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On climate, impeachment and financial crime: What to read in 2020

Bloomberg Opinion columnists pick out their favourites and must-reads before 2020 arrives.

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It’s natural this time of year to take a look back at the months past and forward to the days ahead, to think about what made the news and what might shape the future. In that spirit, we asked the columnists of Bloomberg Opinion about the books they read in 2019: What was their favorite? What’s a must-read before 2020 arrives? What would they buy as a gift from their local bookshop? Here’s what they said.

A Must-Read If You Hope to See 2120

Bush fires in Australia caused unprecedented pollution. Europe suffered a record-setting heat wave. Cyclones displaced more than 2 million people in Bangladesh. Venice was flooded by the highest tides since the 1960s. California’s power outages became the new normal. All of which concluded the hottest decade in history, according to the United Nations.

That’s why “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming” by David Wallace-Wells should be everyone’s must-read in 2020. Wallace-Wells provides overwhelming evidence that climate change is the existential threat to humanity. The planet is warming so much, so fast that it will increasingly reduce gross domestic product as much of the Earth becomes unlivable.

Neither despair nor denials are appropriate at this point. “We have all the tools we need, today, to stop it all,” writes Wallace-Wells. — Matthew A. Winkler

Wallace-Wells’s book is a haunting preview of what’s in store for our children and grandchildren if we don’t very rapidly wean ourselves off hydrocarbons. Severe drought, intense heatwaves and coastal flooding will force tens of millions of people to move. And there will be “much more fire, much more often, burning much of the land,” he writes.

Wallace-Wells is clear about who is chiefly to blame. More than half of fossil-fuel-related emissions have occurred in the past 30 years, meaning the planet “was brought to the brink of climate catastrophe within the lifetime of a single generation”

But he’s hopeful, not fatalistic. The task of “unplugging the entire industrial world from fossil fuels” also falls to a single generation. That generation is us. — Chris Bryant

A Must-Read for Embattled Presidents

Since 2019 has been an impeachment year, for me, that means reading about Watergate. There are actually four essential books: Fred Emery’s “Watergate” is the best telling of the story, from President Richard Nixon’s first dabbling with breaking the law all the way through his resignation. The two primary sources absolutely worth reading are the Nixon tapes collected in “Abuse of Power” and the chief of staff’s notes published as “The Haldeman Diaries.” What I’ll recommend, however, is Elizabeth Drew’s wonderful account of what it was like to live through the unraveling of a presidency, reissued as “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.” That’s the one I’m going to revisit before the Senate trial starts. And, if there’s time, the best Watergate movie, with apologies to the excellent “All the President’s Men,” is the 1999 comedy “Dick.” — Jonathan Bernstein

A Must-Read for Fugitive Financiers

“Billion Dollar Whale,” by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, is a belter of a financial scandal takedown won’t take you long to read. It’s great fun — more Jackie Collins than forensic Michael Lewis analysis. It can be your guilty secret as you plow through the ever-more unbelievable scams of Jho Low, an ultra-aspiring Malaysian financier who sucks in the great and the (not so) good while ripping off his own country’s sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, with some big assists from Wall Street. A breathless collation of excellent investigative reporting, it shows real life really can be stranger than fiction. With the drama still unfolding in court, you can take a ringside seat as the authorities try to track down our antihero and get Goldman Sachs on the hook. Just try not to snigger at all the Hollywood flakes. — Marcus Ashworth

A Must-Read on the Protest Barricades

The words “Gilets Jaunes” never appear in “La France Qui Gronde” (The France That Grumbles, or Scolds), but the pages of this French volume are filled by the kind of ordinary people who made up the Yellow Vests movement that swept France a year ago.

Ahead of France’s presidential elections in 2017, journalists Jean-Marie Godard and Antoine Dreyfus visited a countryside grappling with suicides by farmers who couldn’t keep going, workers in one-industry backwaters whose jobs went to China, and parents and teachers who had given up on bureaucrats and were fixing their crumbling public school. Their frustration caught Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron unaware when his government tried to raise fuel taxes, sending mobs wearing roadside safety vests to occupy French traffic circles. Since then, protests against overbearing, corrupt or indifferent governments have lit up Algeria, Chile, Hong Kong, Iraq, Lebanon and more (the details differ, of course). This book helps understand the discontent in a country that knows something about inspiring revolutions. — Patrick McDowell

A Must-Read for Ruling the Boardroom

My pick: All five “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels by George R.R. Martin as well as the Dunk and Egg novellas and the Fire and Blood prequel. (Technically, they’re one body of work!)

Martin once asked in a Rolling Stone interview, “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” It wasn’t entirely rhetorical: His point was that “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien had “a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper.”

It’s not that simple, of course. Good leaders need more than good intentions. Charismatic heroes aren’t always (or even often) great administrators. Regardless of whether you watched the “Game of Thrones” HBO finale in 2019, if you’re a management geek like me you’ll enjoy reading about Martin’s power-hungry queens and honor-bound knights not only making decisions about love and duty, or dragons and White Walkers, but also about trade embargoes, luxury taxes and the Iron Bank’s singularly aggressive approach to recouping bad loans. The books are also enormously fun, which can’t be said of every leadership tome. And who knows? We may finally get the long-awaited sixth book in 2020. — Sarah Green Carmichael

A Must-Read for the Extremely Ambitious

“Our Man,” a biography of the late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke by George Packer, is a true page-turner, even at more than 600 pages. It is divided into three principal sections, each reflecting a chapter of Holbrooke’s eventful life and America’s geopolitical journey from the 1970s to the early 21st century.

I knew Holbrooke well in his days as a presidential envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. I was serving as supreme allied commander at NATO, in charge of the overall mission of some 150,000 troops, when he came often to Afghanistan. I found Holbrooke highly energetic, full of ideas (both good and bad), extremely self-confident (his abiding characteristic) and utterly ambitious. Until I read “Our Man” and was able to put his vast talent and vaster ego in perspective, I didn’t appreciate how the arc of his career tracked the peak to the essential end of what some have called the American Century. — James Stavridis

A Must-Read for Those Tired of Truthiness

Seymour M. Hersh’s memoir, “Reporter,” takes us back to the golden era of American newspapers, following Hersh’s rise from lowly copyboy to world-renowned investigative journalist. Hersh exposed hypocrisy and deceit throughout the U.S. government — from the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam to Watergate to the Iraq wars — proving that an unrelenting drive for truth can overcome even the deepest duplicity. And as remarkable as Hersh himself is, the book reveals the everyday heroism of his sources, many of them military officers or civil servants who shared information at great risk to their livelihoods and careers. They, as Hersh teaches us, knew that their true responsibility was “to uphold and defend the Constitution […] not the President, or an immediate superior.” — Scott Duke Kominers

A Must-Read for Women Making History, Part 1

It’s 1962, and a young Washington Post reporter is sent to cover the fight for integration at the University of Mississippi. But there’s a problem: She’s black, and no white hoteliers in Oxford will put her up for the night. No matter. She finds a black-owned funeral home — funeral directors make great sources, she notes — and beds down in the mortuary. The result: a page one story spotlighting black Mississippians’ response to James Meredith’s heroism.

Dorothy Butler Gilliam’s memoir “Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America” is a story filled with insults and triumphs like these. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. As the U.S. heads into an election year with racial justice and women’s rights high on the agenda, our newsrooms remain disproportionately white and male (with predictable consequences for coverage). The media still doesn’t look like America. But history shows that change is possible, with trailblazers like Gilliam leading the way. — Tracy Walsh

A Must-Read for Women Making History, Part 2

Those of us who cover the Middle East — in my case, for two decades, first as a correspondent, now as a commentator — have long known that the finest journalism from the region is the handiwork of the women who work there. That this is not more widely recognized is a travesty that “Our Women on the Ground,” edited by Zahra Hankir begins, at last, to remedy.

It has been many years since I have, at the end of a book, felt compelled immediately to start again from the beginning. On second reading of this superb compendium of reporting by Arab woman, a spasm of envy led me to speculate that the gender of the writers was germane to their excellence: surely my own work could have approached these heights had I, a man, not been denied access to half the population of the region?

Spare yourself such unworthy thoughts and instead partake in the intelligence and depth of insight that radiate from these brilliant journalists. — Bobby Ghosh

A Must-Read for Orwellian Times

The defining book of 2019 focuses on 1984, or more properly, on “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” by George Orwell. Dorian Lynskey’s “The Ministry of Truth,” a biography of the novel, has the zest and momentum of a Stephen King novel, and the piercing clarity and dark sensibility of Orwell himself. It demonstrates that Orwell’s novel, published shortly before his death, is a synthesis of ideas that he had been developing for decades — about human nature, authoritarianism, rage, power, eroticism, memory and, above all, truth.

In the U.S. (and not only there), 2019 was a year in which palpable falsehoods have been stated so boldly, and by such prominent leaders, that it has been difficult to maintain one’s bearings. When tens of millions of people believe things that tens of millions of other people believe to be flatly false, truth has a tough time getting traction. Lynskey ends his book with Orwell’s explanation of why he wrote his novel: “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one. Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.” — Cass Sunstein

A Must-Read Along With a History Tome

Historians never tire of insisting that policy makers need to learn more history. Yet they are not, typically, very good at explaining how an understanding of history can make for better choices. That was the great contribution of Michael Howard, the recently deceased British military historian, whose two classic volumes of essays, “The Causes of Wars and Other Essays” and “The Lessons of History,” are my must-read books as 2019 comes to an end.

Howard’s key insight is that history provides no specific answers to particular policy problems. What worked before, in one set of circumstances, may backfire catastrophically when transferred across time and space to a very different context. The value of history is broader. It can expand our knowledge beyond our personal experiences, educate us in the complexity of human affairs and the importance of understanding other cultures, and help us recognize the connections between choices and consequences, between causes and effects.-Bloomberg 


Also read: Why do we think the way we think? These 10 books could help explain


 

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