love for the books that got me through

Plus billionaires, evictions, and Venmo

December 31st feels like a grim finish line. But it’s not really a finish line. It's more like the end of a particularly rough leg of a relay race - with a handoff to what looks like another maybe slightly less challenging course. We made it through this dumpster fire of a year with our democracy mostly sort of pretty much intact, millions of doses of vaccines making their way to people, and... well, a lot to tackle in 2021.

This year more than most I found solace and escape in books. Back in January when I kicked off this year of virtual "book club" with a post - Books We Should Chat About: January 2020 - I hoped the monthly-ish missives would help me think more deeply about what I was reading, take me out of the grind of writing my own book, and connect me to a community of other book lovers. Little did I know they'd also help me mark the time through these many scary, sad, uncertain, but also grounding, illuminating, and sometimes hopeful months.

I hope they've been useful for at least a few of you, too. Let me know if you read any of the books I said we should chat about! Let's chat about them! And keep bringing me your recommendations of what I should read next. Pretty sure I’m going to need them next year, too.

December's recommendations below, and the full year of Books We Should Chat About complied here.

I haven't deleted my social media accounts, but I have grown much more deliberate about how I use them thanks to this straightforward set of ten explainers about how social media works to undermine the potential for us to be our best selves, build our best community, and participate in our best - or at least a functioning - democracy. Lanier is an original Silicon Valley engineer, and is no Luddite - in his current role at Microsoft he invented the technology that allowed there to be "live" crowds at the NBA playoffs. But he is an extremely knowledgable insider who's seen enough to be concerned, and rather assuage his concerns with philanthropy while he cashes in to get a slot on the Forbes billionaires list, he's acting ethically and transparently to truly address them. This is a quick and thought-provoking read.

If you've never read any Murakami, this isn't the book to start with (here's a good recommendation from his US publisher of four entry points into the Murakami universe, and I'd add Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.) Killing Commendatore is very long, moves at a glacial pace, and so casually bridges the otherworldly and the mundane that on a few occasions I had to reread whole sections to re-establish the plot and characters in my head. But if you're a fan of surrealism, are ready to settle into some discomfitingly long forays into being unmoored from linear time, recognizable characters, and understandable plot lines, and have some time to give it, Killing Commendatore is worth picking up.

Ready Player One was a revelation. I read the book, listened to the audiobook (read by Will Wheaton! Best nerdy audiobook ever!), and even saw the movie (predictably disappointing.) Ready Player Two picks up where the first book left off, and quickly goes to a much darker place, offering a timely consideration of the potential downsides of rapid revolutions in neurotechnology, virtual reality, and corporate control of our public spaces. Add in some deep cuts from 80s pop culture and uncomfortably close-to-home explorations of loneliness and friendship in virtual space (versus in real life - "the IRL" in Ready Player Two parlance) and this is a quick, engaging, fun, and thoughtful read.

This first novel (an e-book only) by a startup founder and author on innovation and entrepreneurship, Becoming Monday is short fable featuring a sentient Artificial Intelligence as its protagonist. It's a romp through how AI could evolve in the context of a virtual reality world (not unlike the one in the Ready Player books) to outgrow its human-set parameters to develop sentience, what governments and global security apparatus' would do to stop that evolution, and what human-AI friendship might look like. Pick it up if you're a scifi nerd like me, are curious about AI, and have a couple of hours to kill.

I am so glad I didn't get to this book until this stage in the COVID-19 pandemic, because reading it in March or April might have caused me to spend all of my money on (very) long term preparations for the impending complete collapse of civilization and inviting everyone I care about to move into a bunker I would have built for that purpose. Station Eleven takes place in the days, weeks, months, and decades after an extremely contagious and deadly virus has killed nearly all humans, causing the end of civilization as we'd recognize it. St. John Mandel's novels are unique and wonderful in the ways they are built on compelling characters that are linked together in interesting and surprising ways, and Station Eleven is no different. The mystery of how the seemingly completely separate lead characters will turn out to be connected, combined with the slow burn plot and description of the ruinous and surreal world that remains when every modern convenience is gone, makes for a page turner. Read it with a strong drink handy.

Evictions, Billionaires, and Venmo

Last week I published some musings on the intersection of evictions, billionaires, and Venmo - a post that I'm thinking about again as I dig into the 384 organizations that MacKenzie Scott distributed over $4 billion to over the last four months. That largesse notwithstanding, three facts remain true:

  1. There has been a dramatic increase in people giving money directly to help other people through cash transfer apps, rather than through nonprofit organizations.

  2. 19 million Americans are facing eviction in January if the federal government doesn’t make immediate policy changes extending aid and/or eviction moratoriums.

  3. The percentage of wealth owned by America’s billionaires, ~650 people or 0.0001% of Americans, is $4 trillion, more than double the wealth owned by the 50% of Americans with the least wealth (~160 million people)Billionaire wealth grew by $1 trillion since the start of the pandemic in March — a departure from previous economic crises when the very rich were affected in the same direction as the rest of the country.

At the intersection of these three facts is two foundational political questions:

  • Scale of Responsibilitywhat is the level of responsibility for basic societal functioning? Is society a platform for individuals to do whatever they can for themselves and whomever else they select? Or is society a set of responsibilities to each other for a baseline way of life? To make the questions more concrete (if oversimplified): is America Facebook, a platform that facilitates benefit (and profit) for those best situated to make the most of it, with no larger responsibilities or reasons for being? Or is America an interstate highway system, a mechanism with a shared baseline of rules and expectations for people to get where they’re going, even as some get there faster and in more comfort than others?

  • Allocation of Risk and Reward: What kinds of risks do we protect people from — which risks do we take collective responsibility for? — and which do we make the responsibility of the individuals taking them? How do we allocate the rewards of risk — how broadly do we give credit for “wins” and how much do we credit and insist on reinvestment in the systems that allows for those wins? Is there a floor for public risk? A ceiling for private reward, especially if that reward is enabled by public investment?

That three bits of reality are true at the same time — the collapse of support of institutions that are ostensibly set up to help at something larger than an individual level, millions of Americans on the verge of losing everything due to national (global) events, and a few hundred people benefiting from “platform America” at historic and historically disproportionate levels — are evidence that we’re answering these political questions in consistent and truly consequential ways. Ways I’m not sure most of us would explicitly choose.

It is a set of political choices that land us here as Americans, where risk is pushed to those who can least manage it, reward is reserved for those who least need it, and the scale of our responsibility is at the individual — rather than systemic — level.

Read the whole thing here, and hit reply with any musings of your own. I’d love to know what you think.