Book club logistics


in Books and literature, Daily updates

I must say that I am surprised with the number of positive responses to my post about starting a book club. Of course, it is encouraging to see that so many people would be interested in the coordinated reading of non-fiction.

It seems to me that two things need to be decided: the dates on which book reviews should be written up and posted, and the first book we should all read. I propose that we answer these, at least for the first month, by means of an opaque participatory, but not entirely democratic, process. Namely, I propose that people nominate dates and books and, once a good number of people have commented, I will select something that doesn’t seem too far out of line with the consensus.

For dates, I nominate either the 7th of every month, or the 15th of every month, starting in April. For books, I nominate the following, in no special order:

  • Easterly, William. The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.
  • Speth, Gus. The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability.
  • Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

I may suggest some others while the discussion is ongoing.

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

mek March 7, 2009 at 7:53 pm

I haven’t done any research at all, but Easterly’s sounds very interesting.

Tristan March 8, 2009 at 6:07 pm

I vote for Jared Diamond’s book.

Sarah March 8, 2009 at 7:17 pm

Those all sound good & I’ve read the Diamond book already.
Is the intent to read only non-fiction or can I suggest “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” which is a fantastic (and award winning) book by Sherman Alexie? I’d also suggestion Said’s Orientalism, which isn’t recent but is a fantastic academic work with huge contemporary cultural significance.

alison March 8, 2009 at 7:59 pm

I second Orientalism.

Tristan March 8, 2009 at 8:10 pm

I would also support Orientalism.

R.K. March 8, 2009 at 8:16 pm

I support Easterly’s book.

R.K. March 8, 2009 at 8:20 pm

The 15th is also better than the 7th.

Milan March 10, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Once Paul Collier’s new book Wars, Guns, and Votes:Democracy in Dangerous Places comes out, we should consider reading it. His previous one was interesting, informative, and concise.

Antonia March 10, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Interested in ‘Orientalism’ (been on my reading list for ages) but may not make the deadline. btw Paul Collier in the news just today – and on global food crisis (audio)

Antonia March 10, 2009 at 12:40 pm
Antonia March 10, 2009 at 12:50 pm

btw, One economist who agrees that aid has failed and the entire approach should be abandoned
Not sure I want to read her book though.

Milan March 10, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Regarding the selection of the first book, people should keep posting nominations until the 14th.

On the 15th, I will announce the book to be read, with my review (and any others people wish to write) being posted on that day.

Milan March 10, 2009 at 1:42 pm

Possible rules for the club

Antonia sent me a list of rules from an existing book club. The following issues seem like they might have some importance for this group. How do people feel about them?

  1. Explicit specification that this is a group for non-fiction.
  2. Possible restrictions on discussing the book before the completion date. (I am not sure about this. Sometimes, I like putting up posts relating to books I am in the middle of reading.)
  3. A requirement that those planning to comment on a particular book indicate their intention early.
  4. A requirement that those commenting in discussions about the book have actually read it.
  5. Mechanisms for book selection, beyond the participatory but non-democratic system I am asserting for the first month.
  6. A maximum length for books.
  7. A requirement that books have stand-alone value, even if they are part of a series.
  8. The selection of a ‘chair’ for each book, possibly to write the main review for discussion.
  9. Rules for new members.
  10. Anonymity of comments

My initial take on these is:

  1. Non-fiction only.
  2. People can discuss the books before the official due date.
  3. People are encouraged to indicate that they will be reading the book and participating in the discussion, but it is not required.
  4. Only those who have read the book should comment on the reviews (with a possible exception for random visitors from Google).
  5. I am fine with the quasi-democratic system, though open to something different.
  6. Perhaps 500 pages, not counting notes and bibliography? Books that don’t require you to read the notes are preferred.
  7. All books must be comprehensible as stand-alone items.
  8. No chair is necessary.
  9. People are free to join, provided they agree to abide by the rules.
  10. To be set by whoever runs each associated blog. On my site, I would prefer if people always posted by the same name or pseudonym. There is an exception for posting related news stories and materials.

What do others think?

mek March 10, 2009 at 6:59 pm

I am fine with those rules, though a hard cap on page length is not a big deal IMO – sometimes an 800 page book can be easy to read and a 500 page one can be extremely dense, so I think we should just keep things reasonable. Rule #4 is a little odd given we are rejecting rule #3. Change it to “have read or are currently reading”?

Also noting that I would not mind Orientalism.

Milan March 10, 2009 at 7:12 pm


I do think it is valuable to exclude people who haven’t read the book from the conversation. That is largely because of how they are likely to lead the conversation astray – possibly even into the dreaded topics of economics / Israel / the philosophy of science.

As for Orientalism, it certainly seems to be leading. I started reading it once, but didn’t find it compelling enough to continue. Perhaps reading it in this context would make me more dedicated.

Milan March 10, 2009 at 7:20 pm

As for the page limit, I am not wedded to it.

I would rather read 1000 pages of Douglas Adams than 100 pages of Hegel.

Tristan March 10, 2009 at 7:51 pm

I have no intention on recommending “Philosophy of Right”. I might suggest, however, “the History of the English Working Class”. Just kidding.

Milan March 12, 2009 at 11:47 am

Yesterday’s interview on The Daily Show has left me wanting to read Craig Mullaney’s The Unforgiving Minute. It’s about his training as an Army Ranger and experiences in Afghanistan.

Milan March 12, 2009 at 1:44 pm

This essay makes me want to re-read Thoreau’s Walden, which I haven’t glanced at in nearly a decade.

R.K. March 12, 2009 at 3:57 pm

I think it makes sense to choose something that is widely available in libraries, rather than something people will need to buy.

That might even be worth adding to the ‘rules’ as a suggestion.

Hegel March 12, 2009 at 11:24 pm

I recommend Spinoza’s “Ethics”.

Spinoza March 12, 2009 at 11:55 pm

I recommend Leibniz’s “Monadology”.

Milan March 12, 2009 at 11:58 pm

On my site, I would prefer if people always posted by the same name or pseudonym. There is an exception for posting related news stories and materials.

Israel March 13, 2009 at 12:00 am

I recommend Economics and the Philosophy of Science, by Deborah Redman. The Journal of Economic issues insists that, “Her work will stand firmly alongside Bruce J. Caldwell’s Beyond Positivism as one of the most widely read and frequently cited sources on the history of economic methodology”.

Milan March 13, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Given the limited time remaining before a book is to be selected, I would appreciate if participants could specify:

  1. Which book mentioned so far they would most like to read and
  2. Which other books they would be happy to read, ideally listed in order of preference


Tristan March 14, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Come on, that last one was funny, wasn’t it?

Seriously though, I think all the books mentioned so far are worth reading. I really enjoyed Diamond’s earlier book, so I’m perhaps most interested in reading Collapse. But, it might not be the most interesting for a discussion. Orientalism is probably the work I’d find the most philosophically interesting, but again, I’m not sure if it would produce a discussion interesting to a broad number of people.

I’d have to say, in general, I’m not very excited about reading more books in the vein that accepts the Washington consensus on international development, as implemented by the World bank and IMF. This is very likely to end in discussions about currency stability, and why 1971 is a turning point for the worse (the argument that freer movement of capital has resulted in poorer economic performance).

If I were going to suggest a book, I’d suggest something which doesn’t take the perpetuation of the nation state, or of political “system”, as the only way forward. Looking over my shelves, I don’t really have anything amenable to non-specialists. Maybe Deleuze and Guattari’s “Thousand Plateaus”, but I’m not going to pretend that book is easy – although it does have the virtue of being as comprehensible to people without philosophical training as those with it (i.e. difficult for both, but similarly so).

If I have to stay within ‘state’, I’d recommend we read the 1st division of Kapital. This book often gets completely dismissed, but that is strange for two reasons. First, it’s probably the most politically influential text written in economics, ever. Second, it’s extremely conservative, and classical account of economics – that tries to show how out of the classical account of economics, objective contradictions are produced. I think the issue of objective economic contradictions (i.e. are they real, are they overcome, are they put-off, are they subsummed etc..) is extremely interesting.

It would be also interesting to read Marx, because it would dispel the idea that Marx wrote about Communism. Out of tens of thousands of pages, Marx wrote maybe 2 or 3 about communism – the rest on capitalism, with a little on other economic (pre-capitalist) forms. It’s true that Marx isn’t taught in present day economics departments – but that has more to do with the universal acceptance of general equilibrium theory in the 50s than with Marx being “wrong” about something.

Milan March 14, 2009 at 10:35 pm

I tried reading Orientalism while I was at Oxford and didn’t find it interesting enough to go more than fifty pages into. I think it might have more importance for people living in France of England forty or fifty years ago.

Tristan March 15, 2009 at 2:55 am

At the recent “Contesting Europe” conference I helped organize a theme that came up repeatedly was the idea that Said’s book was influential in shaping contemporary Europe’s notion of itself over against this “other” called “the orient” – because although the book is critical of the notion that there “is” an “orient” it is implicitely accepting that there “is” an occident. Or, so I’m told – I have not read it.

Milan March 15, 2009 at 11:40 am

Here are the number of times various books have been mentioned positively:

Deleuze and Guattari. Thousand Plateaus. (1)

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. (2)

Easterly, William. The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. (3)

Marx, Karl. Capital. (1)

Mullaney, Craig. The Unforgiving Minute. (1)

Said, Edward. Oreintalism. (5)

Speth, Gus. The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. (1)

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. (1)

Given that I found Orientalism so uncompelling, I am tempted to select Easterly’s book. It has the benefit of having been out for a while, meaning it is very likely to be in larger or more academic libraries.

How would it be for people to read it and publish reviews for April 15th?

Milan March 15, 2009 at 11:52 am

The Vancouver Public Library has six copies. The Ottawa public library has nine copies. I am sure it is available at university libraries in Toronto, Oxford, Ottawa, and Vancouver as well.

tatiana March 15, 2009 at 2:24 pm

I would love to join and am happy with any of these titles. Hope i’m not too late!

Milan March 15, 2009 at 2:31 pm

You certainly aren’t too late.

Anyone who is interested in reading the book is encouraged to participate in the discussion.

Tristan March 16, 2009 at 3:36 am

While I feel unable to speak about the book before having read it, it has perhaps the most un-appealing title of any of the books suggested. The idea that “the West” has tried to aid “the rest” is simply such an absurd assertion, its hard to see what the author might mean by it. But, I suppose I’ll have to read it first.

Still, if there is time to object, I would suggest that “Orientalism” is almost certainly the more important text – but more importantly, it’s by an author who wouldn’t consider such an absurd title.

Milan March 16, 2009 at 8:47 am

I am sticking by my Orientalism veto.

Milan March 16, 2009 at 8:59 am

For one thing, authors often have their titles chosen for them by publishers.

For another, I don’t think this one is as problematic as you suggest. Every Western state has official foreign aid, aid-oriented NGOs and charities, etc. Most citizens of these states think that these bodies are having a positive effect in developing and least-developed states.

As I have said before, this book is on the same spectrum of discussion as Sachs’ book and Colliers, though it is significantly more pessimistic than either. That being said, I am not sure how much they really disagree. A paper I read about the differences between what Sachs and Easterly respectively see as important suggested many similarities, such as the importance of governance.

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