The Best Non-Fiction Books of 2015 (That I haven’t Read)

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Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness, by Miya Tokumitsu (Regan Arts)

I feel that I must begin with this book by Miya Tokumitsu, because I believe it’s message might save your life—literally. In our status-obsessed country, which has been suffering from increasing inequality, stagnation, and the decline of many sectors, it seems many of us are either trying to maintain an unsustainable level of New Age self-assurance, or are just trying to keep from giving completely in to despair. In the background of this intense status-anxiety is perhaps the most powerful urge in Capitalist societies, as expressed in the platitude, do what you love; love what you do. As the other variant of this saying—…and you will never work a day in your life—suggests, most people seem to agree that alienated labor—or work whose only reward comes on payday—is undesirable, and is the fate that awaits everyone who hasn’t been able to find “success.” Beneath the thin layer of “positivity,” there is something fundamentally menacing and authoritarian behind these notions: not only do we have to rent our labor to an employer to sustain our existence, we have to “love” it. Anyone who hasn’t found a job that they enjoy is made to feel like a moral failure; they either “have the wrong attitude” toward their job, or they “don’t have the can-do spirit” to find a fulfilling career. Tokumitsu’s book might prove to be a vital tonic against these oppressive socioeconomic pressures.

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Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)

This work probably doesn’t require recommendation. On the other hand, it’s probably a thought-crime not to include it in a 2015 list. Coates has been inaugurated as the millennial heir of James Baldwin, and one only needs to check out his pieces in the Atlantic to see why. In this era that seems to be dominated by twitter activism, where the tendency is to impose one’s already-existing narratives onto the headlines, it’s easy to lose sight of the reasons those narratives (especially those that pertain to identity) exist to begin with. I plan on getting copies for my mixed nieces, when they are the right age—after I have read it, of course.

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Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon (Dey Street Books)

I was obsessed with Sonic Youth for a large part of my High School years. For me, they were a window into a (I hope I won’t be faulted too much for saying) more “hip” landscape than the suburban environment of pop-punk and mall-metal. They were a gateway to William Burroughs and Stockhausen—that is, to postmodernism—but also to the “normcore” of bands like Pavement and the work of Lena Dunham—the sort of muted aesthetic of effortlessness that, by way of Lou Reed and Dylan, comes after the possibilities which derive from a lack of structure have been exhausted. Because Sonic Youth (and it’s related projects), much like the fare of Gus Van Sant and Harmony Korine,  have remained somewhere in-between the extremes of the post-modern and the “meh,” their work has, to me, never really lost the elements that made them interesting. Now that the band has ended, I have the feeling that Kim’s intimate memoir will make me want to revisit their (and her) catalog, bringing to it a deepened perspective.

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Capitalism in the Web of Life, by Jason W. Moore (Verso Books)

Though the style of this book may be a bit too technical/academic to recommend to the average reader not currently immersed in Marxist sociological jargon, the substance of it isn’t hard to grasp: the idea that “nature” and “society” are two separate “things,” and that the former only exists as something to be consumed or expropriated by the latter, is unsustainable. Yet this is the ontological basis of capitalist societies, going back to it’s origins in Western thought. As any environmentalist will tell you, the Cartesian dualism of “mind verses matter” (named after philosopher René Descartes, famous for thinking up the Cogito) which informs so much of our daily life, has always had terrible implications for the plants, animals, and everything else that exists outside of the human mind. But Moore’s interrogation goes further, pointing out that our market-based society doesn’t only objectify non-human “nature,” reducing it to a economic resource for the use of humans; it also objectifies many humans, treating them as “cheap nature” that exists solely to be exploited by the system. “Political economy starts from labor as the very soul of production;” as Marx said, in terms once echoed by Abraham Lincoln and early Republicans, “and yet it attributes nothing to labor and everything to private property.” Moore points out that this is doubly true, both of the “cheap nature” that becomes an object of private enclosure, but also, crucially, the many forms of “unpaid labor” (domestic work, slave labor, internships, and perhaps, many other informal activity that the economic system takes for granted). This is the neat trick (or “life hack,” if you will) of capitalism: it bases itself on certain humanist principles while erasing most of “humanity” from it’s calculations, by narrowly defining humans simply as agents of capitalism. Clearly, it’s time to reevaluate these principles. Check out this interview with Doug Henwood (here’s an iTunes link) to see if this book is for you.

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