Our Common Wealth

I’m quite enjoying Our Common Wealth, by Jonathan Rowe. It’s not that the idea he’s talking about is conceptually difficult – that the commons are essential to how society functions. It’s that by using the term ‘commons’, and expounding on what it means and how it matters, he gives us a word to describe something fundamental that hasn’t been articulated before. 

But despite how much I like that central idea, the writing style is driving me a little crazy. And sure, it’s not really his writing – someone’s edited together essays and articles, which isn’t an easy way to go. But I just hate it when an author says “Studies show …”, and then doesn’t even footnote. It just reeks of post-hoc rationalization. 

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The Dance of Legislation

I’m still in the process of finishing The Dance of Legislation. As I wrote earlier, I think it does a good job of covering the intricacies of a process that’s often not part of the public consciousness, that pushing and shoving to get something through the many cogs to an actually implementable policy. 

But at the same time, I think reading this reminds me of so many of the problems that are inherent, and the dangers and risks even for the very well intentioned. 

He mentions a discussion with a student society, persuading them to engage to achieve a simpler goal within a shorter timeframe, walking away from larger aspirations. As he says, ‘the perfect is often the enemy of the good’. Throughout, he’s honest about the compromises and contortions he (and the people he works for and with) go through to get a simple idea (a domestic Peace Corps equivalent, with doctors funded to work in poorer communities) into place. Because of existing structures, they become embroiled in a fight over the state of the Public Health Service, itself an appendage of a larger bureaucratic structure, with the President and his advisors opposed to key senators, and different parts of the department (Health, Education and Welfare, from memory) also split. 

And at the same time, this reform or program they propose is, as he explains quite honestly, initiated by someone outside the process, a doctor who hassles his Senator. Granted, there are other supporters, and the idea doesn’t seem to be without merit. But as he describes his travails getting the piece of legislation through Congress, it’s hard not to ask how worthy it is, if it’s an idea pitched by a lobbyist and drafted by a twenty-something year old staffer. 

Finally there’s an aspect which remains a mystery to me, which is the inter-relationship between the United States Congress and the President of the United States. As he notes, they share some powers (particularly around funding for departments) – it’s a strange power structure. 

I’m still enjoying the book, and I like how honest he is about his step-by-step processes. But I’m reminded that he has a partisan view, and some of the features of the ‘Dance’ that he describes as challenges may be appropriate, given how he’s starting from a very particular starting point. 

A whole lot of books

The last few months have been busy; enough that I haven’t updated much, but I’ve managed to fit in some reading. In no particular order:

  • The Gift of Rain: Was an intriguing idea, but disappointingly executed. 
  • Snow falling on cedars: Was pretty great. 
  • In a sunburned country: Was fun, but ultimately disappointing. Perhaps I’d just been expecting more of Bryson after reading his pieces on the English language and on science; this just felt self-indulgent. I have only so much interest in his visits to coffee shops, and his writing came over as trying too hard – about jokes, rather than anything real. 
  • Their eyes were watching God: Was good, although in different ways than I’d expected. As one commentary I read noted (I forget whether it was preface or an afterword), its value lay in being a woman’s story that wasn’t overshadowed by racial issues, but still acknowledged them. 
  • The thinker’s toolkit: Had some marginally interesting content, but would probably have been better as a medium length blog post.
  • The dance of legislation: I haven’t finished yet, but seems good. It’s unapologetically parochial and partisan, but it’s a fascinating look at the legislative process from the inside. And while I’ve never worked in the US Congress (now nor in the 60’s), from what I’ve seen of other processes, the dysfunctionality and internal politics ring very true. 
  • The ocean at the end of the lane: Was just great. Neil Gaiman did a truly excellent job of capturing that fear that can be so strong in childhood – that the people we depend on, particularly parents, will let us down. 
  • Warm bodies: Was just a fun read. I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to realise the parallels to an earlier piece that’s quite central in the English language literary canon, but I got there eventually. 

There were a few others I read as well, but the titles escape me. These’ll do for now.