17 January 2012

Books I should have read last year

Something odd happened last year. Well, actually, many odd things happened last year, but the thing of oddness that I am specifically referring to here is the fact that I lost the ability to read books. Now I don't mean that I suddenly went blind or developed dyslexia, rather as a consequence of pain and medication I lost the ability to concentrate long enough to finish anything longer than a few pages at a time.

I am a voracious reader, my not-so-secret vice is book buying, real dead-tree books, and a typical month sees the purchase of far more books than I could possibly read in the same period even if I treated reading as a full-time job (which at times I have). In Nassem Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan he recounts an anecdote of a vistor to Umberto Eco's house remarking on how big a library Eco had, asking him how many of the books had he actually read, to which Eco replied that the real question was how many of them he had not read. That is the way I treat my library, all the books on my shelves that I have not read serve as a constant reminder of how much there is that I do not know, how small and insignificant my understanding of the world around me really is and this helps keep my easily inflated sense of self-worth in check.

However last year was particularly poor for pushing the read-to-unread ratio on my shelves in a favourable direction, as I lost the ability to concentrate and absorb anything of weight for most of the year, and it is hard to convey just how great a loss this was. Slowly my powers of concentration have come back to me, and my mission this year is to catch up on a good deal of what I failed to read last year, and in the interest of having something to write about I thought I might share some of these lost books with you all in the first of an erratic series of posts entitled, "Books I should have read last year", and as a special bonus we'll start this series off with not one, but two, Books I Should Have Read Last Year.

Sins of The Father - Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy, Conor McCabe

I have had a chance to meet Conor a few times on Dame Street, even chatting with him on one particular day before he went down to the launch of this very book, and I really wish that I had been more familiar with it before talking with him, because then I possibly would have upped my conversational game beyond the "uuuurgh, Capitalism Bad" level. Many of the recent explorations of our current economic woes have focused solely on the Celtic Tiger years, on the property boom, light-touch regulation and crony-capitalism of the last two Fianna Fail administrations. While McCabe explores these themes as well, it is in the context of a broader examination of Irish history from the foundation of the State, and an analysis of the near-universal myopia that affected successive Irish governments.

Beginning with the rule of the Cattle Barons, who saw Ireland's role both pre-and-post Independence as predominantly to supply England with beef, continuing on with the abandonment of any serious attempt to form a large scale native-owned industrial sector in favour of the courtship of foreign Multinational Corporations (MNCs) who would treat Ireland primarily as a tax haven, through to the creation of an actual tax haven in the form of the IFSC and the subsequent property boom fueled by tax-avoidance legislation such as Section 31 Relief, McCabe shows how the one constant in Ireland since Independence has been governance by a hereditary minority in the interests of the wealthiest citizens. The political and economic inequality of the Celtic Tiger years was nothing new for Ireland, just merely is most extreme manifestation.

A very accessible book, it deserves a place on your shelf beside Fintan O'Toole's Ship of Fools, and Shane Ross' The Bankers as an examination of how we arrived in our current dystopic fantasyland, providing a much broader context than either and complimenting their more in-depth analysis of recent events.

You can read more by McCabe at Dublin Opinion here, and Sins of the Father is available at Amazon here.

Vultures' Picnic - In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores, Greg Palast

Journalism-noir from everybody's favourite misanthrope. Its been five years since Palast's last book, Armed Madhouse, the examination of voter-caging and other political skuldugery that led one student brandishing it at a meeting with John Kerry to be forceably subdued by security, uttering the now immortal line, "Don't tase me, bro". While the Bush era may long be gone, Palast has not been resting in the subsequent years, but perhaps paralleling the Occupy Movement's focus on our economic rather than political masters, Palast has turned his raincoat and hat away from election fraud and towards the much murkier world of Big Oil, Big Nuke and the vampire squid itself, Goldman Sachs.

Travelling from Alaska to Azerbaijan by way of New Orleans and Ecuador, Palast explores the dominance of BP in global affairs (ironically linked via our own Peter Sutherland to Goldman Sachs) and the countless lives destroyed by their ultra-capitalism. It is also, somewhat surprisingly, a love story, but any good noir tale needs a mysterious love interest.

I love Palast's writing style, unapologetically polemical with a healthy swathe of grumpy, a man critically aware of his own failings but somehow reveling in them all the same. Highly informative, wrath-inducing and exceedingly entertaining at the same time and while perhaps not as focused, a worthy companion nonetheless to Armed Madhouse and The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.

You can find out more about Palast, watch his video reports for the BBC and others, and read more of his investigations on his website here, and Vultures' Picnic is available at Amazon here.

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