The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

So You Want to Understand the World? A Reading List

On occasion, I get requests for reading lists. Here’s one, not exhaustive.

Olson, Mancur.  “Power and Prosperity”

This book is really about information and the failings of both central planning and market economies. There is an extended discussion of why the USSR both worked and then didn’t. This explanation is easy to apply to late capitalism if you have a bit of imagination. Folks go on about oil prices and so on, but if the USSR’s economy had been working properly an oil price collapse would not have taken it out.

This book is also good as a study of the way people at the peripheries always try to manage the center (or up). You can never trust the information from people who have incentives to manage information.

Jacobs, Jane. “The Economy of Cities” and “Cities and the Wealth of Nations”

These two volumes are really one extended book. This is an extensive examination of how innovation happens, why it usually happens in cities, the beginning of agriculture and the way cities affect non-city areas and how those areas affect cities back.  It is also good for a diagnosis of what goes wrong with cities at a higher level than her “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

Virtually everything Jacobs wrote will reward you for reading it, but start with these two. Also, even combined, it’s shorter than Death and Life.

Machiavelli, Niccolo.  “Discourses on Livy” and  “The Prince”

Read BOTH. Do not just read the Prince. It is incomplete without the Discourses. The two are essentially pieces of one work. I recommend the Penguin edition because Bernard Crick’s forward is particularly good and balanced. Machiavelli deals with both popular and aristocratic Republics as well as Principalities. Some of this is dated, but a remarkable amount is eternal. If you want to understand the role of conflict to keep a State alive, the question of personality, the matter of selecting leaders, and so on, Machiavelli is the place to start. You probably won’t like a lot of it – Machiavelli wrote during a period when Italian cities were being sacked regularly, a violent and rapacious period, and his lessons are hard. But he is a believer in freedom, and it is important to understand his pragmatic arguments for Republics.

As you read it, apply it to modern societies. Oh, and Machiavelli gets a fair bit of the history wrong, but as Crick notes, it’s not a big deal. Evaluate his hypotheses yourself.

Collins, Randall. “A Guide to Non-Obvious Sociology”

This is a nice short book, and it covers topics like crime and religion that most people don’t understand how to evaluate properly.

Collins, Randall. “Max Weber: A Skeleton Key”

This is the best introduction to Weber, especially his economic thinking, that I’ve read, and an excellent antidote to the Parsonian emphasis on “The Protestant Ethic” which misrepresents Weber. In particular, Weber’s look at how status, class, and wealth interplay is important. It may be fashionable to sneer at his theories about how ideas and religious life affected economic life, but I believe they are still important.

Polanyi, Karl. “The Great Transformation”

How did capitalistic industrialization happen? Hint: People didn’t embrace it, because early industrial capitalism was shit. It was literally worse, far worse, than being a serf. People had to be forced off the land and made to work by Marx’s whip of hunger. Understanding how it happened is really, really important. If you don’t understand how capitalism and industrialization occurred, you understand neither. We sneer at Luddites, but if you had fight in you and were a worker, you’d have been one too.

Hall, Peter.  “Cities in Civilization”

Ok, here’s your door-stopper. Hall covers the golden ages of cities from Athens thru Berlin and onto modern London. Each section is a serious analysis of how a particular city really worked; but by that he means much more than city. For example, the section on Berlin basically covers how Prussia industrialized. This book will reward more than one reading, and it shows that there are a lot of different ways to create Golden Ages. When you can recognize both the differences and the similarities, you’ll have gotten what the book has to offer.

Flannery and Marcus. “The Creation of Inequality”

A magisterial survey of societies from the virtually completely egalitarian to the most inegalitarian with an eye to how we went from being “hopelessly egalitarian” to extremely stratified societies. Most people don’t read enough anthropology, and what they do read isn’t in context. This will cure you of both problems, and the details of the societies make for fascinating stories besides. Not a short book.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. “The Spirit Level.”

This is the book that glues the thesis “inequality is bad for everyone including people at the top” to the door with superglue.  The data is extensive, conclusive and absolutely brutal. Because inequality is the subject du jour, this is required reading, and demolishes the argument that what matters is just “what people have,” and not their position relative to others in their society.

Ha-Joon Chang. “Bad Samaritans”

There are a lot of books telling you why neo-classical and neo-liberal economics are bunk. This is the most accessible of the bunch, and maybe the best I’ve read. It concentrates mainly on how countries industrialize and why the standard advice does not work.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.  “The Age of Roosevelt” series.

The transition to the New Deal economy is extraordinarily important for us to understand. We have seen the transition from the post-war economy (essentially a modified New Deal economy) to neo-liberalism if we’re old enough. We’ve seen the left to right; but not the right to left.  This is a long work, but it rewards the reading and is particularly good on explaining how Roosevelt iterated: If one thing didn’t work, he’d try something else. (h/t @mathewstoller).

Concluding Remarks and Further Reading

I don’t have access to my full library right now, so this is a sketch of a list. But it will still reward your reading. I’ll note that you can’t understand 20th century history without understanding Freud and Marx. Lenin is very brief and as such there’s no reason not to read him. The same is true with Freud, who is a good writer besides. As for Marx, well, a collection of excerpts can work, or you can find any number of good summaries. You aren’t reading to agree, you are reading to understand the people who created the intellectual background of an entire century, without whom you cannot understand the rest, including the vast majority of literary fiction in the mid-20th century and the “serious” plays.

Everyone should also read a good translation of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”.  Read Mao on guerilla warfare (you can find this online, it is brief.)  Read Marshall DuSaxe “My Reveries Upon the Art of War” because people need to understand how terrible early firearms were (and DuSaxe is an entertaining writer.)  Military history in general is important, in particular you need to understand the affect of military technology on society and vice-versa.  There are weapons technologies which tend to produce egalitarian societies (close order infantry weapons, mass conscription weapons life firearms, for example) and those which tend to produce inegalitarian societies.

You may hate religion, but you cannot understand Western thought if you have not read the Bible.

Pick up a book of Plato’s dialogues and suck it up, they’re actually well-written. For a general introduction to Western philosophy, Bertrand Russel’s “History of Western Philosophy” is a good start, you can grab what he doesn’t cover later. Remember that he’s an analytical philosopher, but he’s still good at covering what you need to know.

At some later point I’ll post some introductory texts to Chinese and Indian thought. These traditions are as rich as Western thought, and for most of history they were more technologically advanced than us. For now, just note that Western Philosophy and Eastern took decidedly different turns: Much of Eastern philosophy is concerned with the actual experience of consciousness through  mind- and body-altering disciplines. They are supplements to meditation, breathing exercises, and so on, and are hard to understand if you don’t take that into account. Even someone as secular as Confucius is offering a system which has significant elements of cultivation culture within it (for example, it has the equivalent of the Bhagavad-Gita’s “Karma Yoga,” where you do the right thing no matter the results. It also has thought auditing, an active style of meditation where you stop all non-virtuous thoughts.)

A more complete reading list would also deal with fundamental issues of human nature and would have a reading list for psychology, mass psychology, and neuroscience. For now, start with Antonio Damasio’s “Descartes Error,” read Irving Goffman’s “Interaction Ritual,” and peruse a copy of “The Sociological Imagination” by C. Wright Mills. For feminism, I suggest Simone deBeauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” which I have found touches on almost all issues that later feminists raise. These will get you off to a good start.

Remember also that much that seems social includes physical roots.  Climate change, for example, had a lot to do with the French Revolution and Dark thru Middle Ages history can be read to the accompaniment the weather records.

And you must understand the change from hunter-gatherer societies to horticultural and agricultural societies as well as the cycle between them and nomadic or barbarian societies.  There are no good works on the latter that I am aware of, unfortunately, understanding tends to arise from reading the history.  Understand that much of this is due to economies of violence and disease.  Hunter-gatherers lose because of these factors even though hunter-gathering is generally a much more pleasant way to live than most agricultural societies.

Take a look at the physical geography of change: how did steam power spread, what did it demand?  How does this differ from the wind and water revolution that preceded it?  How do soil, climate and planting technology work together to configure society?  Why did Greeks, who made toy steam engines, not industrialize? (It’s not just about slaves.)

Please feel free to include other books you think worth reading in comments.

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What the Final Retreat Did to Greece’s Government


Further Notes on Meditation and Cultivation


  1. Adam Eran

    Don’t forget David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”… the best book I’ve read in a long time. It’s so good, I re-read it right after I read it the first time. Don’t forget to read the footnotes, either.

    BTW: spoiler alert: there’s a boneheaded technical mistake in the last chapter. I’m guessing they’ve fixed it in later editions, but Apple engineers didn’t work on laptops while figuring out how to make personal computers.

  2. Ian Welsh

    I’ve read only the first 50 pages or so of Graeber (I expect I’ll chew thru it at some point), so didn’t put it here, but it comes highly recommended and while I found it a bit more detailed than I need his points that debt comes before currency, that most traditional societies don’t barter and that the myths economists tell are bad myths will little relation to reality is really important.

  3. markfromireland

    Hobbes: Leviathan

  4. Dave

    “And you must understand the change from hunter-gatherer societies to horticultural and agricultural societies as well as the cycle between them and nomadic or barbarian societies”

    You may find Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” interesting. He’s a bit of a boor and preachy but there are many insightful and thought provoking elements to this thesis and it’s definitely worth the read.

  5. Spinoza

    Persistence of the Old Regime, by Arno Mayer is fascinating in that he explains how aristocratic norms continued on into the capitalist age. It also drives home the point that the great struggle against the aristocracy is very recent and ongoing. Fascism, in some respects, was an attempt to recreate the classic nobility of the Middle Ages in a modern industrial society.

  6. bob mcmanus

    I have read two books by Collins, short one on Violence and the doorstopper “The Sociology of Philosophies” The latter covers most of the major eras including Islamic, Indian, and Chinese in historical and material context and may be the reference one needs. It doesn’t go very deep, but you can use it to see something of what Narajuna taught. Course, Wikipedia will do that too. The sociology of academic or intellectual production is more useful. “Who is X writing for (who is paying), and who against” is a very useful questioning habit to gain.

    Not much interested in war, but Manuel DeLanda’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines may be his most accessible application of chaos theory and emergence

    Giovanni Arrighi is good on China

    Scott McCloud “Understanding Comics” is short, a blast (written as a comic), and taught me a lot about visual perception and culture

    Adam Tooze impressed me

  7. This is a lovely list!

  8. Robert

    Thanks Ian .

  9. paintedjaguar

    Henry George’s “Progress and Poverty” (1879) sets out to explain why increased productivity can result in increased rather than decreased poverty. It expounds some key concepts regarding why capitalism is so homeostatic against attempts at economic justice. Wildly popular when first published, it’s a doorstop and a bit of a slog, but abridgements and summaries are available.

    Daniel Lazare’s “The Frozen Republic” (1997) makes a case that the famous “checks and balances” deliberately designed into the U.S. Constitution result in predictable gridlock and paralysis and are a major reason why reform in the States is so difficult. Specific to the U.S., but applicable to other constitutional democracies. Very readable.

  10. V. Arnold

    John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education
    Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society

    Both available as audio books at;

  11. Josh

    I’ll throw in a recommendation for Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. It’s a fascinating look at the way changes in information, technology, and propaganda shaped both capitalist and communist societies.

  12. profan

    Understanding Power, by Chomsky, with downloadable footnotes / references.

  13. Declan

    A great list Ian, more than a few on there that I should add to the reading list.

    A few other books I’d recommend are John Ralston Saul’s ‘Voltaire’s Bastards’ and David Korten’s ‘When Corporations Rule the World’ (note: the title belies that this a pretty serious, sober book) both coming out of the 90’s recession, and Joseph Heath’s, ‘The efficient society’.

    Also, I’d recommend Systems of Survival as the place to start with Jane Jacobs, but as you say, it’s easy and worthwhile to read everything she wrote, even her work on Quebec separatism, “The Question of Separation” remains relevant in this era of dissolution.

    Finally, I’d suggest (for those that haven’t) reading something by Nietzsche, who is one of those people, like Weber, that you will hear a lot of nonsense about, which you can only cut through by going to the source and reading it yourself. I recommend ‘Human, All too Human’ – and not just for the title.

  14. David

    Regarding books on the change from hunter gatherer societies to
    agricultural societies, I am reading “After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC” by Steven Mithen. It is good and quite detailed, though
    it is 12 years old with some of it dated because of more recent DNA work.

  15. Socialiast

    Ian, thank you for including Marx and Lenin into the list. The insights and lines of argument these great men gave us are still haunting us. You are completely right, we can’t understand the development of capitalism (which has produced the world we live in) and not read the men who developed the critique of said system.Especially, considering the fact that it has been applied in the real word as well.
    Will definitely check out some of the books mentioned by Ian. Thanks again.\

    Personally, I would like to recommend many other great and influential books by political economists. Books by Adam Smith, Ricardo.

    To dilute this list with something different, I would also recommend a book by the great mathematician Henry Poincare called “Science and Hypothesis”. Can be found and read online for free.

  16. BDBlue

    Great list and I want to dive in to many of them that I have not read. You mention slaves, but I don’t think any of the books listed really discuss the importance of slavery and its role in developing the world, especially the economic world, that we know today. Maybe Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery? It’s not new, but it’s quite good, IIRC. One of the ways capitalism “won” was essentially through free labor of subjugated people, something almost never discussed, of course, because that goes against its mythology and African slaves were obviously a big part of that. The other part was the free reproductive labor of women that became institutionalized, so maybe Caliban and the Witch, as well? I just started this one, got the recommendation from someone here awhile ago so I’m a big fan of these types of discussions, and so far there’s definitely a lot to think about and it ties into some of the other books about means of production, but maybe others have better suggestions.

  17. Ian Welsh

    Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

    — how science really works and how paradigmatic change really happens.

    (also, quite brief)

  18. hvd


    David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” starts with slavery.

  19. BDBlue

    Thanks, hvd, I just started reading Graeber today (had started Caliban, but print was too small and I left my both pairs of my reading glasses at work, so moved to Graeber). So far I like it, it’s remarkably readable, but then he starts by pointing out that economic theory is often based on fantasy, a favorite topic of mine (first chapter is on barter mythology).

  20. Dan Lynch

    Thanks for the reading list, Ian. You are more into the sociological/philosophical angle than me, but I’ll add at least a few of your picks to my “to read” list.

    I suggest Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine.” One MUST understand shock doctrine, it’s a reoccurring tactic in this neoliberal age of ours.

    No econ reading list is complete without something explaining fiat money and Wynne Godley’s sectoral balances. Abba Lerner’s “Functional Finance” paper, Warren Mosler’s “Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds” ( I don’t agree some of Warren’s conservative policies like free trade but overall he gets a lot right), Henry Wallace’s “60 Million Jobs,” and others. I’m not sure that one particular author stands out but the bottom line is that one MUST understand fiat money and sectoral balances.

    If you believe there is any hope of progressive reform through the existing political system (I mostly don’t) , then T. Harry Williams’ bio “Huey Long” should be the “how-to” manual for progressives. Huey is one of America’s unsung heroes, much of the New Deal would never have happened without Huey challenging FDR from the left. In fact, FDR would never have become president without Huey. Huey was practicing Keynesianism before anyone had heard of Keynesianism. And HE DID IT IN ONE OF THE REDDEST STATES IN THE COUNTRY. As a bonus, Williams’ Pulitzer winning writing style makes it a page-turner.

    On a personal & moral level, I have learned a lot from Martin Luther King. His speech on the Vietnam War is particularly thought provoking and timeless (the speech was actually written by historian Vincent Harding). But any speech or book by King is worthwhile and I say that as someone who does not share King’s commitment to non-violence. King taught me to empathize with people I don’t even like. Empathy is powerful.

  21. ProNewerDeal

    Ian, great article.

    By chance to have any advice on a system for reading nonfiction books efficient, in terms of both time & reading comprehension. Do you find it worthwhile to take notes? Any thoughts on how to integrate the knowledge of the current book one finishes reading, with the “corpus” of prior books & knowledge one has?

  22. V. Arnold

    August 9, 2015
    Ian, great article.
    …Do you find it worthwhile to take notes? Any thoughts on how to integrate the knowledge of the current book one finishes reading, with the “corpus” of prior books & knowledge one has?
    If I may; read the hell out of it until you “UNDERSTAND IT!”. Taking notes delays or destroys comprehension/understanding of any subject.
    At 70, I’m tackling Marx; difficult in the youngest of times; but Marx is critical to understanding our life and times; so much to understand; so little time…

  23. Mr.Murder

    Best comparisons between hunter/agri societies as working models is anthro histories of Native Americans, particularly in middle north America, central Mississippi Valley. Introduction of maize led to asserting other cultural aspects across a region once mainly settled for hunting.

  24. markfromireland

    @ V. Arnold: Don’t neglect Engels’ writings once you’ve done that. Engels was the brains of the outfit.


  25. Pelham

    I’ll just add my thanks to the several already expressed. And that goes for the books mentioned by other commenters. I’d recommend other authors, but there are more than enough here, although I will say that I preferred Ha Joon Chang’s latest, “Economics: A User’s Guide” to the one mentioned.

    Finally, on a separate list I saw recently Daniel Yergin’s several books on oil are recommended. I’ve got the 1,000-page doorstop, “The Prize,” but haven’t cracked it. Anyone have any thoughts on Yergin? Worth reading?

  26. Spinoza


    One of my favorite lines comes from Leviathan: Nothing is more easily broken than man’s word.

  27. V. Arnold

    @ markfromireland
    August 9, 2015

    Thanks, will do…

  28. markfromireland

    @ Spinoza – how very true. I remember being taught that his last words were said to have been “A great leap in the dark” although I can’t now remember who it was who said he said it.

    Note to all: If you go to the Internet Encyclopedia entry for Hobbes you’ll find him introduced as the “founding father of modern political philosophy”:

    Hobbes is the founding father of modern political philosophy. Directly or indirectly, he has set the terms of debate about the fundamentals of political life right into our own times. Few have liked his thesis, that the problems of political life mean that a society should accept an unaccountable sovereign as its sole political authority. Nonetheless, we still live in the world that Hobbes addressed head on: a world where human authority is something that requires justification, and is automatically accepted by few; a world where social and political inequality also appears questionable; and a world where religious authority faces significant dispute. We can put the matter in terms of the concern with equality and rights that Hobbes’s thought heralded: we live in a world where all human beings are supposed to have rights, that is, moral claims that protect their basic interests. But what or who determines what those rights are? And who will enforce them? In other words, who will exercise the most important political powers, when the basic assumption is that we all share the same entitlements?

    We can see Hobbes’s importance if we briefly compare him with the most famous political thinkers before and after him. A century before, Nicolo Machiavelli had emphasized the harsh realities of power, as well as recalling ancient Roman experiences of political freedom. Machiavelli appears as the first modern political thinker, because like Hobbes he was no longer prepared to talk about politics in terms set by religious faith (indeed, he was still more offensive than Hobbes to many orthodox believers), instead, he looked upon politics as a secular discipline divorced from theology. But unlike Hobbes, Machiavelli offers us no comprehensive philosophy: we have to reconstruct his views on the importance and nature of freedom; it remains uncertain which, if any, principles Machiavelli draws on in his apparent praise of amoral power politics.


    Full entry on Hobbes is here: Hobbes, Thomas: Moral and Political Philosophy | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    I think this is precisely correct, at least for the English speaking world it is Hobbes far more than anyone else who has set the terms of the debate. Garrath Williams who wrote the IEP entry quoted above also suggests that people read De Cive before tackling Leviathan which, now that I think about it, is very good advice.

    Link: hobbes de cive

    Last but not least the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a very useful resource and well worth including in your bookmarks.


  29. Ian Welsh

    I prefer Machiavelli as a thinker, actually. Machiavelli really isn’t a philosopher, per se, but I think his actual advice and observations are more useful.

    But certainly Hobbes is important.

    Engels is certainly the better sociologist. He is also more congenial to modern tastes, having, for example, been a proponent of female equality (something he fixed in Marxism after Marx’s death.)

  30. EmilianoZ

    I would suggest Quigley’s “The evolution of civilizations”. It’s a very readable short book. Quigley has been accused of conspiracy theory, but it’s on account of some other books. There’s nothing about secret societies in “The evolution of civilizations”.

    Quigley has also penned a weighty tome about weapons and political stability (which I havent read). According to wikipedia the conclusion is:

    Quigley concludes, from a historical study of weapons and political dynamics, that the characteristics of weapons are the main predictor of democracy.[7][8] Democracy tends to emerge only when the best weapons available are easy for individuals to buy and use.[9] This explains why democracy is so rare in human history.

    One caveat is that Quigley is an exceptionalist: he believes western civilization is special in that it has survived many crises and always has managed to grow out of its troubles (maybe he would change his mind if he were around to see this one). For comparison, Quigley believes that Chinese civilization ended with the Qing (circa 1910). What comes after is something else. The Chinese would probably disagree vehemently but I believe Quigley is right. For instance Confucianism seems pretty dead today in China. The country where Confucianism seems alive in the population today is South Korea.

    One could wonder why there should be more continuity between say the French today and the French under Louis XIV than between the Chinese today and the Qing Chinese. After all, both had revolutions that sought to eradicate the past. Maybe one element of response is that Mao had several decades to do that (see the Cultural Revolution for instance). I believe Confucianism was considered reactionary and bourgeois by the communists. By contrast, I think the truly radical revolutionaries in France only had power for a few years at most.

  31. Jordan

    Do you have any recommendations for works of fiction?

  32. e


    Woman on the Edge of Time
    The Dispossessed
    The Left Hand of Darkness
    The Deathbird
    Fahrenheit 451
    Animal Farm
    Brave New World

  33. e

    I forget

    the screwfly solution

  34. Thorstein Veblen

    The Theory of the Leisure Class
    The Instinct of Workmanship

  35. Alan

    And you must understand the change from hunter-gatherer societies to horticultural and agricultural societies as well as the cycle between them and nomadic or barbarian societies

    Calvin Luther Martin is superb on the former topic: In the Spirit of the Earth and The Way of the Human Being. Likewise James C. Scott on the latter: The Art of Not Being Governed.

  36. tawal

    Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn is the best indictment of America ever.

  37. Gabe

    No love for Marcus Aurelius Meditations? The recurring nature of our preoccupations through centuries is noteworthy for me.

    Also, I think that the Origin of Species and Silent Spring should be mandatory for anyone interested in 20th century biology/environmental movement. there is much more (and most of it buried in scientific journals), but they give you useful stepping stones

  38. hi Ian,
    I suggested this on twitter before, but I’ll say it again here:

    Anyone wanting to get into Marx, without the part of him that got “orthodoxed”, the political extrapolations of the Leninists/Trotskyites/Stalinists, etc… a good text to start, for orientation and as the basis of further incursions, is the so-called ‘Unpublished 6th Chapter of Capital’. It’s included in the Penguin edition, and it’s online here:

    In it, Marx sort of gives an overarching theory of the whole process of capitalist history, from its beginnings in so-called primitive accumulation, ie. the enclosure of common agricultural land, forest and so on, the events that create the ‘propertyless worker’ as such, in the form of a landless peasant. After those events, Marx reads capitalist history in two phases, the first a ‘formal’ subjugation of labour processes, and a second, ‘real subsumption’, where capital begins to actively organise social production on its own basis, based on deepening commodification and dissection of all social labour processes. There have been some who relate the known history of ‘socialism’ to the peculiarities of the shift between these two phases, the first being the gradual integration of the remains of pre-capitalist agricultural society, the agrarian revolution/urbanization, and the second of which is the now possibly completed phase (hence, the unavoidable demise of all forms of socialism/working class organisation that originated in the earlier phase).

    On the whole, I suggest it because it’s a more fertile introduction to Marx than the usual foregrounding of the conclusions drawn by the Marxist tradition – which it of course is very good at, sometimes to the oblivion of Marx’ analysis itself and the uses it might still have.
    The text is only about a hundred pages long, and a good, politically open text, in-at-the-deep end but with much less risk of having its interpretations foreclosed on.

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