Capsule reviews, Aug 25: a few podcasts and a book on self-education

History of Byzantium - I’ve gotten very into Byzantine history lately, and there’s not as much out there in the English speaking world as you’d like. It’s shocking how good this is, how thoughtful, and how it mixes narrative with broader social and economic developments. Really entertaining and informative. The History of Rome is good, but this is better—one of the best history podcasts in existence.

History of Africa- There is nothing else like this out there. Popular history books (publishing in English and published in America) about Africa’s pre-colonial civilizations are pretty few and far between. As such this podcast is a major contribution—I contribute a substantial amount on Patreon every month. Start with the second season on Aksum—a civilization in the Ethiopian Highlands that rivaled Rome and Persia for size / influence and outlasted them both (it started in the pre Roman era and only fell in the 13th century). It’s stuff you can’t believe you’ve never heard before.

Don’t Go Back To School by Kio Stark— I’m always looking for books I didn’t know existed. This is a good example of one! I came across it while scanning the episode list of a literary podcast called Overdue. It’s a crowd-sourced book about ways to learn without going to school—it consists of interviews with a bunch of people who prioritized learning outside of school (and the ways their learning relates to their job and ability to earn a living).

My story isn’t really akin to anything in the book. The thing about being a writer is that virtually every writer you care about, whether it’s Virginia Woolf or W.H. Auden or James Baldwin, engaged in a long self-directed course of study as they were in the process of becoming a writer. You CANNOT learn in school the kinds of things you need to write fiction or poetry well. You can major in English, but the kind of reading you do for that degree is useless for writing: nothing in the English degree allows you to understand the well-spring of truth or beauty. Nor does majoring in creative writing really help much: you can learn a few rules of thumb, but let’s face it, writing degrees aren’t very rigorous: writing ten poems a semester or three stories a semester and reading four or five books (which is about the workload of most MFAs) won’t do anything. That’s equivalent to roughly 1/10th the work you should be doing every half-year of your writing life. And the 100 books you’d read to get an English undergrad degree or the 300 to get an English grad degree are, likewise, only a fraction of the thousands of books you’ll need to read to become a writer.

Moreover, English degrees don’t prioritize books that have the most to teach a writer. Almost every English major nowadays will read FRANKENSTEIN, for instance, but few will read MIDDLEMARCH or MOBY DICK. English degrees prioritize books that are short and teachable.

So if you’re going to be a writer, and especially one of literary fiction, you’ll at the very least need to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, Dickens, Milton, Balzac, Flaubert, and a few dozen other major writers on your own. There is simply no other option.

What’s fascinating, though, is how few writers actually realize this. What’s weird is writers will be like, I love Jhumpa Lahiri or George Saunders, and not realize…both of these writers did the reading I am talking about. It’s honestly a bit perplexing. Why would you not do the same things as the people whose writing you admire?

So if you were writing a version of this book for writers, it would be: you literally cannot learn this in school.

When you’re a writer, you’re reading in order to figure out the source of the aesthetic experience: where does it come from? What provokes it? How can I replicate it? You’re basically reading for pleasure, but paying ever so slightly more attention than the average reader does. It’s not that hard!

Anyway I’ve gotten off the topic of this book. I do like the book I will say. Sometimes I’ve thought about how good it would’ve been to have skipped college and just saved the money and lived somewhere interesting and read books for eight years instead of partying for four. But I suppose you need to GO to college to learn how silly it is.

Poetry is there for the person who’s capable of reading it

Hello friendly people. I've been feeling anxious lately. It's okay. My self-medication is reading Nadezdha Mandelstam's second memoir, Hope Abandoned. It's basically just about everything she didn't put into the first one. It's hundreds of little vignettes about Soviet literary life, organized very impressionistically, with lots of jumping around in chronology. It's one of the densest reads I've ever had. It's sad and shows humanity at its worst--she's unfailing in detailing peoples' hypocrisy and moral cowardice. But I think it's best when it comes to the question: what is literature for?

In America, there is so much hand-wringing about poetry. Does it matter even though nobody reads it? Can it be revitalized? Can it be made relevant to ordinary people?

This 'ordinary person' has become such a fetish in literature. Because almost all writers these days have egalitarian principles, we don't like to think we're writing for a rarefied intelligentsia. In the Soviet Union, too, they had this worry. Writing was supposed to be proletarian in character (this is in the early part of the Soviet Union) and the intelligentsia was frequently denounced. Writers and artists tried all kinds of dodges to make their work proletarian. In the early Soviet Union, writers frequently wrote about factories, as in the classic Gladkov novel, Cement.

Mandelstam is contemptuous of this phenomenon, but she's also contemptuous of elitism, because she sees that the intelligentsia itself is quite stupid and without taste, and that they view literature only as a way to salve their own egos. She sees that, far from prizing individuality and personality, the intelligentsia constantly lays the groundwork for its own demise, that it is wary of the power of ideas, and that it's always looking for ways of putting down the burden of thinking. She in fact charts the early intellectual currents that led to the intelligentsia's surrender to Stalinism, and she situates them precisely in this wrecking, and this break with the past, and this distrust of the power of literature itself. Paradoxically, by giving literature a purpose, you destroy its purpose.

In contrast, when discussing her famous husband's attitude towards poetry, she says, "M never thought about those things." (I'm paraphrasing). In fact that's not true, as she describes, he routinely was frustrated with himself for not being able to appreciate the new party line and not being able to write more 'useful' literature. Even though he mostly wrote short lyrics, people could tell instinctively that he was a person rooted in Christianity and tradition--someone with a deep reverence for what had come before--which also in turn gave him a reverence for the meaning of individual human life. Unlike the rest of the intelligentsia, he was not so willing to sacrifice individuals for the greater ideal of social progress.

When she thinks about the purpose of literature and poetry, Mandelstam is always drawn back to one thing: the primacy and importance of private life. Under the Soviet Union there was no private life, no freedom of belief. You couldn't write apolitical verse, because that itself was political. And without the ability to feel what they wanted, peoples' inner lives either died off or became totally other-centered (oriented towards awards and accomplishments).

Poetry helps a person develop their inner life. Poetry, at least of Mandelstam's sort, is the record of a person in the world, experiencing life. It's not like meditation, it doesn't seek to extinguish the self, instead it celebrates the self and celebrates this life on earth. The purpose of poetry is to put to music the poet's own personal world-view, and to impart their way of seeing the world, as a guide for people to develop their own individuality.

Seen this way, poetry isn't broccoli. It's there for the benefit of whomever needs it. Poetry is like speech. Poetry is like sidewalk scrawls or recipes put on the internet. Poetry is like anything that's exchanged freely, simply because people are full of joy at being alive.

I loved that, because I see my own work the same way. I know that people often find my work cynical, because I don't idealize human nature or turn away from the darkness and confusion I see in people, but my work is also about ideals. I never write anything that doesn't contain a hint of how people can be better and more courageous than they are. I like to think that my work appeals to the best of people--not the part that's looking for an easy heroism, for some collective victim they can stomp into the floor in some orgy of self-righteousness. It's for the person who has their own sense of right and wrong, and who is willing to stand up for it.

That's why my work often doesn't fit easily into taxonomies of left and right. It's why even though I'm trans, it's often ignored by people who love "transgressive" queer writers. There is nothing really transgressive about my work, but it can be very difficult for readers who don't have principles of their own, and who've never thought about the difference between right and wrong--readers who don't truly have a self.

And I think in our ongoing crisis of liberalism, it's important to remember the self. For me it's such a joy to know things. To know very deeply that some things are true and some are false. On a sidenote, whenever I say something like that, I always like to list one true thing I know, so that people know I'm talking about real, concrete things and not just vague feelings. So here's one true thing I know: it's that if you're hiding from the truth, it will hamper the work. You can be a liar in your life, but when you sit down to work, you must be honest. If you try to write a novel about a farm-boy defeating an evil empire, but part of you know that in real life it's impossible for one person to bring down an empire single-handedly, then your work will not come together. You might write it and sell it, and it might even win awards, but it won't possess life, and the person who will suffer most from the lie is you yourself, because you'll have cut yourself off from the source of lasting art.

I know that there's a wellspring of lasting art that you can train yourself to tap into. I know there is a musical note at the core of each worthwhile piece of prose--something you can train yourself to hear.

This is an aside, but lately I've been thinking of something else I know, which is that there is no unconscious mind.

That's a pretty radical idea. Ever since Freud we've accepted the notion that part of you is submerged, and that it doesn't contribute to your conscious impression of thinking, but that this submerged part nonetheless does a lot of your deciding for you. Many concepts in modern life hinge upon the idea of an unconscious mind. For instance, all our notions of racism hinge on the idea of an unconscious bias: you can hate a certain kind of people without knowing that you hate them.

And yet, is that really true? Does the unconscious exist at all? While it's true that non-conscious processes take place in our mind (all of our breathing and movement, and a lot of our sense-processing, for instance), there is no evidence that there is an unconscious mind that does our thinking for us. This bicamerality, where you have the thoughts you have access to and the unconscious thoughts that exist off on their own, in a locked room somewhere, like you're two people sharing one body--there is no evidence for that.

Moreover, what would it mean to not believe in that? Well, it would mean that we are responsible for all of our actions. That we in some sense have chosen all of our actions. We can still make mistakes, we can still be ignorant or thoughtless, but we cannot say that we are 'better' than the things we've done. We cannot say that our conscious mind knew this was wrong, but the unconscious one did not.

Modern society, by believing in an unconscious, has come to a place where it demands an unconscious. We need a place to put all of our dangerous, unspeakable thoughts and desires. But, really, those things are just as much a part of our consciousness as are all our other thoughts and desires.

The unconscious is really just a way of trying to solve the mystery of free will. Since we cannot imagine the idea that we are truly free, we instead imagine a situation where we are two people, and one of them is mute and in control of our body, while the other can speak but is mostly powerless, and the only job of the second person is to speak to the first person and convince them to do what we think is right. But if we fail to do the right thing, it's not the fault of our 'real' self, it's because we didn't convince our unconscious self, which is, at its core, a nasty brute.

But really, we are free. We do choose. The real mystery is that there isn't a reason why we do most of what we do. We simply do it because we're alive and you have to do something. People search and search for the meaning of life, without realizing that it's something they find every single day. Most of our actions are literally without any reason, not even an unconscious one, other than that we willed them.

I revise using a complicated schema that only I understand

Hello friends, I know that I promised I'd write more frequently in the blog, and that promise held for a month, but I got distracted.

I'm working on revisions of my YA novel. The last two revisions I did of this book were page-one rewrites. This one is much smaller in scale. It's going quite well, but it just needed a lot of reconceptualizing, so that everything would fit and make sense. And that meant a lot of sitting around doodling in my notebook, drawing boxes and then drawing lines between the boxes.

I'd love to be one of these people with a complex all-encompassing explanation of how fiction works. Sometimes I come close to that, but I can never really make myself believe in the project. Still my approach has generally been borrowed, I think, from structuralism. I think of each element of the story as a box. And the meaning of the box is determined by the elements that you put inside it. And the overall meaning of the box determines the box's relationship to other boxes.

So if you've got a character, and you want them to do or say something different, then you can't simply go the proper scene and make them do a different thing--you've got to chance what is inside their box. That means adding or subtracting an element, so that their overall semiotic meaning changes, and that changes their character--the way they think and act. I like to think everything about a character or a situation or an organization can be concretely manifested or symbolized. Because a book is only words, you need to think about what's the cleanest and most evocative element I can put into this character to make them a different person. Elements aren't necessarily back-story things. Sometimes they're interests or constraints. Like maybe they failed out of high school. Now how does that effect the other elements inside them.

Anyway, the point is you've got the external story: the things and places and characters and all their desires and actions. And you've also got the internal story, which is their self-image, their sense of themselves, their emotions, and the meanings of their emotions, as well as the semantic freight associated with various other institutions in the book.

But what authors forget is that these two stories are really one. There isn't an inner and an outer story, there is only one story. Some things happen inside the box, and other things happen between boxes, but ultimately it's all the same. And you can change any part of this, but it still needs to have an overall cohesion and make sense.

If boxes were just characters, this process would be a lot cleaner. Then boxes could be characters; elements could be fixed constraints (unchangeable by the characters without great effort); actions could be relationships between characters. But boxes aren't just characters. Because, to the author, the world of the story can also be changed. So if you have a job, for instance, you can change the nature or meaning of the job, if that makes the rest of the story come together better. So when is something a box and when is it an element? Unclear!

I tend to think that actions are really not important, because they tend to flow naturally from what is inside the various boxes. You can't really change the actions (i.e. the relationships between boxes) if you don't change what's inside the boxes.

So the question then becomes, how do I choose what boxes to have? If my characters and institutions and other constraints determine the story, then how do I determine those things?

Well, I don't know--if there was a simple answer, computers would be able to do it. But my sense is that you can't use this method to generate the initial story--the initial story has to come from inspiration.

This method is used to refine the story though. And here you use theme. And it's really when it comes to theme that your past reading comes in handy. The development of theme is how the overall story, the entirety of the novel, comes to have some kind of meaning. And there are numerous different ways of developing themes, and numerous relationships between various themes. But essentially you start to organize what's inside the boxes, based on your themes, so that all the boxes resonate in different ways, producing, in the end, a well-constructed explication of a handful of linked ideas.

Of course there's a lot of art here. Because you can't simply throw whatever you want into each box. The internal workings of the boxes are governed by your own understanding of human nature, and by your own fears about what is and isn't possible.

The main point I'm making is that for me revising isn't about the words on the page. I have a strong sense of the limitations of language. You can write something down--you can write down, "And then Martians attacked"--but that doesn't make it real, unless those Martians fit organically into the scheme of the story. And in order to determine if they fit, you have to introduce them as a box, with their own history and desires, and see how that impacts the rest of your characters and institutions. And it's that verisimilitude--that honesty and attention to the actuality of things--that to me is the essence of good writing.

Writing about a collective

The problem with writing draft blogs ahead of time is that I look at them later and don't want to post them anymore. Or perhaps that's a good thing--gets out the bad stuff--I'm not sure. Anyway, here is a blog post I wrote at the beginning of the month. I'm not working on this book anymore at the moment, and I totally reconceptualized it in the interim, but I think the most is still interesting.

Blog - writing 

Hello friends, hope everything is going well for you in this nightmare existence.

An editor reached out to me some time ago about writing a book based on my literary criticism, so I wrote a proposal, and now at some point in the future I'll have a book go to the academic press version of acquisitions, which is exciting. I have no idea what publishing an academic-press type of book entails, but I imagine it's a surefire path to fame, fortune, and influence. I'll probably be on a presidential commission of some kind soon.

I've been feeling anxious and envious and unhappy, but what else is new? Lots of things I'm not doing. I usually send in short story submissions a few times a year, and then gradually collect rejections until finally I shake off my inertia, record the rejections, and send them out again. At this point I think having a lot of dangling threads is just part of my process. As long as every day I'm doing something, I feel like it's an accomplishment.

Lately I've been writing a sci-fi novel, which has been fun. The big thing in sci-fi is hopepunk, about hopeful post-capitalist futures where everyone is gender-diverse and polyamorous and happy. I tried to write one of those, but obviously it didn't work out, because I started actually thinking through some of its implications. This has also gotten me doing a lot of reading (right now I'm reading Marx's Capital, I'm reading Errico Malatesta's essays, and I'm reading some of Marx's political writings). And of course when I read things I get new ideas, and then I have to rewrite what I've written. Some writers would just do the reading and then do the writing, but I feel like if I'm not writing, I'd have no desire to hurry up the reading, and I'd get distracted and read something else.

Anyway, the people in my book are half-educated, like most people, so if there's some book that would apply to their situation, but which they haven't read, then...they just haven't read it! Their collective is jury-rigged, like most things, and full of problems, like most things. 

It's very fun, but more work than I'd thought it would be. We'll see how it all turns out. Every book I have to relearn the same lesson, which is that it's much easier to write a book where people have some collective interest that binds them together. This naturally serves as an organizing principle for their desires and their actions, and it naturally allows you to organize them into antagonistic relationships, based on their differing approach to that interest.

Basically, it's a lot easier to write a book about a member of a football team than it is to write about the member of a company, because the football team has a collective interest in winning, which binds them together, whereas the company has no collective interest, it's merely a bunch of people who get paid to perform certain tasks--their interest is in payment, not in the overall good of the company.

If you're writing about a company, you can try to finagle things and give them a collective interest, but ultimately the form of the relationship militates against the attempt. It's simply very, very, very difficult to pretend that people who work together at a for-profit company are part of something larger, something that matters. You can do it, of course, by making the company small, making it a startup, giving it a social mission, etc, but it's a lot of extra work. Whereas if you just choose some other form of social tie to bind your characters (i.e. family, road trip companions, trivia night team, apartment building neighbors) you end up doing a lot less work.

In this case, I originally had my character exist outside the collective, which meant doing a lot of work to bring her in, introduce her, make her interact w these people, and ultimately I realized, her fundamental problem is she doesn't necessarily want to be a part of a collective. So instead I thought, why not bring her in and make her a part of it up-front. Well, instantly, everything became much, much easier.

When you're writing, these are conscious decisions you can make--or, rather, they can instincts you can observe and then consciously develop. Nowadays when I'm writing and things feel a little difficult, like I'm forcing it, I always think, "Can I bring people together more organically?" The other thing I do is that if I'm having trouble w one part of the narrative, I think, "Maybe I need to focus more on this conflict, and turn my inability to do this thing into the core of the book". For instance, I was writing a book recently where, through multiple drafts, I tried to make two women friends. I was like they have to become best friends, this has to happen, this is what the book is about. And eventually I realized, no, the book is about how they're not really best friends, can't be best friends, given their current social constraints. 

Yep, I felt pretty proud of that one.

I really like that mental side of writing--the shaping and refining of the story. It's an under-appreciated part of the process.

Nothing anyone else thinks about your reading really matters

Hello friends. I’m not on Twitter these days but friends who know I love drama informed me that people have been arguing about whether you can be a good writer if you don’t read. And also about whether reading audiobooks 'counts' as reading. Both arguments have contained allegations of ableism: some people can't read; some people used to read but can't anymore; some people can't read text, but can only read audio.

These arguments amuse me. It’s incredible how worked up people get over someone else denigrating their reading. 

The thing I never understand is, we aren’t in elementary school anymore. You don’t have to fill up a notebook with gold stickers for every book you read. It quite literally does not matter in the slightest what other people think about the amount or modality of your reading, because it's an activity you do for entirely voluntary reasons! 

I understand these anxieties on some level I suppose. Readers tend to construct an identity around their reading (I know that I have!), and if audio 'doesn't count' as reading then it's somehow existentially threatening. Like you're a fake, you're not who you say you are! If you go into a crowd of readers, are you really allowed to hold up your head amongst them?

But here's the thing, what's the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen? You go to a convention of some kind and you're like, "Oh I listened to that book last year" and the other person is like "hurr then you didn't really read it, you're not a real reader at all!"

Who cares? You know that you read the book. The point of reading books is the enjoyment you get from reading them, not all the trappings of 'being a reader'. And if some significant portion of the population thinks your kind of reading isn't real reading, then hopefully they're not dicks about it (I've never found that people care that much, to be honest), but if they are, you can just rest assured knowing that they are wrong.

Because if you thought they were right, you wouldn't read audio! 

Like, it sounds weird to say it, but I sometimes wonder if people forget that you don't need permission to do what you think is right? You have (probably) both read books and listened to them, and if you think the experiences are similar, then great! That's all the permission you need. Nobody's else opinion really matters. 

The other aspect of the debate is peoples' feeling that there is some kind of cultural cachet tied up in being a reader? That if you read 100 books a year, then other people respect you and are over-awed by you, and if they learned that you actually only LISTENED to those books then they'd think you're somehow a fake.

I won't deny there is cachet in being a reader. Most people watch mind-numbing television in their free time, or they browse Twitter endlessly, so they tend to respect anyone who's capable of maintaining focus for a long time. But the level of cachet is extremely minor. In your adult life, it doesn't really matter if people think you're smart. It's not school anymore. Nobody is giving out grades. You won't get a lower rate on a mortgage because people think you're a reader. It's just a meaningless status competition that occurs largely in your own head.

And because it occurs in your own head, you are free to define the terms however you like! You can say, yes, the 200 books I listen to on audio are exactly like reading a book in text, and for the purposes of the meaningless status competition in my own head, those definitely count!

Now, I think one problem is that people know, in their heart of hearts, that listening to an audiobook and reading text aren't exactly the same. I just read the first volume of Capital. I could never have listened to an audiobook of it. I wouldn't have retained anything. So there's clearly some comprehension difference there. But, then again, I also listen to audiobooks on 2.7x. When Rachel overhears it, she literally can't comprehend a single word they're saying. I'm not exactly prioritizing deep listening on audio. Nonetheless I consider audio to be 'reading'. When I'm posting on this blog, I don't take care to distinguish which books I listened to (eighty percent of them) and which ones I read with my eyes. To me, when it comes to the books I actually finish, the difference isn't very important. For a while I debated whether I'd be willing to review a book that I'd 'only' listened to in audio. And while I don't think I'd be willing to completely pan a book that I listened to at 2.7x, because that would leave me frighteningly exposed if anyone ever had problems later on with my review, but I'd certainly be willing to write a positive review of such a book.

When I see the vehemence of these conversations, I usually feel vague embarrassment for the people who take part, as if they're breaking some general societal rule. It just seems unseemly for people to display so openly how much they cling to meaningless status markers. But of course it's a societal rule that exists only in my own mind. 

photo of a llama

Marx’s Capital; Kurt Andersen’s Evil Geniuses; and…some other books

Reading Marx's Capital, I feel envious of his command over philosophy, economics and classical literature—like what kind of person has read the speeches of Isocrates or the histories of Diodorus. But on the other hand, Marx didn’t have to read Marx, so that’s where he had a major advantage over me. 

The man is a powerful writer—a wonderful union of continental and Anglo-American tendencies. He develops grand systems, spinning them up out of first principles, but he also isn’t shy to tie them to concrete circumstances and to create examples. Like, you’d never catch Kant illustrating a point with an example. It’s no surprise that Marx caught on so powerfully. 

I’m simultaneously reading the writings of an easily anarchist, Malatesta, and he simply didn’t have the same union of theory and practice. His principles are powerful, and he spins appealing visions about what the future under anarchism will look like, but he doesn’t attempt to prove or demonstrate his principles. Marx, whatever his faults, developed a falsifiable theory that contained concrete predictions about the future, based on clearly explicated principles. There is nothing vague about Marx. 

You know when bush was in office there was this cottage industry of comedians writing books about how terrible he was (I think it was started by Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them). My dad bought six or seven of these books, and I read them all. Since then I’ve realized a lot of these books tell the same story: these people are personally dishonest, immortal, corrupt hypocrites who are manipulating public opinion for personal gain. 

I recently listened to Kurt Anderson’s Evil Geniuses, which is about our country’s rightward turn over the last fifty years, and it purports to prove that all of this was engineered by a small cabal of billionaires and the right wing intellectuals they funded. It was convinced, but these books always are. 

Reading the book at the same time in reading Marx I can’t help thinking how frustrated he would be by such critiques. Marx would see what’s happened in the last fifty years as being inevitable. The moment economic growth began to falter, it would mean increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of owners of capital (because the historical condition is that the return to labor always exceeds the return to capital) and this in turn would mean increasing political power for the owners of capital. 

Andersen segues in the last part of the book to talking about mechanization and AI and how those things are putting people out of work and hollowing out the middle class, which means the returns from productivity growth no longer go to workers (because productivity growth is inevitably accompanied nowadays by reduced labor needs). Marx predicted this too, saying over time the capital investment in an industry grows larger and larger, precisely because of its effects on labor: capital needs there to be an excess of labor in order to keep wages down. 

So while I understand the critique Andersen is making (and he repeatedly contrasts America to Europe and the Nordic countries, which have less inequality of labor), one is tempted to wonder whether what we are seeing is less an evil cabal and more the natural operating of our economic system. I have absolutely no idea. But I still enjoyed the book for its small details regarding how all this was carried out, including the very minor public policy points republicans used to alter our tax system (e.g. little details about which part of our income is taxed for social security, etc). Definitely worth a read if you enjoy this genre of book. 

Finished my book on The Byzantine Economy. Probably one of the most informative books I've ever read. It's astonishing how even fifty years after historians started talking about the importance of ordinary people and institutions and ideas, when you read a history book, it's still mostly a chronicle of wars and Emperors. I felt much more solidly grounded in the Byzantine Empire after reading this book. Many, many questions were answered. For instance, how was it possible for Constantinople to have 400,000 citizens even during times when the Empire was so much shrunken and Europe was so poor. I mean, it was because of the Black Sea and Aegean trade, obviously, but there's more to it than that. During the tenth century, when Constantinople reached its height (or, rather, reached them again), the state was heavily involved in the economy: it essentially turned into a machine for bringing grain surpluses to Constantinople. The command economy, composed of tax levies and the produce of the vast imperial land-holdings, co-existed for centuries with the market economy that eventually displaced it.

What usually happens to me when I read a book like this is that I get very hopped up and start imagining ten or fifteen more books on economic history that I could read. I splashed out money buying a bunch more, which would probably take me most of the year to read, and meanwhile I have to get back to Capital at some point. Next on the list is one about the invention of coinage in Ancient Greece, and then I've got one about the economy of the Carolingian Empire. It's too much, I know.

Writing is great. You know, before you sell a book, writing is simple. You sit down, you write something, you polish it, you send it out. But after you've started selling books, it becomes such a scattered process. I've got edits due on my YA, which means I've got to return to it after being away from it for four months. During those four months I mostly worked on a sci-fi novel, which I put on hold to work on a proposal for a non-fiction book, and then on a proposal for another YA novel. And now after I send in the YA novel edits I'll go back to the sci-fi book, and then I'll send that out to some friends for comments, and during the month it takes to hear from them, there'll be some other thing to work on.

And then your book comes out, and you're like, when did I write this? I don't even remember a point when I sat down and wrote this book. Because it happened in stages, several months apart, and you never gave it your continuous, devoted attention for longer than two months. And that's writing these days!

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Over the next few years you’re gonna hear a lot of theories on where inflation comes from, and here’s mine

I‘ve sort of come to the conclusion that inflation is just a recognition of the reality that we are all poorer than we think we are. We want stuff, and as a result of gas prices and housing shortages and supply chain problems, the stuff simply doesn’t exist to buy. At some point it’ll end either because someone makes more stuff or because we get to a level where all the stuff we need (that’s available to buy) takes up all our spare money, so there’s no extra money to create demand for stuff we can’t get.

On the internet there are all these crackpots who blame inflation on our unsound currency. Maybe they’re right, I dunno. Stimulus money did make us feel richer than we actually were. But there are also legitimate shortages of stuff: a housing shortage, a car shortage, a gas shortage. We just have fewer things available to buy, relative to our population levels, than we used to have, and that’s not really a problem you can solve with monetary policy.

This comment comes to you courtesy of a deep dive into Roman inflation. People associate inflation with debasement of the currency (which means reducing the amount of silver that’s actually in a coin), but actually if the economy isn’t fully monetized (not all transactions are conducted in money) then debasing the currency merely increases the velocity of money rather than increasing prices—that is to say, it doesn’t increase prices because it simply allows people to spend money faster and conduct more transactions more easily. Like if you were conducting most of your transactions using tally marks and mental balance sheets and suddenly the money supply increases and you have hard currency that doesn’t cause an increase in prices. You just do the same transactions in actual currency.

The Roman currency was debased routinely for hundreds of years—Caracalla’s coins had like a tenth the silver of Augustus’s—and it didn’t cause any increase in prices, coins still circulated at their face value.

Then during the crisis of the third century, population fell and output dropped. Suddenly there was less stuff to buy, so there was inflation. At this point the government was used to effectively creating free money through debasement, as it had for centuries, but the demand for the money dropped precipitously. People who had commodities already had all the money they needed, so giving away their commodities for money started to look like a bad deal. Stuff was in short supply, not money. So why give away your stuff in return for money when perhaps there would be nothing to buy with the money? As a result the value of the money dropped precipitously, basically becoming worthless. People blame Rome’s currency debasement for the fall of the Empire, but it seems more like a symptom to me. For one thing—Rome continued in full or in part for another 1200 years!

If you have a well monetized economy where most people are agriculturalists / producers and you’ve been paying your soldiers in money and suddenly there are severe shortages of goods, then of course money will become useless. You’ve been paying people in IOUs and they’ve suddenly realized there’s nothing to cash them in for. Essentially, until that point the government had been in the business of creating a commodity (money) that was heavily in demand. And each time they made more, they merely met that demand—they were running a business (minting coins) just as surely as a silk grower or coal miner is running a business. It just happened to be a business only a large government is allowed to and is capable of running.

What happened wasn’t that they ran the business poorly, what happened was that the underlying demand for that commodity suddenly dropped and there was a supply glut, and the business essentially went bankrupt. And when your government goes bankrupt that’s kind of a huge problem, and it needs to find a new line of business (which in this case turned out to be the forcible extraction of surpluses from the population via price controls and proto-serfdom)

On the other hand, in Europe in the Middle Ages, it was impossible for this kind of thing to happen, because at that time people weren’t really conducting transactions in money, they were conducting them in a certain weight of silver. And if a government debased its currency, then eventually that currency simply became worth less, and everyone adjusted (oh yes these thalers with these markings are actually worth X pence and not Y pence). It was complicated, but you couldn’t go bankrupt in precisely the same way because, essentially, there was free market competition. No government could really make a significant profit coining money because there were too many other competitors.

That’s my take on it anyway! The thing is, we have inflation right now, but the US government doesn’t really RELY on printing money to survive. Admittedly it is in the ancillary business of selling treasury bonds, and I imagine that with this inflation the demand for treasury bonds will sink, unless their yield increases, and if their yield increases the government will have decreased revenue in the future (because part of its revenue will be earmarked for paying the yield on treasury bonds) but people do expect SOME amount of fiscal discipline from the government. They expect its expenditures to bear some vague resemblance to its revenues. What would be bad is if people started expecting that the government would meet future obligations by printing even more money (or issuing even higher yield bonds), because then you wouldn’t want to buy today’s treasury bonds because you’d think inflation would be even higher in the future, which would ruin the market for t bills and mean they would need to issue even higher yields, which would in turn make the government seem even more unsound. Essentially, if you start thinking the government simply has no ability to bring in additional revenue / cut spending in a crisis, then at that point you’re saying you think the government stands a good chance of going bankrupt and being unable to meet its obligations. My understanding is this is what happened in Sri Lanka. They reached a point where there simply wasn’t a price point at which anyone was willing to buy their government debt (too high and the debt itself risks toppling the government; too low and the potential yield isn’t worth the risk). The current working theory is this could never ever happen to the US, because if we become insolvent the world economy would collapse—we are too big to be allowed to fail. So I’m not really worried about either hyperinflation or a government bankruptcy scenario. Essentially, I do think our government is fundamentally solvent.

But yeah, we are all poorer now, and it’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just the fault of our dumb planet and our dumb economic system that for some reason isn’t producing enough stuff to keep up our standard of living.

PS I am not a real economist so all of this is probably wrong. But if you Google this most of the articles you’ll find are from Austrian school quacks and bitcoiners who think the sky is going to fall. Inflation doesn’t make the sky fall, guys—inflation is just our system’s way of recognizing that the sky is falling.

How did freeholders in medieval times get their land?

Hello friends!

As far as I can tell, the defining characteristic of mature pre-industrial societies is that it's almost impossible to make any money through labor. You make money either through capital (ownership of land or commodities) or by sucking up to people in power (which I suppose is a form of labor!)

I mean it's more complicated than that, of course. Master craftspeople notionally made money through labor, but it cost significant capital to buy your way into the business. But the basic point is, if you had no money, it was almost impossible to get some. Whatever surplus you produced with your labor was taken from you by taxes or rents, so you could never accumulate wealth.

But this begs the question, what about freeholders? Independent peasants who owned their own land? Where did they get the money to buy the land?

I've been reading a book on the Byzantine economy. It's essentially a textbook, but it's very short and highly readable. The most fascinating and underappreciated part of the Byzantine empire is the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries (let's call it 650 to 900). During this period, the Byzantine empire initially lost most of its territory, and between 650 and 750 the city of Constantinople was under siege by Islamic forces no less than four times. And then the empire stabilized. It started to grow and expand, taking back most of Anatolia (modern day Turkey) and becoming the dominant regional power until the Seljuk turks defeated them at the Battle of Manzikert in 1077 and sent the empire into decline again.

Essentially, the Byzantine Empire did what the Western empire had done several times (most notably during the Tetrarchy) and it reorganized itself and stabilized.

Reading about this period, the book said that all of the trade networks were disrupted. The Byzantines lost much of the interior of Anatolia. It essentially became a network of affiliated city-states on the Mediterranean and Black Sea costs, along with the Balkans, Greece, and some of Italy. And reading this book, it was like, blah blah blah, most of the land was farmed by small freeholders.

At that point I did a double-take. How is that possible? At this point Anatolia had been settled by strong states for at least 2500 years (since the Hittites). How could an ordinary peasant own any land?

And yet it was true. A significant portion of the land in the Byzantine empire was owned by small freeholders who held formal title to the land. Indeed, after 900, a lot of this land was purchased by elites, and the peasants often became tenants on the same land (a development that is blamed for weakening the Byzantine state).

But how did they get the land in the first place???????

My book doesn't cover anything before 500, so I was left adrift. But the Roman Empire was not known for small independent landholders. In large parts of the empire, small landholders didn't really exist.

That made me wonder, when the land first came under formal title, who owned it? And how did they get it?

Well that led me back to the beginning of state formation. Anyway, I spent hours reading about this, and what I'm going to say probably isn't very accurate, but first of all, for a long time people thought that in early states (at least outside Greece) there was no private ownership of land. That in Mesopotamia, particularly, the temples and kings owned all the land, and everyone else was either a tenant or slave. But apparently that wasn't true. There was significant private ownership of land.

Which is obvious if you read the Bible. Like, remember in the book of Kings when Ahab appropriates Naboth's vineyard? Naboth was clearly a regular guy who owned a vineyard and the King just wanted it, and he had the power to take it, but he was also trespassing some kind of ancient property right that Naboth possessed.

Okay, so I guess there are several theories on how small-holdings came about. The first is that initial settlements tended to be collectives, where individuals communally farmed the land. But over time, the collective assigned lands to certain people, and those property rights got codified. There were almost always laws against selling your land, or laws that required you to have the permission of your family, neighbors, or village before you could sell the land. That tended to keep holdings from changing hands. In the records of land transactions in Mesopotamia, they can see that often the parcels stayed in the same family for hundreds of years, and even when they were sold it was often to the same family. When it came to dividing the property between kids, the girls were given their wealth in moveables (dowry) and you tried to give the younger kids their property in moveables too, or to farm the land communally as a family, to avoid plot sizes shrinking.

So that's one source of freeholds. Another source is the clearance of new land. What if you just go out and clear a new field and put it under cultivation? Again, it's complicated, because most of the nearby land is often under cultivation. That's why Greek cities would send out colonies. You just go to some uninhabited spot and put land under cultivation and then set up title to it. This seems to be how things worked in Israel too. It's also, I think, why everyone had vineyards--because you could set up a vineyard on marginal, uncultivated land nearby without leaving your current holding.

The problem is when you have a large state, the elites usually lay claim to all the uncultivated land, so if you put some of that land under cultivation, you become a tenant on their land (you might work out a fair deal with them in the short run, but eventually this will lead to your descendants coming under their thumb). Lots of large states have strong tenancy laws, so you often get a hereditary right to that land, but that still isn't the same as owning it. However, to the extent you were in an area not dominated by a large state (like Israel, at many points, or Italy / Black Sea coast during the time of Greek colonization), you could get land this way.

This doesn't really work though when all the usable land in a region is already under cultivation. But sometimes there are exogenous population shocks that take land out of cultivation. This is kind of like what happened in the late 7th century in Byzantium. The plague of Justinian meant the population was much lower than its peak, and the political system was in disarray. Land was shifting back and forth between empires, and a lack of security meant a lot of it was falling out of cultivation.

What's kind of interesting though is that if you're a freeholder you can't just have anarchy--you also need a state capable of protecting your property rights. Like in Western Europe while the state was withering away, for a while villages were left without landlords, and they were allowed to self-govern, choose their own crops, keep their own surplus. But then nothing kept some guy with a sword from coming by and saying "I'm your landlord now" and extracting surpluses from them. You need a state that's capable of saying, "No, these people own this land."

This is what Rome often did too. If Rome conquered your region, it could choose to either recognize the existing settlements as res publica, independent towns, in which case it would respect their property rights and they would have self-government and pay taxes directly to the state, or it could just ignore those villages / settlements, in which case they were often given into the hands of large landlords who essentially turned those people into tenants and extracted rents from them.

So, the first way of getting land was to essentially be the first person to farm it AND to do so in the context of a state that was able / willing to protect your property rights.

But why would the state do that? Why would it care whether you, some peasant with twenty acres, has any ability to keep the surplus from and make independent decisions about your land?

WELL, in many cases, the state had its own interests which were different from those of the local elite. In the Byzantine Empire, for instance, I get the impression that around 650, the military just took over and shoved aside the civilian government completely. Soldiers flooded into Anatolia from the rest of the Empire as it fell, and meanwhile the Empire was becoming progressively poorer and less monetized. This means it was very difficult to collect taxes, because the administrative apparatus, which requires a large educated elite, was withering, and because people literally didn't have the coinage to pay. Elites also died or became poorer, so villages gained more autonomy. The soldiers intermarried into the local population, and because they had power in the military organization, they strengthened the hand of local peasants, who were able to gain title to a lot of the land they'd been farming.

I've been taking here about 'freehold' which is essentially when you own the land in perpetuity, but there are lots of ways that even peasant tenants could improve their situation vis a vis landlords. Usually states were reluctant to engage in wholesale land redistribution, but oftentimes they were willing to improve tenancy rights and to make tenancy hereditary, so you could afford to live and improve the land you worked, or even to sell or transfer your right of tenancy to someone else.

Of course, at around this point, being a soldier also became hereditary! So if your father had been a soldier, you had to be a soldier too. But the government couldn't afford to pay you, so you needed land to support yourself. The difference between here and Western Europe is that enough of the administrative state remained that it was possible for small-holders to have a direct relationship with the state (i.e. they could owe taxes and service directly to the state). There was no need for an aristocratic intermediary, and in fact that was undesirable, because it would lead to more fragmentation.

The impression I get, at least when it comes to the Byzantine Empire, was that there was kind of a muddle. The military was taking over. Land could only be farmed if it was defensible, the population was lower and there was free land, and the boundaries of everything shifted in an ad-hoc way, without regard to the preexisting property rights (and in any case many of the previous landlords were now dead or gone), and when the ground settled, a lot of people just didn't have landlords, had never had landlords, didn't remember having landlords.

Furthermore, because the primary tax was a land tax, paid directly to the state, they had evidence, because they'd been paying the land tax, that they owned their own land. And in the process of taking that land tax from them, the state confirmed their ownership.

And that's how they got land. I think. Although I still am not totally sure.

Now when it came to another very related question "How did English yeomen get their land?" I remain very confused, but I think it was a similar process. The King in England was historically very strong and had a push-and-pull for power with the nobility, so they had an incentive to empower small-holders, who they used to fill most of the administrative offices, because in England the King tended (at least at times) to govern the people directly, rather than through the intermediary of the aristocracy.

However I still don't fully understand how this translates into some part of the peasantry actually gaining title to the land. I don't really believe the official story I read online, which is that the yeomen were in the retinue of powerful nobles, who granted them gifts of land. That doesn't entirely make sense, because the nobles must've known that the yeoman class was more loyal to the king than to them. Although maybe it happened before this dichotomy began.

There was also a freeform time in England's history, before 1200 A.D., when most of the nobility still cared much more about its estates in France than those in England. Maybe that's when freeholds were codified. It's also possible that freeholds are some vestige of the Anglo-Saxon times, when there tended to be many more small landholders. It just seems difficult to believe that they could've kept their land even after the conquest. But who knows?

Some writing news, also capsule reviews of two nonfiction books you probably won’t care about (they’re on adoption and on Jack Welch)

I've been enjoying blogging more. Still haven't hundred percent worked out how to write a filler post. But here are some capsule reviews:

Lately I’ve been listening to The Man Who Broke Capitalization, by David Gelles. It’s a book about Jack Welch’s run at GE and his lasting influence over the business world. I guess I’m getting old enough that I can now read books about things I actually saw happen. When I was a kid Jack Welch was an icon. But recently GE has hit hard times and has suffered a precipitous drop in share price, which has made me wonder how Jack’s legacy looks in retrospect. Apparently, not good. The main drag on GE’s performance lately has been its financial services business (a far cry from making lightbulbs), which produced the cash that Jack Welch used to create profits year after year for twenty years. It’s an extremely complex sort of Ponzi scheme, but essentially he used sold GE bonds, backed by its substantial assets and revenues, to finance acquisitions of businesses and to speculate in financial products that would allow them to create the appearance of profitability. Of course this doesn’t exactly harm the business, but it doesn’t grow it either, and over time debt accumulates and the core business stagnates. 

Anyway, what I admire about the book is how it really takes a birds eye view: it spends no time on Jack’s early years, and it runs through his entire career at GE in about half its length. The second half discusses Jack’s long retirement and the careers of his protégés who took over other forms and tried to produce similar results. Ultimately, Jack’s management style, which was big on mergers and layoffs and cost cutting, wasn’t actually the core to his success. It was a bait and switch: he simply turned GE into an unregulated investment bank and used the cash to keep up the facade that it was still a manufacturing powerhouse. Ultimately this involved a significant level of risk, which ended up putting GE into a tailspin after the Great Recession from which it has never recovered. SUMMATION: I realize absolutely nobody who reads this newsletter shares my interest in finance and business books, but this is a good one. It’s not a puff piece, it asks good questions about how companies are managed and should be managed, and it’s quite well structured as well. The narrator of the audiobook has a very pleasing voice. 

Another book that might not be of general interest is Ann Fessler's The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children For Adoption In The Decades Before Roe v Wade. The author placed an excerpt of the book in Slate because of the Dobbs decision, so I thought it was a recent book, but apparently it actually came out in 2007. It does exactly what it says on the tin: it's oral histories of women who surrendered their kids at maternity homes in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I decided to read this book because I was so sad about Dobbs, and I wanted to remind myself what forced birth looks like.

It's not pretty! Every single mother interviewed in the book seems pretty torn-up about it. They range from embittered to ruined. Most describe being bullied by parents, priests, and social workers. A few were outright lied to or had their babies essentially stolen (they refused to sign the papers the maternity home wanted, but they still never got their baby back). The women are mostly white and middle-class (the clientele of these maternity homes). They seem to experience an immediate life-long connection to the child. Most describe wanting to raise the child, only to be told repeatedly it's impossible. A few consent to the adoption, thinking it's for the best, but still feel terribly ashamed and feel a longing for their kid.

The stories were so uniform that at some point I was like...does anyone not regret giving up their kid for adoption? So I did some research. Apparently open adoption (almost all of these adoptions were closed, which means no contact between the child and the birth mother) has better results for the mother's mental health, but there is still a large degree of regret. Some of the women who later had non-surrendered kids die say they felt similarly about the deaths as they did about the adoptions. They were equally bad. A few who'd had abortions said the abortions were not nearly as emotionally painful.

It was pretty brutal. I felt terrible for the birth mothers, for the kids, and for the adoptive parents. I also listened to this in audio, which was probably the only way to finish it, since the stories really do get quite repetitive, but it's not well-organized for audio, since they only label the stories after the story is done, which means you have no idea who's speaking at any given point. As a result, the stories combine into one big mass.

Took a break from Capital (I've finished Vol 1 and want to get to Vol 2 and 3) and I've been reading a few different books. Have read some of Marx's political writings, about France and the Revolution of 1848, and his famous essay 18th Brumaire, about Napoleon III. Read a medieval travelogue by Father Odoric about his travels to Persia, India, Indonesia, and China in the late 13th century. And am reading a really cool book about the economy of the Byzantine Empire. But probably will need to discuss all these in greater detail later.

I got notes back from my editor on my YA novel. Apparently, shockingly, the book is actually going to be published, even though it's exactly the kind of book half the country wants not to be in school libraries. My editor, Steph Guerdan, is excellent. I am normally wary of praising people I work with in the publishing industry, since it's my experience that all relationships run their course eventually. At some point, you write a book they don't like, and you need to part ways. You can't really ask someone to publish something that it's not in their best interest to publish.

But Steph really is an unusual editor. Brave, unafraid of controversy, and goes above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to treating authors fairly. They also have remarkably little ego when it comes to giving edits--nothing is set in stone, and I'm happy with the wiggle room I always have. So while I'm sure our working relationship will come to an end someday, I will continue to think they're an excellent editor.

Am also very proud of Steph for their leadership role in the Harper Union and in their upcoming strike! I'm certain it's not a decision that Steph and the other members of the union took lightly.

Links: Russian formalism and the terrible education at Eton

Since I started writing more on my website / newsletter / blog I've been taking the time to write draft posts in my Apple iNotes app. It's been good I guess, except now I have seven draft blogs I'm not that into that I don't want to post! Stupid selectivity. You know I've always wanted to do that thing where the person links to other articles they've found online that they like, but I am terrible at taking notes about and remembering things. But I think I'm gonna do it. This is gonna be my year.

The only post I can think of recently that I liked was this review of a book I'd never heard of by a literary critic I'd never heard of. I've gotten very interested in the literature of the Soviet Union lately, and what's fascinating is that in the first years of the Soviet Union, before Stalin came to power, there was an efflorescence of avant-garde art. In some ways there's always been a natural alliance between the left-wing and the avant-garde, because the avant-garde solves the typical problem of the left-wing artist, which is how can I maintain rigorous ideological orthodoxy to whatever is the current left-wing viewpoint without producing art that's completely boring. One way of doing this is to concentrate on the formal elements of the art and to try to innovate using those elements. I knew that early Soviet Russia gave rise to structuralism, which is the idea that all art is a collection of structures that refer to and interact with each other, and that the artistry is a function of how the structures interact, rather than the content of the structures--this idea had a later influence on literary theory that can still be felt today, and it can be echoed in the repeated insistence by some writers that literature is words and nothing but words and that if you seek beauty at the level of the line, a story will emerge. Structuralism is nonsense (imho), but not complete nonsense. Fertile nonsense, let's say. Thought-provoking nonsense! Am interested in reading this book, but who knows if I'll ever get around to it. ( (Victor Shklovsky, On The Theory Of Prose)

Searching for that link took so long, though, and in the process I had to read so many tedious article titles. I swear to god, every article these days is like, "Transforming Whiteness: Politics In A Post-Racial Calcutta". And you just instantly know you're not gonna read that article. Like, it could be good or bad, but you're just not gonna read it. Literary criticism is just a shockingly awful in its disregard for the time of its own audience--maybe I'd be doing a better service to humanity if I _didn't_ aggregate these links. 

Oh here's another link. So I wrote in my essay "Myth of the Classically Educated Elite" that elites in 19th century England didn't actually get a great classical education. But then the Antigone Journal (a great Twitter accnt) sent around a photo of a test you had to take at Eton to get into the First Hundred, which was the top three forms of the school, and I was like whoah, this test is pretty serious stuff, was I wrong about what they taught at Eton?

So I looked it up, and it turns out that test was actually a result of educational reforms in the late 19th century. Until then, you basically just did a rote cram of the Iliad. That was it. That was your entire education. And for Latin you did the Aeneid. Terrible. This exam was instituted in 1868 to ensure that kids admitted to the first hundred (essentially high school) actually knew some Latin and Greek.