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Last year, our annual Best Scholarly Books forum didn’t come out until early January — too late to have much impact on your holiday gift-buying, unless you’re chronically tardy in such matters. Fear not: with uncharacteristic dispatch, this year we’ve worked late into the night to bring you 13 must-read titles just in time for Christmas, provided you do your shopping at the last possible minute. And there are still a few days left of Hanukkah, too. (If you’re reading this in January — buy yourself a New Year’s gift, why not?)
As ever, we asked our contributors to interpret “best” as broadly as possible. The resulting list is odd, interesting, and quite unpredictable. Whether you’re a political junkie or an antiquarian, a novel-reader or a fan of philosophical self-help, there’s something for everyone here. Happy holidays!
C. Thi Nguyen | Anahid Nersessian | Jon Baskin | Matthew Desmond | Martha S. Jones | Hal Foster | Marcia Chatelain | Anthony Grafton | Mariana Alessandri | Ethan Porter | Natalia Molina | Christopher Blattman | Audra Simpson
Rethinking the Rules
According to Daston, there are three distinct conceptions of a rule. In ancient uses, “rule” often meant something like a model: a specific person or institution that we are meant to emulate. The rule-as-model might be, for example, a particular saint. When you follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, you try to act as Saint Benedict would. Notice that the application of a model is a complex matter requiring sensitive judgment. There is no explicit direction as to what Saint Benedict would do in a particular case; one must consider carefully whether, for example, the saint would ask a sick monk to work, given his dedication to both monastic stability and to mercy.
A second conception of rule is a principle. A principle is an abstract and general directive, but it is meant to be applied with discretion rather than followed mechanically. Principles offer general guidance for action, but they also encompass a range of possible exceptions. They do not pretend to be able to handle every possible turn of events. Principles, says Daston, are abstract but not rigid.
In contrast to the model and the principle is the third conception of rule: the rule as algorithm, which is meant to be followed absolutely and unthinkingly in all cases. Following an algorithm does not require expert judgment or sensitivity. We need not cultivate an eye for unexpected conditions which might lead to exceptions. And algorithms offer a clear benefit: When we render an activity into a set of algorithmic rules, we break down the procedure into such clear steps that anybody can follow it — even a novice, or a machine.
Daston demonstrates that the conception of a rule-as-algorithm — which can seem so fundamental — is actually quite new. It has become dominant only in the last couple of centuries. She attributes its rise to economic motives. When you turn a set of principles or a guiding model into a set of algorithms, you no longer need to employ highly trained experts. You can farm out the procedure to cheaper labor, or automate it. The process then becomes less expensive — but it also becomes inflexible, and insensitive to unexpected shifts in conditions. Algorithms, says Daston, work well when the world is flat and stable; they perform poorly when contexts shift dynamically.
Rules develops this argument through an extraordinary range of historical examples. We tour ancient guidebooks for monastic life, cookbooks, manuals for budding artists, medieval legal codes attempting to regulate the fashion industry, and statistics instruction manuals. Through it all, we see the tension between an approach to life in which we follow flexible guidelines — with room for interpretation and exceptions based on expert judgment — and one that fetishizes rigid and exceptionless algorithms.
C. Thi Nguyen is a professor of philosophy at the University of Utah.
A Demonstration of Visceral Realism
I’ve read only one book in this series: David Kurnick’s The Savage Detectives Reread, which takes on Roberto Bolaño’s 1998 epic about a loosely organized group of avant-garde Latin American poets caught in the crossfire of history. So while I can’t speak to the series in general, I can say that Kurnick’s contribution is incandescent.
Kurnick is an immaculate stylist. His prose is both utterly serious and also playful, seductive, bold. His sentences bend around Bolaño’s, producing sophisticated instances of narrative theory without ever losing their momentum. Take this passage, an explanation of why he (Kurnick) compulsively misremembers a certain plot point in the novel, the death of the bisexual proletarian poet Piel Divina at the hands of the police and not, as Kurnick keeps thinking, of AIDS. It’s probably, he says, because another Bolaño novel, the posthumous Woes of the True Policeman (2011), features “a young gay poet” who combines attributes of the handful of queer characters in The Savage Detectives:
Under other circumstances, with a different writer, I would be the first to denounce this fungibility, to insist on the specificity of this disease and the people who mostly die from it. But […] Bolaño’s willingness to see the etiology of gay death as contingent while maintaining total fidelity to the experience of gay death is a profound manifestation of his loyalty to a generation, a loyalty that demands that every member be seen in the separateness of their fate and that every member be seen also, flatly but unquestioningly, as a member. ‘Many of my friends have died,’ Bolaño told an interviewer in 1999, ‘whether in armed revolutions or from overdoses or from AIDS.’ It’s just a list, a string of options. Bolaño makes it feel like the only adequate syntax of memorialization.
Bolaño’s poets call themselves “visceral realists.” Kurnick’s book is not just an exploration of what that might mean but a demonstration of the principle. It’s a work of living, electric, palpably humane literary theory. It encourages us to understand “abstraction” not as “a bloodless thinning-out, but as the intensification that results when the inessential is eliminated”; Bildung as a maddeningly persistent “Morse code” that taps out its beats in “a place beyond articulate language”; the novel’s “hundreds of pages of speaking-in-time” as freighted with “a vividness … almost literally unbelievable.” The book is also hilarious and selectively profane: Kurnick is especially dazzling on the distinction one of Bolaño’s characters posits between being a poet who is “maricón” and one who is merely “marica.” Whatever Kurnick does, I — to borrow his words — “can finally only say, Go on, I’m listening.”
Anahid Nersessian is a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Getting What We Deserved
Well, aren’t we? Those who laugh at the graduate student’s joke take it as axiomatic that “truthfulness demands taking a dim view of the human condition.” The graduate student deep inside me can still, just barely, imagine being convinced by such a view. But Lear makes it impossible not to see this supposedly “realistic” analysis as feeding its own convenient fantasy. The fantasy is one in which human beings are so contemptible that there could be nothing to mourn in our extinction.
In the remaining essays of Imagining the End: Mourning and Ethical Life (Harvard University Press), Lear attempts to drain his reader’s interest in the comforting despair that underlies the joke (if we will not be missed, then there is no reason to fear the apocalypse, and nothing to do about it) and reorient it toward those human qualities that, were the world to end, would be legitimately worth mourning — including the very ability to mourn. He does so in large part by emphasizing moments in the history of the humanities — Aristotle on Priam, Freud on transience, Melanie Klein on gratitude — that he has come to see as a repository of inspiration and generously given wisdom whose loss would be self-evidently regrettable.
None of it would work if Lear’s writing were not itself so alive with the pleasure, inquisitiveness, and openness to surprise that it recommends. As I read my way through the chapter on Meghan and Harry’s wedding, the chapter on the Gettysburg National Cemetery, and the chapter on Cora Diamond and the “difficulty of reality,” I found myself wishing — almost unheard of for an academic book! — that it wouldn’t have to end.
Jon Baskin is editor of The Point.
Setting the Record Straight on Immigration
In the early decades of the 20th century, many European immigrants arrived on these shores penniless. The same is true for immigrants today. Abramitzky and Boustan show that the children of immigrants have some of the highest rates of economic mobility in the nation and that their success does not come at the expense of native-born Americans.
Abramitzky and Boustan exploit the case of the border closure of the 1920s to examine how immigrant restrictions affect the American labor market. When immigration flows slowed, employers didn’t suddenly begin hiring native-born workers at competitive wages. Instead, they turned to machines or shuttered. The same pattern is repeating itself today as the nation’s militant border policy has slowed migration. Immigrants power the economy in unexpected ways, which means that sealing off the border harms all of us.
In the tradition of the best academic books, Streets of Gold replaces myth with fact, applying sophisticated analyses to large and novel data. Yet the book is clearly written and lucid. The result is one of the most important and convincing books on immigration published in a generation.
Matthew Desmond is a professor of sociology at Princeton University.
A Provocation on Slavery — and Its Afterlives
For a historian like me, the republication of Scenes of Subjection is an opportunity to appreciate how Hartman’s ideas have become tightly woven into our thinking about slavery and its afterlives. Hartman’s book broke with a conventional orthodoxy that divided the past between slavery and post-slavery. Slavery’s abolition, which by law arrived in the U.S. in 1865, may have been an inflection point, but for Hartman, emancipation did not relegate the subjection of Black Americans to the past. Instead, she urges us to see and explain the apparent continuities between the pre- and post-1865 worlds.
Emphasizing broad interpretive frameworks, Hartman also urges scholars of Black history to regard with frankness the deficits in the archival record. How, she leads us to ask, should we explore questions about the lived humanity of formerly enslaved people and their descendants when the very evidence we rely upon is premised on their dehumanization? Our work must be painstaking, guided by compassionate restraint. It will not do to substitute our own sense of what it is to be human or what it means to have agency for the circumstances, dilemmas, and Hobson-like choices that Black Americans, including those enslaved, have faced.
For readers new to Hartman’s book, her thinking will be a provocation. At a time when debates over the past are too often cast in brutally positivistic terms, Scenes of Subjection reveals ways of knowing history that are nuanced, contingent, and deeply compassionate.
All of us should be chastened by how, a quarter century after it first appeared, Scenes of Subjection remains, above all else, relevant. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor points out that Scenes was first published in 1997, a few years after both the Million Man March and the police assault on Rodney King, and the Los Angeles rebellion that followed. It was in 1997 that President Bill Clinton announced — and fumbled — a national conversation on race. Hartman offers us a key for understanding this period of strife: Slavery’s past remained with us in the form of what she terms “subjection.”
We continue to need Hartman’s instruction on what it means for slavery’s past to be palpably present. We clash on the village green, on city streets, and even in the halls of the nation’s Capitol over the presence of so-called Confederate monuments. State legislatures are roiling over the top-down regulation of what can and should be taught in public schools and made accessible in libraries. Reparations for the descendants of enslaved people remain a fraught question for towns, faith communities, and Congress — as well as for universities.
Martha S. Jones is a professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University.
The Great Elias Canetti
Canetti, who was born into a Sephardic family of prosperous merchants who spoke Ladino, plunges us into a chaotic universe of quirky relatives. We meet his warring grandfathers, a cousin whom he almost murders, a crazy stepfather who burns his cash while locked away in his room, a beloved father whose early death marks Canetti forever, and a fearsome mother who treats him, her eldest, as an adult almost from the start. At one point she teaches him German by forcing him to memorize her dictation, never letting him so much as glance at the lesson book. “It was a belated mother tongue,” Canetti comments, “implanted in true pain.” Somehow the experience only whets his appetite for languages and literatures, as does his migratory existence (he lived in Austria, England, and Switzerland, as well as Bulgaria). Walter Benjamin feared that he might be labeled “the last European.” That designation suits Canetti better.
Canetti vividly sketches the power of Karl Kraus as a public reader, his admiration for the super-sensitive Robert Musil, his rivalry with the ambitious Hermann Broch, and his missed encounters with James Joyce and Thomas Mann. Also brilliant are his short takes on Dante, Cervantes, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Kafka, and Brecht. It is no surprise that he had little sympathy for Brecht; more unexpected is his resistance to all things Freudian. Most important for Canetti are certain events that he calls “illuminations,” such as his witnessing of striking workers being mowed down by Viennese police on July 15, 1927, which was the germ of both Auto-da-Fé and Crowds and Power. For Canetti, these epiphanies are moments of metamorphosis, which he prizes above all in art as well as in life. Canetti aspired to be a 20th-century Ovid, but precisely because he was modern, this ambition landed him, again and again, in paradox, such as the one expressed in the aphorism that gives this compilation its title, or in this characteristic maxim: “It all depends on this: with whom we confuse ourselves.”
For most authors writing is purgatory, but not writing is hell. This is how Canetti put the predicament: “It is time for me to sort matters out again within myself. Without writing I am nothing. I sense how my life dissolves into dead, dull speculation when I no longer write about what is on my mind. I will try to change that.” These are the last lines he wrote.
Hal Foster is a professor of art and archaeology at Princeton University.
How Racism Entered Sacred Spaces
Williams offers a provocative subject: “white sisters’ longstanding practices of white supremacy and exclusion.” The practices of the secular world — segregated seating, anti-integration protests, and the use of Scripture to reify racism — seamlessly entered sacred spaces. Black Catholic women seeking to take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience either joined all-Black orders or desegregated predominately white sisterhoods and lived, ate, and even worshipped separately. In focusing on Black Catholic women, including laywomen who staffed Black Catholic schools or pushed to integrate all-white ones, Williams demonstrates how racial inequality within the church prepared these same women to be active in the freedom struggles of the 1960s and beyond.
After 1968, Black nuns organized on behalf of Black Catholics everywhere and raised concerns about how the church addressed both race and sex. In identifying white Catholic nuns as “among the most dedicated practitioners of racial segregation and exclusion,” Williams bravely complicates the legacies of white nuns like Sister Katherine Drexel, the patron saint of racial justice and founder of the historically black Xavier University of Louisiana. Drexel’s limits in accepting Black women as equals throughout her ministry is an important corrective to the hagiographical narratives about the former heiress and her effect on Black Catholics. Among the most intriguing offerings in this well-written and captivating book is Williams’ engagement with the mandate of celibacy for Black nuns and sisters. Williams suggests that reductive stereotypes of Black women’s uncontrollable sexuality animated some of the resistance to their entering religious life. In turn, Black nuns found radical potential in their embrace of celibacy.
Recently, Georgetown University and other Catholic institutions have engaged in explorations of their involvement in the institution of slavery — as slaveholding entities, as advocates for the enterprise more broadly, and as beneficiaries of its economic returns. As historians of the university and the church know all too well, anti-Black practices did not end with emancipation. Subversive Habits shows us how the legacies of racism in Catholicism can unite believers in activism — while dividing the faithful to this day.
Marcia Chatelain is a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University.
When Revelation Underwent a Revolution
In Paratexts of the English Bible, 1525-1611 (Oxford University Press), Debora Shuger maps one part of this vast continent of forgotten lore: the English editions of the Bible. All of them. They took dozens of forms, from heavy folios to small-format editions aimed at artisans and housewives. The vast majority were barnacled with paratexts: prefaces that made readers aware of central issues, illustrations that made biblical stories vivid, diagrams that made complex narratives clear, and prayers that made reading spiritually profitable. In the margins commentaries spread like kudzu, as scholars set out to clear up every difficulty in the text, one by one.
Did these endless prefaces and footnotes transform the Bible? Yes and no. The creators of these editions drew on the scholarship of the good and the great, and like them sometimes adopted strikingly historicist approaches to the text. Not all of these, however, were radically new. Images of the sacred vessels of the ancient Hebrews appeared in many Bibles. These look like products of Renaissance antiquarianism, yet they actually derive from medieval commentaries — the Renaissance Bible was rooted in the Middle Ages. History and philology, moreover, did not sweep all before them. Allegories not only survived but blossomed — especially when the Book of Daniel or the apocalypse needed treatment. Though some methodological innovations crept in, thanks to new knowledge of Hebrew and Greek or the consultation of pagan histories, they did not faze pious editors and printers, who tended to insist in the face of everything from bad arithmetic to forged sources that scholars’ findings confirmed biblical accounts. The prefaces of complicated books loudly proclaimed that they offered simple truths.
Shuger shows that many of these Bibles were works of collaboration and bricolage. A Calvinist preface insisting on predestination might be followed by glosses arguing that works played some role after all in human salvation. Some editions prove hard to decipher, even for Shuger. Archbishop Matthew Parker gave England a massive new Bishops’ Bible that went through a number of editions. In his preface he connected his edition to a long history of English translations and predicted that even better interpretations would follow in the future. The glosses moved along a fine line, offering Protestant readings but omitting the hard predestinarian ones of the Geneva Bible. But Parker also included contradictory genealogies of the Savior and a strikingly traditional pre-Reformation calendar, full of feasts that most Protestants rejected. Some copies of the Bishops’ Bible acknowledged that not all the saints the calendar celebrated were saints. “At this point,” Shuger remarks, “a fog of vagueness descends.”
In the end, though, these strange mixtures of positions and practices made sense in their context. Like English Christianity itself, the English Bibles of the Renaissance were brought into being for many reasons. Profit mattered: If the paratexts were written by divines seeking bums on pews, they were often selected and assembled by printers seeking markets. Ideological control was weak, and confessional unity, or a semblance of it, mattered. Compromise promised that. Some English Bibles were rigorously Calvinist, but most were messy and moderate; some were strikingly historicist, but none challenged the basic tenets of Christianity. Over the long term, this complex mass of commentary became the foundation of what has been called the great Anglican compromise — the distinctive combination of piety and erudition that amazed foreign observers of the 17th-century English clergy and their church.
Anthony Grafton is a professor of history at Princeton University.
A book that locates our values by dissecting our regrets is helpful, and, if you are a masochist, fun. But a book that helps us feel sad without feeling guilt is worth reading twice. Disappointment plays only a minor role in the book, but the distinction Pink makes between disappointment and regret can keep us warm and dry in the midst of what the Roman Stoic Seneca called the “storm of life.”
While I was reading The Power of Regret, a shipwrecked student came into my office. Her grandfather had just passed away, causing her to miss two weeks of class and various assignments. She confessed to feeling guilty for not having called her grandfather in the two days before his death. As we talked, I wondered about her guilt. Was she like other students, who, despite living with their grandparents, did not spend time with them? No, she said; her grandfather was her “best friend.” She was the favorite granddaughter, and they shared a unique bond that was lost on no one.
In that case, I suggested, maybe she could allow herself to feel disappointed instead of regretful. Pink defines regret as harboring an element of guilt, in contrast to disappointment, which is free of guilt. Perhaps my student didn’t truly regret not calling her grandfather — was this her way of sanctifying her sadness? Freed from the obligatory guilt hanging over her head, she told me how disappointing it was to know that she would never see her best friend waiting for his dinner, that they would never take the trip they had been planning. I was looking at a person who needed a reason to feel grief rather than regret, and Pink offered her a good one. Disappointment put the color back into her face.
We need not feel guilty in the face of a storm as destructive, and as inevitable, as death. We can cherish our loved ones while letting disappointment take up more space in our lives. Sometimes, it’s a relief to jettison the “if onlys” and “what ifs” of regret and just let ourselves be sad.
Mariana Alessandri is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. Her new book, Night Vision: Seeing Ourselves Through Dark Moods, is due out in 2023 from Princeton University Press.
Reasons for Optimism
To make their case, Caughey and Warshaw assemble an exhaustive data set, consisting of millions of responses to public-opinion polls and a plethora of state-level policies, measured across 85 years. In part, their optimism stems from a comparison of the present with the relatively recent past. They find, for instance, that “before 1965, public opinion is estimated to have had essentially no effect on change in states’ economic policies.” That’s no longer true. The story of Medicaid expansion makes this point well. Part of the Affordable Care Act, the expansion of Medicaid in the states was at first vociferously opposed by Republican state lawmakers. But as the public has come to support Medicaid expansion, policy in many (but not all) states has belatedly followed suit.
But not everything in Dynamic Democracy is good news. While states are indeed responsive to their constituents’ changing views, that responsiveness takes time. In an example discussed by the authors, while the public has become much more liberal on gay rights — most people in all states support bans on anti-gay discrimination — less than half of all states actually have such bans on the books. Yes, over the long run, citizens can shape their governments; sometimes, however, the long run is too long.
Dynamic Democracy is a worthy successor to Robert S. Erikson, Gerald C. Wright, and John P. McIver’s Statehouse Democracy, the field’s canonical take on these matters. In the typically staid field of quantitative American politics, Caughey and Warshaw have written a book that speaks to urgent concerns about the state of our democracy. They offer us reason to reject the most pessimistic portrayals in favor of something more tempered and empirically grounded.
Ethan Porter is an associate professor of media and public affairs and of political science at George Washington University.
It’s not that Muslims and Arabs were invisible until September 11. Far from it: Muslims have been part of this country since the slave trade, and Arabs have been part of this country since the late 1880s. These groups have been legible in U.S. culture through films and television for over 100 years, yet by and large we still consider them “new” to the U.S. landscape. And it was not until after September 11, when these communities were demonized as threats to national security, that they were brought into a specifically national conversation.
In Broken, Alsultany traces how Muslims and Arabs have been incorporated into the United States, represented and racialized in its culture and politics. In some ways, these processes follow the patterns other groups experienced. But the context of terrorism and national security concerns charge the question of Arab and Muslim “otherness” in unique ways.
Studies of Arab and Muslim racialization bring multiple issues crucial to ethnic studies into sharper relief, from the prison industrial complex (think Guantánamo Bay or Abu Ghraib) to racial profiling (at the U.S.–Mexico border; driving while Black; flying while Muslim) to the rise of anti-Asian racism during Covid (the notion that non-whites can never really be American). Broken helps us articulate the racialization of “otherness” and nonbelonging in new and important ways.
Natalia Molina is a professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
How to Gamble Your Way Out of Poverty
If you’re in power in a poor country, making your nation rich is hazardous. It creates powerful business owners with political leverage. An energetic middle class will expect their roads to be paved and the health system to function. The shop-floor workers and university students you need to fuel the economy will take to the streets if they are mad. New products and companies will threaten old ones.
In other words, development poses risks to existing political and economic elites. Maybe these entrenched powerbrokers will be able to use their capital and contacts to stay ahead and grow rich with the rest of the nation. But maybe not. If you run a mediocre bank, a middling manufacturing plant, or massive hacienda, an explosion of growth might not be good for you. It’s a gamble. When elites decline that gamble, development can die by a thousand cuts — a trade license revoked, a key road unbuilt, an investor spooked away, a land reform undermined. Little by little, a series of small, self-interested decisions preserve the stagnant status quo.
Sometimes, however, it goes the other way. These are the economic miracles of the last few decades, from Botswana to South Korea. As different as these cases are, Dercon argues that they all have something in common — an elite bargain. The economic and political powerbrokers decided that growth will probably make them richer and more powerful than before. They wagered that they could co-opt any new business elite or middle class and keep the workers and students sufficiently happy. In other words, they gambled on development.
In many cases, elites may not even realize they’ve made a bargain. It’s subtle and implicit. But it’s still there. And growth happens when it’s sustained — when the new generation of enriched elites decide that instead of locking in their advantage, they’ll keep the game of chance going.
This isn’t the story most economists tell about economic growth. They emphasize foreign aid (some want more, some want less), or they talk about the role of more equal and accountable institutions. All these things are important. But they overlook the fact that people living in these countries also make decisions for themselves, and those decisions matter. Naturally, the people whose decisions matter most are those with power. Not just the president or prime minister, but the wider group of landlords, political bosses, generals, business owners, mayors, and spiritual leaders. Growth has a chance only when the bulk of these elites prioritizes development.
If we want to support economic development, we need to ask how these bargains come about, under what circumstances the rich and powerful gamble on growing, and how outsiders can play a small but important role in keeping that mostly internal process alive. By bringing the experience of diplomacy and political science into the study of economic development, Dercon’s book delivers some original answers.
Christopher Blattman is a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and author of Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace.
A Social History of Ice
We learn, for example, of early 20th-century anxieties about a staple of the Kanaka Maoli diet — poi, pounded and fermented taro root. Poi, and the supposed savagery of its preparation and production, became a focus of settler anxieties about cholera, which framed the food not as a source of nourishment and gustatory pleasure, but as a public-health concern. The resulting panic affected agricultural production to such an extent that taro cultivation collapsed — opening lands for real-estate development in Honolulu.
At the same time that poi production was blocked, a clearly imported food form — ice cream — was subject to oversight and standardization as a “pure food.” The standard in question was cream content: the creamier (14 percent buttermilk!), the better, regardless of local preference. Poi and ice cream are linked in these regulatory moments by their racialized associations. In one case, danger and contagion; in the other, milky, not-up-to-standard whiteness.
This case is one of many in which Hobart links food, taste, governance, and dispossession to the fantasies, laws, and practices of taking and whitening a territory. She demonstrates how people were conditioned to taste and desire in particular ways and how these seemingly rarified cultural processes were tied to an American racial and imperial project punctuated by ice, cocktails, taro, spam, and oysters on the half shell.
The governance of food and palate, we learn, is never far from the governance of land. And so the reclamation and resurgence of foodways is, in turn, a form of health, sovereignty, and freedom.
Audra Simpson is a professor of anthropology at Columbia University.