In the picture below is a stack of books that I am reading and re-reading this month. Some I haven’t started yet, some I’m in the middle of, some I’ve all but finished, some I’m reading all over again. I certainly don’t plan to review these books in this post, or even summarize them — instead, I’m going to pragmatically blurb them. That is, as the post title suggests, I’m just going to explain why I’m reading these books now and how they are helpful to me. If you have thoughts on these books, or further suggestions, or would like to share your own January reading list, please feel free to post in the comments.
West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War, Heather Cox Richardson
This book is a timely read just now for a few reasons. First, I’m putting together my syllabus for the spring semester — I’m teaching two sections of the U.S. history survey (1865 – present) and trying to figure out (as always) how to sketch a big picture (or a few big pictures) and zero in on the crucial details. The introduction to West from Appomattox is just seven pages long, and it’s a fine example of how to concisely draw in broad, bold strokes quick landscape sketch of a moment of crucial historical change. I am putting a .pdf of the intro on course reserve for my students — and I’m shamelessly plundering some of Richardson’s narrative turns and details for my own lectures on Reconstruction.
I’m also reading this book for its craftsmanship. Richardson writes with a fluid, clean, spare but not spartan prose style, well-crafted and practical, not fussy but elegant, that I greatly admire and appreciate. I couldn’t write just like her, but I just like how she writes.
Economix: How Our Economy Works (And Doesn’t Work), by Michael Goodwin; illustrated by Dan E. Burr
This is a really fun book for undergrads. It’s a graphic novel presenting a history of political economy from mercantilism and the Physiocrats to neoliberalism and globalization. I’m using selected pages from one of its chapters (Chapter 3, “The Money Power (1865-1914)”) to illustrate some of my lectures this semester. Here’s a sample, from the section on the Progressives.
Clearly, not a substitute for reading and discussion — but a fun visual to introduce some of TR’s domestic policy initiatives. (The slight, soft-pedaled note in the lower-right-hand corner on the shifting meanings of “liberalism” is also a nice touch, and I’ll sound that note a few times this semester.) Of course what makes this visual lively is its artful quotation of period caricatures of TR — so of course I’ll use plenty of those as well. Anyhow, this is a fun book.
The Marx-Engels Reader, second edition, edited by Robert C. Tucker
For now, I’m just reading the excerpts from Capital and the selections from the Grundrisse, for two reasons: 1) I will be leading a discussion on the Grundrisse in a new reading group that I have joined, and 2) I’m trying to carve out the boundaries of a Big Question that is lurking behind or beneath or within or around my project. I’ll explain in more detail below, but the basic problem I’m interested in is understanding changing notions of the idea of value — especially the changing historical connections (or lack thereof) between economic/pecuinary and moral/philosophical measures or judgments of value. Seems like Marx had some ideas on this.
A History of Economic Thought, by William J. Barber
This new reading group, made up of some of my fellow community college profs from history, sociology, and even philosophy, is looking this year at the history of economic thought. This brief, serviceable (albeit slightly dated) summary by William J. Barber is a good background text for all of us, useful for sketching out the contours of economic thought from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes. (The epilogue of the book, written for later editions, carries a note of befuddlement — Keynes’s models aren’t working; what will replace them? What indeed!)
The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II, by Roger L. Geiger
I have been reading this book, off and on, a chapter or two at a time, since I defended my dissertation. After a longue-duree introductory chapter (for Americanists, that means about 100 years) on the history of Stanford University, I spilled most of my ink in that project on texts and ideas swirling about from the 1960s to the 1990s. I missed being able to think about the “backstory” of the university in American cultural history — the broader view, the longer view. But I would never have been able to think about that longer story with the clarity and command of Geiger, who has been thinking deeply about that broader view for a long time. This is a very fine, richly sourced synthesis of the history of higher education in America. And as prose style goes, Geiger’s is also a pleasure to read. His writing too shows an elegance, economy and balance that I especially appreciate at present, as I try to regain my own sense equilibrium as a writer.
Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal, by Kim Phillips-Fein
The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, edited by Philip Mirowski & Dieter Plehwe
Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns
I’m grouping these three books together (perhaps over the objections of Mirowski & Plehwe, who were a little testy in their new preface regarding the work of both Burns and Angus Burgin) because I’m still working out whether and to what extent I can make a truly defensible claim that the ballyhooing of “the market” that I’m seeing in particular primary sources from the 1960s is actually neoliberal thought; perhaps my sources just reflect earlier valorizations of the market as the arbiter of (some? all?) values. I have gone out on a limb with my argument — this is neoliberalism! in the 1960s! — and I’m looking to these three texts (plus Burgin and Stedman-Jones) to figure out if I really want to be that far out there.
Breaking the Academic Mould: Economists and American Higher Learning in the Nineteenth Century, edited by William J. Barber
The Origins of American Social Science, by Dorothy Ross
I bought the Barber collection for its essays on the founding and early culture of the economics departments at Stanford, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago, and I have read both of those chapters. (“Political Economy in an Atmosphere of Academic Entrepreneurship: The University of Chicago,” by William J. Barber; “Political Economy in the Far West: The University of California and Stanford University,” by Mary E. Cookingham) I will probably get around to the other chapters, but for now I’m focused pretty tightly on these departments and institutional cultures.
I’m collating this sort of reading within Dorothy Ross’s larger overview of the ideas animating the emergence of the social sciences as modern academic/professional disciplines. (In fact, I think Ross cites one or another of the essays from the Barber collection in Origins of Social Science.) And I’m coming back to Ross again for an idiosyncratic reason: I’m trying to get a bead on Clark Kerr. Bringing the full force and power of Ross’s intimidatingly thorough analysis to bear on this very small and very simple question — “So where was Clark Kerr really coming from?” — is a little bit like using a bazooka to kill a gnat. But, by golly, I bet I hit that gnat.
General Theory of Value: Its Meaning and Basic Principles Construed in Terms of Interest, by Ralph Barton Perry
The reason I’m reading this book — or will be reading it; haven’t started it yet — is right there in the title: I’m interested in theories of value, and curious about Perry’s formulation of a theory of value that (as I understand it from others’ summaries) encompasses (in fine Pragmatic fashion?) the economic and the moral, the pecuniary and the philosophical, all framed (so it seems from the table of contents) in terms of functional psychology. This book may end up moving to my “February list” — it’s not going to be a quick or easy read. In any case, it does represent an example of an explicitly articulated set of ideas, from the early 20th century, related to the Big Question I am grappling with these days.
Okay, that’s my list. What are you all reading?