On Reading Expansively in Confining Times: Ten New Non-Fiction Books Not About Plagues

By Jeffrey WasserstromApril 16, 2020

On Reading Expansively in Confining Times: Ten New Non-Fiction Books Not About Plagues

Just as the film Contagion has found a second life with news of the coronavirus outbreak, so too are novels about epidemics popping up on reading lists around the country. 

— Tobias Carroll, “Pandemics: An Essential Reading List,” Vulture, March 10, 2020

Anthony Trollope’s novels are almost custom-made for prolonged confinement […] they are utterly addictive […] Timothy West’s superb audio versions of the best-known means you can listen to them while cooking or walking (if you are allowed out).

 — “Anthony Trollope is the King of Victorian Box Sets,” The Economist, April 8, 2020

With many bookshops closed, few author events taking place, and some periodicals giving over space to discussions of old books that would ordinarily go to discussing new ones, authors of new publications face special challenges. When taking a break from what many read most — online updates on COVID-19 — they either seek comfort and distraction in reading (or re-reading) books that have nothing to do with the big story of 2020 or everything to do with it. As a result, many works are likely to get passed over that have a lot to offer. Hence this anti-COVID-reading-list COVID reading list.

These 10 books are all published, or about to be published in 2020. Five of them are by hard working, respected journalists about topics that were making headlines not long ago but are now overshadowed by COVID-19. The other five are by academic historians, doing something with their new books that non-academics keep telling members of my guild we should do more: writing to try to engage and inform a broad spectrum of readers rather than just fellow specialists. What links them is that each, while saying nothing about illness or quarantines, sheds light, albeit in some cases obliquely, on a subject that the pandemic has brought into sharp relief: globalization.  

(Two quick disclosures: I know many of the authors, and one is part of the same series as my most recent book.)


Kim Ghattas, The Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry that Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East (New York: Henry Holt and Co., January 2020)

This book is largely concerned with the earthshaking events of 1979, such as the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, that collectively transformed the Middle East. When it appeared early this year, it garnered strong reviews (that the part of it I’ve read leaves me convinced are deserved), but it would surely have gotten much more attention had the topic of tensions between Washington and Tehran — which made so many headlines at the start of the year — stayed on the front pages. 

Mara Hvistendahl, The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Sabotage (New York: Riverhead, February 2020)

This deeply researched work came out in February, and it got some attention before COVID-19 shifted from being a big story to seeming like the only story. Along with a detailed look at a complicated case, it features a thoughtful analysis of an increasingly important issue: the way that American fears of China, whether rooted in fact or fantasy, can feed into prejudice toward people of Chinese descent, even those with little or no connection to the PRC.

Dexter Roberts, The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, March 2020)

This debut book by a veteran China reporter blends life stories, ethnography and economic analysis to explore the sharp and enduring rural-urban divide in Chinese society. It focuses largely on migrant workers, a key group in the pandemic story, given how many fan out across China on Lunar New Year trips home, and one whose general importance in China’s economic rise and current economic challenges is enormous.

Antony Dapiran, City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong (Sydney: Scribe, March 2020) *

Released in mid-March, like the previous one, and hence when the English language media on both sides of the Atlantic was focused intently on actual and estimated pandemic death tolls in Europe and North America, this provides a nuanced, lively eyewitness account of the 2019 protest surge in Hong Kong that garnered so many headlines around the world. The book remains topical, as the crisis that began there last year, though no longer much in the news, has continued into 2020 and taken on new dimensions due to the pandemic.

While released in Australia in March, City on Fire publishes in the United States on June 23.

Krithika Varagur, The Call: Inside the Saudi Religious Project (New York: Columbia Global Reports, April 2020)

This book due in April pairs well with The Black Wave, but it is both narrower and broader in geographical scope. It focuses on a single Middle Eastern country, Saudi Arabia, rather than two. But in tracing the Kingdom’s influence, a subject of intense interest to many trackers of global affairs in the past and sure to be of renewed concern at some point in the near future, it showcases developments in distant locales such as Nigeria and Kosovo.

Anne Gerritsen, The City of Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and the Early Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, February 2020)

This work, published in February, is about the distant past but opens with an exquisitely evocative vignette about a recent visit to a Chinese urban center that centuries ago was a key site of production of a major globally circulating luxury good. Now that a very different China is a key player in a very different world, there is considerable value in a book, like this one, that provides insights into how the country and its products fit into and shaped global trends before some Chinese rulers turned inward dramatically and countries like Britain and the United States took their turns at the apex of the international hierarchy.

Vanessa Schwartz, Jet Age Aesthetic: The Glamour of Media in Motion (New Haven: Yale University Press, March 2020)

This book focuses on the way traveling long distances on fast planes changed not just connections between different parts of the world but many aspects of culture. It came out in March just as COVID-19, after being spread largely by air travel, was leading to flights being canceled and formerly bustling airports turning ghostly. Beautifully illustrated, it is interesting to read and think with now in part because of how it treats the connections between technologies that move bodies faster and further and those that move words and images faster and further. In the time when steam trains, steamships and telegraphy were new, and then later when first jet plane travel and later the Internet came along, trends relating to transportation and communication developments were often at least partially in sync, but now it was just as fewer people were zooming across oceans and planes were being grounded that Zooming between settings virtually took off. As we go through a de-globalizing moment (of uncertain duration), it is worth getting new perspectives, such as the one this book offers, on a recent period of rapid globalization. 

Valerie Hansen, The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World—And Globalization Began (New York: Scribner, April 2020)

Like City of Blue and White, this is a strong work by a globally minded historian of China interested in the workings of what might be called globalization avant la lettre (the term was not used widely until midway through the Cold War). Page after page provides examples of how, roughly a millennium ago, places and peoples were becoming tightly connected in ways that bring to mind much more recent periods. The stories and arguments in the book would have been worth reading a year or a decade ago, but they have special relevance in 2020, when efforts to bring history into the picture often involve going back to periods, such as plague years, when people became less rather than more connected.

James H. Carter, Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai (New York: Norton, June 2020)

This book, the third by a globally minded historian of China (no surprise that I’d skew that way: that’s how I describe myself), is not about globalization or de-globalization as a general phenomena, but about how one city, Shanghai, has intermittently become more and less global over time. A spirited read, it offers a lively look at the last day a popular race was run after Japan invaded the urban center. It weaves together stories of colorful individuals who lived through periods when Shanghai became a true city of the world, not fully part of any nation or empire and defined by people and goods from everywhere passing through its bustling port, and then later, during and after World War II, a far less global metropolis.

Amy Stanley, Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World (New York: Simon and Schuster, July 2020)

This gracefully written book is mostly concerned with imaginatively reconstructing the life of an ordinary yet extraordinary woman. The author does this by teasing meaning out of fragmentary sources, especially the letters from and about the woman in a family archive. The book is also, though, like Champions Day, about a city, known in the past as Edo and now as Tokyo, becoming more and less connected to the world — in this case in step with a country, Japan, going through a parallel process. 

Stranger in the Shogun’s City might appear an odd book to discuss at the close of this piece, since it has the most tenuous link to the concerns of 2020 of any of the 10 books I have chosen. On the other hand, what could be more fitting to read this summer, when there will be no Summer Olympics to watch, than a book about the city where the Games were supposed to be held? The final chapter of this final book describes Tokyo starting down the path to becoming one of the great global cities of the contemporary era, a period that John Gray in the latest issue of the New Statesman refers to as one of “peak globalization,” which he says is now coming to an end. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but to prepare for it, it is worth keeping an eye on multiple recent and current phenomena, not just a single one, and think about times in the past when the world was knit together and pulled apart. The 10 books described here are among those that can help us do this.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom teaches Chinese and world history at UC Irvine. His most recent books are Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020) and the third edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2018). Both were collaborative efforts of a kind, as the latter was co-authored by fellow historian Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, while the latter was written solo but comes with a “with contributions by” credit to journalist Amy Hawkins.


LARB Contributor

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020). He is also the author of books such as Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo (Penguin, 2016), co-author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2018, third edition), and the editor or co-editor of several titles. He is the advising editor on China for LARB, a member of the editorial board of Dissent Magazineand a co-founder of UCI’s Forum for the Academy and Public Life. He has written reviews and commentaries for newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, as well as for a wide range of magazines, journals of opinion, and literary reviews, including TLS and The Atlantic. He is an adviser to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and has been a featured speaker at Internazionale’s Ferrara Festival. Find him on Twitter at @jwassers.


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