Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Books of 2011

It's the time of the year for "top " lists:  Russell Arben Fox's most intellectually stimulating books, Norm Geras presents 12 books he won't be reading in 2012 topping Keiran Healey's list of books not read in 2011, Salon's best tv episodes, Dave Adler's top jazz picks, Rolling Stone's top 50 albums, and many competing political gaffes lists.

Like last year, I've come up with a list of my top 10 books of 2010. The listing is not a a rank listing.

  1.  John Nichols, The "S" Word: A Short History of an American Tradition...Socialism

    Nichols has written a persuasive case that socialism is as American as apple pie.  From the forgotten radical economics of founding father Thomas Paine and the utopian socialists who founded the Republican Party to Victor Berger, the socialist Congressman from Milwaukee, who opposed WWI to Michael Harrington it is a great read.

    The subtitle is a little misleading.  Nichols leaves out some important topics that even a short history should contain: the Populist movement of the 1890s and the most successful Socialist Party of the Debs era--the Oklahoma socialists, discussed brilliantly in Jim Bissett's Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920.

  2. John Quiggin, Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us  

    A prolific Australian social democratic economist takes on influential, but dead wrong economic ideas.  Be aware that there is another book out with the ZE title and be advised that the forthcoming paperback edition will contain an extra chapter refuting austerity economics. 

    From the coverslip:

    Killing vampires and werewolves is easy enough. But how does one slay economic zombies--ideas that should have died long ago but still shamble forward? Armed with nothing but the truth, John Quiggin sets about dispatching these dead ideas once and for all in this engaging book. Zombie Economics should be required reading for those who would dare reanimate the economic theories that brought us to the edge of ruin."--Brad DeLong, University of California, Berkeley.

  3.  Joe Burns, Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America

    Carl Finamore reviewed it on Talking Union
    a valuable contribution to resurrecting fundamental lessons from the neglected history of American labor.
    As the title suggests and as he emphasized to me, “the only way we can revive the labor movement is to revive a strike based on the traditional tactics of the labor movement.”

    But he doesn’t stop there. The author reviews for the reader the full range of tactics and strategy during the exciting, turbulent and often violent history of American labor.Refreshingly, he also provides critical assessments normally avoided by labor analysts of a whole series of union tactics that have grown enormously popular over the last several decades.

  4. Jay Walljasper,  All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons

    Walljasper is a former editor of UTNE Reader and this book is written (compiled, might be more accurate) in a similar style. There are lots of sidebars, interviews and the like.

  5. Louisa Thomas Conscience Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family--a Test of Will and Faith in World War I

     Even though I've read two biographies of Norman Thomas, this book by Thomas's great-granddaughter greatly added to my knowledge and appreciation of Thomas.  

    Alan Riding's review in the New York Times seems on the mark

    Louisa Thomas, who never knew her great-­grandfather, might well have chosen to write his biography as a way of meeting him. Instead, in her first book, “Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — A Test of Will and Faith in World War I,” she has been far more daring. In fact, the lengthy subtitle is a bit misleading. Yes, Norman and his brother Evan were pacifists and their brothers Ralph and Arthur joined the Army. And yes, Evan was jailed as a conscientious objector and Ralph was wounded in the trenches. Yet the thrust of this enthralling book lies with its title: through the experience of her forebears, Thomas examines how conscience fares when society considers it subversive.

    At issue is not Norman Thomas’s socialism: it barely enters the picture because he joined the Socialist Party only a month before the end of the war. Instead, we are shown the “making” of a socialist, formed not by Marx but by the Bible.
    Also recommended is Mark Johnson's review and interview of Louisa Thomas on the Fellowship of Reconciliation blog.
  6. David James Smith, Young Mandela: The Revolutionary Years

    This biography covers Nelson Mandela's early years up to his imprisonment in 1964.  Smith's discussion of Mandela's private life seems to depend too much on suppositions and speculation.  What is interesting to me is the ANC's move from non-violence to armed struggle and the close, working relationship between the ANC and the South African Communist Party.

  7. Bruce Watson, Freedom Summer
  8. Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice  

     Two outstanding books on critical episodes in the civil rights movement: the 1961 Freedom Rides to confront the segregation of interstate bus terminals and the 1964 Freedom Summer to register  African Americans in Mississippi.  Watson is the author of an excellent book on Sacco and Vanzetti (which I have read) and one on the 1912 Bread and Roses strike. Aresensault's book is a long one, but there  is an abridged version and a DVD of the PBS documentary based on it.

    9.   Philip Dray, There is Power in the Union

     I bought this at the bookstore at the 2011 Netroots nation and found that it lives up to its subtitle "Epic Story of Labor in America." It is now out in paperback.    There are other recent general  histories of US labor (Mel Dubofsky's Labor in America: A History and Nelson Lichtenstein's 2003 State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, A.B. Chitty's 2002 From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend, and the 2007 two-volume Who Built America).  They might be preferred by academics or labor studies professionals, but for the general reader, union activist, or occupier, There is Power in the Union is highly recommended.

    10. Barbara Clark Smith, The Freedoms We Lost:Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America

    This is an eye-opening study of the real-life freedoms in revolutionary America. In a post on the History News Network, Smith brings out the huge differences between today's Tea Party and the original. If you find that post  intriguing, you might want to check out the book.

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