Reading List 2011 (5/34)

Recent reading:

  • The Invisible Heart, Nancy Folbre
  • Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis
  • Daybreak – 2250 AD, Andre Norton
  • Breed to Come, Andre Norton
  • Complications, Atul Gawande

I’ve spent most of the last ten days mired in dissertation reading – the good kind, which is sadly also the very Jess’s-brain-intensive kind, which in turn means I’ve only got a few books to share with you. Fortunately they’re good ones.

I found The Invisible Heart compelling, thoughtful and well-argued. Folbre takes the point of view that a functioning society includes many kinds of work, including caring work like child-rearing, elder-care, community volunteering and more. She argues that patriarchal models of society, for all their problems, did a reasonably good job of ensuring that this work got done despite it being unpaid and low-status. After all, women had no other choices. Our current model of society has the opposite problem; women have freedom, but caring work is getting screwed over. After all, it remains unpaid and low-status. Folbre brilliantly argues that this has to do with the nature of caring work, which is hard to quantify or industrialize. She then spends the rest of the book looking at ways to restructure our society’s working incentives so that both traditional caring work and traditional economic activity are rewarded.

This is one of those books that is meant to change the way you see the world, and for me, it did. I’m able to frame certain social trends as “Let’s put women back in a situation where we get to exploit their labor” – and others as “Screw caring work, outsource it and make your buck!” It gives me a new way to conceptualize my problems with, for example, so-called teacher merit pay schemes. Some of these programs actually would reward good teachers, but some buy into the idea that dollars and caring work are perfectly fungible, which they’re not, and use inappropriate metrics to look at outcomes. (And, by the way: teachers? Still disproportionately female. Who’s doing that caring labor again?)

Folbre makes the same old boring argument: both men and women should participate in marketplace work and caring work, and we should set up our society to accommodate that. But this is an argument that can’t be made often enough, because it still isn’t being heard. Both men and women deserve the chance to be treated as fully human, with the capacity to make and build and share and care and connect and earn and more. I don’t agree with all her recommendations on how to make this happen, but hey, I’d rather live in a world run by Folbre than either the patriarchal or pure-market alternatives.

In other news, Andre Norton writes a mean post-apocalyptic adventure story. I loved both Breed to Come and Daybreak when I was in middle school, so when I came across them in a used bookstore I snapped them up. She does love her some intelligent cats, but then again, who doesn’t?

Liar’s Poker was just as funny as I’d been told. That’s both “ha ha” funny and “wait, holy crap, seriously?” funny. I particularly enjoyed his chapter-long exploration of the art of the trading-floor prank. It’s also, of course, a completely brilliant analysis of how financial systems (and companies) fall apart. Reading this after the most recent crash is an eye-opener, as he looks at the development of collateralized mortgage obligations. Plus, I can’t think of anyone else (except, maybe, Paul Krugman) who could make the financial wizardry involved so clear and so interesting.

Finally, Complications. Good book, good essays. Each one was a little window into a piece of medical life or into a particular case, but Gawande does a beautiful job of keeping the story at hand in touch with his larger themes. He’s a beautiful writer addressing some very important questions of knowledge, risk, decision-making and more. One warning: some of the essays are not for the squeamish. At least there wasn’t a childbirth essay this time.

Shabbat Shalom!

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