Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World is not an exciting book and some parts are downright tedious, but it is interesting, retracing the history of how manufacturing moved away from craft and got organized in larger and larger compounds starting with the Industrial Revolution. The book covers much more than the evolution of the buildings themselves, discussing how to feed and house the workers, labor laws, the stealing of manufacturing secrets (Lowell is not just a textile town, but the namesake of an accomplished industrial spy, Frances Cabot Lowell), and the development of Taylorism and other systematic approaches to productivity — as well as art and literature describing, extolling, or exposing industrialization.
The illustrations of various work environment are particularly interesting and occasionally terrifying. The last chapters, covering Chinese factories in contemporary times, seem weaker (read Factory Girls and Country Driving instead).
What happens when a big plant closes in a small city (the Janesville, WI in Janesville: An American Story)? When all the good jobs vanish, the workers get to either commute each week to a distant city for their jobs, or, little by little, downgrade to jobs paying half of what they make. Or they try re-training, but there are few miracle reconversions. (Interesting, they do not seek their fortunes elsewhere.) And little by little, other jobs vanish since the now much poorer workers don’t go out or buy much of anything. The high school starts running a food pantry. The local community college scrambles. The town boosters try to attract new businesses, without much success.
When politicians talk about retraining, they should be instructed to read this book.
It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear sagely notices the world is a pretty good place, and generally getting better. In the first part of the book the author organizes the discussion around standard catastrophe scenarios (“Why don’t we starve?”, “Will nature collapse?”, “Will the economy collapse?”), each smoothly feeding into the other as in a mystery novel. Using publicly available statistics, the author calmly demolishes each argument, weaving in the real reasons for the concerns: we like to worry, and politicians and others have a built-in interest to keep us worried. The second part I found less successful, because the author just rehashes the reasons that were already introduced in the first part of the book — and also, uncomfortably, argues time and again against regulations of any type, destroying his own argument. Perhaps the economy is not collapsing not solely because it just thrives on its own, but also because some amount of regulation make it work a bit better. Minimum wage anyone?
A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression describes how Americans fed themselves, and were taught to feed themselves, between the end of WWI and the start of WWII, focusing on the Great Depression but starting with heroic descriptions (and menus!) of what it took to feed large farm families in early 20th century. Let’s just say that farm women worked hard and were not afraid of fat, gluten, or animal products! As the authors move to the Great Depression, there are harrowing descriptions of food lines and malnutrition diseases amongst children, and a fascinating account of how the government stepped in with food distribution programs inspired by home economics experts who also provided recipes and tips to stretch out limited supplies. Not surprisingly, the recipes came with heavy cultural and racist baggage.
The last chapter is an incongruous, rushed description of various food technologies that took flight during this period and I could not quite understand what its purpose was, but the rest of the book is wonderful.
I somewhat hesitate to give three stars to The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War because it is a mammoth tome, with almost 700 pages of text, it ponderously tells you what it’s going to tell you, tells you, then summarizes what it told you, and it is replete with eye-blurring tables filled with numbers. In brief: it’s written by an economist, and it’s geeky.
But it’s surprisingly readable, and entirely fascinating, as it traces the changes in the way Americans live since 1870. While the author’s conclusion (hammered again and again through the book!) that most progress took place before 1940 and will never occur again is not entirely convincing, it is at least based on facts, or rather numbers. The beauty of the book is in the systematic exploration of the events behind the numbers, especially those aspects that are hard to capture.To take an easy example, our cars are much safer than the cars of the 50s, but car ownership or even car costs do not necessarily reflect that. The author seems to have delved into every aspect of our lives, informing us that horses were not only slow at 6 miles per hour, but also had a very limited range (25 miles) — and of course generated very visible and smellable byproducts, or that telephone operators were asked for the time of day or football scores throughout the day, serving as a primitive internet.
I highly recommend you give this book a try to measure the vast differences between life in the late 19th century and today’s. Having to carry, literally, tons of water (before indoor plumbing), being too cold or too hot (before effective heating and air-conditioning), being isolated from people more than a couple miles away (before cars, planes, phones, the internet) seems like a totally different world.
Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First is an ambitious, sweeping, and long (700 pages!) history of our collective hoarding for centuries, and across many countries, including many in Europe, the US, China, Japan, and the ex-British Empire. The author has looked at death inventories, the content of New York City trash cans, the sometimes uneasy relationship between religion and consumption, housing, and leisure activities. The book is surprisingly easy to read considering its scope, although occasionally statistics could be anchored better. 225 gallons of water per person in Atlanta in 1884. He says that’s a lot — but what do we consume today? And cross-country data presented in line graphs would be much easier to consume if placed on a map. Still, an enjoyable synthesis of evolving lifestyles.
Inequality is not the Piketty book (The Economics of Inequality), but it is also written by an economist who, laudably, attempts to identify solutions to the growing economic inequalities in the world, although he focuses mostly on the UK, where he lives, and to a lesser extent the US.
It’s difficult to imagine a duller book written for the general public. A good third of the book focuses on defining metrics for inequality. Of course there are many ways to define income and to compare incomes, but 100 pages seems a bit much. And the graphs are just horribly formatted. Surely there are ways to present the same information in a more attractive form.
The practical recommendations are just about as unattractive as the initial analysis. Can the author possibly believe that paying a basic income, no questions asked, to every citizen would pass the most basic political test? Still, the book has the immense advantage of carefully backing up each recommendation with detailed, quantitative data. It also reminds us that inequality is neither unavoidable nor incurable — though a more politically astute set of solutions would certainly be required.