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Books I didn’t read this semester


It’s early May, and I’ve got stacks of exams and papers to grade, a book manuscript and overdue book chapter to put finish up, and a host of other annoying end-of-semester tasks that make the next few weeks seem daunting. One ritual of this time of year, for me, is the mass return of interlibrary loan books accumulated throughout the semester. In other words: giving up.

Dayton’s library, while respectable enough, doesn’t have most books I might want, but requesting a book from any University library in Ohio is free-to-me and easy; a few keystrokes and it shows up in my mailbox in a few business days on a renewable six week loan. I rarely return these books during the semester, unless they’re recalled (you can renew them online) but make an effort to return most of the ones I have no immediate use for, so that I don’ accumulate an unwieldy quantity of them. There are essentially four reasons I might request a book, listed here in order of frequency:

1. Seems to be potentially relevant to some current or planned future research project
2. Seems to be potentially relevant to some current or planned future course I teach
3. Seems interesting
4. ???

It will probably surprise few readers that many, indeed probably most, of these books go back to the library largely unread. Some are literally unopened, others briefly skimmed or mined for a specific citation. So anyway, this delivers on an idea for a post I’ve toyed with doing for years: some scattered notes and thoughts on some books I failed to read this semester.

Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (Yale, 2016)

I read a few bits and pieces here and there. It’s not a (1) because the slavery and freedom paper is done and published, and I have no immediate plans for a follow-up. I expect I thought I might find some excerpts to use in my “Slavery, Freedom and American Political Thought seminar, in which we spend a couple of weeks on white abolitionists. Sinha seeks to disrupt the received conventional wisdom of white abolitionists and economically conservative bourgeois paternalists and moralists, not because the received wisdom is entirely wrong, but because it’s profoundly incomplete, and is conducive to a narrative about 19th century abolitionism that ignores the slaves themselves. Of particular interest to me is black abolitionists’ role in the decline of the popularity of the ACS and its “free them then deport them” politics in abolitionist circles. This looks like a fantastic book, and I’ve ordered a used copy, to be read in parks, coffee shops, and beaches over the summer and on my upcoming sabbatical. Adam Rothman wrote an excellent review at The Atlantic a year ago.

Clement Fatovic, America’s Founding and the Struggle over Economic Inequality (Kansas, 2015)
Probably a combination of (2) and (3); mostly (3) since the topic is a bit off-theme for my APT class and I overstuff the Founders’ weeks as it is. Fatovic makes the case that the debates about the problems of economic inequality were much more central to the political thought of many of the founders than contemporary representations and reputations would suggest, and he seeks to unearth them, with particular attention to Paine, Jefferson, and Webster. Paine’s Lockean anti-government moments are most likely to make it into anthologies and the popular imagination, so his chapter rescuing Paine from the libertarians and those who would surrender him to them and sketching Paine’s (still largely Lockean) case for what amounts to a reasonably robust welfare state, at least by late 18th century standards.

That’s the only chapter I read with any care. I also skimmed chapter four is also of some potential interest to those who followed the Lin-Manuel Miranda inspired conversation about the proper role of Alexander Hamilton in the progressive imagination. In this chapter Fatovic argues that Hamilton’s reputation as a champion of the plutocrats is less a reflection on what Hamilton actually thought and more a reflection on the success of Hamilton’s much longer-lived adversaries, who promoted this view of his work. His three major reports (Public credit, the National Bank, and Manufacturing), his occasional remarks about the ignorance and folly of “the multitude” and his not-undeserved reputation for as a grasping social climber made it easy for his opponents to caricature him as little more than a plutocrat-apologist, which obscured greater depths and complications. Fatovic certainly comes up with a fair amount of textual evidence from beyond those sources Hamilton was concerned about economic inequality, and was willing to endorse federal measures to attempt to address excesses of inequality; as a champion of increasing pay for the lowest rung of federal workers, and more importantly by keeping taxation as progressive as popular by taxing wealth and luxury items rather than general taxes or taxes on necessities.

Lorna Finlayson, The Political is Political: Conformity and the Illusion of Dissent in Contemporary Political Theory

(1); I’m writing a paper for APSA on the uses, abuses, and shortcomings of the “realist” turn in political theory, with particular attention to David Miller’s (dubious and revealing, I will argue) invocation of a realism in his new book the political theory of immigration. Her paper on the seemingly accidental conservatism of self-described realists in the European Journal of Political Theory is excellent and I wanted to see more of what she has to say on the topic.

This is an odd, scattered book, with what appear to be moments of brilliance. It purports to offer simultaneous critique of the dominance of liberalism in contemporary analytic political philosophy on three levels: methodological, philosophical, and political. The whole field, she wants to argue, is structured to discredit alternatives and herd political philosophy into a relatively constrained political space, focusing on narrow issues within a broader Rawlsian/liberal framework. I say “wants to argue” because it looks like the sum total is likely to add up to less than I think she suggests it does. Her tone is unique and at times refreshing, veering between the professional standards for political philosophy and humorous, snarky, and irreverant asides, which can be jarring, but amusing and refreshing. (Example: “There is a good deal of controversy as to the extent to which the transition from Rawls’ first major work, A Theory of Justice, to the later Political Liberalism marks a decisive break in his thought, as opposed to a harmonious development or shift in emphasis. I cannot stress enough how little I care about this question.”)

I’m going to give more time and attention to chapter three (“Foul Play: the Norm of Philosophical Charity”), because she offers there her “defense of uncharitable readings,” which I’m temperamentally inclined to resist. The centerpiece of her case is a Raymond Guess’ infamous remark that John Rawls’ political philosophy is “generically the same kind of thing” as the governing philosophies of George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice. I’m not particularly Rawlsian (I quite like some of her critiques of Rawls’ use and abuse of the concept of “reasonable” in the previous chapter) but this nonetheless strikes me as a good example of all that’s wrong with uncharitable readings

She also has a chapter arguing against the Austinian re-interpretations of MacKinnon’s feminist case against pornography (like I said, a scattered book), which needs to be singled out for the cleverness of the title: “How to Screw Things with Words.”

Biskupski and Pula, eds, Polish Democratic Thought from the Renaissance to the Great Emigration: Essays and Documents.
(3), Scott and I open ch. 6 of our book manuscript with an brief discussion of the liberum veto, a convention that makes the modern Senate look downright reasonable. Any member of the Sjem, the legislature of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (a “gentry democracy” (5-7% of the adult male population, on one estimate were franchise eligible members of the gentry) with an elected King that was imagined to be considerably less powerful than he actually was) could invoke this veto and invalidate the work the legislative session entirely. On the positive side of the ledger, the liberum veto is credibly associated with greater-than-average levels of religious freedom during the relevant era. On the other hand, the veto provided a way for hostile foreign interests to mess with Poland, arguably making a considerable contribution to the downfall of the commonwealth in 1795.

The book contains five thematic historical essays on Polish democratic thought during different eras, spanning the 16th through the 19th century, and a number of primary text documents of relevance, including defenses of the liberum veto as a central and crucial aspect to a free and democratic polity, not just because is promotes consensus politics but because it protects against the tyranny of a law you oppose.

Polish democratic theory during this era seems fascinating and probably unreasonably neglected in the history of political thought. I would have liked to have read more of this book.

Jonathan Lamb, The Rhetoric of Suffering: Reading the Book of Job in the 18th Century.

(4). One cold day in January, this showed up in my mailbox at work. I went online and confirmed that I did, in fact, place an interlibrary loan request for this book. It appears I did. I have absolutely no idea why. For the last four months, it’s sat on the corner of my desk, taunting me. Every so often I’d pick it up, look over the table of contents or index, trying to find some clue about why I thought I wanted to read it. Nothing resembling a clue was ever found. Today it will begin the journey back to its rightful home on the shelves of the library at the Winebrenner Theological Seminary, where (if the checkout stamps are to be believed) it had quietly resided, unmolested by human hands, for 16 years prior to my inexplicable decision to summon it to me.

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  • MAJeff

    I feel ya. Two books sitting on my coffee table waiting for a couple weeks into summer term to dig in:

    White Rage, by Carol Anderson
    Lower Ed, by Tressie McMillam Cottom

    • shah8

      Lower ed was good, tho’ it leaves me feeling like there needs to be some sequel.

      • los

        Lower ed was good

        So much sneezing.

        there needs to be some sequel.

        Keep watch on Ed’s youtube channel for Middle Ed.
        This experiment is Edward’s science project – “Can Food Be Properly Digested When One Stands On One’s Head?”
        Upper Ed – the finale – will be a little messy, but informative.

  • Klarman?
    Jack Miles’ “God, a Biography” is excellent on Job, and other things.

  • Matt

    As I found out later, I had refereed what became a chapter in the Finlayson when it was submitted to a philosophy journal. I was happy to reject it as it was… not at all good. Substituting a sneer for anything like an argument is, to my mind, annoying even in a blog post, but is not at all acceptable in something purporting to be scholarship. It was also very full of itself, without having done any real work to justify this. Raymond Geuss has become a bitter old man and a bit of a self parody in his later work (after being a very good scholar earlier), but perhaps his worst trait is encouraging “scholarship” like this in his grad students.

    As for the Miller book, those interested can consider my review here, if they’d like.

    • djw

      Ohh, I hadn’t seen your review. Thanks.

      I didn’t realize she was a student of Guess, which makes a certain kind of sense. The EJPT piece is quite good. I think there’s probably an inverse relationship between the good parts of the book, and the scope of her critique. Roughly speaking, the further removed from the grand, sweeping critique of all of analytic political philosophy, the more interesting she is.

  • Ronan

    Ira Lapidus’s A History of Islamic Societies has been sitting on my to read list for a decade and my kindle for three years. At this stage Im just waiting someone who has read it to tell me the ending.

    • wjts

      One day, I really will read that two-volume set of Pausanius I bought because it was on sale. Honest.

      • Hogan

        The Anatomy of Melancholy. And that’s just off the top of my head. (How did it get *there*? I blame the cat.)

        • keta

          That’s a bathroom book, if ever there was one.

  • “How to Screw Things with Words.”

    Oh, my, yes.

    • los

      “some people are insatiable”

  • altofront

    In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:

    the Books You’ve Been Planning Top Read For Ages,
    the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
    the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
    the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
    the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
    the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
    the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.

    Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.

    Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

    • Woodrowfan

      what a great quote! thank you.

      I took a bunch of my students to NYC to visit the Tenement Museum this March and gave them a couple hours free for them to see the city so I could hit The Strand. A couple hours at the Strand and a repeat visit to the museum’s own book store and I had three big bags of books to take home. I think they fit all the categories listed at the end of your quote
      the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages, Yep.
      the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success, Yes, a memoir of WWI.
      the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment, several of these.
      the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case, of course!
      the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer, I cheated. I’ve already begun them .
      the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves, (blush). yes.
      the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified. that history of rats in NYC.

      There were also Titles you’d not see before that you just had to read. A copy of a history of Coxey’s Army? SOLD>

  • ZakMcKrackenAndTheAlienMindbenders

    I took a chance and bought The Rhetoric of Suffering, Reading the Book of Job in the 18th Century last year because I was a huge fan of Lamb’s sexy, mesmerizing writing style in his other well known work Scurvy: Disease of Discovery (soon to be a major motion picture), and it did NOT disappoint. Easily the best $301.41 I ever spent on a book.

    • Easily the best $301.41 I ever spent on a book.


      I can’t imagine spending $301.41 on a book.

    • djw

      In fairness, there are a couple versions of the book on amazon, and the other one has used copies for around 60. (A steal!) Apparently Lamb is something of a big deal in his corner of academia, which seems to be basically intellectual history of the 18th century. I would be much more interested in reading his book on the evolution of sympathy in the 18th C.

  • shah8

    I appreciate these reviews. First time in contact with the idea that liberum veto isn’t all bad, and that Finlayson book sounds fun.

  • Ahuitzotl

    Today it will begin the journey back

    and so resumes the Silence of the Lamb

    • los

      just more liberrel sensirship11!!

      Vote All Licks Joans!!
      Ernest T. Blogger

  • Matt_L

    the Lamb book about Job seems timely given the political moment of the next four to eight years.

    The Biskupski & Pula book sounds fascinating.

    • It is very confusing that you are not the commenter who used to be Matt L (at least elsewhere), who now seems to be just Matt with no hyperlink, above.

      • Matt

        These things are sometimes confusing to me, too, especially as my last name starts with “L”. But, I’ve pretty much always commented here (and other places) just under my first name, “Matt”. I don’t comment here all that often, or anywhere that often any more. But, I don’t think I have ever commented as “Matt L”, for what that’s worth.

  • los

    djw, OP:

    … can renew them online…

    … influencing borrowing behavior is also my experience, though not so much for interlibrary. I’ve used interlibrary (minimal fee) a few times when I already knew the book was good and should have been in my library/ies…

    The interstacks has taken its kilograms of something, but for me, the cure for this Eye-Bigger-Than-Appetite problem is to do as much as I can at the library. Then I leave with only 1 (when i visited for rapid specific interest), or ~4 books.

    /quagmired metaphors

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