Read any good books lately? That’s the question we asked a handful of scholars this summer, with the nudge that thoughtprovoking books can come from beyond sociology. Here’s what they had to say.
ELIZABETH POPP BERMAN (UNIVERSITY AT ALBANY, SUNY)
The Fires: How a Computer Formula Burned Down New York City—and Determined the Future of American Cities
By: Joe Flood Riverhead Books, 2011, 368 pages
I knew New York City was a much grittier place in the 1970s, but I didn’t know it was this gritty. In The Fires, journalist Joe Flood describes New York in which the backdrop to the World Series was the Bronx on fire. Block after block of the city burned during these years of fiscal crisis and urban decline.
The blame, in Flood’s book, lies at the feet of the experts: in this case, the RAND Corporation, which brought in its cool-headed modelers to tell the struggling city how it could cut fire department budgets without endangering the city. But rationalist faith ran up against the usual problems: politicos who made sure wealthy neighborhoods didn’t lose their firehouses, firemen who provided bad numbers that served their own interests, analysts who were overconfident in their ability to predict. The best of intentions had catastrophic results for the city. It’s a complex, deeply reported story with a sharp sociological edge. And the most gripping book about systems analysis you’re likely to read. BOOKSHELF
EMILY ERIKSON (YALE UNIVERSITY) Magazines and the Making of America: Modernization, Community, and Print Culture, 1741-1860
By: Heather Haveman Princeton University Press, 2015, 432 pages
I am greatly enjoying this book, which provides a rich history of the magazine industry in North America, analyzes the impact of magazines on religious fragmentation, social reform, and economic development and serves up fascinating details about ante-bellum entrepreneurship, the dynamics of religious markets, and Sabbatarianism (among others) along the way. It is the result of a heroic archival effort and makes a significant contribution to understanding the material underpinnings of the transition to modernity, particularly the means through which early-modern relational patterns were reconfigured into translocal communities of interest (and the role of organizations in this process). It also has a much better title than another book I am currently reading on early-modern print culture, Not Dead Things: The Dissemination of Popular Print in England and Wales, Italy, and the Low Countries, 1500-1820.