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Confinement reading list

20 June 2020

During the period of confinement, starting with the declaration of the state of emergency on 14 March, I have been working from home, cooking more than usual, and reading more than usual. The latter partly because I had to stay at home except to buy food and other necessities until early May (at that point daily bicycle rides became possible as well), and partly because there was no football on TV at the weekends, an activity on which I usually spend several hours Saturday and Sunday. We are no longer confined, and the state of emergency will end on Monday, but there are still many restrictions and I will be working from home until September (and that assumes no big “second wave” of infections). So I still consider myself semi-confined and will continue the reading list below until I go back to the office.

So, this is what I have been reading during the confinement. I am fortunate to be able to read all the books below in the original language, but I have provided links to the English translations on Amazon where appropriate.

Johannes V. Jensen: Kongens Fald (1901). A fantastic historical novel by the Danish Nobel Prize winner (1944), taking place in 16th century Denmark, with the 1520 Stockholm Bloodbath as one of the central events. It was elected as the most significant Danish novel of the 20th century in 1999 by two leading Danish newspapers. Available in English at Amazon.

Stanisław Lem: Solaris (1961). Science fiction is not among my preferred genres, but this book has been on my “to read” list for several years, and last year I picked up a new edition during a trip to Poland. It was interesting to read a serious novel in my native Polish, and it was hard to put it down. The richness of the novel lies in the psychological aspects of the main characters, rather than in the technological fantasies that are the focus of much other science fiction. The book is almost psychadelic. Available in English at Amazon.

James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Another classic, meaning a book that has been on my shelf for a long time but which I never got around to reading–until now. And what a book it is! The edition I have is from Oxford’s Word Classics, and there is a 40-page introduction which I frankly wish had been edited down to 10 pages. But once I got into the novel itself, I was transported to late 19th century Ireland and the harsh conditions there. But what the book really brings is the richness of Joyce’s language. It is not an easy read; but it rewards one with phrases such as this, from chapter V, as good a description of a writer’s lack of inspiration as I have ever seen: “His mind bred vermin. His thoughts were lice born of the sweat of sloth.” Reading James Joyce is an effort, but an effort that pays dividends.

Antoni Libera: Madame (1999). A modern classic, as far as I’m concerned. The action takes place during the 1960s and 1970s in Communist Poland, with the central character a secondary school student who falls in love with his French teacher. Sounds like a banal story, but Libera’s description of life in Poland in those dark days and the emotions of the young man are incredibly well crafted. I swallowed the 400-page book in 3 days or so. Available in English at Amazon.

Anne Griffin: When All Is Said (2019). Another Irish miracle. I bought it in Dublin last year, while browsing in a bookshop near Trinity College. It is Griffin’s debut novel. It is simply fantastic. As I write this, I am not done yet–I still have about 70 pages to go, out of a total of 266. But what I have read is sufficient to convince me that Ms. Griffin is a genius. The plot is simple on the surface. Quoting from the back cover: “At the bar of a grand hotel in a small Irish town sits 84-year old Maurice Hannigan. He’s alone, as usual–though tonight is anything but…Over the course of this evening, he will raise five toasts to the five people who have meant the most to him. Through these stories–of unspoken joy and regret, a secret tragedy kept hidden, a fierce love that never found its voice–the life of one man will be powerfully and poignantly laid bare.” This is not false advertising. This is the truth. Do yourself a favour and read this book.

And then some works of non-fiction. This one reads like a novel, and is sadly relevant in these times of virulent racism and violence against people of colour, especially in America but also elsewhere. Patrick Phillips: Blood at the Root (2016) describes, in harrowing detail, the lynching of two black men in Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912, followed by the forced expulsion of all black people from the county, a case of ethnic cleansing that persisted until the late 1980s and arguably still persists. If you want to understand the background for the BLM movement, this is as good a place to start as any.

I have always hated John Bolton, a right-wing extremist warmonger. But he is not stupid and has experience from several administrations. So when I saw that the fascist regime in the White House tried to stop the publication of his book, I simply had to buy it, even though I disliked the thought of giving my money to Bolton. I have now read the book, The Room Where It Happened (2020). It is not great literature, and as one might expect from a man who resigned from his job as National Security Advisor in September 2019, the narrative is quite self-serving. But still, the description of the decision process (if one can call it that) in formulating the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful country is positively chilling. And Bolton is a credible witness, precisely because he is ideologically not that far removed from T***p, so his criticism is not coloured by differences over the basic direction of policy. Available everywhere, including Amazon.

I am an economist, and so at least one serious economics book made the confinement reading list. Unfortunately, it is only available in Danish. The book is Økonomien og virkeligheden (“The economy and reality”) by Katarina Juselius, professor emeritus at the University of Copenhagen. It is not an academic treatise, but it does treat the serious question of the inadequacy of the economic models used by the Danish government (and most other governments) to analyse the effects of proposed policies. In her view, those models make too many simplifying assumptions and thereby miss the impact of structural features of the economy, such as the huge expansion of the financial sector following the deregulation of the past decades. The book was published in 2019 by Informations Forlag. To learn more about her research, have a look at her Copenhagen University web page (in English), and if you are really hard core, look for her 2006 book on Co-Integrated Vector Autoregressive (CVAR) models. Her message is important: we economists must study the real world and not get lost in mathematically elegant but fundamentally flawed theoretical models.

In early September I finished Paul Kriwaczek’s Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation (2005). What prompted me to pick up the book was a question from my wife: how did the Jews come to Eastern Europe, so far from their Middle Eastern origins? Shamefully, I did not know the answer, even though this is where my origins are, my father having been born in Lublin, Poland. Kriwaczek, the son of Viennese Jews who escaped to Switzerland and then Britain just in the nick of time in the late 1930s, clearly has done a lot of research for this great book. He starts with the beginning–Roman times–and tells the story of how Jews spread across the Roman empire and indeed the influence they had on Europe’s cultural and economic development in the subsequent 1500 years. This is a part of the story that is rarely told–the story of Yiddish-speaking Jews usually starts with the poverty and persecution in the Pale of Settlement in the 19th century and the tragedy of the 20th; but there is so much more to it that I simply never knew before I read this book. In the final chapter, we are taken to London’s Brick Lane, a street which has housed immigrants for centuries, as illustrated by a building that started life a Huguenot church, then was converted to a Methodist chapel, then became a synagogue and is now a mosque in what is today a Bangladeshi neighbourhood, the Jews having moved up and out to the suburbs. The book is available here.

A much lighter work of non-fiction is Bill Bryson: Notes from a Small Island (1995). Another book which I have had on my shelf for ages but only got around to reading this summer. Bryson, originally from the American mid-West, had come to England in 1973 and lived there for more than two decades. Before moving back to the US with his English wife, he embarked on a valedictory journey from the south coast to northern Scotland, and most of the book is a recounting of that journey. For an Anglophile like me, this is wonderful, light reading. At risk for providing “too much information”, I kept the book in the toilet. Its short chapters are ideal for reading while sitting on the throne; it would seem sacrilegious to read the other books listed here in such circumstances, but this book is ideal for this purpose. And I mean it as a compliment.

Another light book I just finished is Ned Boulting’s How I Won the Yellow Jumper (2011). Boulting covered the Tour de France of Britain’s ITV from 2003 onwards. He was a well-known football commentator at the time with no prior experience with  professional cycling. The title of the book refers to a mistake he made during one of his first broadcasts from the 2003 Tour in which he mis-named the Yellow Jersey. But he learned quickly, and the book is an entertaining mix of chapters about individual cyclists (Cavendish, Armstrong, Wiggins, Contador etc.) and stories about life as a reporter covering the tour: the modest hotels, food that ranges from sublime to awful, toilet facilities, everything is revealed. I think this book would make good summer reading even for people who are not into cycling.

If you want to see what we have cooked during the confinement, you can look here.


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