Recent nonfiction reading

1.  This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust

A readable, informative, and credible book about death and the Civil War. It covers the causes, reactions to, culture surrounding, and political legacy of Civil War deaths. Although a few of its conclusions are reached hastily, the vast majority of its analysis is well-grounded and fascinating. The book also deserves praise for its lack of clutter: it is easy to fill up a book on this subject with superfluous numbers, names of places, and citations. Faust keeps the information density high without letting hard-to-read items distract the reader from the narrative and argument. Recommended.

2.  How Asia Works, Joe Studwell

Studwell argues that successful Asian economies are distinguished from unsuccessful ones by their having adopted three main policies. They incentivized gardening rather than plantation-style farming in early stages of development; later, they enforced "export discipline" to ensure that their industries, however deeply subsidized, were facing the tests of the global market; and they implemented fiscal policies supporting the first two goals.

I am not in a position to assess the argument, but it is hard not to think that Studwell has isolated important causes of economic success and failure, even if they are not quite as much of the story as he would have you believe. The case studies are presented in detail and are gripping.

The book is also valuable as a contribution to discussions of inequality, even though it is not always framed as such. I found it far more useful than Piketty (which I read and enjoyed) in this respect. Finally, this book is a good tool for improving one's grasp of distinctions that are easy to conflate. The distinction between being state-controlled and non-state-controlled is not the distinction between being free-market and non-free-market, which in turn is not the same as the distinction between public and private, and so on. Perhaps this is obvious, but it can be very easy to confuse these things.

3.  Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

A very fine book about writing that had been on my list for over a decade. It's honest, fun, and useful. Whereas On Writing Well (my favorite popular book about writing) is mainly about improving one's skill as a prose stylist, Bird by Bird has more to say about managing the psychological and professional aspects of a life spent writing. Although some of its early-nineties advice is probably dated in its portrayal of publishing, I'd still recommend it.

4.  Up, Up, and Away, Jonah Keri

The best-researched mainstream baseball book I've read in a long time. Keri does well to balance colorful portraits with enough cultural and economic history to do justice to the book as a book about the whole lifespan, and fate, of the Expos. The book is so successful at telling the story of the Expos that the personal stories Keri tells about his fandom, while quite charming, occasionally seem out of place.

Keri doesn't do quite as well as Faust (see above) at keeping numbers and facts from interfering with his prose, but this is still a very readable and well-edited book. I don't hesitate to stop reading this sort of book partway through, but I finished this one happily and without hesitation.

5.  Antietam: Crossroads of Freedom, James McPherson

McPherson argues that Antietam was a "crossroads" in roughly the sense that it made and changed the course of history, rather than merely expressing or continuing trends or inevitabilities that were already there. (So, things happened at Antietam that didn't need to have happened, and things might have happened there that didn't.)

Quite a bit of what seems to be presented as evidence for this claim seems not to be evidence for or against this thesis, but it is very hard to argue such a point rigorously in a 150-page book for a general audience. This is an informative history of the battle and a plausible argument for a set of important claims. I'm glad to have read it.