In January, Mark Zuckerberg (CEO, Facebook) announced his New Year’s resolution to read more books and in an effort to achieve this goal, planned to read one book every two weeks. Not missing a marketing opp, Zuckerberg immediately set up a Facebook group (A Year of Books) wherein like-minded Facebookers (is that right?) are welcome to join and discuss. As of today, over 369k people have joined.
Zuckerberg has announced 4 books so far, and because I’m a masochist, I’ve read them all so you don’t have to. “Our books,” he posted, “will emphasize learning about new cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.” A noble goal, Zuckerberg, noble goal.
Former Foreign Policy editor-in-chief Moisés Naim’s The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be* took the first slot. A bit of a lofty title, but considering Zuckerberg’s mission statement for the group, it’s not that surprising, right? The book is mostly a skimming of history illustrating how everyone from world leaders to heads of Fortune 500 companies to the Pope, don’t carry the same weight they once did. The answer apparent is globalization – that in our progressive, ever-connected world – traditional gatekeepers and routes to success are being modified if not completely run down, allowing for more people to accede to positions of power. And if everyone’s a leader, who are we really leading? The book paints the beginning of a potentially bleak future wherein nothing gets done because no one is truly leading. Naim is a talented writer, and my summary is a gross simplification of his work – which mulls potentially complicated subjects like hegemonic stability theory and the persistence of GONGOs – into totally readable and compelling matter. If you’re at all interested in the way the world works and how we got here, this is a great read and definitely an interesting first selection.
The Steven Pinker behemoth The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined* was the second selection. Originally published in 2010, the Pinker book attracted a decently polarized crowd based on Q&A conducted on the Facebook page. Pinker is a Psychology Professor at Harvard University, so it may come as no surprise that he is heavy on statistics and anecdotes (to be fair, he admits as much in the introduction which serves as a sort of abbreviated version of the book) indicating the steady decline of violence from the heady days of medievalism with its Game of Thrones style violence, to the duels of the American west that makes our modern-day levels of violence seemingly … small. This is another book heavy on history and there were a few sections where Pinker writes at length about our brethren, chimpanzees, as well as on brain circuitry that were ultimately very dense and somewhat painful to get through. Overall, I thought it too took a complicated thesis into a totally readable and persuasive argument.
To start off February, Zuckerberg announced Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets*. Originally published in 2008, Gang Leader is part-memoir, part sociology investigation wherein Venkatesh recounts his time in Chicago in the late 1980s while studying for his Ph.D. If you don’t know, (I admit, I don’t know much about this field) Sociology is the scientific study of social behavior including its origins, development, organizations and institutions — and to this end, Venkatesh took his studies to the notoriously dangerous Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago’s South Side in an attempt to see and understand first-hand the cyclic and seemingly endless effects of poverty, racism, drug use, gang affiliations, etc. Ultimately, he befriends a leader of the Black Kings, one of several local gang organizations profiting almost exclusively from the sale of crack in the community. Gang Leader reads more like a narrative than a social experiment — admittedly, a nice break from the previous books — and gave a heartbreaking but eye-opening picture of life and community over the course of several years including the well-meaning but devastating destruction of the housing project, which started in 1998. This book has been criticized* as romanticizing the Black Kings’ gang and deriving false equivalence from associations with which he was only indirectly involved – and I think that’s fair to note when reading. However, Venkatesh begins this project as a first-year graduate student, and is at times, painfully naïve about the inner-workings of the community, even after years of study, which feels human and a part of the process of truly learning. I think the book is pretty clear as to what Venaktesh’s limitations were. It felt brief to have covered so much time, but it also compelled me to learn more about the history of Chicago’s South Side, and at least a superficial understanding of why the same type of poverty still exists today and why efforts to curb it have been unsuccessful.
The latest assignment is Eula Biss’ On Immunity: An Inoculation*. I admit, I may have groaned upon seeing the title – the pro versus anti-vaccination debate is raging recently, in light of a measles outbreak in California that has slowly spread itself across the U.S.** Spoiler here, Biss is pro-vaccination, but her book, prompted by the birth of her son in 2009, weighs the heavy questions of vaccinations (both as a child and adult) as well as at least a modicum of explanation of the anti-vaccination crew. Biss’ concerns, apart from simply having a child and wanting to do research on the subject, arose from a blood transfusion she needed immediately after her son’s birth, as well her concern over his severe allergies and croup as a young child. Biss discovered, as many do, that even a superficial research dig into vaccinations is a black hole of anxiety from which it is difficult to escape. Though the book focuses a great deal on the birth of her child, this isn’t a book exclusively for mothers – it also addresses seasonal flu vaccinations and how seemingly eradicated diseases like Measles keep cropping up and what that means for the bulk of the population who is and can afford to be regularly vaccinated. And yes, she does weigh in on the luxury and privilege not only of vaccination in general but also of worrying about vaccination. Again, another totally readable and relatable selection – I especially appreciated Biss’ ability to communicate her concerns without necessarily sending readers into a panic. You get the feeling you’re learning as she is without being inundated by medical terminology or verbose theories of transmission.
Four books in and these are not bad choices, Zuckerberg. With my current backlog, I’m not sure I would have read these books on my own and I sincerely think I would’ve missed out. They fall right in line with Zuckerberg’s mission for the group and it’s an admirable one. One semi-downer is that though there are over 369k people in the community, very few of them comment on the posts announcing the books or the Q&As with the authors (there have been two) and of those who do, the subject is almost exclusively how to get the book for free. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep up with his pace, but if the books remain compelling and diverse, I’ll gladly join in.
** In early February, The New York Times published a Fact Sheet about the most recently measles outbreak.