This Nonfiction November recommendation from Christopher @ Plucked From the Stacks was the one that I couldn’t wait to read. Was it ever worth it! This is an odd, quirky, entertaining story that ends up being a non-scoldy, powerful argument for the necessity of taxes and government services. Stay with me! It really is.
Grafton, a tiny town in New Hampshire, was taken over by a group of libertarians who decided to turn it into a sort of libertarian social experiment — a so-called Free Town Project. That meant: lower taxes and less government interference, through citizens voting on eschewing certain services and institutions or cutting off funding to others. (Including the library, road maintenance, and, incomprehensibly, the fire department.)
The idea was that libertarian ideals and principles should be allowed to dictate the structure of the community, and citizens could choose to allocate public resources where they wanted and ignore the rest — the utopian (?) ideal of society without government interference.
Instead of building from scratch, they would harness the power and infrastructure of an existing town — just as a rabies parasite can co-opt the brain of a much-larger organism and force it to work against its own interests, the libertarians planned to apply just a bit of pressure in such a way that an entire town could be steered toward liberty.
It was getting along, not successfully by any means, until some fires sparked with inadequate firefighting resources. Then came the bears. The New England town bordered a forest, and as maintenance services and rules about what one could and couldn’t do in terms of property, trash, and feeding wild animals fell by the wayside, bears began to encroach further on the human residents of Grafton, with predictable consequences.
Vermont-based journalist Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling tells such a compelling, compulsively readable story. After this year I didn’t think I was in much of a mood to read more politics, but this was entirely different. It has a colorful cast of characters — and “characters” really is the word here, despite being nonfiction. Hongoltz-Hetling is respectful even when allowing their quirkiness to speak for itself.
Yet it’s highly entertaining, and the people (and creatures) involved — ranging from the Moonies, to a bear-feeding farm owner referred to only as Doughnut Lady, to an aggressive and territorial llama — are almost larger than life. Not really surprising that some mild kooks were attracted to an experimental libertarian social project. The story switches between the political setup and the increasingly alarming bear conflicts. I found the latter more absorbing and some of the political narrative, which included the town’s earlier history and beginnings in unconventional politics, was a bit confusing.
But Hongoltz-Hetling moves things along quickly, and this was an eye-opening look at the reality of libertarianism in action, with enough dark humor to keep it from becoming bleak. And it does feel a bit bleak — all of this to save literally cents a day on property taxes. Let this be a warning about what “freedoms” taken to extremes means in practicality. September 15, 2020, PublicAffairs
As a result of the space race and the continuing fascination with the Moon, 533 people have orbited Earth, and 12 have walked on the Moon. As a species collectively, including the Soviet Union’s early missions, we’ve gone “up” into space with great success. But what about going “down” to the bottom of our oceans. What has come of the “oceans race”?
The answer is next to nothing, because there isn’t really one.
Author Josh Young tells the story of Victor Vescovo, a venture capitalist and traveler, adventurer, and fluent Arabic speaker, among his many other hats, who recognized this strange absence in our scientific knowledge and decided to put his money towards furthering human exploration of reaching each of the five oceans’ deepest points.
Specifically, he funded and organized “the first expedition to ever attempt to dive to the bottom of the five oceans, in hopes of creating a marine system capable of reliably, safely, and repeatedly journeying to any point on the bottom of the ocean. Such a thing had never existed before in human history and they were determined to change that.”
Young lays out the narrative of how this happened in the utmost detail — perhaps too much detail, since at times it detracted from the main story. It was also a bit technical for my interest level, because what draws me to these stories is the ocean aspect, and less the specifics of the technology used to explore it.
Still, this was intriguing in parts since the technology was so innovative, plus learning the myriad things that can go wrong, derailing an entire expedition. And Young writes for a general readership instead of a technical one, so it’s not difficult to follow, just not quite what I was expecting.
Also fascinating is Vescovo himself, a complicated personality who’s used to having things his way in major projects and undertakings. It provided an unusually granular behind-the-scenes perspective of how such a massive undertaking even functions, and all the technological and personal moving parts involved. December 1, 2020 by Pegasus Books. I received a copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
Philosophy for Polar Explorers, by Erling Kagge, translated from Norwegian by Kenneth Steven
Erling Kagge’s book about the philosophical musings and life ideas he drew from his experience walking alone on the South Pole is newly re-released. This is one to buy in hard copy; the photographs are lovely: sprawling, icy, fields of blue and white.
He calls this book “a recalibration of sorts,” taking stock of the unexpected and embracing the importance of being in nature (something I think we’ve all learned this past year).
Some of the ideas are simplistic, but it can be comforting and reassuring to read such words when you need them. During this dark, end-of-year time after the seemingly nonstop stress and upheavals of late, I needed them. They weren’t earth-shattering, life-changing revelations, just quiet, gentle observations that are applicable to anyone’s life, to some extent.
Sometimes it’s just an idea to underscore common emotional challenges or psychological difficulties, and I found those the most meaningful. Like on continuing to explore and stay curious about the world even if you think your prime is passed: “There is no finish line. The most beautiful sea hasn’t been crossed yet.”
He puts the challenges he faced while exploring remote and dangerous terrains into context, showing that what he learned from all this was that it’s the everyday that’s harder in terms of endurance, fortitude, and courage. My favorite passage in the whole book:
Showing courage in day-to-day is a different challenge altogether. Now and then it strikes me that I’d rather climb Everest again than have to go through what some people face in everyday life, with all its injustice and cruelty […] It takes so much courage to battle a serious illness, to show kindness, to keep promises, to end relationships — not to mention daring to love and to express love — and to deal with betrayal, disappointments, and sorrow. As the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skarderud once asked, “What is a bungee jump compared to waiting for the call of a loved one that never comes?” An expedition lasts for several months; it’s hard while it endures, but all those other everyday challenges last a lifetime, give or take a bit. Conducting oneself properly in all of the myriad situations of normal existence, and being honest both with oneself and with others, is often tougher and a greater challenge than a journey where the whole thing will finish at a designated geographic point.
The biggest takeaway is vast appreciation of everything nature provides. Kagge describes feeling lonelier in New York City than when walking solo to the South Pole, and any city dweller can probably empathize. These brief, universal meditations on the clarity and strength we can find outdoors, alone, in quiet places was a meaningful note to end the year on. 2006, new edition November 17, 2020 by Pantheon. I received a copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.