War & Survival

When we think about war, we want to find heroes and villains, to craft lessons of morality. The violence and horrors of war demand that we come up with reasons and purpose. Without, it is all too terrible to contemplate. There can be no learning from random chaos. Nor is it worth our time to investigate or retell stories of empty violence. Consequently, we search for sense-making and meaning when talking about war, the reasons why and what it can teach us. Likewise, we hunt for lessons in the stories of individuals caught up in conflict. The wish is to make the conflict intelligible or understandable – even when what happens in war cannot be truly comprehended. There’s a basic human need to find some sense in the insensible.

Americans characterize World War II as a “good war.” Pledged to democracy, the US was the victim of a surprise attack by the Japanese and few villains have ever matched the evil of Nazi Germany. From the war’s onset, America claimed the moral high ground. In many ways it’s an accurate perspective. Studs Terkel cemented this interpretation in his fascinating and best-selling oral history, The Good War. It makes me wince when I hear “the good war” dropped in conversation. World War II was a global conflict and America was far from the only decisive participant. Many of the histories of the war are not about good, bad or morals. They are about awful circumstances and people trying to stay alive. There is not much good in that.

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City is a diary of survival. Written by a female German journalist as the Soviet army took over the city in 1945, it is a harrowing and extraordinary first-person account, pragmatic and clear-eyed in its detail. She tells us about day-to-day struggles for food, water and shelter, about death and dying, and about rape. The narrator is raped repeatedly by Soviet solders, as were thousands upon thousands of German women. Historians have not determined how many Germans were raped at the end of World War II by Allied forces, but the numbers are astronomical. Estimates range into the millions. Sexual atrocities at the end of war were pervasive, under-reported and for decades, ignored. As more scholars are realizing, sexual violence is a constant part of warfare. Rape in wartime is war by another means.

The author of A Woman in Berlin published her diary as a book anonymously in the 1950s. It was widely read in multiple languages and ignored in Germany. The author, who died in 2001, refused to have it republished in her lifetime. An updated translation into English came out in 2005, forcing a re-reckoning of the book and ready assumptions about the war’s conclusion. The arrival of peace in Europe was far from peaceful The book upends conventions of who is a victim, who is a criminal, and how and what sort of choices are possible in wartime.

At end of the war, Berlin was mostly inhabited by women, children and the aged. These people bore the brunt of the invasion, just as they had suffered through much in the past few years. We do not immediately think of German citizens as victims. They were, though, and none of the survivors in A Woman in Berlin had agency when it came to German politics or military strategy. They, like most people most of the time, simply looked to the basic needs and wants of everyday life. The immediacy of the author’s experience captures this and more, from the Soviet’s fascination with collecting wrist watches to what it felt like to stay in a bomb shelter during a raid. Our author is brutally honest, with herself and in her conversations with others. Knowing that rape is unavoidable, she seeks out an officer to protect her and to limit the possibility of random violence and rape. It was a decision driven by necessity. She wonders if she can call that a relationship in those circumstances. It was consensual to avoid rape.

A Woman in Berlin is as accurate a story of World War II as any traditional tale of heroism in battle or derring-do in resistance. The author’s prose rings true. Her voice, her language, her descriptions have tremendous integrity. I have a sense that the author’s disciplined writing, her commitment to her journalism, gave her a sense of self in a time of great pain, terrible choices and uncertainty. No one knew what the next day might hold.

The author notes the emptiness of Nazi male posturing and the collective disappointment of German women. It’s an important reminder when we place people on pedestals or talk about “good” wars. Certain conditions may make war necessary. Study it, live through it, or think about it, though, and there’s but one conclusion: do not celebrate war. William Tecumseh Sherman, a US Civil War general, summed it up. “Some of you young men think that war is all glamour and glory, but let me tell you, boys, it is all hell.”

David Potash

Mexican Gothic – A Horrific Treat

Traditional gothic novels have never been my cup of tea. Sure, it’s interesting when the screw is turned or there’s a flash of a caped figure on the moor. More often than not, though, I find the structure and the doomed romance to be predictable and less than thrilling. In contrast, a good horror story – preferably something with a twist – that is writing that will stick with me. My preference, too, is that the horror is in the story for a reason and is not the reason itself.

When an author is able to mix genres, play with our expectations, and craft a melange of horror, romance and gothic, I start to smile. Sylvia Moreno-Garcia does this exquisitely in Mexican Gothic, a thoughtfully crafted and thoroughly enjoyable novel. It’s a best-seller for a very good reason: it’s a frightfully good read.

The story takes place in 1950s Mexico. A privileged young socialite is called to the country to assist her cousin, a woman whose recent marriage was accompanied by a turn of health for the worst. A mysterious letter starts the chain of action. Our heroine, Noemi Taboada, is smart with just the right attitude to unravel a mystery. She travels to the country and stays with her cousin and in-laws at a dark and creepy house. There’s a racist and disgusting patriarch, two brothers – one dark, handsome and dangerous, the other weaker and nicer – an angry controlling older sister as matriarch, and a silent, almost zombie-like staff. It may sound contrived, almost cheesy, but Moreno-Garcia’s prose and tone are spot on. She’s cheerfully guiding us into the gloom of the crypt, the chill of the fog, and the confusion of the nightmare.

What’s real? What’s imagined or hallucinated? And does it matter? As the story unfolds the action is both familiar, in terms of structure and tropes, and different – for Moreno-Garcia keeps giving us clues and twists. While some may think of classic gothic or even H.P. Lovecraft (the subject of Moreno-Garcia’s graduate scholarship), I thought of Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. Both mix horror with just the right amount of science and the main characters, like us readers, are constantly checking if we have our facts in order. It’s gaslighting on top of gaslighting.

Adding to the novel’s complexity, there are themes of colonialism, of rural-urban, of traditional-modern, and of race. Moreno-Garcia weaves these into the narrative without calling them out unduly. There are few signs of a 21st century sensibility in our 20th century characters. It all rings true, if somewhat fantastic, just such a novel should be.

A welcome break from streaming screens, Mexican Gothic is the right kind of book to curl up with on a cold and stormy night. Just make sure to have a good light nearby to scare away any demons or nightmares.

David Potash

An Outrageous Resolution

To resolve, to make a resolution, a firm decision, a commitment.

I have long been drawn to New Year’s resolutions. I like the idea of starting, of beginning a journey, of heading off to someplace new, to being something new. A resolution can have that sense of directional impulse. Why not go forward with purpose?

When I was young man I shared my resolutions with others. They proved to be poor catalysts for conversation, so I stopped talking about them. Instead I took to writing them down, prioritizing them, and irregularly checking on progress. My lists have been surprisingly consistent over the years. Or maybe there’s little surprise in that. They speak, collectively, to an imagined kind of life and an aspirational version of yours truly. I’ve kept them attainable, too, like SMART goals. No space travel or circuses on my lists.

Yes, I have resolved to weigh less – and some years I do. Right now, thanks to a host of injuries and the pandemic, I weigh more. Weight loss and increased exercise always head the national lists of New Year’s resolutions. In past years I have resolved to own property. Some years ago I did. I do not now and at some future point, I will resolve to own property again. I have resolved to be a better and more faithful communicator with friends and family. You may have received an email or a call from me. If so, a check to the good. You may not have – and if that’s the case, I’m sorry. But it’s a new year. And as I’m writing now, my failures do not prevent you from writing to me. It would be lovely to hear from you.

One year I resolved to play the piano. Hours of practicing led to lame renditions of “Over the Rainbow” and some halting Christmas carols. All best intentions aside, I don’t have much talent for the keyboard. I wish that I did. Nor do I seem to have much aptitude for juggling, handstands, or foreign languages. And to all those who continue to help me with Spanish, I’m eternally grateful and humbled. I do work at it every day, todos los dios. Spanish is always on my new year’s list. It would be nice, though, if I made more progress. Maybe in 2022.

I would resolve to write more. That’s a recurring promise to self. Blog posts, letters and emails do not count in my head, though I certainly seem to spend enough time with them. That is a topic for another day, another post.

This year I’m going to try something different, a resolution inspired and influenced by what we see in the news, in the public sphere, on social media. I am going to resist any and all calls for outrage. In fact, I’m going to try to work against outrage when I see it. Stirring up outrage is a sign of cheap leadership. I believe that it exacerbates difference, driving us apart and inhibiting communication and trust. I’ve found little benefit in feeling outraged, personally or collectively. It doesn’t seem to make things better. When I recall moments of outrage a questioning voice is immediately heard in my head. “Was outrage really the best way to handle it?” The answer is always “no.” That seems to hold true no matter how righteous my indignation, my outrage, felt at the time.

The resolution does not mean that I will be indifferent. The absence of outrage will still allow for strong sentiment, passion and urgency. We can address important issues with urgency without outrage. In fact, I think that thoughtful urgency is more needed than ever.

Here’s to wishing you a healthier new year, a more prosperous new year, and, dare I hope, a more tolerant new year. Let’s see what we can do together without all the outrage.

David Potash

Sex & Drugs & California Back In the Day

A writer and visual artist, Eve Babitz passed away this December at the age of 78. Babitz had been out of style for years until the New York Review of Books began to republish her a few years ago. Her novels were dusted off and they have been purchased, read and reconsidered. Babitz’s voice is being noticed again as new readers are discovering her work. Count me among them. I took the recommendation and recently read Slow Days, Fast Company, a fictionalized journalistic account of Babitz in California in the 1970s. It’s hedonism in the most down to earth terms. The book makes for an interesting read, of a moment and of a time, distant and yet surprisingly familiar.

Babitz the person and Babitz the public figure are difficult to separate. She was a child of connected Hollywood artists. Igor Stravinsky was her grandfather. Her first brush with fame was being photographed, nude, playing chess against Marcel Duchamp. That image is still regularly reproduced. Babitz was an active artist, designing album covers in particular, and writing fiction and non-fiction, books, short stories and articles. She dated famous musicians and performers, from Jim Morrison to Steve Martin, Ed Ruscha to Harrison Ford. Babitz’s connection to celebrities is a recurring theme in articles about her. Nonetheless, reading Slow Days, Fast Company made it clear to me that Babitz was uninterested in fame for fame’s sake. She was an artist in her own right and she marched to her own priorities.

Slow Days, Fast Company is cleverly structured. Each section offers a different slice of California, each grounded in a particular place. The narrator, Babitz or a Babitz-like narrator, takes us on the journey across the state to meet her friends and acquaintances, along with a rich cast of characters, and to tell us stories. The tone is breezy, matter of fact – almost Midwestern in its sensibility. That observation, by the way, would have been greatly resented by Babitz. She’s an unapologetic booster for many things California.

Amid the driving, parties, tears and laughter, there’s sex, lots of drinking, and a fair bit of drug use. None of these are recounted in a titillating manner. Instead, it’s on the ground reporting. It seems to be, at least to the narrator, just what one does when at a party with lots of cocaine. That’s how Babitz writes, tequila and tears, smiles and champagne. There’s a lot of hoping and searching in the book, but not a ton of action. It’s of a piece, reflecting both a particular sensibility in a particular moment place. The days may have been hedonistic but the pace is unhurried. Through it all, Babitz’s observations, her clarity of present-ness, remain a bright light.

What I found most interesting about Babitz’s book is that what might at first blush seem to lure the reader isn’t what she is focused on – or what keeps the reader engaged. The company may be fast but that is not what is important. Babitz is reporting in her own manner, a scribe for the restless. Thinking back to that famous photo of Duchamp, I decided that Eve Babitz would have played a pretty mean game of chess.

David Potash

Atwood’s Chilling Genius

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, published more than thirty-five years ago, remains a vibrant and troubling work of dystopian fiction that can still feel all too prescient. The Handmaid’s Tale has invaded our collective consciousness; it is a cultural force that has been adapted to television, movies, theater and even the opera. Along with Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, it stands as a defining vision of a possible awful future.

In 2019, Atwood revisited Gilead, the fictional country of Handmaid’s Tale fifteen years on, in The Testaments, an impressive work in its own right. This novel won the Booker Prize, like its predecessor, and it, too, is brilliantly structured and frightfully smart. Atwood is a literary genius and an extremely intelligent writer. Her skills of perception, of reasoning, and of capturing complexity and making it resonate the the reader are extraordinary – and she does it without being clinical. That’s one of the many ways that her stories can be so chilling.

The violence and state-sponsored misogyny of Gilead do not shock in The Testaments. We have become familiar, over the decades, with its language, protocols and organized violence and repression. The complexities of real-life sexism and misogyny are more easily recognizable today as well. One need not go deep in a newspaper to read of women dehumanized, controlled and denied agency. Nor are these stories necessarily of faraway lands. Atwood’s acknowledgement of these and other changes is reflected in The Testaments plotting. Interweaving narrators and perspectives, Atwood gives great attention to questions of survival, of morality and choice, and of power. If The Handmaid’s Tale is akin to a fictional account of the rise of a patriarchal Nazi-like country and the early faces of resistance, The Testaments is reminiscent of life in Vichy France with its traitors, resistance, and the corruption that accompanies rule by fear.

Complicated questions of moral choice shape the novel. While we may yearn for clear cut categories of good and evil, Atwood problematizes definitions and actions. What will people do to survive in a political environment that is all about control? Die willingly or execute innocent colleagues and friends? Cultures like Gilead, or Nazi Germany, deny and twist human agency into grotesque shapes. Basic concepts of justice and fairness disappear. Darkness abounds and healthy life and relationships, which want to turn towards the sunlight and goodness, instead moves in different directions. The parallels to what is happening across the globe in our pandemic are frightening.

Atwood’s characters are carefully drawn. Their voices are distinct, their journeys independent and intertwined. The Testaments is a page-turner and a work of literature, a rare combination.

What I found most fascinating about the book is that despite its horrors and bleakness, above and beyond all the horror, Atwood still writes with hope. The Testaments paints a vivid and realistic picture of a dystopia. And yet, amid all the horror and darkness, Atwood finds small spaces for optimism, for human decency and for hope. That is a message that I very much welcome.

David Potash

Yellow Homes & Hearts

Shortly after my sister was born, when I was almost three years old, my family moved to a yellow house. It was a small frame house with crooked pine tree, a scraggly bent thing, looming over the front door. It had hardwood floors, a creaky staircase up to a small second floor, and back yard. I remember liking it immediately it because of the the neighborhood. It was full of other kids, kids that I think of to this day. There was a shared area with grass for playing – and we played together all the time. What sticks most in my memory about the house was its yellow color. We moved again when I was five. In the family it has always remained the “yellow house.”

As soon as I heard about Sarah Broom’s memoir, The Yellow House, I knew that I had to read it. Broom is a journalist and a writer. You may have read her in The New York Times or the New Yorker. She writes lyrically without being overly flowerly. There’s a directness and candor to her prose, a precision that I greatly admire. Her first book, The Yellow House, received the National Book Award for non-fiction, along with other awards and quite a bit of critical attention. The praise is well warranted. The memoir is a moving account of her family in New Orleans, the pushes and pulls that are her own personal narrative, and a broader lens that helps the reader more fully understanding the impact of Hurricane Katrina on individuals, families and communities.

As personal as Broom’s story is, and as careful as she is reporting the stories of her family and their voices, the book is also a larger account of Black history. Her mother’s decision to purchase the house in the 1950s is located carefully within a larger historical context, from the economic moment to the advertising that made the house so appealing. Broom is the youngest of twelve. She was not able to see clearly through much of childhood. She’s an outstanding listener, both in the family and outside of it. Broom is the family reporter and the collector of family voices. It is easy to see her at family events recounting tales of distant relatives. Broom’s ability to weave multiple voices and histories together into the book is extremely impressive. It also makes for an engaging read.

Ultimately, Broom’s mother and the family lost their yellow house. It exists now in their collective memory and in ours, thanks to the power of this book. It made me think long and hard about the very concept of home. It is physical, place-bound, but it mostly about people. Is is possible to have a home, truly, without a family it it? The Yellow House is a compelling story of family and place.

David Potash

Special Ks, Amazing Kelloggs

I pulled out a box of Kellogg’s Special K Original Toasted Rice Cereal to sit on the table while writing this post. It features a large red script “K” along with QR code to connect in a whole new way with the cereal company, promising a breadth of health and wellness hacks. Some things change over the years while others remain strikingly consistent.

The Kelloggs: The Battling Brother of Battle Creek is an outstanding history of the two brothers that reshaped American health, history and eating, and along the way, how that “K” wound up on my table. The author is Howard Markel, who brings a perfect set of skills and expertise to the effort. Markel has an MD and PhD, and he holds the George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine chair at the University of Michigan, while also directing the university’s Center for the History of Medicine. He’s prolific, award-winning, and knows just the right mix of scholarly rigor and accessible language to bring to the task at hand. And what extraordinarily rich material with the Kellogg brothers: they were extraordinarily successful leaders, each in their own right.

The elder of the two, John Harvey Kellogg (1852 -1943), was a doctor, first and foremost, and then an influential public figure. Raised in a Seventh Day Adventist family, he studied medicine and founded the Battle Creek Medical Surgery Sanitarium, one of America’s most influential hospital and health resorts. Kellogg was a very effective surgeon, an early proponent of germ theory, and an even more effective publicist for a wide range of views. He wrote and spoke on health reform, diet, water cures and a host of other topics. Many famous Americans were treated under his care in the Michigan sanitarium, as were many people who otherwise could not afford medical care. Markel is sympathetic to John’s brilliance, his enthusiasms and generosity, and candid about his many shortcomings. He was an erratic businessperson, often indifferent to details. John was proud, consistently seeking the spotlight and often picking unnecessary fights with others. In his latter years he was an advocate for eugenics, which is one of the reasons his reputation has suffered. And most germane to the dual biography, he was awful to his younger brother, William.

William Keith (W.K) Kellogg (1860 – 1951) toiled in his elder brother’s shadow for many years. He made the Sanitarium profitable. He was a tireless innovator and an indefatigable worker. W.K. was also much less of a public persona than his brother. More quiet, more reserved and in many ways simply less happy, W.K. struggled to break out on his own. As both brothers were involved in the creation of healthy foods, W.K. quit the Sanitarium and built Kellogg foods. The first major success was, and remains, Corn Flakes. Kellogg today is a global behemoth valued in the billions. W.K. managed money, expansion, many lawsuits (with his brother and with other business competitors) and did it very well. Markel is especially strong on explaining how W.K. understood the importance of marketing in a rapidly changing environment.

The latter decades of the 1800s and early part of the 1900s were a period of tremendous economic growth in the US. Mass markets were developing as the nation’s economic infrastructure – communication, transportation, manufacturing and distribution – grew at an extraordinary rate. The Midwest was producing more and more grains. The growing middle class was living longer, reading more, and seeking ways to improve health and quality of life. The intersection of healthy eating and mass production and marketing was the target for Kellogg’s company. W.K. saw this and was brilliant in taking advantage of the opportunities. He made sure, for example, that his signature and personal guarantee of quality was on every package of cereal. That script “K” is still with us today, as his invention of waxed paper to keep cereal fresh.

It is fascinating history and the two brothers were extraordinary people. Markel is very adept at giving each their due, highlighting their individual impacts in separate spheres and in shared spaces. The story intersects with many key trends in American history. The brother’s tangled relationship with the Adventist Church is one of those strands, as is the ways in which health, eating and sanitation were intertwined with progressive thought. The darker impacts of eugenics is not forgotten, either. What impressed me about Markel’s history was his consistent empathy with his characters. No apologist, Markel explains – and does it with vigor and clarity. Above all, his history is also about an unhappy family. The two brothers fought in private and in the courts. Their relationship was toxic and they never reconciled. Even with all that success, this history, in many ways, is a tragedy.

Superb book, well worth your time, The Kelloggs is an exemplar of strong scholarship rendered accessible.

David Potash

Dispatches of Chicago Violence

An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago is a heart-wrenching account of the horrific impact of gun violence on the south and west side of the city. Written by Alex Kotlowitz, a Chicago-based journalist and writer whose work consistently focuses on issues of justice, the book captures the voices of those directly affected by the seemingly endless cycle of shootings and shootings. It is an extraordinarily sad tale.

The geography of the book is constrained to the primarily Black and Hispanic neighborhoods of the city, just as the high-levels of violence in Chicago are similarly bounded. There is no substantive framing, no trends, and no meaningful bigger picture context. Kotlowitz is not interested in charts, tables, studies by criminologists or governmental reports. The pieces in this work are “dispatches” from an all too common summer, he tells us. It is only in the book’s latter part do we hear more from the voices of politicians and the police.

Kotlowitz dives into the lives of individuals, the men, women and children directly affected by the violence. He talks with former gang members, with young men awaiting trial, with the mothers and fathers of those killed and injured. Kotlowitz is a very good listener and his stories and profiles are richly drawn and suitably complex. He is interested in these people as people. That, in and of itself, is powerful. American Summer is an important corrective to what is often reflected in media and popular culture.

Researching the book took Kotlowitz four years. He talked with about two hundred people. The structure of the book appears to be chronological, but he weaving together a series of snapshots, individual stories of hope, violence and struggle. The recurring theme is one of PTSD. Each and everyone of the people involved in the violence is wrestling with the consequences of violence. It is pervasive and crippling.

One man is struggling, after prison and decades of guilt, with the consequences of shooting another teenager. Another struggles with drug addiction years after many in his family died in a fire, an arson caused by neighborhood street violence. A smart high school student joins other gang members and is rightfully arrested. Relatives and neighbors refuse to give testimony about a young man who committed a murder. It as another expression of a culture of fear and an ingrained sense that little or nothing can be done. “It is everywhere,” Kotlowitz writes. The sorrow of the parents and the grandparents is overwhelming.

For example, Kotlowitz breaks the wall of reporting and writes to us directly about the violence surrounding one individual, Thomas. A friend’s cousin is shot twice on his block. A friend shot and murdered at a corner liquor store. Another friend from high school killed by a gun, perhaps accidentally. A different friend shot six times and blinded. The older brother of another friend shot and killed. Yet another friend shot and killed, this time by a fourteen year old. What kind of life is possible in that kind of environment?

The strength of An American Summer is Kotlowitz’s focus on the personal. The book is humanizing, even as the stories are horrific and overwhelming. However, it is impossible to read and not want attention, investment, engagement and action to help these people. On that front we have to look elsewhere, beyond this narrative. An American Summer makes a compelling case for great interest and understanding by all of us in the violent neighborhoods of Chicago.

David Potash

Suffrage Drama in Tennessee

The expansion of American democracy is often referenced as inevitable and unidirectional. However, anyone who takes a close look at history knows that nothing could be further from the truth. Political change is messy. That is particularly true when looking at the ratification of the 19th Amendment in Tennessee, the final state to make women’s voting part of the US Constitution. It’s a complex story and the focus of Elaine Weiss’s work of nonfiction, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.

Weiss, a successful journalist, brings a journalist’s perspective to the task at hand. Questions of who, what, when and how drive the book. She is very strong when it comes to the people in Tennessee involved in the summer 1920 battle at the state capitol. Weiss paints detailed pictures of the players: Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association and head of the “Suffs,” Josephine Pearson, leader of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage and head of the “Antis,” their key followers, and many elected officials, ranging from state legislators to President Wilson and future President Harding. Weiss’s attention to personal detail emphasizes the contingency of struggle. Ultimately it was determined by an extremely close vote in the state legislature. The sausage making included hard-pressed lobbying, shifting alliances, threats and conspiracies, and crafty parliamentary maneuvers. Even though we know the eventual result, Weiss’s skill renders the action dramatic and engaging. It makes for entertaining reading. It is clear why the book has been optioned for a film.

If you do pick it up, I encourage reading more widely about the topic. The historian and the teacher in me want to stress that while the study of individuals and their behavior in specific events can be fascinating, broader understanding is possible when we also consider continuities, changes and context. It was a period of profound change and great conflicts. For example, the promotion of white democratic principles, as championed by President Wilson, had an international impact as well as one in the American South. Wilson, along with almost all of the elected officials in Tennessee, was steadfastly opposed of Black women voting. That is but one of the issues in the story that is essential towards knowing how and why the vote played out the way it did.

Another important realization from The Woman’s Hour is that history is framed and written by those that are successful. It’s a truism that is worth repeating and re-emphasizing. The change of one or two votes, establishing a majority, can be extremely powerful in the casting of a historical decision. Was Tennessee all that more democratic (with a lower case “d”) than Maryland, which voted against ratification? Giving historical change close attention, as Weiss effectively does in this book, often clarifies and complicates history. And that, by my account, is very much to the good.

David Potash

Nice Shoes

In 2020, the global estimate of athletic footwear sales – sneakers – was just under $100 billion. That’s an extraordinary amount of money. Forecasts for growth are optimistic and aggressive. The world’s insatiable desire for sneakers is both understandable, for it’s been growing consistently for several decades, and amazing, for fifty years ago the athletic footwear market was much, much smaller. What gives?

Kicks: The Great American Story in Sneakers is fascinating account of how this happened. It’s a cultural history, packed with personalities and anecdotes. While not a business study, the book, nevertheless, uses a very effective lens to understand sneakers’ importance and relevance to modern life. Explaining how and why so many people care so much about their sneakers, it makes for a very interesting read.

The author is journalist Nicholas Smith. He’s not a sneakerhead but he clearly is a fan of stylish athletic footwear. Smith’s enthusiasm and dogged curiosity drives the book’s enthusiasm and pace.

Charles Goodyear was the father of sneakers. An American self-taught chemist who had an unshakeable faith in his ability to unlock the secrets of rubber, Goodyear invented the process of vulcanization, leading to the tire and sneaker industry. Smith tells Goodyear’s story and moves quickly through the late 1800s and early twentieth century as the footwear industry adopted rubber in various formats. The book digs into the rise of sneakers with the growth of professional sports in the 1920s. Athletes became major media figures and major sporting events, like the Olympics, were massively important public spectacles for the use and success of athletic footwear. Chuck Taylor was a consummate salesman of Keds and a very good basketball player. Jones is great on the German Dassler brothers, whose footwear company and dramatic split led to Adidas and Puma. We learn about innovations in the 1960s and the connection of sneakers to teen life in Southern California and skateboarding. Footwear initiated and tracked many trends.

Where Kicks truly takes off is the story of Nike and the relationship between sneakers and urban culture. Smith is very good on Nike’s gamble to invest everything in Michael Jordan. He rightly explores the many connections between hip-hop, Black culture, and footwear. It’s a relationship actively sought by footwear companies, which were growing into lifestyle brands. What’s most telling is that Smith highlights the skillful marketing and campaigns that captured millions upon millions of Americans – and later the world. He is not critical, but the very story he tells opens up all manner of questions about race, racism, and many ways that modern capitalism and advertising/marketing structures cultural identities. The story simply begs for discussion and consideration.

Reading Kicks was enlightening and troubling, entertaining and thought provoking. It calls into question the many ways that we’ve been marketed into ideas of what is and is not stylish, authentic or cool. It’s informative and fun. I will never look at my sneakers the same again.

David Potash