Porchlight Owner, President & CEO, Rebecca Schwartz, recaps the five best Narrative & Biography books of the year.
Disparate in subjects, points of view, authorial concerns, all five books in our 2019 Narrative and Biography category nevertheless share one vital quality: each in its own way possesses a kind of urgency—in its topic, its theme, its language, its relationship to our lives today. This sense of exigency, this grab-you-by-the-lapels call to read is precisely that element that keeps us celebrating the book as an institution, as a force for lightning-bolt inspiration, for darkest night solace, for essential social or political action. From the anything-but dismal science explored in The Economist’s Hour; to the excavation of a father, the resonance of racism, and his son’s eventual admiration in Think Black; to the dogged investigation of sexual harassment in the workplace (and beyond) in She Said that testifies to the true power of journalism; to the story and its unearthing of one of the world’s most secretive and consequential companies in Kochland; to the twanging, buzzing, humming, and crackling sonic revolution recounted in The Birth of Loud—each of these works possesses an imperative that demands our attention, and in exchange rewards us abundantly.
The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society by Binyamin Appelbaum, Little, Brown and Company
The title of this nuanced and comprehensive examination of the outsized role economists have played in setting contemporary policy in the United States (monetary and otherwise) comes from their rise in stature in the four decades between 1969 and 2008. Appelbaum’s lucid study is at once journalistic and narrative, deeply researched and richly detailed. If the practitioners of the so-called ‘dismal science’ were perceived in the Forties to be Quonset hut-dwelling peripheral eggheads, by the Seventies they were central to the choices America’s leaders made about what our society values. It is in that history that we see the transition from the classic New Deal conviction that the government has an essential role in investing in what makes citizens’ lives better—including infrastructure, education, and a robust social safety net—to the full-throated rejection of non-military federal spending in favor of faith that unfettered markets will provide. And provide they have—for those already well-provided for. Indeed, Appelbaum argues that in privileging shareholder capitalism (the approach that came to be most closely associated with Milton Friedman), the cost is not only Gilded Age levels of income inequality, but the instability of liberal democracy itself. Approachable and important, The Economists’ Hour is a book that illustrates the story of just how we got to the end of the “economists’ hour” in 2008 and find ourselves where we are economically in 2019—and why it matters.
Think Black by Clyde W. Ford, Amistad
Ford’s memoir is a most interesting sort of autobiography: about his life, yes, but also about his father’s, particularly about the senior Ford’s experience as IBM’s first Black systems engineer, the racism he endured, and the pride he nevertheless felt in being selected for his position by Thomas Watson himself. It is also a primer on what it means to be a “first” (the first Pullman porter to give a lecture at Dartmouth, the first Black family in the first co-op in the Bronx, the first Black son of the first Black software engineer also to work at IBM); on IBM’s disturbing and essential role in Hitler’s Nazi machinery, among other ugly enterprises; on the progression of the mathematics and science of coding from the earliest IBM 407; on an archetypal father-son relationship built on generational conflict, shifting visions, independence, and, ultimately, love. Compellingly, Ford illustrates the way in which the building of an algorithm is not based on some disembodied “truth,” but on coding by human beings, individuals who have their own backgrounds and biases, which get written into that code. From voting to credit scores to increasingly automated job application filters, algorithms have an enormous effect on our lives, especially, as Ford demonstrates, on Black lives. And yet he makes clear that bias-free coding is possible—if we as a society are willing to value and prioritize it. Think Black’s range is considerable, as is the insight, history, and warmth it provides.
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey, Penguin Press
This critically important book by Kantor and Twohey tells several essential stories at once: of the persistent and painstaking investigative journalism that not only changes lives but propels a movement, of how the complicity of others is necessary to allow those with power to abuse it, of the risks taken by those within a company who finally came forward to share what they know, and of the victims’ bravery to break their silences and tell their truths. The bulk of the book centers on Harvey Weinstein and his by now well-known decades of sexually harassing young women in his midst over whom he had power. However, rather than focusing on Weinstein (though the authors necessarily include him, in all his revolting and bombastic bulk), their emphasis is on how he was allowed to continue his terrorizing of the women in his orbit, how all around him spun hundreds of people who were too powerless or too self-interested or too fearful or too cynical to say No. The authors reveal how the nondisclosure agreements that Weinstein—and others, including Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump—forced women to sign were doubly damning, silencing the victims and allowing the men to continue to sexually harass others without consequence. And they show us what happens when one courageous woman, Christine Blasey Ford, stands up to confront her alleged accuser in person—the outpouring of support, mainly from women, and the backlash against her, largely from men. Ultimately, Kantor and Twohey’s book asks the question: how do we evaluate the success of a movement if that which it sought to change largely remains the same? While #MeToo has become a global rallying cry, powerful and predatory men in a vast array of businesses and institutions continue to mistreat women and buy their silences. The answer must be that we judge its impact by the dignity it restores to individual lives, the vocabulary it introduces to a culture, and the courage it engenders in those less powerful and in their allies. For this and so much more, the value of the work Kantor and Twohey have done cannot be overstated.
Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America by Christopher Leonard, Simon & Schuster
On a wall at our shop is a quotation from my father, A. David Schwartz: “The true profit in bookselling is the social profit; the bottom line, the measure of the impact of the bookshop on the community." This expression of the value of working for the social good could not be more opposite to the sole purpose and mission of Charles Koch and Koch Industries: profit for personal and political gain alone. Piece by piece, Christopher Leonard’s even-handed and eye-opening Kochland reveals the deliberateness and multi-tentacled approach that built Koch into one of the largest private companies in the world, one that is fundamental to myriad essential sectors, from petroleum to paper products, fertilizer to financial instruments, asphalt to textiles. If you’re someone who grew up in the Sixties boycotting grapes because the pickers were exploited by those who employed them, or someone who refuses to buy through a particular internet giant because of, well, a variety of principles, you just might be hard-pressed to exist in this world and avoid all that Koch touches—though in his important and expansive book, Leonard makes it evident why you might want to try. Despite the Wichita-based behemoth’s notorious secrecy, Leonard’s seven years of research yields an enormously captivating—and often disturbing—corporate history, as well as an intriguing portrait of brother Charles and the political and financial capital he has amassed since 1967 when he took over the family’s energy company. Koch codified his business principles in the almost Biblically handed down system of Market-Based Management, and Leonard reveals how MBM made its way into every aspect of Koch’s approach to running his company, from the mundane (e.g. the receiving line at the Koch annual holiday party) to the bloodless (e.g. wringing productivity from employees by tracking their every activity to the moment and publicizing their rankings). Perhaps one of the most disquieting aspects of Leonard’s examination is his discussion of Koch Industries’ ongoing and wildly successful efforts to wield the company’s powerful lobbying arm to defeat any effort at combating climate change; Koch’s enormous political network leaves unseen fingerprints on nearly every pro-fossil fuel move our government makes. For Koch Industries, there’s simply too much at stake, and too much money to lose, to chance the success of policies that prioritize effective environmental protections; the warming of the Earth’s temperature beyond repair is not a line on its balance sheet.
While Ian Port’s propulsive history of the electric guitar would be compelling reading for aficionados, is also a swift and beautifully written story of the business of twentieth century American music that anyone could find a joy to read. Centering his lens on the introverted and mild southern California electrical engineer Leo Fender and the limelight-seeking, guitar virtuoso from Waukesha, Wisconsin, Les Paul, Port extends his examination to include many other side men and women who were essential to the technical development, the refinement, and the popularization of the electrified guitar. Moving chronologically and toggling between peers and sometime rivals Fender and Paul (as well as the many talented and creative craftspeople, merchants and musicians in their midst) a rich and fascinating story emerges about the revolutionary instruments these two men created to transform the way music is played and heard. (From Fender: the Stratocaster, the Precision Bass guitar, the first stacked amplifier; from Les Paul and his partner Gibson: the Les Paul Gibson and the infinitely valuable multitrack recorder). In a kind of chicken-egg symbiosis, over the second half of the twentieth century, the development of these musical devices led many times over to the invention of new sound, just as the drive to create new music led to the invention of instruments with which to make it. With the ear of a guitar player, Port offers and revelatory and expansive window into how we got to today’s music, his nimble writing never more potent than when he describes the sonic qualities of each new invention. (You’ll never hear Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock “Star Spangled Banner” the same way after reading Port’s narration of what the musician makes his Stratocaster do.) The Birth of Loud is a story of legacy, of inheritance and modification and reimagination (and sometimes coincidence) over half a century, the story of a former radio repairman and a talented showman who together helped make Western Swing, California Surf Rock, the Blues, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Pop, and eventually Punk loud enough to shake and remake the foundations of music.