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Recent Reading: August 2017 (Round 2)

Here’s what I’ve been reading lately: Ursula Le Guin, John Green, Lawrence Lessig, and a Chinese political thriller that I highly recommend.

A long row of books on a brown wooden shelf.
Photo by Alexander Wende on Unsplash

The Civil Servant’s Notebook by Wang Xiaofang

Translated from the Chinese by Eric Abrahamsen. Penguin Books China Library, 2012. Originally published in 2009.

A couple months back, it occurred to me that contemporary American politics looks a lot like a Chinese political thriller: a large cast of characters; lots of talk of corruption; factionalism and in-fighting; a vague sense of paranoia; and a group of people secretly investigating top level figures for crimes (Mueller’s special counsel in the states; the party discipline commission in China). So naturally, I decided it would be fun to re-read The Civil Servant’s Notebook by Wang Xiaofang, a book I originally read while studying abroad in China.

I enjoyed this book on my first read, but I was able to appreciate it much more during this second reading. The Civil Servant’s Notebook does two things which threw me off on my first reading, but which are actually very cool. First, almost every chapter is from a different first-person POV. A few characters get more than one POV chapter, but even those characters only have a total of two or three POV chapters in the book. I’ve never read anything else structured like this, but admittedly it is a fairly Chinese way of telling a story: prioritizing the journey and the story of the community over individuals. Second, not all chapters are from the POV of humans. Some chapters are from the POV of entities such as “The Government Square” and “The Office Chair.” These chapters tend to be farcical and insightful. These two structural choices distanced me from the story on my first reading, but on this second reading, I actually really enjoyed these choices and the variety they brought to the story.

I’m not sure I can say that re-reading The Civil Servant’s Notebook gave me any new insights into American politics in the age of Trump, but the novel did surprise me in one way (Spoilers to follow!): it was surprisingly optimistic. Sure, there’s corrupt officials and selfish decisions, but generally speaking, the corrupt officials get taken down. The selfish choices come back to bite. There are some real heroes in this story, who face adversity and manage to overcome it. There’s good people doing good work, and at the end of the day, it generally pays off.

The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

Pocket Books, 2004. Originally published in 1972.

The Farthest Shore is the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. Like A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, it’s a solidly fantastic book with beautiful, wise prose. I liked Arren, Ged’s companion in this book, but I also felt like he could have had a stronger character arc. That said, it’s really hard for any character to measure up to Tenar, the protagonist of The Tombs of Atuan. While The Farthest Shore may be my least favorite book in the Earthsea series, the whole series is beautiful, gorgeous, and moving.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Dutton Books, 2012.

I liked John Green’s writing style in The Fault in Our Stars; it’s accessible yet powerful. This book is also enjoyably sad. However, I did not like the characters so much. I didn’t like Augustus. Hazel was okay. I actually did like the parents, although their role was comparatively minor.

If you want a sad, accessible page-turner, I recommend this book.

Code 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig

Basic Books, 2006.

As a huge Lawrence Lessig fan, I’ve been meaning to read this book for some time now. It’s important, original, and shockingly prescient. Code, originally published in 1999, argues that cyberspace can and will become an increasingly regulated space, that this change will largely be effectuated by code, and that we are unprepared for this challenge. Those claims aren’t exactly novel today, but remember, back in 1999 the Internet was the new wild west. Most of us laughed at the idea of the net being a perfectly regulated space.

Not only is Code prescient, but it contains one of the clearest, most intelligent approaches to regulating cyberspace that I have come across. Lessig examines how effective regulation is achieved not only through the law, but also social norms, the market, and architecture. He explores how these four modalities of regulation can be balanced in cyberspace, and he carefully reflects on how our constitutional values can be preserved in the process. Basically, what I’ve trying to say here is, anyone who wants to regulate (or talk about regulating) the Internet needs to read this book first. Moreover, if you don’t care about regulating the Internet, you should probably still read this book, as it will give you a better understand of the multitude of ways in which you already are regulated online.

Code 2.0 is actually a revised version of the original text. Lessig published Code 2.0 in 2006, at which point it was already clear that Lessig was right about increasingly Internet regulation and it’s concomitant challenges. Standing here today in 2017, it’s clear that these challenges are still with us, and many of them have gotten worse. So go read this book before we screw things up even more.