Stuff I’ve been reading, non-fiction edition


Listed from liked-most to liked-least.

Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert.

It’s hard to describe the complex historical web that Beckert traces, but the overall message is that talk of free markets, in an industry with so much at stake, has generally been a joke: the market is whatever the man with the whip says it is.

Here is one thread: when the British arrived in India, there was already a thriving international trade in finished cotton. The Brits used threats and violence to squeeze out the other merchants and force spinners and weavers to sell only to their agents. At first, there was an avid market in Britain, where only the super-rich had ever worn clothing that was not brown or black. But the wool and linen lobby put paid to that, and new laws forbade the import of cotton cloth.

One result was that exporters from India focused on the African market; African slave traders loved Indian cloth and wouldn’t settle for crappy European imitations. So Indian cloth paid for huge numbers of slaves, who produced sugar and rum and eventually raw cotton, the profits from which bought more slaves and more Indian cloth.

A second consequence of the import ban was that some British entrepreneurs decided to spin and weave cotton at home, and devised ways to mechanize the process. Cotton mills were the largest element of the Industrial Revolution, and they created a huge demand for raw cotton. With Napoleon making trouble in the Mediterranean and a slave revolt in Haiti, pplantation owners in the American South saw an opportunity. This was greatly expanded when a British cotton baron bankrolled the Louisiana Purchase with the specific aim of expanding US cotton production.

With the price advantage of materials produced by slave labor, the mill owners of old and New England made a killing on the ‘free’ market. By 1860, half of all US exports were raw cotton. After the Civil War, there was some concern about maintaining the reliable supply of raw cotton, so the British found it necessary to destroy the Indian domestic cotton textile industry, turning millions of artisans into landless farm laborers. These people formerly depended on their gardens for food, but now became wholly subject to the commodity market, and when prices fell, many millions starved to death. Just the cost of doing business.

The book is not exactly a page-turner, but I feel that I came away with a better sense of how the world really works. Beckert is a real historian with plenty of facts to back up his story.



On the Move by Oliver Sacks.

One of young Oliver’s report cards said “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.” Well, he went too far in every possible direction. This led to some fun experiences, such as staying at the San Francisco YMCA (“Sorry, wrong room.” “Are you sure??”), hanging with Hell’s Angels, being approved as “Doctor Squat” by the boys on Venice Beach, hanging with WH Auden (Auden left him his record collection), brainstorming with Francis Crick, having Robin Williams impersonate him….you get the idea.

On the other hand, becoming muscle-bound made him liable to nasty tendon injuries, which supplemented those that resulted from generally dumb decisions (body-surfing in monster waves, careless hiking over the edge of cliffs, etc.). I guess the meth addiction, which lasted for several years, fits in the latter category. Maybe falling in love with boys who were straight or in denial does too, except that isn’t exactly a decision, at least not a conscious one. Lots of interesting stuff in the first half of the book, which then degenerates into a series of random sketches; I wonder if the author’s declining health is to blame, or if people’s lives are just not that interesting once they find their way in life.


Augustus, the First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy.

I like Goldsworthy’s writing but there is just something rather boring about Augustus, and this book is less fun than AG’s bio of Julius Caesar and his book about the fall of Rome. Goldsworthy does not subscribe to the I, Claudius view that Livia poisoned everybody, which admittedly is a bit absurd but makes for a fun story.


Rome A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History by Robert Hughes.

It is interesting to hear about the image of Rome that Hughes formed growing up in Australia in the 1950s and what it was like to arrive in this fabled place, with its astonishing history and art and vegetabhles. Sadly, after the intro, he seems to lose track of the personal story, and his exposition of the history and art is unimpressive. Actually, it is sometimes downright off-putting: “It is an extremely sexy sculpture; as it should be, since its subject is a rape.” Or words to that effect…what was he thinking?

Also, someone who claims that Augustus was called Gaius Julius Caesar Octavius should not quit his day job. It’s like writing about Muhammad Ali Clay.

Robert Hughes is what Simon Schama would be if Mrs. Schama had dropped him on his head as a baby.


Coming Out Christian in the Roman World by Douglas Boyne.

It seemed like a promising idea, a gay archeologist comparing the experience of Christians in the Roman world with that of gay people in our culture (hence the ‘coming out’ in the title). But the author misses the chance for a nuanced and data-rich account, instead wasting time knocking down straw-men and repeating generalities. It’s a wee book, only 200 pages, but still I lost patience waiting for the meaty stuff.

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