Book Notes

A series of deep dive notes into selected books that I began reading during Covid19, starting in February 2020.

Notes: A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Book Notes

I just finished the heaviest read so far in my pandemic reads list, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, about the 14th century, loosely an account of the European experience of the Black Death. It is a 784-page monster and I read it in 15-30 minute chunks at bedtime over 68 days, while live-tweeting it.

I was going to try and reshape my live-tweeting into an actual longform review/summary, but people seemed to like the live/fresh feel of the livetweeting, so I decided to just clean up and post the thread here as notes, with some light editing, linking, and addition of a few post-twitter [editorial additions]. This is also a book that benefits from a lot of Wikipedia bunnytrailing on the side, and I found myself doing a lot of reading about characters and events mentioned in passing. I’ve linked a selection of those to these notes.

Aside: if you like this format, let me know. I have a bunch of threads on Twitter that are probably suitable for this sort of light-touch blogification.

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Notes — Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Book Notes

My second deep dive pandemic read is Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman, covering the history of the United States’ industrial mobilization for World War 2. There is a good deal of resemblance between the mobilization to beat Covid (and coming soon: climate) and WW2 mobilization, so it’s a good history to have in your back pocket for the next decade.

As with my previous deep dive, on Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, this is just a cleaned-up version of my livetweeting as I read the book. As with that book, this one too benefits from a lot of Wikipedia side-trails, and I’ve linked a bunch of them.

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Notes: Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Book Notes

Back when I started my pandemic deep-dive book-reading binge in late February, the first book I started with was Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. But it’s only now, months later, that I have a clear sense of why it felt salient right now. Hence this out-of-order notes post based on my tweetstorm from February/March.

I read the book partly because I was interested in the life and career of John W. Campbell, and partly because I had this sense that the Golden Age of science fiction (loosely, 1938-1960), understood in context, had a set of important lessons to offer for us in 2020, dealing with the Great Weirding, and the aftermath of Covid. Turns out, my instincts were correct.

What follows are some prefatory remarks, followed by a slightly cleaned-up version of the live tweetstorm.

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Notes: The Starship and the Canoe by Kenneth Brower

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Book Notes

This next book has probably my favorite so far of my pandemic reads. Kenneth Brower’s The Starship and the Canoe. It’s a strange paired biography of physicist Freeman Dyson and his son, adventurer and historian George Dyson. The “starship” refers to the nuclear powered Orion rocket program that Dyson Sr. helped conceive and lead, while the canoe refers to the adventures of Dyson Jr. building and voyaging around the Pacific Northwest in canoes.

Freeman Dyson died on February 28, just before the pandemic, which is how I found this book, via a obitweet by Ross Andersen. Normally, it would have gone straight to my someday/maybe pile as an intriguing but not urgent book. But with the pandemic growing more ominous by the day, somehow the timing felt right for such a liminal read (this is one of the few books that actually deserves that adjective).

I read the book between March 2 and April 4, through the early prepping weeks, and the first couple of weeks of lockdown. It felt pretty poignant to meditate on horizons terrestrial and extraterrestrial while locking down my own life within tight domestic boundaries. Looking back, six months into the pandemic, it was the perfect sort of mental preparation. On to the notes.

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Notes: The Marshall Plan by Benn Steil

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Book Notes

I read this next book, The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War, by Benn Steil, in an attempt to take the idea of a “Marshall Plan for post-Covid recovery” seriously.

I’m glad I did because I apparently had an entirely misguided understanding of what the plan was, the context in which it was undertaken, how it worked, and how well it worked.

In the decades since the OG plan arguably saved postwar Europe from collapse, the idea of a “Marshall Plan for X” has become something of a cliche in policy circles, and an event like the Covid19 pandemic is perhaps the most tempting sort of binding for X. I myself tweeted on March 28 that maybe we should shoot for a “bottom-up OODA Marshall Plan” sometime in March.

Now, having read the book, I have to say, the Marshall Plan is perhaps not the best precedent to look at for today’s needs, even though there are elements worth learning from, mostly in the what not to do department. If there are lessons here for post-Covid, they are not the obvious ones.Here is the original thread. On to the notes.

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Notes: Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Book Notes

Concluding my pandemic-themed book reading binge for the year, here’s my summary of Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider (2017), perhaps the most comprehensive popular look at the Spanish Flu, among the many published to date.

There are several books on the topic, and the most popular is probably John Barry’s 2005 book, The Great Influenza, thanks to the now-widely-known-story of George W. Bush being inspired by it in the wake of SARS to beef up the United States’ pandemic preparedness. But I picked Spinney’s book partly because it is more recent (it covers research on the Spanish Flu that wasn’t available in 2005 when Barry wrote his book), and partly because it self-consciously sets out to paint a global portrait.

Here is the original thread on twitter (I read it in September-October). Now on to the cleaned-up notes.

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