns. (2022)
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, Jason K. Stearns. (2011) Read collectively a fascinating if deeply depressing portrait of conflict dynamics that feel very foreign thinking about contemporary US-China relations, though there may be interesting parallels to be made to historical eras in Chinese history where warlords dominated.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan. (2015). Beautiful exposition of a life in pursuit of a bliss that was wholly foreign to me. Minus one point for inspiring me to surf and in turn getting another minor concussion, though if it wasn't for all the getting whacked by waves and boards there are few things I find more pleasurable than sitting on a board in warm water at sunrise waiting for a wave.
Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World, Tyler Cowen (2022). I was getting a little frustrated in all the time I was having to spend at work hiring for interns, but this book got me much more excited about the process of trying to spot talent. What other books can turn things I find mundane in life into engaging exercises? I expect a lot of parenting to fall in this category.
ChinaTalk is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
“an abstract representation of books about China, technology, and politics, spain, turkey, ancient greece, as well as books about the Soviet Union and the origins of American area studies”