Business

Moral Mazes: On "bureaucratic ethics" (Introduction, part 2).

Day 3 of our read-along of Robert Jackall's classic work Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers.

So last time I was reading just the introduction of this book and it was knocking me over. Never more so than when I read Jackall's explanation of what bureaucratic work, such as that often found among the managerial class in corporations and organizations, does to people.

Consider:

"Bureaucratic work shapes people's consciousness in decisive ways. Among other things, it regularizes people's experiences of time and indeed routinizes their lives by engaging them on a daily basis in rational, socially approved, purposive action; it brings them into daily proximity with and subordination to authority, creating in the process upward-looking stances that have decisive social and psychological consequences...it creates subtle measures of prestige and an elaborate status hierarchy that, in addition to fostering an intense competition for status, also makes the rules, procedures, social contexts, and protocol of an organization paramount psychological and behavioral guides." (p. 4.)

Basically, if you want the status, you fall in line. This is how you end up with people in corporations telling Jackall things like "What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man's home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you."

Does this gross anyone out besides me? And you can tell me "Well, CR, that's just how the system works" all you like. I don't get any less grossed out.

I think this book is blowing my mind because it doesn't seem like Jackall is just describing corporations. It feels like Jackall is describing all of America (and the world too).

So here's the end of the Introduction, and gives you an idea of what is yet to come in this book:

"This book, then, examines business as a social and moral terrain. I offer no programs for reform, should one think that reform is necessary. Nor, I am afraid, do I offer tips on how to find one's way onto the 'fast track' to managerial success. This is, rather, an interpretive sociological account of how managers think the world works." (p. 5.)

And, psst...don't let the boring sound of that "interpretive sociological account" bit deter you. Nothing about this book is boring. Next? On to Chapter 1: "Moral Probations, Old and New."

Want to read our Moral Mazes Read-Along from the very beginning? Here you go:


Moral Mazes: Introduction (1)

So here we are, reading Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, and I have no idea how to do this "share a whole book with you" thing.

So, like I do everything, let's just jump right in.

As noted in the prior post, Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes is about organizational behavior and what passes for morality in organizations.

When I first picked up this book over the summer, I was immediately sucked into its Introduction by the first line:

"Corporate leaders often tell their charges that hard work will lead to success."

I read that, and I thought, I like this book already.

Here's how it continues on from there:

"Indeed, this theory of reward being commensurate with effort has been an enduring belief and a moral imperative in our society, one central to our self-image as a people, where the main chance is available to anyone of ability who has the gumption and persistence to seize it. Hard work, it is also frequently asserted, builds character. This notion carries less conviction because business people, and our society as a whole, have little patience with those who, even though they work hard, make a habit of finishing out of the money."

And after I read that, I thought, Jesus Christ, I LOVE this book, and I'm only one paragraph in.

Go back and read it again. It's beautifully written and straightforward but the first thing we're all going to have to do is get used, once again, to reading something slightly meatier than the latest viral Twitter post or illiterate texts from our children.

Did you read it again?

Good.

Now, I'm not going to type the whole book into this blog, although I'm tempted, because of what I've read so far, I've underlined a lot of it. Because almost everything I read here--written in 1988 and then updated in 2010, so basically ancient--has the ring of perpetual truth about it.

Now that you've read that paragraph a couple of times, look around you in 2022. Does our society still have disdain for those who finish out of the money, even though they work hard?

Yes. Yes, it does.

So. What else does Jackall tell us in this introduction to his work? Here are the high points:

  1. (Well, this is actually from the Acknowledgments, before the Introduction.) Jackall explains that he is a sociological researcher who does his "field work" in corporations. In his research, he "examines managers' work, the intricate social contexts of their organizations, their striving for success, the habits of mind they develop, and especially the occupational ethics that they construct to survive and flourish in their world." That basically explains what the book is about.
  2. See above. Americans believe (still, to some extent) that if you work hard, you will succeed. And if you succeed, you will make money. And if you don't, you don't matter.
  3. Within corporations and organizations, however, people may no longer "see success as necessarily connected to hard work." What then, Jackall wants to know, "becomes of the social morality of the corporation"--rules of everyday behavior--when people perceive that "adroit talk, luck, connections, and self-promotion are the real sorters of people into sheep and goats"?

Jackall further points out that, by going into and observing managers in corporations, he learned about their "bureaucratic ethics," or the moral guide they followed within their workplaces.

Tune in next time for an awesome summary by Jackall of why "bureaucratic ethics" are important to all of our lives.

(Also: Please note I don't want this read-along to just be me reciting the book to you. Please get the book yourself if you can! Chime in with questions and opinions! Ask questions! Make the comment section your playground on which to discuss bureaucratic ethics!)


Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, by Robert Jackall

Moral mazesOkay, kids, I know we're all busy and the world is crazed and the last thing we want to do is cozy down in front of the fire with a 300-page treatise on business ethics. I know you don't really have the time to read Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, first published in 1988 and reissued in 2010.

So I'm going to read it for and with you!

Starting today, I'll try and post more regularly than usual with whatever daily gems I get out of Jackall's classic sociological book.

Why am I doing this?

Well, I gotta tell you, for at least 45 years of my life I didn't give "organizational behavior" much thought. I also never gave much thought to organizations in general, or corporations, or how people who work in corporations and organizations get along with each other. This is for one simple reason.

I am allergic to organizations.

If you saw my work area, you'd know I'm allergic to any kind of "organization," full stop. This shocks Mr. CR, because he knows I went to library school and at various parts of my career have been responsible for making sure library shelves and systems are in order (as well as individual books, when I indexed them, because creating back-of-the book indexes is all about bringing order to a text and breaking out its individual subjects so readers can find them in the index and therefore find them in the book).

What can I say? I can understand and follow the Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal classifications. I like reading nonfiction and breaking it down into littler parts that readers can use. But organizing my own mind, home, workspace, life? I'm helpless.

In the greater picture, I mostly dislike organizations and institutions. I don't like their hierarchical structures and their rules and their dress codes and their norms of behavior. I recognize that to some extent we need them, but I do not prosper within them. The only thought I had when touring my son's middle school at Back to School Night was OH MY GOD IT'S A PRISON LOOK AT THE GUN-METAL GRAY WALLS I HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW.

Nearly six months later, whenever I look at the CRjr's school, I still break out in a cold sweat. Not least because the other day, CRjr wore his boots and therefore had to pack his tennis shoes--and forgot one shoe. (Yup, that's my boy. Genetics are brutal.) So I drove his shoe over to school because if the elder CRjr cannot run off some of his nervous energy during gym and recess, life is not worth living around here when he gets home. I had to wait half an hour while the office staff called his room and then tried to find him because it was the opening advisory period and some kids were still eating breakfast in the cafeteria. They wanted me to just leave his shoe with them, and they would eventually call him to the office and he could find his shoe on the table of "parent drop-off" items, but I couldn't do that, because I do not trust his office staff. Earlier this year, on the coldest day of the fall, they had set him outside for half an hour on the WRONG DAY for a doctor appointment I'd signed him out for--using their software--so I was not confident they would do their job correctly. I could also not assume that my son would be able to find his shoe on the table, because he often can't find the milk in the refrigerator. (Sigh.) They also won't let any parents into the school, ever.*

That's all more than you needed to know, but you start to see why I dislike large institutions and organizations and companies. And now that I know that, I want to read about why that might be.

And that's why I'm reading Moral Mazes and telling you about it. More to come, but here's a teaser for what the book's about:

"What sort of everyday rules-in-use do people play by when there are no fixed standards to explain why some succeed and others fail? In the words of one corporate manager, those rules boil down to this maxim: 'What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That's what morality is in the corporation.'"

*Please note I waited in the entryway of the school and about a million eighth-graders who are taller than me streamed through the doors where I was. If I hadn't chosen to obey school policy and stop at the office, I could have strolled in with the kids and nobody would have been any the wiser.


American Made: What Happens To People When Work Disappears, by Farah Stockman.

There's a lot to like about Farah Stockman's book American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears.

(Okay, except the subject matter. The loss of good-paying blue-collar jobs, and the difficult lives of the people who lose such jobs, is not a fun one. I admit it.)

American madeStockman followed three workers over the course of several years, in Indiana. One was a white woman named Shannon, one was a black man named Wally, and one was a white man named John. She interviewed and got to know them and learned about their work at the Rexnord plant (a plant that made industrial and ball bearings).

Stockman first began researching the plant and its workers in 2017, and decided to focus on the three workers to show not only what happens to people when they lose their jobs, but what those jobs meant to them during their whole lives:

"The more time I spent with Shannon, Wally, and John, the better I understood what the job at the bearing plant had meant to them. It had rescued Shannon from an abusive man, thrown Wally a lifeline out of a dangerous world, and handed John a chance to regain what he'd lost. The machines there might have been old and cranky. The floors might have been coated in grime. The roof might have leaked brown water when it rained. But for the lucky few who'd managed to get jobs there, it had been a place of identity, belonging, and redemption." (p. 14.)

It's a good book, but for me, if you're going to read only one of these types of books (American economy vs. American workers), then that book has to be Brian Alexander's Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town. BUT...there is a place for this book too. It's heavier on the human stories, and definitely lighter on the complex financial shenanigans that go on in American business, although there's some of that also.

Where I got a little annoyed was in the middle, when Stockman admits, basically, that she's a college-educated person who never dreamed globalization could be bad for anyone. Maybe I've read too many of these types of books, but I'm like, really? I'm college-educated and it never occurred to me that globalization would be GOOD for anyone. What must it be like to believe what the economic "experts" tell you? Well, here's how Stockman explains it:

"Then I went to Indiana and started interviewing steelworkers. After I heard Tim the machinist describe NAFTA as a 'sellout job' down at the union hall, I drove back to my hotel room and sat down at my computer, certain that I'd quickly find evidence to prove him wrong.

Every economist I had ever interviewed on the subject of free trade had assured me that it was a boon for the country. Sure, a few people would lose their jobs, they'd said. But on the whole, the nation would be better off. That's what I'd learned in college: if every country specializes in what it's good at--its comparative advantage--things will be made more efficiently, more wealth will be created, and everyone will win. In that narrative, the steelworkers were the unlucky few whose jobs had been sacrificed for the greater good." (p. 186.)

And she goes on like that for a while. It's deeply painful to read. How could someone so smart be so clueless? At least at some point she gets around to saying this:

"There was something deeply disturbing about the way that free trade was being championed by people whose own jobs were not on the line. The more I probed, the more I began to see what the steelworkers saw when they heard fancy people on the news talk about the future of the U.S. economy. 'Our comparative advantage is our knowledge and capital,' declared the men with the money and the college degrees.'" (p. 192.)

Well, no shit, Sherlock. During this entire chapter, I remembered reading Jessa Crispin's book Why I Am Not a Feminist, and how in that book she stated she really just wanted men to figure out their own shit without women having to teach them. That's how I felt here. Come on, "educated" people--figure out your own shit and catch up with the rest of us in the real world, would you?

But overall, I still give the book points for its overall readability and Stockman's obvious time investment in getting to know the people she was writing about.


The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown

So, lately I can't sleep.

Either I can't get to sleep, or I can't stay asleep, or I wake up early and can't get back to sleep. It annoys me no end, particularly as we are heading into fall and winter sickness season and the CRjrs are back in their regular schools (Germ Elementary and Germ Middle School, yup, they're in two different schools so basically when they come home it's like we're living with all the germs of the roughly 1500 other kids they attend school with) and I would like to get sufficient sleep. But it is what it is.

The good handAll summer I would just lie in bed, not sleeping, and stew about not sleeping. Now I am learning to just get up and go read something. It doesn't help me fall back asleep, but it also doesn't mean all those hours are wasted.

So a book I spent a lot of time with at 2 a.m. last week was Michael Patrick F. Smith's memoir The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown. Perhaps all books are surreal when you read them from two a.m. to four a.m., but this one was a particularly unsettling read.

When he was in his thirties, actor and stage worker and playwright Smith decided he wanted to take on a North Dakota oil fracking boom town, and see if he could make some money working an oil field job. So he headed out to Williston, North Dakota, where he spent nearly a year trying to become a "good hand"--a skilled laborer in the oil fields.

Let me just tell you right now, I don't know how people live and work in oil boom towns. I mean, I do, because I've now read Smith's book on the subject. But I don't know how (mostly) men move to North Dakota, live in close quarters with one another in tiny apartments and squalid houses (because there's not enough housing for all the men trying to find jobs), and then work ten to twelve hour days in North Dakota weather while moving around huge and dangerous machinery.

Smith is very good at describing his surroundings; it's a vivid book:

"At lunchtime, I sat in the back of the work van and ate cold Chunky soup out of the can. Bobby Lee sat with the driver's seat kicked way back, his boots up on the dash. He wore a Resistol brand Diamond Horseshoe cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes. At one point the hat had been the color of pearl, but it was beat to shit, dirty, greasy, and floppy--incongruent with his studied look. 'Now you know why gas is so expensive,' Bobby Lee said.

I stared out the window of the van. The work site was cluttered with tractor trailers, pickup trucks, forklifts, a hydraulic crane, a lattice boom crane, rows of stacked piping, giant metal structures, and crews of men." (p. 3.)

The bad part about reading at 2 a.m. is that I wasn't with it enough to stick bookmarks in all the parts of this book that I wanted to remember. So I don't have as many quotes as usual to back this up, but you should read this book. You won't look at oil or gas or filling up your car or using any sort of plastic in quite the same way ever again, when you read how unbelievably hard it is to extract petroleum from the earth, and how many people break their bodies and their mental states and their families (since a lot of them move away from families to go where the oil work is) to produce it for you.

But it's not just about work. It's a very male book, and there are so many stories of men interacting with one another violently (even their affection seems to be shown violently) that it's hard, at least for this female, to read. Smith also tells a family tale about his large family and their abusive father (and also he and his siblings' unbelievable grace in dealing with that father), and discusses what he calls the "father wound"--how so many men he worked with had abusive or uncaring fathers whose approval they were still unconsciously seeking.

It's a great book, even (particularly?) when it's unsettling.


I know it's easy to shop at Amazon, but please stop shopping at Amazon.

Over the last few weeks I spent some quality time reading Alex MacGillis's new book Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click AmericaIt is about Amazon, but more broadly, it is about how Amazon is ruining many aspects of American life. It is a super-depressing read.

Fulfillment jpgI absolutely adore journalism, history, and sociology books that help me see what I call the "big picture"--how specific actions, policies, and habits contribute to large-scale cultures and situations. To me the gold standard of this kind of writing is Brian Alexander--whose investigative books Glass House and The Hospital showed me how capitalism and health care, respectively, both suck in America. If you didn't want to call these books "big picture" books, I suppose you could call them "journalistic accounts that help you view the macro through the lens of the micro," but I would never say that because I hate the phrase "through the lens of..."

I got about 75 pages into MacGillis's book, when he was talking about how Amazon the company and Bezos the head of Amazon impact housing costs, manufacturing, and even the massive amounts of money to be found among the upper-class in Washington, D.C. The book at that point was so "big picture" that it was actually a little hard for me to follow, but I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did, because it is really a comprehensive and well-researched book.

It's gross. Amazon is gross from start to finish, and so is Jeff Bezos. I can't even pull out a representative quote for you because all of the book's stories rest on other stories and numbers and research and it all kind of has to be absorbed together to be believed. But trust me: the lengths to which this company will go to sell you absolutely everything--at a fairish price now but most likely at a nightmare-ish price later--are astounding. Forget about all of us citizens being fucked at both the national and state levels of politics, where money rules. Amazon reaches right down into local governments and seeks to remove all of your rights at the level of where you live.

So here are my suggestions:

  1. Read the book (of course). It's a challenge but stick with it.
  2. Stop shopping at Amazon. If you can't stop cold turkey, at least delete your Prime membership or don't sign up for one. More than anything, Jeff Bezos wants you to sign up for Amazon Prime. Don't do it. I'm begging you.

I have been trying to avoid shopping on Amazon this summer and year and I have mostly been successful. Sometimes you are going to pay more and wait a bit longer for merchandise, but you can do it. Sometimes you might actually find things elsewhere a little cheaper or nearer by you. Here's a little story to get you started:

The eldest CRjr needed a watch because we are trying to let him take baby steps to independence and walk with a friend to a nearby park. To do that, I had to be able to tell him a time when I needed him back, and he needed to be able to know the time, so, presto, he needed a watch. We looked at some on Amazon for $23, but I am now completely just sickened whenever I hear the word "Amazon" so I told him we'd go look at a local hardware store that has a time center/watch shop in it. And we found a watch that actually fits him better (the face is smaller) for $30. The guy was super nice and set the time and date for us, and the younger CRjr of course also then wanted a watch, but they didn't have any similar ones for a similar price (there was a fifty-dollar one but I am not strapping a fifty-dollar watch on a grade-schooler). So then we came home and found a very similar watch on Timex.com.

Results? We spent a little bit more, but we got better watches and better-fitting watches (I think the $23 ones we were looking at on Amazon were Amazon knock-off brands of their branded better sellers, something Amazon does a lot to get you coming and going). We had a fun outing. Me and the CRjrs had a nice chat on the way out about how it was nice to spend $30 in our town, in a store where local people were working.

It felt good. It won't save the world but it's 23 more dollars that will not be added to Jeff Bezos's billions.


Live Work Work Work Die, by Corey Pein

Mr. CR saw this book, Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey Into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley, by Corey Pein, on the end table and he said, "Kudos to you, another depressing nonfiction book."

Which I think is rich, coming from Mr. CR, who is my partner in our natural (if not ideal) habit of always imagining the worst-case scenario. He's way more bleak than me, but he hides it better, mostly because he's very, very quiet.

I know. You totally want to hang out in our cheerful, laugh-a-minute home, don't you?*

Anyway. He was right. This book was super depressing.

PeinIt's been on that end table for a week now, because that's where I set it when I finished reading it, had a little cry, and then moved on to whatever homeschooling, caregiving, or freelancing stuff I had going on that day. I've been trying for a week to get myself to post about this book, because I actually do think you should read it.

Pein set out to live and succeed in Silicon Valley, figuring there's tons of start-up cash available there for whatever kind of start-up he might be able to dream up (and then kind of vaguely start, and then cash out of). In other words, and as the jacket copy proclaims: "To truly understand the delirious reality of the tech entrepreneurs, he knew he would have to inhabit that perspective--he would have to become an entrepreneur himself."

And so he does. The first hurdle, of course, is finding a place to live on a journalist's budget in Silicon Valley. It's pretty much impossible, and it involves either living with many, many other tech workers in tiny, tiny, tiny (and shared) living spaces, or actually in a tent that somebody is renting out as an Airbnb. The second hurdle is dreaming up an idea for a start-up, and then getting that idea in front of investors. Third? Try not to lose your soul.

I think I left this book sitting on the end table because I knew it was going to be hard for me to do it justice in a review. It's sort of a strange concept, but there's no doubt that Pein does a very good job of dropping the reader right in the middle of Silicon Valley culture, and WOW, I find that a hugely scary place to be.

The most disturbing story (for me, anyway) in a book of disturbing stories came at the end, when the author describes his and his spouse's life in India, where they lived in 2016. At that time, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, implemented a policy of "demonetization," because he wanted people to move to smartphone apps for all of their transactions. So Modi's government announced that two denominations of Indian currency--two denominations that comprised nearly 90% of all cash in circulation--wouldn't be considered legal tender and had to be turned in for larger bills.

That sounds fairly benign until you learn that the Indian government partnered with a tech company on a start-up app called Paytm, that was in no way able to handle the massive amounts of Indian citizens' daily transactions. It was a disaster:

"In the cities, many sick and elderly people died in the long ATM lines--in at least one case, a doctor refused treatment after demanding cash, which was, of course, what everyone was waiting in line for. It was easy to spend an entire day traipsing from one machine to another, only to find them all out of cash. But these problems were largely invisible to India's wealthy and middle class, who hired servants to do their shopping and thus escaped the battle of will and endurance that suddenly characterized routine commerce." (p. 290.)

Does that last bit sound like anywhere you know? Maybe everywhere, just recently when wealthier people paid desperate people (not enough) to go out and do their shopping or driving or other basic commerce for them? I thought, huh, I'm surprised no politician here has demanded that we all turn in cash and use only a Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos approved/created payment app.

Then I remembered, that just hasn't happened YET.

I know, it's depressing. Read this book anyway.

*Actually, we all do laugh a lot. First off, the CRjrs are hilarious little animals, and also, if you have an absurdist sense of humor, there is a LOT of material in our current world at which to laugh.


Great News!

Whistleblower Edward Snowden and his wife Lindsay Mills are having a baby!

Yes, I know you probably thought I was talking about something else, but let's face it, unless it pertains to whistleblowers, I don't follow political news at all anymore. I don't want to get into a whole big thing about it, but I might just caution against thinking rural voters are a completely different species than anyone else. For a truly eye-opening look at the cultures, economics, and politics of living in rural America, I would highly suggest reading Paula vW. Dáil's excellent Hard Living in America's Heartland: Rural Poverty in the 21st Century Midwest.

But: that is all neither here nor there.

Moral mazesThis week I'd like to tell you about this SUPER book I've been reading all summer long: Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers. It was first published in 1988, and I'm reading the twentieth anniversary edition from 2008, but I'm telling you, it reads like it was written this morning. Anyone who is feeling grossed out by our world of corporations and groupthink and organizational behavior (three things which all gross me out A LOT), is going to find a lot to read about in this book.

Ostensibly the book is about the "occupational ethics of corporate managers," and can also be considered a "sociology of the peculiar form of bureaucracy dominant in American business."

Now that makes it sound dry as hell, and I'm not going to lie to you, this is an academic book. It requires slow reading and attention, which is why I can only get through about 1.5 pages every day, in between yelling at the CRjrs to stop hitting each other so hard (I've given up on telling them to stop hitting each other full-stop). But if you put in the work, I think you'll be rewarded, because here is a quote from an actual manager that REALLY tells you what the book is about:

"As a former vice-president of a large firm says: 'What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man's home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That's what morality is in the corporation.'" (p. 4.)

And if that doesn't explain a lot of what is going wrong in the world today, I don't know what does.

More to come. Have a good week, all.


A re-reading kind of winter.

I am antsy this winter.

For months I've been feeling simultaneously like I can't sit still but also can't get up and actually get anything done. What is up? Is this the continuing midlife crisis? Anyway, whatever is causing it, I am finding it hard to start new books (or new anything, really). So I've been mainly plowing through comfort reading--Agatha Christie and Helene Hanff have been my twin Patron Saints of Antsy Re-Reading--but the other day I was talking to someone about Facebook and I found myself jonesing to re-read Ben Mezrich's thoroughly appalling* The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal.

It was about as horrible as I remembered. I still can't get over Zuckerberg wandering through the the computer files of all Harvard's "houses" and just downloading (stealing) everyone's photos so people could vote on the attractiveness of the women. And now he's one of the richest men in the world. In other news, Silicon Valley parents are now all figuring out that the products they make are terrible for children and are taking them away. Super. Meanwhile the rest of us are stuck with the Tech Hell they created.

So what's a representative quote? Well, this one, from the ending of the book, seems as appropriate as any.

"In one sense, the card represented nothing more than Mark Zuckerberg's personal brand of humor. But in another sense, the card was more than a joke--because it was true. No matter what else anyone wanted to believe, no matter what anyone else ever tried to do, the sentiment of the card would always be true.

Inevitably, indelibly true.

We can picture Mark reading the words on the card aloud to himself, the smallest hint of a grin twitching across his usually impassive face. I'm CEO--Bitch." (p. 249.)

And yes, they really did say that.

Gross. I'm back off to the comfort re-reading.

*On so many levels. I actually think Ben Mezrich plays a little too loose with the nonfiction form, but not many other people have written exposes of Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg, which is another fact I find appalling.

 


Looking for a name for our "Best of" Nonfiction list.

I thought long and hard about what to title these new types of posts:

1. The Citizen Reader Worldview in 52 Books (Or, Become a Bitter Middle-Aged Midwestern Woman in Only 52 Weeks!)

2. 100 Game-Changing Nonfiction Books

3. Nonfiction for a Twenty-first Century Citizen Reader

4. 100 Nonfiction Books Deemed "Too Depressing" by Mr. CR

5. Great Nonfiction to Read While Watching Two Preschoolers Who Can't Stop Pushing Each Other Down On the Cement Driveway

But all of those seemed a little personal (well, not the second one, the second one just seems boring), and I would like this list of Nonfiction Greatest Hits to be more broadly useful to a wide variety of readers.

So what to call it?

...

First maybe I'll tell you a little story about how I really started thinking that it is time to change Citizen Reader, or perhaps just to start to go out with a bang. In the month of March I slowly read an investigative nonfiction/business history book titled Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town,* by journalist Brian Alexander. It was a great book. It was not the best book I've ever read, and in some ways it was a very run-of-the-mill example of the type of nonfiction I favor (namely, "depressing" investigative nonfiction on current economic and cultural trends in America), but it was a great book. It was a book I found on another list, elsewhere, and I was intrigued by the title, so I brought it home, and it sat around my house for a while. And then I took a little break from reading, but shortly before this book was due, I thought, "No, even if my eyes are tired, I want to read this book."

So I did.

I read it more slowly than I usually read these books, and I never really felt like I couldn't put it down, but all the same I kept being drawn back to it. It is the story, basically, of the city of Lancaster, Ohio, and how its main manufacturer and employer, Anchor Hocking Glass, began and (pretty much) ended. It is a story of community history, the business environment of America in the twentieth century through 2016, it is the story of individuals struggling to find meaning in their work and a living wage, it is the story of an insular town mentality, it is an individual business history, and it is also a story of opiate abuse and other crime (mainly petty, but also huge glaring financial crimes perpetrated by the 1% of the title).

It's got a lot going on.

I would like for you to read this book, but I know that a lot of readers would be turned off by the level of business details in it. Trying to understand the financial shenanigans of leveraged buyouts and corporate takeovers (many of which have been going on since at least the 1980s) is ridiculous; I have to give Alexander credit that he could describe most of it as clearly as he could. Where the rubber really meets the road is in one of the final chapters, when he discusses the trend of pundits telling Midwesterners to leave their smallish cities and towns and rural areas if they want to avoid drugs and find better-paying work:

"For decades, politicians--Republicans and Democrats both--and pundits had all been spewing empty platitudes of praise for 'the heartland,' 'real America,' and 'small-town values.' Then, with shameless hypocrisy, they supported the very policies that helped destroy thriving small towns.

Corporate elites said they needed free-trade agreements, so they got them. Manufacturers said they needed tax breaks and public-money incentives in order to keep their plants operating in the United States, so they got them. Banks and financiers needed looser regulations, so they got them. Employers said they needed weaker unions--or no unions at all--so they got them. Private equity firms said they needed carried interest and secrecy, so they got them. Everyone, including Lancastrians themselves, said they needed lower taxes, so they got them. What did Lancaster and a hundred other towns like it get? Job losses, slashed wages, poor civic leadership, social dysfunction, drugs...

Telling Lancaster to surrender and call U-Haul made it easy for America to ignore its Lancasters. Sure, there was a lot of talk about such places and the people in them, but few wanted to spend much time learning about how they'd been left behind by the financialization and digitalization of American life. Silicon Valley kept promising nirvana but delivering new ways to gossip, even while disconnecting people from each other and their real communities. Politicians soothed the blows of globalization with promises to retrain and educate, but none of that happened for Lancaster's working class.

To so blithely dismiss the value of community was to pretend there was no loss. But there was, and the effects of that loss continued to ripple throughout the town." (pp. 291-294.)

So here's where my little story ends. I read this book, and I read that, and somewhat sharply it struck me that yes, that is a culmination of most of the nonfiction I've been reading since 2000. In my brain I could feel all sorts of threads coming together, and I felt for a moment like I had a clear picture of the time and place I live in. I have read A LOT of books to get to this place. And for the first time in a long time I thought, I don't need to read any more.**

I want to do something else.

So, in light of our discussions a few weeks back, here's what we're going to do. Citizen Reader is going to place of action. Mine, and yours. We're also going to take things seriously enough to have a schedule; I'll post it soon. We're going to read some essays, and one month we're going to have an online book club, and in the middle of all that I'm going to write posts that list books I've read and helped me get to this moment of clarity, and this is what I'm going to call that list, because I am a Gen Xer and although I want to take things seriously, I also can't resist a pop culture reference:

Nobody Puts Nonfiction In a Corner (or, 100 Nonfiction Books I Couldn't Live Without)***

And #100 on that list is Brian Alexander's excellent Glass House. This list will not really be in order, but I'm calling this book #100 because I don't think you can start there. I want to tell you about the best, clearest, most helpful nonfiction books that I've read about living in this place and time. Won't you join me?

Oh, and don't worry. I'm still going to read. I'll still need something else to look at besides my little CRs pushing each other down in the driveway.

*This link goes to an excellent review of this book at Slate; concise, well-written, even very good about explaining briefly the financial mishaps wreaked on the Anchor Hocking company.

**I actually had this thought in quote form: in Anne Tyler's novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, elderly Pearl Tully is being read to by her son Ezra, out of her own childhood diary. At one point he reads to her an entry about a happy moment she had: "...'I saw that I was kneeling on such a beautiful green little planet. I don't care what else might come about, I have had this moment, it belongs to me.'

That was the end of the entry. He fell silent.

'Thank you, Ezra,' his mother said. 'There's no need to read any more.'" (p. 277.)

That's exactly the way I felt. Thank you, Ezra. There's no need to read any more.

***With full props to the film Dirty Dancing, for giving us one of the most truly ridiculous lines of dialogue ever.

 


Raw Deal: How the "Uber Economy" and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers.

Mr. CR despairs of me, but I am right back on my Depressing Nonfiction Reading Kick, and I couldn't be happier!

Raw dealLast month I spent quite a bit of time with Steven Hill's Raw Deal: How the "Uber Economy" and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers. It's a journalistic work of my very favorite type--the author pokes his nose into all sorts of assumptions, like how the "sharing economy" is helping us all save money and "monetize" the assets we do have, and how the tech companies really have all our best interests at heart...and then proves that the underlying story isn't quite as rosy as all the pundits would have you assume.

I won't lie to you, this is a dense book and it definitely takes some time to get going. But even if you only read half, or bits, of this book, you will learn more than enough to make you start to wonder about where all the money in our economy is flowing, and why. I'll give you an example of an early jam-packed paragraph that appears on page 3 (page 3!) and should suffice to give you much of the lay of the land of the book:

"Sitting here in San Francisco, I have a front-row seat at the epicenter of this latest earthquake. But as the future that the tech geniuses have planned for us comes slowly into view, it looks increasingly alarming. It's not just the many people evicted, including elderly and disabled tenants. to clear entire apartment buildings to make rooms available for tourists via Airbnb, even as Airbnb has disputed its obligation to pay local hotel taxes; or the desperate workers scrambling like low-rent braceros--'arms for hire'--on jobs found via TaskRabbit, Elance-Upwork, CrowdFlower and other job brokerage websites, sometimes for less than minimum wage (according to some workers); or the middle- and low-income households being forced to leave the Bay Area in a tech-driven 'Trail of Tears' because they can no longer afford the escalating costs; or that Uber, which is valued at $51 billion--larger than Delta or United Airlines, and approaching General Motors and Ford--has incorporated more than 30 different foreign subsidiaries, many of them no more than mailboxes in the Caribbean, as low-tax havens to greatly reduce its US tax obligations."

Yeah. The entire book is like that. It takes a little while to read.

But you should definitely give it a look. The idea of "monetizing" stuff I have by giving strangers rides in my car or a room in my house has always made my skin crawl, but this author also points out that these tech "sharing" companies are making massive profits at the same time they are refusing to play fair with their workers (not their workers, technically, their "freelancers," to whom they give no benefits and provide no sick time) and with tax and local zoning laws in general. The sharing economy might have a nice name, but what exactly is it costing all of us in the end?


Reading notes: July 2017.

On Monday I was so busy whining about the demise of EarlyWord that I forgot to include my usual weekly reading notes in the Citizen Reading report, so I thought I'd put them here.

I forget exactly why I got Peter Coughter's The Art of the Pitch: Persuasion and Presentation Skills that Win Business from the library, but I suspect it is because I am always interested in books about how to give presentations (enough so that I wrote one) and how to sell, because I am a terrible salesperson. I only skimmed this one, but I have to say I think it is one of the best and most succinct books on good public speaking that I've seen. You wouldn't even have to read the whole book; just read the first chapter: "Everything Is a Presentation." I particularly liked the list of characteristics of great presenters and their presentations, things like "It's a conversation, only you're doing most of the talking."* That does not mean you get to be boring or pontificate, it means, as Coughter explains, "We've all been there. Sitting in a meeting, praying for it to end while the speaker drones on about something that is apparently important to him, but of no interest to us. It might have been okay if he wasn't so stiff, so stilted, so 'professional.' Caught up in his own world. Lecturing us.

Don't be that guy. I can't say this strongly enough. Just talk with us. The best presenters know this, and that's how they present." (p. 16.)

That last line is the beginning, middle, and end of good public speaking. Coughter adds more bullet points, of course ("be yourself," "tell stories," "know your stuff," etc.) but I think his suggestion to just TALK with the people you present to is never given enough emphasis in other public speaking books.

Sharon Weinberger, The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World. I'm about thirty pages in to this one, and it's interesting, but I'm just not in the mood right now. Already I've learned that DARPA really began with the mission to move America ahead in the space race, and when they lost that mandate shortly after they were formed, they turned to investigating anti-insurgency during the Vietnam War. I'll definitely want to get this one back someday.

Nick Westergaard, Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. I am interested in digital marketing, even though I really have no idea how to do anything digital. I've also always been weirdly interested in marketing from a completely detached viewpoint. I don't really want to DO marketing but I find it a fascinating subject--how do people market and sell to us? How do we sell to others? So I snap up marketing books like I used to snap up dating books--I wasn't any good at dating either but found the whole process interesting from a sociological standpoint. But this book doesn't really seem to offer anything new, and it takes too long to get there. And ever since my eye went wonky this spring, I find myself asking, is this book worth wasting my waning vision on? No? Moving on.

Sophie Kinsella, I've Got Your Number. Total chick-lit fluff, but AWESOME chick-lit fluff, and set in London to boot.  A million times better than her Shopaholic series; many, many thanks to my friend who suggested I read this one.

*Full disclosure: In my experience, this is spot-on. I try to be a good listener, but let's face it, I like to hold forth. For an introverted control freak like myself giving talks and presentations is the most fun thing ever, because I get to interact with people for a useful purpose, and I get to mostly direct the conversation. Ah, that's the sweet spot.


I'm only sorry it took me so long to get around to it.

I really, really enjoyed Helaine Olen's investigative business book, Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.

I first read about this one ages ago on Savvy Working Gal's blog, and I was immediately attracted by its cover. I wondered a bit about its subject matter; I'll admit I was skeptical that an entire book was necessary to explore the "dark side of the personal finance industry."* That's right. An entire book critiquing not the broader business atmosphere of the U.S., not the entire stock market, not capitalism, but literally critiquing ONLY those finance gurus who are well-known enough to have their own publishing, radio and TV programs, and seminar businesses. Olen began the book with a bang, giving the history of one of the earliest pundits, S. F. (Sylvia) Porter, who wrote financial advice columns and books from the 1930s through the 1970s. But I really started to enjoy myself in Olen's second chapter, on popular money guru Suze Orman:

"If there are any other personal finance gurus who are capable of arousing this much passion, I have not discovered them. Everybody knows Suze, the woman whose personal appearance is in itself nearly a caricature, with the neon-bright jackets, deep tan, big, bright white teeth, and ultrablond, ultrasculpted hair. She winks broadly at her audience, seemingly flirting with them, calling them 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend' in her over-the-top flat Midwestern accent. Orman has more than half a dozen bestselling books to her credit and a CNBC show, which despite being placed in the Saturday night graveyard hour still gets better ratings than anything in the cable giant's weekday lineup." (p. 28.)

I really enjoyed that, even though, personally, I like watching Suze Orman when I see her programs on PBS pledge drives. It's not so much that I like her financial advice, but I'm interested in public speaking techniques and Suze is nothing if not a MASTER of public speaking.

I'm not doing a great job of describing this book; do click on the link above to Savvy Working Gal's blog, where she gives a much better synopsis of Olen's main points. I will say it took me a while to read this book--it's quite detailed--but in a good way. A great read, particularly if you are oh so tired of hearing TV financial pundits blather on about how we can all save a million dollars by brewing our own coffee at home.

*Not because there isn't enough dark side there, but I thought it might get dull to read about. It did not.


The latest Michael Lewis: Flash Boys

Flash Boys
by Michael Lewis

Powells.com

Here's a shocker: I enjoyed Michael Lewis's latest investigation into financial malfeasance, Flash Boys.

You'd think a book about an acronym as bland as HFT (high frequency trading, as in trading a lot of stocks a million times and very very fast, in order to make money) would not be all that fast-paced. But you would not be reckoning on Michael Lewis: he has, and has always had, a real touch with writing about boring and often very complex financial machinations and making them somewhat comprehendable to people whose eyes tend to go blank when they hear phrases like "trading derivatives."

Lewis first became interested in this subject when he followed the case of Sergey Aleynikov, a Russian computer programmer who worked for Goldman Sachs but, after leaving them to take a new job, was charged with (and convicted of) stealing their proprietary computer code. This led Lewis to investigate exactly how the stock market is manipulated in a multitude of different ways, all day every day, and millions of times a second.

That is not a typo. A microsecond is one-millionth of a second, and it is a unit of time (along with milliseconds and nanoseconds) in which high frequency traders deal. I won't go into all the details--if you want a better synopsis of the book, listen to a brief Michael Lewis interview about it--but I will say I really, really enjoyed it. And it was kind of a hopeful story, for a change: he found some people who were using their smarts to try and plug loopholes and make the market "make sense." Much of the narrative focuses on Brad Katsuyama, a high-level finance professional and Canadian who tried to figure out why the market fluctuations he was seeing didn't make sense, and what I enjoyed most about this book were the descriptions of the smart and different people Katsuyama found to help him understand things like HFT and dark pools. I particularly liked gaining little insights like the fact that there are a lot of Russian programmers in the finance world because Russians have become extremely good at looking for and finding loopholes in systems--simply from living in their country, where it is often necessary to game the system just to get by.

It's not a long book and I was a bit dissatisfied with the ending--I think even Michael Lewis is starting to phone them in a bit--but it was still a good read, and you don't really need much financial background to understand it.


Ah, the fun of a good negative review.

I have always enjoyed good negative book reviews. Either I agree with them and they're fun to read, or I disagree with them and then I have to get the book in question to see for myself. Either way it's a win-win.

For whatever reason, I haven't been finding a lot of nonfiction I love to hate lately (it doesn't help that I barely have time to read nonfiction I'm enjoying). But I did come across this article the other day, in which a reviewer let loose on a personal finance book that they called the "worst personal finance book ever." Go check it out!


All that glitters?

I was SUPER EXCITED to hear about Matthew Hart's new book, Gold: The Race for the World's Most Seductive Metal.

Yes, all caps. I was just that excited. Why, you might ask? It's not like gold is all that scintillating a subject. I'm not even all that fond of gold--yellow gold, that is. (Yes, I'm an autumn, but I still prefer wearing silver and white gold. I'm a fashion daredevil.)

I was super excited because one of the books that started me on my love affair with nonfiction was Matthew Hart's title Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession. I loved that book and I'm not even sure why (I don't like diamonds either). One of these days I should re-read it; I just remember that it really grabbed my imagination and I enjoyed Hart's expertise on the subject, and his ability to make the discovery and refinement of diamonds so interesting.

In this book, Hart explores various aspects of this most precious of metals: its history (most often riddled with greed and violence), its role in the Spanish invasion of the Inca, its role in historical and current economies, and its discovery and mining in such locations as South Africa, the U.S., and China. It's an interesting book, and Hart still knows his way around prose:

"Spaniards came well equipped for the larceny of the sixteenth century. They reduced two empires, almost with a blow. They had the cavalier's weapon of mass destruction--Toledo steel. The swords were strong and flexible and the blades could take a razor edge. One good stroke took off a head. A horse and rider in full armor weighed three quarters of a ton. This massive equipage thundered along at twenty miles an hour, concentrating the whole weight on a sharpened steel point at the tip of a ten-foot lance. The Spanish could project such power through advanced technologies in sailing and navigation. And they had a pretext for the conquests they would make: winning souls for God." (p. 25.)

It was a good read. But it was not as good as I was hoping it would be. Part of this might be my distracted reading mind as of late--whenever Hart started discussing monetary policy (which he did a lot--it's a big part of gold as a subject), I just kind of shut down, as trying to understand most monetary policies is just beyond me. What I was looking for, I think, was more discussion on how gold is discovered and mined--if memory serves, Diamond offered a slightly more scientific viewpoint.

Not a bad read, really. But if I wasn't already a nonfiction lover, it wouldn't have been special enough to turn my head.


TBR: Matt Taibbi's The Divide.

Many thanks to the Lesbrarian, Collection Development Librarian Extraordinaire, who has just alerted me to the fact that Matt Taibbi has a new book coming out in April titled The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.

As you know, I consider Taibbi's writing a mix of awesomeness and speaking truth to power, with just the right spicy piquant of profanity thrown in. I will expect you all to buy or borrow and read this title so we can talk about it here. That is all.


Rose George* does it again.

Last year I read journalist Rose George's fantastic book on poo, titled The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. I loved it. It was, bar none, one of the best books I read all year.

So I was very excited when my copy of her latest book, Ninety Percent of Everything, came in at the library. The book is about the shipping industry, which George investigated by living: she actually traveled on a container ship, the Maersk Kendal, from Felixstowe (the Kendal is actually a Dutch ship, but George joins its crew from a port in Great Britain) to its final port of call in Singapore. She explains, early on, why this is a subject in which she is fascinated:

"The Maritime Foundation, a charity that promotes seafarer matters, recently made a video called Unreported Ocean. It asked the residents of Southampton, a port city in England, how many goods are transported by sea. The answers were varied but uniformly wrong. They all had the interrogative upswing of the unsure.**

'Thirty-five percent?'

'Not a lot?'

The answer is, nearly everything. Sometimes on trains I play a numbers game. A woman listening to headphones: 8. A man reading a book: 15. The child in the stroller: at least 4 including the stroller. The game is to reckon how many of our clothes and possessions and food products have been transported by ship..." (p. 3.)

I love that George is out there in the world, thinking and writing about shipping for us, because who else would have the time or the necessary drive to travel on a huge container ship? One that may or may not be boarded by pirates at some point along its route? (The chapters on piracy, by the way, are fascinating and horrifying in equal measures.)

It's a good book; do check it out. I'll confess it wasn't quite what I expected--I was thinking George would take a somewhat broader view of the entire shipping industry, rather than framing many of her chapters around her travels on the one ship, but the more I read the more I enjoyed her approach. Of particular note is the very human face she puts on the ship's crew members and captain, as well as the individuals worldwide who seek to offer charitable services and help to such workers (which is necessary, because people working in the shipping industry, as you might guess, are not treated very well or paid very much).

You can also read a lengthy excerpt of the book at the NPR website. Try that and I'll bet you'll be hooked!

*By the way, I totally want a cool name like "Rose George." I love the succinctness of it.

**For whatever reason I love this sentence. Beautifully written stuff.


The serendipity of finding titles, part two.

If you'll remember, yesterday I wrote about my lazy person's way of stumbling upon a wide variety of titles that I want to read in my library's catalog. The books in question were Wisdom of the Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies from the Land (by David Mas Masumoto), and Harvesting the Bay: Fathers, Sons and the Last of the Wild Shellfishermen (by Ray Huling).

I really wanted to read it, but I didn't actually get the chance to start the Masumoto book before it had to go back to the library. Instead, for whatever reason, I picked up the second book (Harvesting the Bay) one night when I couldn't sleep. Ray Huling's investigative memoir about the shellfishermen on Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay (quahoggers) is a mix of work/job reporting and sociological history combined with personal memoir (as Huling comes from a long line of such shellfishermen). I came to think of it as "Studs Terkel meets Michael Perry."

I really liked Huling's personal insight into a job I'd never heard anything about. And a lot of what he had to say eerily echoed my own personal experience as the daughter of a farmer (another labor-intensive, singular profession):

"My father and grandfather also trained me to regret the loss of large numbers of hours to work, another dissuasion from my professional activities. One of the great attractions of quahogging is the trade-off it provides: You work hard so you don't have to work a lot. There's an adage for this: Quahoggers ain't lazy, but they don't want to work. This is something they say about themselves. It's an idea virtually unknown to the community of people outside the quahogging fold. The sentiment resides in me, but I am no quahogger, which, again, leaves me ill-prepared for the wonderful opportunities afforded me by a life of mental labor. This doesn't mean that I myself am motivated to do the right thing. I am caught between the bullraker and the world he righteously derides. If my position were grander, it would be tragic: I have all of the bullraker's scorn and none of his discipline." (p. 36.)

I really enjoyed that. I've never been very good at office or full-time professional work, and I always thought at least part of that was my upbringing on the farm. I never had any patience for meetings or any work that seemed more like "make work" than actually producing anything of value (like food).

Huling also had interesting things to say on the broader economic and social impact of the profession of shellfishing:

"On the national level, the proper action is so clear and obvious as to be banal: universal, single-payer health care. Sustainable food relies on people who perform hard manual labor, and the society that benefits from their suffering should do its best to alleviate it in the most direct way. Mike McGiveney wasn't kidding when he said that the cost of health care drove quahoggers off the water. The rising cost of insurance, insurance companies' pernicious attempts to deny care at every opportunity, and the willingness of health-care professionals to abet the insurance companies convinced many guys that the very communities they had helped to feed would throw them to the wolves once their bodies gave out after years of toil." (p. 265.)

As you can see from the text snippets I've provided, this is not narrative-driven writing that you just fly through. It's more along the lines of Wendell Berry writing, where you have to read a little bit and then take a break to digest it. At times it's a bit dry, a bit too technical about how quahogging works, but overall it's a fascinating, fascinating read. Consider checking it out.


Aging with Leonardo DiCaprio.

I've really turned a corner on Leonardo DiCaprio.

Wait a minute: I can relate this to nonfiction, I promise.

I always really enjoyed DiCaprio as an actor, and although his look was not particularly for me, I did always think he was quite the cutie (especially in favorite films of mine, like "Romeo + Juliet"). And then one day, it was like he grew up. All of a sudden. And into this rather broad man with a goatee who I didn't think was cute at all. So for years I was rather meh on him, and I was definitely too lazy to see (and try to figure out) Inception, although Mr. CR liked that movie.

And then I saw The Great Gatsby. Which was no real great shakes as a movie. But I thought DiCaprio really hit his role out of the park. He gave me the same feeling that I get watching Brad Pitt--you're always aware its Brad Pitt, and yet he really manages to disappear into the role he's playing. I was never not aware it wasn't DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby, but he WAS Jay Gatsby.

LeoAnd this week he arrived in my home, on the cover of my New York magazine. And although I still hate his goatee, I must say: he looks good. And I thought, huh, I've come to appreciate Leonardo, all grown up. And then I read that he's just a few months younger than me, and I thought, huh again, Leo and I have grown up together. Funny. And the article was interesting. And here's how I can relate it to nonfiction: this fall he'll be starring in a movie he helped finance, based on a nonfiction memoir titled The Wolf of Wall Street. Don't know that I'll be able to go see it (and it looks almost too depressing, if funny, to stand), but here's the trailer, if you're interested. Seems particularly and ironically appropriate a story to talk about, on Labor Day weekend. Hope you have a good one.