What I’ve been Reading

by on June 6, 2014 at 6:03 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Gendun Chopel, Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler, introduction by Thupte Jimpa and Donald S. Lopez Jr.  A very learned Tibetan scholar travels to India and records his hyper-structured impressions of what is obviously a more modern and economically developed land.  Yet India is also the original homeland of Buddhism and as such a source of obsession about the distant past.  Brilliantly rendered, the manuscript reads like a source that would have inspired Borges.  Every now and then the narrative comes to a full stop and we get a chapter like “How the Lands Were Given Their Names.”  Later the manuscript was shipped back by yak, and Chopel was sent to jail in Tibet for having written it.  This volume has one of the best introductions of any book I have read.  A fantastic look at the culture that was Tibet, or for that matter India or Sri Lanka.  Chopel is trying to incorporate modernity into the traditional Tibetan worldview, and yet throughout cannot avoid a sense of the tragic and of decay, which only the book itself is contradicting.

2. Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, graphic edition, the illustrations work very well.  I have only paged through it.

3. John Sutherland, How to be Well Read: A Guide to 500 Great Novels and a Handful of Literary Curiosities.  It is great fun to browse through this work.  It is out only in the UK, I found it in Daunt Books, there is always reason to travel to London.

4. Ralph Nader, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.  I am supposed to interview Nader soon, and so I am reading up on his history, he has become an oddly undervalued figure, remembered mainly for his spoiler role in Gore vs. Bush.  Here is a piece on Nader’s ostensible “turn to the right,” that is not how I would describe it, as with Krugman I see continuity from a person who is basically a moralizing conservative with a crusading zeal.  And who would have thought Nader is a fan of Wilhem Roepke?

5. Alex Wright, Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age.  An excellent study of a Belgian, Paul Otlet, who in the late nineteenth century began “a vast intellectual enterprise that attempted to organize and code everything ever published.”  He started by expanding the potential of the card catalog and then wished to build a mechanical collective brain known as the Mundaneum, a “Steampunk version of hypertext.”  Relevant of course to the origins of the web, Wikipedia, and current sites such as Vox.com.  You can read more about Otlet and his infovore tendencies here.

1 Ray Lopez June 6, 2014 at 6:27 am

Rader book sounds interesting, I like Bruce Barlett when he stopped being a knee-jerk conservative and Rader’s book might be along the same lines.

2 Ray Lopez June 6, 2014 at 6:28 am

Rader meaning Nader of course

3 Li June 6, 2014 at 10:22 am

I was taught – or perhaps I figured it out for myself – that intentioanlly getting a person’s name wrong is a sure sign of disrespect and lack of civility. I mention this is case Ray is unaware of his own incivility. Then again, correcting others in public isn’t that cool, either. Damned.

4 Dan Weber June 6, 2014 at 11:09 am

Or it could be a legit mistake.

5 byomtov June 7, 2014 at 7:18 pm

Or it could be a legit mistake.

No way, Don.

6 Ray Lopez June 6, 2014 at 6:33 am

@#5 – the problem with these so-called obscure pioneers is that they had almost no actual influence in their actual day and age (another might be Babbage and his binomial Difference Engine; compare to the Jacquard Loom); only later did they become ‘pioneers’ in retrospect. A good book that explains stuff like this, that I’m reading now, is The Dawn of Innovation by Charles R. Morris

7 Ray Lopez June 6, 2014 at 6:37 am

And do you know why these guys had no influence? Including the apocryphal anonymous inventor during ancient China who invented a heavier than air glider, and supposedly an ancient Persian inventor who invented electroplating? Not to mention Roman concrete, occurring naturally in nature (as do batteries, Google ‘electric eel’), but lost and rediscovered during the Medieval ages since it was trade secret? Yep, lack of strong IP laws. Thanks AlexT, and your supporters, for keeping civilization backwards, all in the name of “more, better, cheaper commodities”. Off soapbox now.

8 rayward June 6, 2014 at 6:45 am

4. “[A] moralizing conservative with a crusading zeal”. Brilliant! An undervalued skill is his speaking. I remember many, many years ago Nader coming to my campus while on tour promoting his book about unsafe autos. I don’t remember what he said but how he said it: he would repeat phrases, after a short pause. It was very effective. Well, I do remember one thing he said: he asked the thousands standing on the lawn listening to him to raise their hands if they had a close friend or family member killed or seriously injured in an auto accident. The sea of raised arms was shocking.

9 prior_approval June 6, 2014 at 7:14 am

Hunter S. Thompson was also considered a moralist – though to call him conservative would be laughable.

As for Nader? ‘a moralizing conservative with a crusading zeal’ – well, possibly in the sense that the authors of this web site continue to insist they are not conservatives, Nader can be called a ‘conservative.’

(And Nader played a much smaller role in Bush’s selection than the Supreme Court.- Nader was only a convenient excuse, while Patrick Buchanan wasn’t – Buchanan being a true a moralizing conservative with a crusading zeal, after all.)

10 Millian June 6, 2014 at 7:52 am

Krugman likes the 1950s a lot and wishes we were still there, without the unromantic ugly parts. Ergo, conservative.

11 Jay June 6, 2014 at 8:54 am

I’ll take the bait. Prior, you wanted the recount in EVERY Florida polling district, right?

12 Z June 6, 2014 at 9:46 am

plus eleventy billion

13 Gil June 6, 2014 at 2:54 pm

If memory serves, HST self-identified as a conservative in an Rolling Stone interview with PJ O’Rourke maybe ’88-’89. The key criterion was something O’Rourke attributed to Rand: the conservative as a person who desires to control his environment. The Doctor replied Yes, absolutely, that’s me. That aside, American Dream motif in his work evinces a conservative disposition.

14 rayward June 6, 2014 at 7:17 am

2. Amity Schlaes: “a moralizing conservative with a crusading zeal”. She is a fascinating figure, a writer known for economics but with a degree in English. Fascinating. Just as Nader was influenced by his experience hitch-hiking across America as a young man and witnessing death and destruction in auto accidents, Schlaes was influenced by her experience as a young woman at “Free” university in Berlin and witnessing the contrast between communism and its opposite. Schlaes has spent years studying economic growth (the g in Piketty’s now famous r > g) or, more precisely, causes of slow growth and ideas for faster growth. I wonder if she has seen a correlation between high levels of inequality and slow growth? Probably not: I have the impression that if she were an evangelical Christian she’d see images of Jesus in mashed potatoes.

15 andrew' June 6, 2014 at 8:46 am

Scientists are rarely famous. Economists aren’t famous for the scientific parts of what they do. They just get to have opinions on everything for reasons.

16 derek June 6, 2014 at 10:07 am

Wouldn’t that have made her smarter than three quarters of her contemporaries?

17 Robert Cottrell June 6, 2014 at 7:24 am

Gaunt’s = Daunt Books (I imagine)

18 Tyler Cowen June 6, 2014 at 9:05 am

Thanks, fixed!

19 AyeJay June 6, 2014 at 7:41 am

Great to see Donald S. Lopez get a mention- his work is excellent.

20 Z June 6, 2014 at 8:42 am

#3: I like these sorts of books. I’ll have to check it out. As a high school dropout, I had to rely on these sorts of lists to know what to read. I still keep a list of words, phrases, people and events I bumped into, but know little about.

#4: I sat next to Nader on a cross-country flight. He was dirty and smelled like an old gym locker. In addition to hating corporations, he apparently hates soap with equal zeal. You should plan accordingly. I think the real story is why guys like Nader disappear from the scene. That’s what will open up your mind to how the prevailing orthodoxy works.

#5: That sounds like an interesting book. The history of technology is a subject crying out for exploration.

21 dearieme June 6, 2014 at 4:43 pm

The idea of being well-read is an odd one. Does it mean that you should have read some of Dickens’ dreadful books (i.e. all of them bar a T of 2 Cs)?

Does it mean that you should have read (rather than just watched) a good number of WS’s plays?

Does poetry count: should you have read it rather than have heard it declaimed at readings?

Anyway, if you haven’t read The Origin of Species, Decline and Fall…, and the Wealth of Nations you are not well read. Says me.

22 Z June 6, 2014 at 5:24 pm

I think any list of “books educated men must read” will be disputed. My list would not be your list. For example, I don’t think you can be an educated man without a thorough understanding of religion, but others would say that’s nuts. My book list would have entries those people would think absurd.

That’s what I like about these compilations. I usually find a few things new enough to explore.

Good point on poetry and WS. Do young people have exposure to poetry anymore? I mean the real stuff not the free verse gibberish.

23 collin June 6, 2014 at 9:53 am

Isn’t one of the accidents of history is the first piece of the Reagan Revolution was the consumer revolution in the 1970s led by Ralph Nader? I remember how consumers starting asking for labels, bought more foreign products (especially cars) and deregulation of airlines, railroads and later phone company with Carter putting Judge Green on the case. (I believe Reagan would have hired Judge Bork on the outcome would have been different.)

Also, I still find it hard to believe Ralph Nader hosted SNL back in the Not For Prime Days.

24 enoriverbend June 6, 2014 at 10:46 am

Sure, you could ask Nader how he feels about being responsible for electing Bush in 2000. That would be fun, but obvious.

When you interview Nader, ask Ralph why he has never apologized for his faulty, misleading and dishonest book on the Corvair. After all, it’s how he found fame originally.


Ask him why he worked so hard to *oppose* more public libraries in DC.

Ask him if he still supports Oprah for president in 2016.

That would be fun.

25 FC June 6, 2014 at 7:48 pm

Also ask him if he still thinks Congress is controlled by Israel.

26 So Much for Subtlety June 6, 2014 at 11:53 pm

Has Nader ever been right on any subject at all?

In fact his record on getting it wrong is so good I suddenly feel doubts about airline de-regulation.

You could ask him if any charlatan has ever had as great an impact on public discourse or a more malign influence. Rachel Carson perhaps.

27 Hook June 6, 2014 at 11:11 am

It may say something about Nader’s perceived value that the best, most flattering piece I’ve seen about him recently was on Comedy Central’s Drunk History. It was enjoyable, and is on Netflix.

28 Andrew' June 6, 2014 at 11:17 am

Can you ask him wny all water pistols suck?

29 Andrew' June 6, 2014 at 11:18 am

And why Superman is still better than Man of Steel?

30 Andrew' June 6, 2014 at 11:21 am

I like ESPN, but I only watch it occasionally. Why do I have to pay for when I’m not watching it. Okay, now I’m only joking.

31 AB June 6, 2014 at 11:20 am

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

32 Robert June 6, 2014 at 11:22 am

“The Forgotten Man” is a terrific book. It came out a few years ago….

33 Joe June 6, 2014 at 1:49 pm

I also enjoyed ‘The Forgotten Man’ when I read it a few years ago. On a thematic level, I still empathize with the forgotten man Amity wrote about when I watch my property taxes steadily increase for this or that bond issue. Currently living through this lesser Depression, I don’t think the forgotten man is a cure to our persistent output gap and weak recovery. More politics than policy I guess.

34 freethinker June 6, 2014 at 12:17 pm

About 3: Tyler, why should a guy like you of all people need a book about how to be well read ?!!! Is it not like the Pope reading a book on how to be a good catholic?

35 Amity Shlaes June 6, 2014 at 2:43 pm

One of things we worked on with THE FORGOTTEN MAN GRAPHIC, which Tyler mentions above, were the drawings of the FORGOTTEN MAN concept.
We drew not only Sumner, but also Wendell Willkie reading Sumner. We drew the taxes.
“A wants to help X.
B wants to help X.
A problem emerges when A and B get together and coerce C into cofunding their perhaps good, perhaps dubious, project for X.
C is the Forgotten Man.
….the man who pays, the man who prays, the man who is never thought of….”

36 tjamesjones June 6, 2014 at 5:15 pm

Gosh Tyler, Daunt Books, my local & favourite! Is there nothing that escapes you!

37 Dave June 6, 2014 at 8:21 pm

Ralph had a fantastic conversation on C-SPAN a few years ago with libertarian Andrew Napolitono- it was fascinating to watch them find lots of areas of agreement, but eventually see some core rifts (mainly whether the private sector can regulate itself).

Ralph really is undervalued- he has started dozens of effective organizations, helped pass laws that save lives and money on a variety of fronts, wrote a great book on raising children, etc.

And it’s worth knowing what made him run for president in 2000- the Clinton administration wanted to (and did) repealed the federal limit of 55MPH on highways – which would lead to thousands of deaths and more air pollution. Nader said he couldn’t even get a meeting with Gore- and said he had never seen grassroots civic groups more shut out of decisionmaking in the White House. Traffic deaths plummeted by 9,000 in 1975 after Carter put the 55MPH cap to conserve oil- I’d love to see an analysis of what Clinton’s repeal did in terms of auto accidents and pollution.

38 carlospln June 7, 2014 at 4:08 am
39 jdm June 8, 2014 at 8:26 pm

Knowing that you to some degree and Alex to a large degree view informed betting as a tax on bullshit, please ask Ralph when you speak to him why he didn’t take nuclear physicist Bernard Cohen up on Cohen’s offer to ingest as much plutonium 239 as Nadar would ingest caffeine. After all, one of the many ‘facts’ that Nadar has made a career of peddling is how very very toxic plutonium is – the most toxic substance known to man, the smallest amount which ingested or inhaled would be enough to kill us all. Most of us imbibe caffeine every day, so surely Nadar would have wanted to jump on this offer as it would doubtless prove Nadar’s point when Cohen died a horrible death shortly afterwards. Surely Nadar didn’t doubt his ‘facts’? Helping to kill the very safe and clean nuclear industry and replacing it with very dirty coal which kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and is changing the climate ranks right up there in Ralph’s list of fine accomplishments with his “There’s no difference between Bush and Gore” schtick in 2000. A truly admirable man.


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