James Howard Kunstler’s Reading List

Being an incurable (so far) insomniac, I do much of my regular reading during the period I call “the matinee” between about 1:30 and 4:00 in the morning, when everybody else is out cold, boosting their mitochondria. Don’t get me started on this syndrome — I’ve tried everything — but just take it as a given. On the “plus” side, it is an awfully nice quiet time of day to read. The phone never rings at this hour.

People send me an awful lot of stuff to read and I actually try to give almost all of it a fair shake. Then there’s a category of books that I’d call “required reading,” which is basically homework for whatever I’m working on myself. Finally there are a few books I manage to read for my own enjoyment.

Right now I’m reading the not-yet-published manuscript of a book by a SUNY-Albany professor named Donna Armstrong. The title is Seducing Ourselves: Public Denial in a Declining Complex Society. It addresses one of the more amazing phenomena of our time, attempting to apply cognitive science to explain the obdurate cluelessness of the U.S. public in its current mood and situation. It is a much-needed book, though I’m not convinced that knowing why we’re so dumb-and-passive will prompt us to behave otherwise. But it’s nice to know.

I’ve been drawn lately to what might be loosely called classical studies—since my formal education was such a botch (admittedly at my end, since I was a poor student). So I’m reading The Peloponnesian War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Greece, by one Nigel Bagnall, a British military historian. Pretty dry stuff in his telling, but I didn’t have the enterprise to go back to Thucydides. I have also been reading a superficial survey history of the Roman Empire by one Robert Payne (e.g., it disposes of Julian the Apostate in about three sentences), but I wanted a basic outline, and that’s what I got.

Back in the spirit of my own book, The Long Emergency, I received a copy of Crash Course: Preparing for Peak Oil, by Zachary Nowak (Green Door Press), which is just out. Among many seemingly similar titles, this one is a very thoughtful and unhysterical survival handbook based on the premise that our living conditions will probably head toward the gnarly end of the scale pretty soon. It has a nice, calm tone and much very sound information about things like water and wild foods.

Since I am these days fascinated and preoccupied with the national spirit of techno-triumphalism, I’m reading a couple of books about technological failure and how exactly it occurs: The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations, by Dietrich Dorner, kind of a snore so far (and I’m not convinced that these errors are avoidable, anyway), and Flirting With Disaster: Why Accidents Are Rarely Accidental, by Marc Gerstein, which is a livelier treatment of similar material.

Just to keep my frontal lobes from completely shriveling, I have been reading a thoughtful novel titled Night Train To Lisbon, by Pascal Mercier, mainly because my publisher laid a free copy on me last time I was in their offices. It’s definitely a Euro story about claustrophobic little lives, but even so it’s a nice relief from wondering about the destiny of Crossgates Mall and all the other crap that clutters up my mind. For pure enjoyment I am also reading the latest installment of John Richardson’s Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917 – 1932. Even apart from old Pablo himself, I am fascinated with the period between the first and second World Wars.

Finally, I keep at hand the wonderful and illuminating Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects, by Dmitry Orlov. Orlov, a consummately brilliant comic writer, grew up to age 12 in the old Soviet Union, had an American teen education, and later as an adult computer software engineer made many trips back to Russia as it entered its post-soviet implosion. This is a book I continually come back to as much for its sheer entertainment value as its insight.

Oh, please don’t send me any more stuff for a while, okay?


  1. Always a pleasure to see what JHK is up to. I noticed he did not have Paul Roberts latest “The End of Food” on his list anywhere… which I think is fantastic in it’s thoroughness. My other chairside book right now is “Living with Pigs” by Chuck Wooster.
    Planning on raising some heritage pigs next spring…. anyway, theres my two and half cents!

  2. Yeah, Orlov’s book really is darkly funny! I am loving it in sort of a terror-stricken way. I lived in Ukraine from 1993-95 when hyperinflation made money almost worthless, and it was very scary and unhappy. People there did and DO have the skills our grandparents had, like gardening and canning, and the teachers I knew went 9 months w/o a salary. I’m afraid for what will happen here as the current financial crisis worsens. OK, liked your reading list (I read World Made by Hand this summer too before giving it to my my mom). Cheers, -J

  3. I also have insomnia once in a while; and every time I’m having this, I also read the books that were given to me by my family and friends. I agree with you, this is a very nice time (1-4am) to read because the surrounding is quiet, no noise and even distractions. Right now, I’m reading a book by Allen & Linda Anderson’s Angel Dogs. This is the first time I flipped its pages as I haven’t tried to read this book since I received it from my sister.

    I also want to read The Peloponnesian War but nobody has given me this book yet. So, I will just finish reading the other books my sisters gave me — and they are all about homemaking…ugh.

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