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Books on Cities: Malcolm Harris, Palo Alto (2023)

Malcolm Harris’ Palo Alto is not exactly a book about Palo Alto. Or rather, you won’t come away from it having learned as much about Palo Alto as its 720-page bulk might have you imagine. I don’t mean that as a criticism, since the book has greater ambitions: indeed, its very subtitle promises A History of California, Capitalism, and the World, which the text does go on to deliver. If you were just looking to read about Palo Alto, you’d probably put it down after a couple hundred pages. I myself picked it up expressly to write about as a city book, but despite the square-peg-round-hole category fit, one factor that kept me reading (and taking what came out to nearly 20,000 words of notes) was both my and Harris’ being northern California-born millennial writers with an interest in the course of civilization.

In his first book, Kids These Days, Harris made a study of our generation and its tendency toward less-than-impressive personal and professional outcomes. I’ve been aware of him at least since it came out in 2017, when reviews made it sound intriguing if somewhat ideological and hyperbolic. (One oft-quoted line, perhaps taken out of context: “We become fascists or revolutionaries, one or the other.”) Palo Alto, his third book, was published this past February, but I only became aware of it in the summer, when he drew a wave of attention by tweeting about bananas. “Pro-growth lefties accuse their opponents of being out of touch with working-class preferences and focused on consumption instead of production but what do they imagine planning support looks like for, say, ‘fresh bananas at every American 7/11’ among the world’s banana workers?” he asks at the top of the thread in question.

Read the whole thing at Substack.