Some books I read & liked this year:
The Oceans and the Stars, Mark Helprin. Subtitled ‘a sea story, a war story, a love story’ and set in the present era, this novel centers around Stephen Rensselaer, a talented naval officer who should have been an admiral. But his support of a new kind of warship antagonizes the president of the United States, who ensures that Rensselaer is assigned to a career-ending post commanding the only example of that type that will ever be built. While supervising the Athena‘s fitting-out in New Orleans, he meets a lawyer named Katy Farrar and falls in love with her. But on Athena‘s first mission, Stephen will receive definitive orders that conflict strongly with his conscience.
Last Ships from Hamburg, Steven Ujifusa. Between 1890 and 1925, a large number of Jews–estimated at 2.5 million–fled Russia and Eastern Europe to the haven of the United States. This is the story of two men, both themselves Jews, who played a major role in enabling that immigration. In Germany, Albert Ballin was managing director of the Hamburg-America line. He put major focus on the immigration business, improving conditions in steerage class and providing shore-side accommodation and transport as well as ocean transportation; he even persuaded the German government to give his company control of part of its border, giving Hamburg-America a huge advantage over its rival North German Lloyd. In the US, Jacob Schiff..the immensely wealthy managing partner of Kuhn, Loeb…contributed large sums and much energy to help with the housing and assimilation of these new Americans.
The Valley of Decision, Marcia Davenport. This 1942 book could be subtitled An Industrial Romance, as could the 1945 movie starring Greer Garson and Gregory Peck. It is centered on a family-owned steel mill in Pittsburg from 1873 thru the late 1930s. Outstanding; I reviewed both the book and the movie here.
Rust, Eliese Colette Goldbach. Like Valley of Decision, this book is focused on the steel industry, but it is a memoir rather than a novel and is set in the current era. The author graduated had graduated from college and earned an MFA degree (which she never received owing to failure to fill out the proper form), and had never thought about becoming a steelworker. But seeing a friend’s paycheck from the mill convinced her to give it a try.
Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, as Viewed from the Early 1950s. There were numerous SF stories in the early 1950s speculating about the future impact of “thinking machines” and robots. I reviewed some of the most interesting ones here.
The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti, Meyrle Secrest. The story of this Italian company’s early pioneering efforts in computing. Its Olivetti P101, introduced in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair. Prefiguring Apple, the design of the product gave strong emphasis to its visual appearance–the P101 won the Compasso d’Oro industrial design aware–and ease of use. Memory capacity was 240 bytes, stored in a magnetostrictive delay line–one of the interesting memory technologies developed prior to the availability of the microchip RAM–and programs could be stored on magnetic cards. About 44,000 of these systems were sold.
In addition to the interesting company history–surely unfamiliar to most Americans–the book argues that Olivetti was the target of a CIA plot to cripple its computer business in order to protect the American computer industry…something that seems to me to be most unlikely.
The Social Leap, William von Hippel. The author argues that the development of human mental capacities was driven to a considerable extent by the need to learn from other people, not only the improvement of purely individual intelligence.
The Culture Transplant, Garrett Jones. The subtitle is ‘How migrants make the economies they move to a lot like the ones they left,’ and data is presented suggesting that attitudes brought by migrants on many dimensions of values and behavior are very long-lasting.
Lydia Bailey, Kenneth Roberts. I actually read and reviewed this book in 2022, but it is highly relevant today in view of the depredations against shipping committed by the Iranian regime through their proxies, the Houthis. Published in 1947, Lydia Bailey is set shortly after the American Revolution and portray some aspects of American and world history that are not well-known by most people today…the Alien & Sedition Laws, the Haitian revolution, and the war against the Barbary pirates. Indeed, the history of the Alien & Sedition Laws is also unpleasantly relevant given the multifront attack currently going on against free expression. I reviewed the book here.
The End of the World is Just the Beginning, Peter Zeihan. The book is subtitled ‘Mapping the Collapse of Globalization’, and the author argues that our present highly-interconnected world was made possible only by America, and that America has lost interest in keeping it going. He sees global trade as having been primarily driven by the protective influence of the US Navy, which protective influence he sees as being substantially withdrawn. Recent events in the vicinity of Suez do tend to fit with that point of view.
The Tyranny of Experts, William Easterly. A critique of top-down international development and anti-poverty efforts. Many examples are provided.
Americana, Bhu Srinivasan. Subtitled ‘A 400-year History of American Capitalism’, the book focuses particularly on the relationship between government and business–and offers some unique perspectives. (Have you ever thought of the voyage of the Mayflower in venture capital terms?)