If you’ve seen as many conspiracy theory videos during the COVID lockdown as I have, surely you know Freemasons ascend through some 33 layers of knowledge. I won’t be doing that here, but here are 33 books I read during lockdown. Well, here are 33 books I probably should’ve read during lockdown, especially since I know or have at least spoken to about half the authors. Look, I’ve read a few, okay?
The first third of this list strikes me as offering hope for a freer future (once we’ve got COVID behind us). The middle third offers some sort of insight on the past. And the final third is just plain wrong but worth noting anyway. After the weird haze of the past year and a half clears, these tomes may be all I remember from pre-COVID civilization.
First, hope. As next month’s Pentagon/Senate report on UFOs nears, and thus perhaps alien disclosure (though I’m not holding my breath), it’s an odd time for a commander from the still-new U.S. Space Force to be relieved of command for writing a book warning against the use of leftist Critical Race Theory in education and training courses. We may miss him if interstellar war breaks out in June, but at least we have his book. His ouster may one day appear in timelines of galactic civilization just seven years after the notation pointing to 2014 saying, “Scientist from first team to land a probe on a comet is reduced to tears while apologizing to feminists for wearing a shirt with rockabilly cartoons on it.” We mustn’t let p.c. keep us from the stars.
Both ultra-p.c. and ultra-un-p.c. sentiments abound in anarchist thought, and you might want to get a better handle on how that faction thinks via (self-proclaimed anarchist) Michael Malice’s new anthology of historic anarchist writings, The Anarchist Handbook. The musings therein of figures such as Kropotkin and David Friedman, much as they differ, are bound to be more pro-freedom than pessimistic things such as Westworld season 3, one of innumerable shows I watched during lockdown that operate, much like the movie Demolition Man, on the assumption humans naturally crave freedom but once achieving it will fall into slovenly chaos or start a nuclear war. It doesn’t have to be that way, anarchists assure us (though the pessimistic post-apocalyptic movie It Comes at Night is still good, arguably better than one or two of the Fast & Furious movies I also ended up watching).
For a stark reminder of what happens if the basic human craving for freedom is snuffed out, check out Sarah Federman’s Last Train to Auschwitz if you’re in the market for a textbook rich in survivor profiles.
I’ve previously plugged—and read!—Sen. Rand Paul’s The Case Against Socialism. Among other things, it’s a reminder of the more thoughtful tone I once hoped might arise from a fusion of libertarianism and populism. You’ll find reasoned constitutional and capitalist arguments here, not just angry tweets with a lot of exclamation points. Speaking of tweets, I think some of the online jerks who over the past few years have reveled in Paul getting shot at by a leftist, his ribs broken by a psycho neighbor, and his doctor’s license unfairly questioned (despite it enabling him to bring good eyesight to poor people in Latin America years before his clashes with Dr. Fauci) might be embarrassed by how insightful and unobjectionable this book is, if they took the time to read it.
If you like Paul’s libertarian tendencies but prefer libertarianism with open borders, pick up Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith’s graphic novel Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration.
A non-comic book version of similar arguments for globe-roaming liberty can be found in Ilya Somin’s Free to Move.
In a balanced and still libertarian approach, Chandran Kukathas argues in Immigration and Freedom that immigration has costs, but immigration controls have even greater ones.
After all, we wouldn’t want to end up like France, where military generals are threatening to overthrow the government unless it can keep immigrants out. Embarrassing political developments like that are the reason L.B. Deyo and David Leibowitz used to run a joke watchdog site called FranceWatch. Together, they went on to write a fine book about “urban exploration”—unauthorized climbs of buildings and bridges, just before heightened terrorism fears in the U.S. made that an untenable hobby—called Invisible Frontier. And now Deyo’s novel The God-Damn Fool looks with poignancy and pity at the sometimes unworthy souls who try to explore the more treacherous terrains of classic literature and young minds by making foolhardy forays into teaching—resulting in a story that’s like a cross between David Lodge and John Kennedy Toole but a celebration of the searching intellect nonetheless.
Speaking of absurdity and academics, on the recent day of my 30th college reunion, which I didn’t attend, by an eerie coincidence I stumbled across a book for sale on an informal seller’s table outside New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—a book that turned out, when the seller tried pushing it on me with nothing but the author’s photo as sales pitch, to be written (a decade ago) by one of my former classmates, namely Amy Bach, the book her tour of America’s dysfunctional court system, Ordinary Injustice. What are the odds? In any case, humanity’s track record at dispensing impartial, bribes-free, rational justice is so bad that you can't blame people for drawing Clarence Darrow’s anarchic conclusion: that we should just abolish all “justice” systems and stop pretending.
You might likewise be tempted to abolish both education and zoning after reading Tim DeRoche’s (quite moderate and reasonable) book A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools about how zoning lines are drawn around certain schools for the benefit of the best-connected residents—the elite hypocrisy hiding behind a school monopoly that pretends to care about kids more than markets do.
If kids survive all the crazy hurdles of pre-college education, they’re still in for other forms of insanity in college thanks to the leftist takeover of higher ed, as James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose explain in Cynical Theories.
But remember, all the above books are really the ones that give me hope. They mount arguments against the darkness. Another third of the 33 books spurring thoughts in me during this plague perform a different service, showing how we got here.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is, as many have said, about as good an overview of our whole stupid species’ history as you could want, even if he slightly misunderstands markets.
Closer to home, I’m grateful for the Sean Wilentz and Jonathan Earle-edited Major Problems in the Early Republic, 1787-1848, chock full of key American essays and documents from two centuries ago (I’m less grateful for the ludicrous prices professors charge their captive student audiences for any tome used as a textbook).
For a darker and more extroverted take on that tale, I’ll also keep in mind Walter A. McDougal’s Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776.
Dietrich Orlow’s A History of Modern Germany 1871 to Present is a reminder we could do worse, though, as is the TV drama Babylon Berlin if you’re sticking with the TV/vegging approach to these times.
At least the early-20th century in the U.S. and Germany gave us flight, and you can learn more about the likes of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin and the Wright Brothers in Alexander Rose’s Empires of the Sky. It’s all happened so quickly in the grand scheme of things, hasn’t it (though any Gen Z people reading these words probably haven’t quite caught on yet to how brief these timespans really are relative to a full human life)?
David Richardson’s novel War Story (and the philosophical introduction by Doug Dechert) are rooted in historical reality and personal experience, since Richardson fought in Iraq—then wrote a novel about it combining practical details and a sense of honor without maudlin romanticization, later becoming Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Less honorable are some of the characters in Vito Racanelli’s history-based novel The Man in Milan about a 1980 criminal investigation that leads to unearthing details about so-called Operation Gladio, in which American intelligence forces worked hand in hand with still-active fascist elements in Italy for decades after World War II. (Maybe Racanelli and his wife Lisa Dierbeck, who wrote a novel partly about child molestation in 2003, would be well suited to co-writing a novel about the governmental intrigues surrounding Jeffrey Epstein.)
A more upbeat encapsulation of how America views its relationship to fascism can be found in the comic book anthology All Star Comics: Only Legends Live Forever, collecting 1970s DC Comics about the adventures of their most prominent World War II superhero characters decades after the war. It was a time when America celebrated punching real Nazis in the face instead of merely imagining Nazis and then punching itself in the face.
That’s not to say comics haven’t gotten admirably more sophisticated since then, and the fat tome Saga: Compendium One collects 1300 pages of that Brian K. Vaughn-written sci-fi comic. It’ll likely appeal to anyone who spent a chunk of lockdown time watching the acclaimed superhero TV series Invincible or The Boys.
If that still sounds too grown-up, David Kamp’s Sunny Days is a book-length examination of Sesame Street, both its origins and its special role in the culture as a haven of tolerance and empathy.
If you want a slice of life sorely lacking in empathy, though, try reading Boxful of Nightmares, Terry Hobbs’ account, as told to Vicky Edwards, of how he ended up one of many rotating suspects in the famous search for the culprit or culprits behind the child murders depicted in the Paradise Lost documentary trilogy. You may vaguely recall a few other kids getting locked up for the crime, due in part to one having a passing teenage interest in Satanism, and if you have a really good memory, you may recall that a later Alford Plea—a formal guilty plea in exchange for being let out after years in jail—was the weird, paradoxical legal finale of that tale. But that never really settled with certainty the question of what happened, and the spotlight of suspicion ranged over many people in that rural community over the past three decades, including Hobbs, leaving behind a lot of heartbreak and animosity in the process.
The final third of my lockdown list of 33 is made up of books I must regard as in some sense errors.
Filmmaker Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind, a huge, hyper-postmodernist tale of people trying to recreate from memory the lost print of the longest film ever made, is his first novel, and even he must still be wondering if it was worth it. We should applaud him for trying, in any case.
I’m more hesitant about applauding Pomona assistant professor of gender studies Aimee Bahng, who in 2017 wrote a book-length overview of the revolutionary potential of slime mold as a model for socialization, just in case you didn’t believe that column I wrote just prior to COVID about leftist sci-fi authors and their intellectual kin disliking humanity and individualism.
Verso Books’ Anti-Fascism Reader has a cover that makes quite literal the attempted Nazi-punching I mentioned above, showing far-right activist Richard Spencer famously getting slugged in the face by a passer-by. If people are calming down a bit in the Biden era, maybe I can say, “One should neither try to turn America into an all-white homeland nor punch Spencer in the face” without anyone screaming at me.
Likewise, one can analyze Antifa without cheering for them as openly as Dartmouth prof Mark Bray does in his volume Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (causing his Dartmouth higher-ups to take the rare step of gently publicly distancing themselves from the book). It is not to be confused with either The Anarchist Handbook or Anti-Fascism Reader, both noted above.
One must expect angry leftist books to arise as long as the capitalist system makes mistakes—mistakes like New York’s Gov. Cuomo earning $5 million for his self-congratulatory book on (mis)managing the COVID crisis here.
For that matter, the well-meaning but two-decades-early proclamation that we were nearing Dow 36,000 looks likely to remain a mistake for perhaps a few months yet.
I thus can’t fully blame Mike “Rortybomb” Konczal for thinking that America’s noblest struggle is the centuries-long fight for Freedom from the Market. I can blame him for unfollowing me twice on Twitter and for angrily insisting when I argued with him in a bar that I should have the names of several dispute resolution firms memorized if I want anarcho-capitalist systems to replace government in the real world. Regardless, I concede that in a messy world, some good things will be bundled up with nominally anti-capitalist projects, and if I don’t find time to cheerlead for them, Konczal is here to do so.
You’re bound to find his book hipper and more entertaining than Amy Klobuchar’s bafflingly big-selling book on antitrust policy, Antitrust. Did some vast industrial combine have a hand in vacuuming up all those copies, or is it just another example of how the ultimate monopoly, government, gives people outsize influence?
Speaking of outsize influence, I’m not sure I agree with Eric Alterman’s premise in Lying in State that Donald Trump’s presidential lies were among the most horrific and damaging in the history of U.S. politics, but regardless I give Alterman points for writing a book’s worth of evidence that presidents across history lie and lie and lie. If you don’t believe that, or even if you do, maybe you should read the book. Alterman released it just days before he got a 12-hour ban from Twitter for saying it’s time for Newsweek to “die,” which the mindless algorithms presumably saw as a violent threat—arguably a piece of evidence in favor of Klobuchar’s anti-monopoly views after all, if she, Alterman, Konczal, and Trump are tempted to join forces against Big Tech.
So far, I mainly only get blocked on social media the old-fashioned, one-enemy-at-a-time way, and not that often, though I notice that I (like countless others, no doubt) was preemptively blocked by Kate Antonova, Russian studies prof at CUNY and author of Essential Guide to Writing History Essays (for nearly 100 bucks, if you’re in the market for another textbook). I know I’m not the only person she considers unworthy of reading, though, since she famously tweeted last year that “No one should ever publish Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, Matt Taibbi, Matt Yglesias, Steven Pinker, or Niall Ferguson ever again. Not to ‘cancel’ them but because they have nothing of value to add and never have. They produce vapid, superficial, baseless clickbait.” She was enraged they co-signed that Harper’s letter opposing censorship. I’m sure her tweet set their minds at ease about censorious impulses on the left and makes them eager to take the writing advice in her book.
She inadvertently reminds me that one reason I’ve usually managed to get along with right-wingers and religious people over the years is that even when they’re trying to exorcise demons, as in the cases recounted in Billy Hallowell’s Playing with Fire, they don’t sound quite as angry and earth-salting as leftists do these days. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything going on in so-called exorcisms—ever, to the best of my knowledge—that couldn’t be explained by garden-variety frothing-at-the-mouth insanity or a bit of hoaxing, so I’m not giving traditional beliefs a pass any more than I am the other yahoo notions described above, but I trust the anti-demon activists mean well. I’m sure almost everyone with whom we’re trapped in this combative, plague-ravaged world means well, for all the good knowing that does us.