What I’ve been reading

by on September 13, 2011 at 7:48 am in Books | Permalink

1. Andes, by Michael Jacobs.  Most travel books disappoint me, but I found this one interesting throughout, most of all the section on Venezuela.  It is conceptually strong and overall enthralling.

2. Sergio Chejfec, My Two Worlds. Are you deeply interested in how an Argentinean observer might phenomenologically regard a southern Brazilian city, combined with his philosophy of walking, in fictional form?  I am.  This may or may not be of general interest.

3. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  Do you seek an overly verbose, sometimes fascinating synthesis of economic anthropology, early 20th century credit theories of money, and the history of debt?  The book overinterprets early historical evidence and falls apart as it approaches contemporary times, still it has a vitality which many other tracts lack.  Here is a chat with the author.

4. Wells Tower, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.  This Jonathan Miles quotation is better than anything I will come up with: “Tower’s stories [have] the kind of torque that’s so damnably rare these days in American short fiction, where the payoff tends to be the faint, jewel-box click of epiphany, the small tilting of a life.  Tower’s ambition is greater and brawnier than that.”

5. Charles Seife, Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking.  An excellent and compulsively readable history of the attempts to make fusion power work; I thank Gordon for the original pointer.

6. Aurel Schubert, The Credit-Anstalt Crisis of 1931, no further comment required.

1 Cahal September 13, 2011 at 8:00 am


Could you elaborate on 3? I have not read the book, but from what I gather it pretty much buries the notion that money arose from barter – commonly held by economists – and so I am slightly suspicious of your casual dismissal of much of it. Robert Murphy wrote a longer ‘rebuttal’ to it and was called out by the author.

tl;dr I respect you a lot more than I do Murphy, but I am suspicious of an economist dissing a book which challenges one of the foundations of economic theory (very effectively, it seems).

2 Tyler Cowen September 13, 2011 at 8:12 am

I very much agree with that claim in the book, see my Explorations in the New Monetary Economics, where I cover this at length. I am less of a Mengerian than is Bob and I like early 20th century credit theories of money, some of them at least.

3 Jeffrey Winter September 13, 2011 at 8:44 am

#3. I’m about 100 pages into this book. Graeber is a fascinating thinker. I first read his pamphlet “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology” several years ago. Full PDF here:


He had already begun to outline his monetary/gift/debt theories there.

Tyler, I’m curious if you have seen any of the inter-disciplinary involvement of anthropology in economic (and sociological) theory as he advocates for there.

4 guy September 13, 2011 at 9:10 am

4. Is absolutely hilarious. David Sedaris was pimping that book at his own signing and he doesn’t even know the guy.

5 dearieme September 13, 2011 at 9:41 am

#5: hold on; fusion power is just 40 years away. That’s one of the social invariants of my lifetime.

6 dearieme September 13, 2011 at 10:04 am

#3: about a chat of his posted on Naked Capitalism. In comments I took up his account of world history in the middle ages, starting by quoting him “Then after 1492 or so you have the return world empires again; and gold and silver currency together with slavery, for that matter.” I remarked “The Caliphate wasn’t a “world empire”: it didn’t have slaves?”

By way of reply Dr Graeber said “The Caliphate is a fascinating anomaly” and then indulged in some lengthy special pleading. My response was “Mm, it would be quicker to say “It’s a fair cop, guv”.” To which he riposted “Only if you take an aggressively literal reading of the words and ignore what the author is actually trying to say.” I batted back with “Your words are your tools. If you are not capable of using them to express “what the author is actually trying to say” you need to practise a bit more.” Et bloody cetera.

I was amused at his prickliness, since I am broadly sympathetic to his historical point, in the sense that I find risible the extent to which all sorts of people invent “facts” from the supposed doings of our ancestors, based (often) on just a deeper layer of invention. I’m not too surprised that Adam Smith made such a mistake, especially in a period that was short of anthropological knowledge.

7 Michael G Heller September 13, 2011 at 10:16 am

There being a Latin American theme:
I notice that in the book on nuclear fusion (Sun in Bottle) Charles Seife discusses the antics of Ronald Richter the eccentric Austrian-Argentine scientist who set up a fusion laboratory on an island on a lake near Bariloche in the 50s and persuaded President Peron that he had raced ahead of the USA in the field of thermonuclear reactions and would soon provide every Argentine household with a regular delivery of milk-size bottles of liberated fusion energy. This is the origin of Universidad de Cuyo’s famous (so they say) Balseiro Institute in Bariloche where I once spent a pleasant walking weekend while the academics were all on holiday — without realising that all this nuclear stuff was in the building next to where I was sleeping. Fortunately for Argentine gas producers Reuter never succeeded but Peron bragged endlessly about the sun in a bottle. It seems an obvious story for Tomas Eloy Martinez to have included in the Peron Novel though I cannot remember any reference to it. There’s a fascinating academic book on the development of nuclear power in Brazil and Argentina — Emanuel Adler’s The Power of Ideology. It’s also interesting on ideology. No walking, but he does discuss computers.

The Sergio Chejfec book is certainly of interest to me. Roberto Bolaño died too early to have been able to say anything nice or cutting about him. Walking narrators become quite a theme in new fiction? The Amazon description of it sounded similar to Teju Cole’s walking narrator book Open City. Teju is compared to W. G. Sebald another great walking philosopher and muser though surely a more mature one. Except for when he is pretentious I do very much like Sebald who read a lot of Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard did not much like walking (he walks a lot in Frost but then he was pretty much forced to) and seems to spend more time musing in armchairs. Still, I think Sebald was quite influenced by him.

You know the Andes are full of tourists now. Probably better of reading this book in an armchair.

8 Claudia Sahm September 13, 2011 at 10:18 am

You really don’t want me to get any work done, do you?…These look like very interesting books and many are ones that economists should be (need to be) reading. I also like the fact that you do not just read economics. All work and no play makes us dull and unhappy. Besides there are lessons for economists (who are also people, albeit often abnormal ones) in everything they read. For better or worse, words are very powerful. I agree with you that we do not need to read books from cover to cover. And yet I would amend you reading advice…if you start a book you owe it to yourself and the author to read the last chapter or at least the last page. My final judgment on a book always come from the last chapter…missteps along the way can be forgiven (and forgotten) if you finish strong. Now back to work!

9 Wonks Anonymous September 13, 2011 at 3:24 pm

For those unaware why Cahal & Tyler are referencing Bob Murphy, see here.

10 Mike September 14, 2011 at 1:46 am

How in the world do you find the time for all this reading on top of blogging, teaching, research, travel, and family?

Seriously, I’m impressed. With my work and school hours, I fall asleep on the train after ten minutes of reading my Kindle.

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