An on-the-whole positive aspect of the writing life is that many of your friends are writers. Thus in circumstances like this I need to say: I’m recommending books by people I know, so bear that in mind. But in all cases these are books that I think deserve attention. Here goes:
1) The Digital Doctor, by Robert Wachter
The author is a medical doctor in the SF Bay Area who has written a popular blog known as The Hospitalist or Wachter’s World. I came to know him because his wife, the writer Katie Hafner, is a long-time friend with whom I once taught a class at the UC Berkeley Journalism School. One of “Dr. Bob’s” specialities on his site is explaining medical issues clearly to a lay readership, without ever talking down. He does that very effectively in this book, describing what is better, worse, different, and still unknowable about the ongoing computerization of medical practice. I feel as if I’ve had at least peripheral awareness of these issues for a very long time, starting from the days when my own doctor-father was pioneering the use of computers in his practice. But I learned a lot from this book and think most readers will too.
Also: my wife and I first got to know Katie Hafner and her family when she was married to a UC Berkeley official named Matt Lyon. Then in 2002, the fitness-conscious and very athletic Matt Lyon died suddenly, shockingly, at age 45 while using a treadmill in a hotel gym. After the sudden, shocking death of the 47-year-old David Goldberg, Sheryl Sandberg’s husband, Katie Hafner wrote a poignant open letter to Sandberg on dealing with this kind of grief. (“You will get through it. But you never will get past it.”) She says that she wrote the letter at the urging of her now-husband Bob Wachter. I am glad that he suggested it, and that she wrote it. I think you will see why if you read it.
2) Terrorism in Cyberspace, by Gabriel Weimann
I got to know Prof. Gabriel Weimann, of the University of Haifa, a dozen years ago during the Iraq war, when I was in Haifa and Tel Aviv reporting an Atlantic story, “Who Shot Mohammed al-Dura?” Shortly thereafter Weimann published an influential book called Terror on the Internet (Economist review here) about the ways in which terrorist groups could use online tools—at the time, mainly websites—to organize, recruit, and propagandize. This new volume extends the analysis through the technological, cultural, propaganda, and terrorism developments of the past decade. It is also usefully distinct from the reports you see every day about “cyber security” or related concepts. Gabi Weimann’s particular focus has been the way groups that are interested in physical-world terrorism—bombings, killings, ground warfare—use electronic tools toward those ends.
I don’t actually know Andrew G. Ferguson, who teaches law at the University of the District of Columbia and is an Atlantic contributor. (He is not the Weekly Standard writer Andrew Ferguson.) But after I mentioned online that I had just finished a five-day bout of trial-jury service, he sent me a copy of his book, which I sat down and read at one stretch.
Why Jury Duty Matters is an unusual book: part orientation manual for those who end up deliberating on others’s fates, part Constitutional history and legal analysis, part exhortation on why jury duty actually does matter, in a democratic society.
Like most people who get a jury summons, I think “Oh, not again!” when I see it in the mail. When showing up at the courtroom I try to make myself seem as unappealing a jury member as possible, so one side or another will bounce me. But like most people who have been selected and made to sit and discuss evidence with 11 other jurors, I’ve ended the process sobered-and-appalled by the duty of sitting literally in judgment of someone else, but also sobered-and-deeply-impressed by how seriously all people involved took the process.
In his introduction Ferguson says, “The premise of this book is simple: Imagine that instead of considering jury duty an inconvenience, you considered it a day of reflection—a day to reevaluate your role as a constitutional actor.” Before reading the book, and before considering the effects of this latest full week of deliberations (my third trial-jury experience), I might have been tempted to say: Yeah, sure. Now I think he is saying something important; if you care about the overall civic fabric of society, it’s worth reading this book. (And, of course, watching not only the original 12 Angry Men movie, source of the image at top, but also Amy Schumer’s sublime recent parody.)
4) Empire of Cotton, by Sven Beckert
I don’t actually know Sven Beckert—he’s a “friend” only in having been a college professor for one of my sons—and his book needs no log-rolling from me. It has just won the Bancroft Prize as the year’s outstanding work of academic history. It is academic in the authoritative rather than the hair-splitting sense of that term: It makes an argument that is convincing, even obvious, once it has been pointed out, but that had not generally been noticed before. People have written about steel, coal, automobiles, airplanes, now the Internet as the central technologies of a given age. Beckert shows why cotton—the product of plantations, the raw material for mills—should be considered as one of the most important connecting strands (sorry) in industrial and political history.
5) Grand Rapids Beer, by Patrick Evans
As I’ve noted on practically every stop of our American Futures journey, one mark of a community on the rise is the presence of craft breweries and distilleries. And as Jim Koch, of Sam Adams, explained to me last year, whatever its other failings America has really entered a Golden Age of Beer.
Michigan is one of the centers of a craft-brew revival. As are Oregon, and Colorado, and New England, and the West Coast in general, and the Mid Atlantic, and increasingly the South, and … Last year in Grand Rapids I met a young business writer and beer aficionado named Patrick Evans, who told me he was working on a history of his region’s role in the beer renaissance. Now that book is here; I enjoyed it; and I recommend it as a case study of the way the entrepreneurial and local-local-local impulse is playing a part in America’s craft-brew ascent.
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