I don’t know why I felt the need exactly to separate the following books from the previous two categories. I think I try to use a book once in a while to pull back from some of the more particularized reading that I do. So here are what I call “books about ideas” that I read this year.

South Africa

It can get pretty troublesome, though tempting, to discuss a  place as an idea. I don’t want to get into the pros and cons necessarily, but a new anthology of academic and personal essays about Johannesburg, entitled Johannesburg: Elusive Metropolis, shows why it is important to consider Johannesburg as a unique kind of space. Totally dehumanizing and afraid in one sense, it is also a staging ground for all kinds of 21st century African realities: immigration, inner city and peri-urban urbanization of poverty, etc. And don’t let me forget the incredible art, culture, and life that comes out of all this craziness. Missing from either section in the book (academic or personal essays) was a real discussion of the structural issues of urban poverty that are so central to Johannesburg as both a unique city, and was, what many of the writers describe as a quintessentially African city. I was happily surprised to see a favorite former professor of mine, Tim Burke, — described by Sarah Nuttal as “one of the few theorists of African consumer culture” — cited in this book. You can find his internet writings here.

Poverty

Mike Davis’ Planet Of Slums was a good review of recent literature on the subject of urban poverty. Get through some of the rhetoric — the book is way too “grounded” in the literature and not much reporting on the actual ground — but it is a helpful intro to some of the basic issues and facts.

Hernando de Soto’s Mystery Of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs In The West And Fails Everywhere Else was similarly useful as a starting point. In my work these days, I see policy makers twist his analyses into the simple silver bullets that they are not. Still, the book is a good introduction to some of the ways that land tenure is a fundamental aspect of urban poverty.

The really big picture

I would like to say that “poverty” as a heading is synonymous with “the big picture.” And I do fundamentally believe that poverty is the biggest issue we face as humanity working towards some kind of transcendental enlightenment. But I read two books this year that aim for the biggest macro lens possible, so it is worth somehow putting them into a separate category for the sake of convenience.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue in Empire that the subjects of 21st century “Empire” with a capital E are not the same as previous forms of lower case “i” imperialism. Sovereign boundaries and state structures are not the ultimate determinants of power, but merely tools for global institutions and structures. And the question to ask, they say, is not when to resist, but when not to resist these structures. Since reading this book, I can’t even count how many times I see contradictions of the current order as articulated by Hardt and Negri.

Amartya Sen takes on John Rawls and seemingly all other modern philosophers of justice in The Idea Of Justice. We should not be so concerned with the theoretical perfect system of justice, and focus on principles geared towards increasing justice in the real world, he argues. A compelling plea for both engaged theorizing and action.