Not sure why some of these sociological studies don’t get a wider circulation

41UU+zakm0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Most academic writing is pretty dull, but there is one exception: the sociologists know how to write! I don’t know where they learn it from or how they go about it, but there are an astonishing number of sociological studies–not popularizations, but real academic work that is meant to contribute original thought to the field–that are pretty entertaining reads for the laymen.

In fact, on a number of occasions, sociological studies have broken out and become nonfiction bestsellers. The most recent example is Alice Goffman’s On The Run, but previously there was also Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader For The Day (though the latter is not, strictly speaking, academic writing, but rather a popular nonfiction book that’s based on Venkatesh’s academic work). I can name at least a half-dozen works though, that, while less popular, are just as interesting:

Each of these books is the same. The sociologist identifies a subset of people (for Liebow, for instance, it was homeless women in a DC suburb) and watches them closely for a year or more, then combined their observations, interview notes, and knowledge of sociological theory to draw some grander hypothesis out of what they’ve seen.

These books are basically exactly what you want from a juicy nonfiction book: a bunch of interesting characters, finely-observed details, and a larger lesson.

For instance, the one I just read (Paying for the Party by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton) is about the 53 freshman girls who lived on one floor of a ‘party dorm’ at a large midwestern flagship university (I think it’s either UI-Urbana-Champaign or the University of Michigan). The book tracks the students for five years and examines their orientations to party culture and their academic careers through the lens of their social status and their incoming plans (what the book calls their ‘class projects’). For instance, some girls come in wanting upward mobility–they’re working class girls (often the first in their families to go to college) who want to be teachers or nurses. Others–the upper-class and upper-middle-class women–want to replicate their parents’ social station, and they tend to choose one of two paths, either the ‘party’ path or the ‘professional’ path. Really interesting stuff, especially with its analysis how their decisions during freshman year followed them throughout their college career and affected their post-graduation prospects.

Much of the book boils down to “If you’re well-off, then you can do whatever you want and basically be okay” but what’s interesting is the ways in which working class and lower-middle-class women are caught unawares. For instance, most of the more studious upper-class and upper-middle-class women don’t draw into this dorm in the first place, because they know it’s where the drunken revels take place. It’s only those who come from families and social circles that don’t have insider information that find themselves unwittingly placed in a dorm where they’re going to have a very difficult time both socially and academically.

Fun Books I’ve Read Recently

Fun doesn’t mean mindless, but it does mean a certain freedom from mental strain. It’s never an effort to keep reading a fun book. Sometimes I’m more prone to blog about the other books, the ones that do require an effort, just because I have so much more time to think while I read less-fun books, whereas fun books tend to leave me with a purged feeling that is almost more powerful than whatever specific emotion I derived from the book. Still, fun books deserve to be talked about too!

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain – Bourdain is a chef who wrote a sort of tell-all about what goes on behind the kitchen doors of a restaurant. Apparently this book was a big hit like ten years ago and sold a bajillion copies. This is very understandable. Not only is Bourdain a colorful character (whose narrative persona seems to ingest drugs on an inhuman scale rivaling the personas of William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson), but he also paints a very colorful series of portraits (although the book is very poorly organized and can sometimes be slightly confusing). However, for me the book was most interesting on an anthropological level. If Bourdain is to be believed, all food–even very haute cuisine–is created by fairly uneducated, blue-collar people. Even chefs are portrayed as being very earthy and of fairly humble origins. Line cooks are usually undocumented workers from Mexico, El Salvador, or the Dominican Republic. Further, from his account, it seems like the differences between the kitchens of high class and lower class establishments are not as great as the difference in price and ambiance would seem to indicate. But despite all this, Bourdain and many of these chefs seem to have a love for food, and take a lot of pride–no matter where they work–in doing their jobs well and, often, artistically. Bourdain even devotes a substantial amount of time to discussing the aesthetics of food.

In popular culture, it seems like there are two aesthetics of restaurant food. There’s mass-produced food, which is like the food you get in, say, Chinese restaurants or steakhouses, that’s supposed to be the same everywhere and which requires no art or effort. And there’s haute cuisine that is lovingly prepared from the finest ingredients by culinary geniuses who have intense feeling for every dish. But in the world Bourdain portrays, these aesthetics are jumbled up, and restaurant cooking comes out seeming like the most curious mix of high and low art.

High Window by Raymond Chandler – I’ve only recently gotten back into Raymond Chandler. A few weeks ago, I read Farewell, My Lovely, but this is the book of his that I’ve liked the most. I guess I was most put off by the ways that Raymond Chandler is not like Dashiell Hammett (since I loved the latter so much). Chandler is very different. His stories are smaller and more claustrophobic. They end neatly, and seem to cause nary a ripple in the surface of the environment. But that’s also their beauty. The settings of Chandler stories are spectacular, especially these vast, empty LA suburbs where a lot of his client lives. The environments are larger than any character in his novels.

            The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman – Ben Godby recommended this awhile ago and I decided to read it. The book was pretty good. It’s awhile since I’ve read a book that traded so heavily on that tone of murdered wistfulness that seems to be the primary effect which most contemporary literary fiction aims at. But there’s something very compelling about a simple story that is done well (in this case the interpersonal dramas of a bunch of workers at a newspaper in Rome). It reminds you of what a story can accomplish without gimmicks, with just simple elements, rearranged.


Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler – Read this after reading Orwell’s essay on Koestler. This book was a major influence on Nineteen Eighty-Four, which becomes especially evident at the end. It’s about a communist revolutionary who is imprisoned by his superiors for ideological differences (basically, he is about to be purged), and about how the revolutionary slowly justifies to himself the necessity of “confessing” to crimes he never committed. “Psychological thriller” is normally sort of a meaningless term, but in this case it is apt. All the interesting stuff happens inside the head of the main character, Rubakov. Even though, in my case, I knew how it was going to end (because of the Orwell essay), I was still curious about how it was going to get there.

Hard Living On Clay Street: Portraits Of Blue Collar Families by Joseph T. Howells – This is a participant observer study–an ethnography–of two working-class families in what is probably the town of Mount Rainier, Maryland (a DC suburb). This guy, Howells, basically followed them around for a year and documented their lives (it was part of some sort of larger study of urban life). What follows was captivating and absurd. Both of these families are alcoholic, seat of their pants type families, characterized by violence, illness, divorce…the whole range of drama and conflict. Personally, I’ve always wondered about the mechanics of the unstable lifestyles that one often reads about (and hears about in many a country music song), and it’s interesting to see how families get by when, for instance, the husband drinks all the time and only works a few days a month.


Reality Hunger by David Shield – It’s hard to understand how anyone could believe the core assertion of this book-length manifesto, which is that traditional fiction narratives (not just novels, but also movies, etc.) are dead, and will soon be replaced by new narrative forms like reality television, scripted reality (Borat), memoirs, fake memoirs, etc. Shields believes that the public is very hungry for more authenticity in their fiction and is turned off by stuff that is obviously made-up. He thinks that this is going to result in the public demanding larger and larger chunks of “reality” in their entertainment.

To me, that seems unlikely, just because I don’t really sense this “reality hunger”. It seems like people want authenticity, just like they always have…but they also want unreal things (like heroes and dragons and crap), just like they always have.

However, that did not hamper my enjoyment of the book, which was ridiculous and over the top, and is also largely composed of unattributed quotes by various writers (the citations are in an appendix in the end that Shields tells the reader not to read). It’s a very high-energy performance.