Peter, What Are You Reading?

Instead of long-reads online, I've been digging in to a few books lately! Check it out!

You may have noticed that there has not been very many links to many articles recently. This is partly because I’ve had some increased pain, but it’s also because I have shifted a lot of my reading to paper books. With that in mind, I thought I’d do a quick overview of some of the books I am working my way through.

While I have linked to their respective Amazon pages, if you plan to buy the book I would urge you to order them through your locally owned family bookstore. In the Waterloo Region, Wordsworth Books in Waterloo is probably your best bet!

The Dictators - Richard Overy

This book has been my primary read for a couple of months now. I started reading it some 13 years ago, just before I got married, and found it really dense, leading to its eventual abandonment. It’s been staring at me on my shelf all these years, begging me to restart. With all the focus on increased global authoritarianism, I thought it might be a good time to dust it off and open it up.

A systematic look at Germany and the USSR under their respective dictators, this book delves into the various facets of social and political control. With the Russian revolution of 1917 and Germany’s epic loss of World War 1 as backdrops, Overy helps the reader understand the reasons behind their totalitarian regimes. One of the important distinctions made by Overy is about the nature of totalitarianism in the single-party dictatorships:

“‘Totalitarian’ does not mean that they were ‘total’parties, either all-inclusive or wielding complete power; it means that they were parties concerned with the ‘totality’ of the societies in which they worked. (p 173)

The approach taken by the book mirrors this distinction, looking at how both Stalin and Hitler tried to personally direct much of the state apparatus, including the economy, social services, civilian life, and of course, the war effort. Hitler was seemingly motivated not only by trying to rid Germany of the Jews, but also in keeping the spectre of Bolshevism from taking hold in German society; Hitler was deeply opposed to communism, making the non-aggression pact of 1939 a bit of a surprise. Stalin was motivated by terror, both as a terrified human and as master of the state. He liked to make people jump, and he treated his lieutenants as if they were expendable; he expected that the people closest to him would cross him, whether they had any intention to or not.

I’m 3/4 of the way through this book, and its been such a fascinating comparison between two of the most evil men of the 20th century, motivated partly by hatred for each other.

The Skin We’re In - Desmond Cole

There’s not much to say about this book just yet, except that it seems to be one of the go-to books recommended by BIPOC folks, specifically Black Canadians, on the reality of anti-Black racism in Canada. The author, a journalist who lost his reporting columns because of his activism, is concerned not with couching anti-Blackness in a way that is palatable to white people, but instead in a way that helps them understand what life is really like for Black people in Canada.

The first chapter tells the story of John, a young Black artist who was continually harassed by police at his Bloor Street (Toronto) gallery. John lost that gallery, not because he failed at being an artist, but because the police busted up his gallery, along with his face. Still, his cash box was confiscated and he was charged with assaulting an officer, despite the fact that he was merely trying to defend the premises from unlawful police action. I expect the book, which chronicles Cole’s experiences with racism in 2017, will keep me thinking about the many ways our society is stacked against Black people.

A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None - Kathryn Yusoff

This book was lent to me, along with the Cole book, by my friend Fitsum Areguy, a leader in the African Caribbean Black Network of Waterloo Region, one of the sponsors of the area’s Black Lives Matter march, which by some accounts was the largest BLM march in Canada. We’d been having a conversation about the genocide perpetrated against Turtle Island’s Indigenous people, wondering how that fit into the long and storied European tradition of anti-Blackness. He pointed out to me that simple things white Canadians take for granted, like tracing your lineage through Ancestry.com and similar websites, are heartbreaking experiences for Black people. Instead of tracing their stories back to a time when they left the Continent freely, they are reminded, again and again, that the experience of Black people in North America is borne out of the slave trade. In this book, Yusoff argues that geology matters - Black people in Africa were originally enslaved and sold as commodities, including as trade for gold, oil and other natural resources. When modern day geologists and environmentalists talk at length about the way human beings have stripped the earth of its resources, they often neglect to note that trade in human beings is a significant reason why Europeans were able to exploit so many resources in Africa and across North America. More specifically, it’s likely that the extraction economies of the 20th century might not have occurred, if Black people from Africa were not first enslaved in the 16th century.