Back in May, our second child (Rose) was born. Starting on her delivery date (5/9/19), I started 12 weeks of paternity leave. Family is a great gift. I’ve been able to really get to know my daughter while not worrying about the effects of sleep deprivation on my work or career.
At the same time, family leave is a lot of repetition and grueling hours. Infants sleep a lot, but in very short bursts without respect to adult circadian rhythms, which often left me bouncing, feeding, and holding Rose for hours at a stretch in the early AM.
One of the big lessons I learned last year from the birth of my older son is the importance of distraction. It’s frustrating to have your sleep ruthlessly destroyed by an infant, much less so if you have something to distract you from the endless cycle of bouncing, feeding, changing, bouncing, and holding.
To help with that distraction, I created a goal for myself to read 3 books while out on leave. It was an intentionally modest goal because I wasn’t sure how bad the sleep deprivation was going to be, but it turned out to be too easy. I ended up reading the equivalent of more than 2,800 pages worth of nonfiction across 5 books. I “read” most of the content via Audible using Apple Airpods, which are a great way for parents to be productive while also accomplishing chores.
Below, I’ve summarized 5 things that I learned from 3 of the books that I read as well as some short notes on 123 Magic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the two books I started, but didn’t finish:
The Power Broker is the best biography I’ve ever read. It’s also the most detailed, realistic, and clear-eyed explanation of how politics actually work that I’ve encountered. Here are a few things I learned:
Authorities (IE “New York Transit Authority”) during the mid-century were legally not governed or subject to the whims of elected officials. I don’t know if this is still the case, but the result was that any official who directly or indirectly ran such an authority was effectively above the law. Add to the mix that authorities could both raise bonds whose covenants were strongly protected by law as well as raise money to service the bonds with tolls and you have the key to Robert Moses’ power: a massive, independent, quasi-state organ that answered only to it’s commissioner.
Robert Moses created the modern park. This doesn’t just include the parks he directly built (of which their are hundreds). He literally trained a generation of civil servants in the US and abroad in disciplines like architecture, landscaping, zoning, fundraising, PR, and budgeting. If you have been to a park that was built after the late 1920s, it was almost certainly heavily influenced, if not outright designed and built, by Robert Moses.
As with parks, the supremacy of the automobile in US cities was heavily influenced by Robert Moses’ outdated ideas about transit. He grew up wealthy in the very earliest parts of the 20th century when cars were predominantly owned by wealthy families and used for recreation. To him “driving in the car” was about relaxation and leisure. But for most mid-century drivers, cars were utilitarian and traffic was a quality of life problem. Moses built infrastructure in NYC to intentionally exclude public transit, which made people’s lives worse.
Money for public improvements has always been in short supply and the only reason that NYC has so much top-quality infrastructure is FDR’s New Deal and the federal highway programs of the 50s. These programs, despite being nationally funded, we disproportionately spent in the empire state.
If you want a more definitive, detailed study of the misuse of power, look no further. If there’s one thing I took away from The Power Broker, it is that in the real world, there is no benevolent justice and that might makes right.
I read Chernow’s “Titan” about 6 months ago, which focuses on Carnegie’s contemporary, John D. Rockefeller Sr. I’ve always been curious about Carnegie and figured I’d read the two biographies close together so that I could retain historical context. Although I personally found Nasaw’s writing to be less interesting than Chernow’s, this was still a good read.
Carnegie (like Rockefeller and many of the Gilded Age robber barons) was born poor, raised by a mother who received little to no help from her husband, and benefited greatly from being the right age at the right time in American history.
US Steel, which is the company Carnegie is remembered for, was actually only incorporated under that name upon the trust’s creation by JP Morgan in the latter portion of Carnegie’s life. For most of his professional career, the interests that we know today as “US Steel” were a lose web of companies, with the two primary being “Carnegie Steel” and “H. C. Frick & Company.” Internally, the companies were divided into works and foundries that had their own worker demographics, advantages, and challenges.
Carnegie only started in the steel business in his 30s after already having become wealthy working for Thomas Scott and the Pennsylvania Railroad. While working for the railroad, he worked his way up the corporate ladder on the basis of his work ethic and personal appeal. In a word, men in power generally liked him and gave him his first lucky breaks.
He remained a bachelor until the age of 51 because his mother exerted an outsized influence over her adult son. He and his wife Louise spent several years (a very long time for the era) in a secret courtship because their mothers disapproved of the match. Rather than anger them both, Carnegie and Louise agreed to wait until one of them passed away to get married.
He initially became wealthy by exploiting his connections at the Pennsylvania Railroad to profit from insider trading. Interestingly, insider trading was not illegal in the late 19th century. The lack of modern taxation, coupled with very few laws that regulated cartels transformed him from merely a very wealthy man into one of the wealthiest of all time.
For those of us non-sports fans, Muhammed Ali was not the boxer’s given name. He was named Cassius Clay by his parents and adopted the name Muhammed Ali after falling under the influence of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam.
Everyone can judge Ali however they please, but I think he was a pretty unpleasant human. He was wildly unfaithful to his 4 wives, abused substances (primarily, but not restricted to alcohol), verbally and emotionally abused friends, lovers, and wives, had a studied inability to self-reflect, and was vain to the point of absurdity.
He was a great boxer, but probably not as great as you might assume given his legend. His early career was indeed marked by skill, athleticism, and strategy in the ring that defied the odds, but this period was relatively short-lived. Most of the fights that he’s best known for (Liston, Foreman, and Frazier to name a few) were fought past his prime and increasingly demonstrated that his competitive advantage late in life was not in his boxing skill, but in his ability to absorb damage and not fall over.
Financially, he was a typical professional athlete. At the same time as he was being paid more than any other athlete alive, he had perennial money problems. Although he rarely admitted it, there’s ample evidence that he kept fighting well past his prime for the simple reason that he’d become adapted to being a spendthrift and didn’t want to face up to mounting pressures to reign in his lifestyle.
As with most highly successful people in modern times, a large part of his success stemmed from an ability to handle and manipulate the press to his advantage. Without reading several biographies of Ali, it’s hard to tease out Eig’s bias from reality, but from the facts presented in this book, he won multiple championship fights on the basis of public approval, not skill. Further, his ability to attract contenders, generate hype, and sell tickets proved an essential element to his fame,
The last two books I read were Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and 123 Magic. I don’t either deserves their own 5 point writeup, but if you’re interested in philosophical musings or parenting techniques, I would recommend them both.
In the spirit of avoiding publication bias, I thought I’d close by mentioning the two books I started, but couldn’t finish.
The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age. The problem here was that I tried to read this directly after The Power Broker and Archie Brown was just no match for Robert Caro. Brown’s thesis statement—that charismatic leaders are less effective and dangerous to the systems in which they operate— simply felt like so much useless ivory tower idealism. Who cares whether charismatic leaders are dangerous and less effective if everyone always puts them in power anyway?
Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation. I really wanted to like this one because I know next to nothing about Russian history. Unfortunately, this book reads like a textbook for students studying Russian history. In other words, extremely dense, lacking in narrative structure, and with an almost glee in focusing on historical details that are either inaccessible or boring to a casual reader.
It’s been fun continuing to read challenging nonfiction, even while sleep deprived and I look forward to continuing for the foreseeable future. If you have any good nonfiction recommendations, ping me and I’ll add them to my list!