Much of my reading time was spent studying this month (and yesterday, I passed my exam! I was not confident that that would be the case so I’m glad to have given up some hours with my nose in a book in order to make that happen), but still, I read a few interesting books. They were mainly about politics and economics – you guys know me by now – with a novel I’d been meaning to read for years in there too.
The Secret World of Oil – Ken Silverstein
The politics of oil seemed to me like something worth knowing about, especially as I work in the financial sector. Oil plays a part in geopolitics, economics, finance, war and climate change, along with being a useful microcosm for understanding the ways in which power, money and influence intersect. Silverstein explores the underbelly of oil by looking at the different people involved in its sale: the fixers; the dictators; the traders; the gatekeepers; the flacks; and the lobbyists. This book is well put together and only makes clear how little most of us know about how this pivotal commodity is bought and sold around the world. We know so few of the individuals who prop up the oil industry by name, and yet, they are some of the people most implicated in our crimes against the climate. This book explains how straightforwardly most major players in the oil industry manage to stay under the radar, which is not only helpful, but also crucial to their oil business. Oil is all about who you know and what you can leverage, and Silverstein does delve into the highly political issue of who has most of the supply and who creates most of the demand. It is packed full of information, names and dates, which can make it an overwhelmingly read at time, but it’s otherwise a powerful look into what goes on behind the barrels. Given how much I have read and written about climate change, I am at risk for entering into a green echo chamber online; this book was a good way of reminding myself of how little the oil industry is showing signs of slowing down and sparked a whole blog on the topic.
Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This book has been on my ‘to read’ lists for ages. Jake read it last year and loved it, but I continued to pass it over in favour of another book on geopolitics or economics, because I’m a fun person like that. However, I was feeling like I needed some light relief alongside studying for my exam, so I dove in to Ifemulu’s world for a few days.
Well, as the reviews suggested, I loved this book. Americanah tells the story of Ifemulu growing up in Nigeria, moving to America for her twenties and early thirties, before returning to Nigeria after a decade in the US. There’s also the love story between her and Obinze, who met as teens in Nigeria and stay in and out of each other’s lives throughout the years. The America years are punctuated with blog posts from Ifemelu’s anonymous blog on race in the USA.
Ultimately, this is a book about the immigrant experience and race in America. One of Ifemelu’s observations is that in America you’re black, first and foremost, while in Nigeria, you’re just a person. The sections of the book show this well, with all of Ifem’s experiences in America revolving around race, and then, as soon as she’s back in Nigeria, race is barely mentioned. I love how insightful the book is when evaluating Ifemula’s American experiences; the way Adichie examines the motivations of each person, of all races, is masterful. It manages to be analytical without being judgmental, and explores the myriad subtle (and not so subtle) ways that racism manifests in the US and the UK (where Obinze works for a time as an undocumented immigrant).
Americanah was the perfect blend of compelling story and political statement. It was a searing commentary on the experiences of immigrants and black people in America, and all the ways in which white people are completely useless, if not downright racist, in matters of race, while also being a wonderful chronicle of Ifemelu’s (and, to a lesser extent, Obinze’s) life and experiences. I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a great story with real substance.
No is Not Enough – Naomi Klein
Okay, I officially love Naomi Klein. This is a book about resistance in the age of Trump, and uses explanations from corporate branding and shock politics to describe the environment that led to Trump being able to win the 2016 election.
Klein emphasises a point that I think is too often ignored: that while Trump is horrendous, his election is the symptom of a culture that began to prize his awful traits many years before. This means that we have to look past merely getting rid of Trump and start to dismantle the decisions and structures that allowed him to get elected in the first place if we really want to stop people like him gaining power in the future. Klein makes clear that this is unlike her other books; No is Not Enough was written in only a few months, compared to the many years of research her other books took to put together. It draws on material from her other books and culminates in the LEAP manifesto, a positive vision for how to improve the world in the coming decades. Klein suggests that we should focus more on what we want to happen, rather than railing against things we don’t like. I could tell that this book was less well considered that her other work, but the final chapter really pulled it together for me – it is so thoughtful, intersectional and hopeful, it’s hard to not to be convinced. I have now put Klein’s other books to the top of my to-read list, so be prepared for her name to feature a lot in my reading round-ups.
23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism – Ha-Joon Chang
This is such a great book. Chang takes you through 23 common misconceptions about capitalism, including Thing 1: There is no such thing as a free market and Thing 8: Capital has a nationality and Thing 14: US managers are overpriced. He states at the outset that he thinks that capitalism is still the best economic system we have ever come up with, so he is not criticising capitalism in its entirety. He is merely trying to debunk many of the commonly held myths about this widespread economic paradigm, focusing on free-market capitalism in particular and often talking about development and the way that capitalism does or does not support economic development in immature economies.
The Things I appreciated the most were: Thing 1: There is no such thing as a free market; Thing 8: Capital has a nationality (which gave me a lot of ammo for a blog I want to write soon); Thing 9: We do not live in a post-industrial age; Thing 11: Africa is not destined for underdevelopment; Thing 12; Governments can pick winners; Thing 16: We are not smart enough to leave things to the market; and Thing 22: Financial markets need to become less, not more, efficient.
As I was reading, I felt grateful that I now have the economic background to effortlessly follow a book like this, something that would not have been the case a few years ago. This book further explained and provided evidence for a lot of questions and uncertainties around capitalism that I wouldn’t have been able to articulate so clearly but about which I was wondering. I am not completely anti-capitalist (and indeed, many of the people I see shouting “down with capitalism!” don’t seem to know a lot about it) but I am not particularly pro-capitalist either. As this book made clear, capitalism is not a binary state – economies either are capitalist, or they’re not – but a scale with differing levels of protection and regulation. As I wrote in this recent post, I think the idea of socialism is being warped, particularly in America, to describe not true socialism but an economic system that is not heavily unregulated capitalism, which, as Chang makes clear, could provide far more people and companies with protection and welfare while still operating via markets.