Here is my MRU video on precisely that topic.
Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, by Jesse Norman.
Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography. I’ve browsed some of it, it looks really quite good, noting that in general authorized biographies bore me.
Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea, the Korean conflicts in broader global perspective. Good advance reviews, looks interesting on a browse.
Economic Theory of Greed, Love, Groups, and Networks, by Paul Frijters with Gigi Foster.
Daniel Klein of George Mason University has conducted one of the broadest studies with the Google search engine [TC: the paper is here]…On the subject of individualization, he found that the word “preferences” was barely used until about 1930, but usage has surged since. On the general subject of demoralization, he finds a long decline of usage in terms like “faith,” “wisdom,” “ought,” “evil” and “prudence,” and a sharp rise in what you might call social science terms like “subjectivity,” “normative,” “psychology” and “information.”
Klein adds the third element to our story, which he calls “governmentalization.” Words having to do with experts have shown a steady rise. So have phrases like “run the country,” “economic justice,” “nationalism,” “priorities,” “right-wing” and “left-wing.” The implication is that politics and government have become more prevalent.
So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.
This story, if true, should cause discomfort on right and left. Conservatives sometimes argue that if we could just reduce government to the size it was back in, say, the 1950s, then America would be vibrant and free again. But the underlying sociology and moral culture is just not there anymore. Government could be smaller when the social fabric was more tightly knit, but small government will have different and more cataclysmic effects today when it is not.
Liberals sometimes argue that our main problems come from the top: a self-dealing elite, the oligarchic bankers. But the evidence suggests that individualism and demoralization are pervasive up and down society, and may be even more pervasive at the bottom. Liberals also sometimes talk as if our problems are fundamentally economic, and can be addressed politically, through redistribution. But maybe the root of the problem is also cultural. The social and moral trends swamp the proposed redistributive remedies.
Here is more, interesting throughout.
You will find it here, at MRUniversity.com. We have recorded videos covering, annotating, and explaining every single chapter of Smith’s masterwork Wealth of Nations, along with some coverage of surrounding historical material. Having to explain a book “along the way” is a very interesting way to read, and I was surprised how much Wealth of Nations rose in my eyes as a result of this project. I would like to do Keynes and Hayek and perhaps Marx in this manner as well.
Will Hutton writes:
At least Summers sees some underlying economic dynamism. For techno-pessimists such as economist Professor Tyler Cowen the future is even darker. It is not only that automation and robotisation are coming, but that there are no new worthwhile transformational technologies for them to automate. All the obvious human needs – to move, to have power, to communicate – have been solved through cars, planes, mobile phones and computers. According to Cowen, we have come to the end of the great “general purpose technologies” (technologies that transform an entire economy, such as the steam engine, electricity, the car and so on) that changed the world. There are no new transformative technologies to carry us forward, while the old activities are being robotised and automated. This is the “Great Stagnation”.
Such views make for a convenient target, but that is not close to what I wrote in The Great Stagnation. For instance on p.83 you will find me proclaiming, after several pages of details, “For these reasons, I am optimistic about getting some future low-hanging fruit.” Those are not Straussian passages hidden like the extra Nirvana audio track at the end of Nevermind. The very subtitle of the book announces “How America…(Eventually) Will Feel Better Again.”
I also argue in the book that the internet is the next transformational technology, and that it is already here, though it needs some time to mature and pay off. I devoted an entire separate book to this theme, namely The Age of the Infovore, which suggests that for autistics and other infovores massive progress already has arrived.
It is also odd that Hutton mentions robots and automation. My next book considers those factors in great detail, but you won’t find either term or variants thereof in the index of The Great Stagnation. Nor do I have the dual worry that both everything will be automated and there is nothing left to automate, as stated by Hutton.
The lesson perhaps is that if a book has a pessimistic-sounding title, mentions of optimism will go unheeded, even if they are in the subtitle. Might that be an example of the fallacy of mood affiliation?
1. T. J. Clark, Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. I guess I had to read this one, but it did deliver as I had promised. Excellent color plates, and overall a very good book (the best?) on what makes Picasso special.
2. C.P. Snow, Variety of Men. Have I mentioned that most older books — beyond the immediate classics — are, well…crud? But this series of portraits, covering such diverse figures as Ernest Rutherford and Robert Frost, is both entertaining and useful.
3. Julian Barnes, Levels of Life. A subtle and moving short tale which cannot be described without introducing spoilers. Avoids the problems which plagues some of Barnes’s less-deep works. Right now out in the UK only, U.S. release coming later in the year.
5. Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, A Secret Army, and a War at the End of the Earth. On the origins of drone warfare and also how the role of the CIA has changed. The contents of this book, which cover secret intelligence (in a non-sensationalized fashion) are difficult to judge, but I can say it held my interest.
I’d be curious to see Tyler’s “completist” list. In other words, authors whose entire body of work merits reading. If this does get a response, I’m most interested in seeing the list begin with literature.
I’ll repeat my earlier mention of Geza Vermes. And to make the exercise meaningful, let’s rule out people who wrote one or two excellent books and then stopped. Adam Smith is too easy a pick. I won’t start with literature, however, but here are some choices:
1. Fernand Braudel.
2. George Orwell. Plato. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Hume. William James.
3. Franz Kafka, he died young.
4. T.J. Clark, historian of art and European thought.
5. J.C. D. Clark, the British historian.
Let’s stop here and take stock. Many historians will make the list, because if they are good they will find it difficult to produce crap. Without research, they cannot put pen to paper, and with research a careful, thoughtful historian is likely to be interesting. With thought you could come up with a few hundred historians who were consistently interesting and never wrote a bad book. Then you have a few extreme geniuses, and J.S. Mill might make the list if not for System of Logic, which by the way Mill himself thought stood among his best works. Timon of Athens hurts Shakespeare but he also comes very close.
Do any producers of “ideas books” make this list? Other than those listed under #2 of course. And are there truly consistent (and excellent) authors of fiction, other than those with a small number of works? I’m not thinking of many. How about Virginia Woolf or John Milton or Jane Austen?
One also could make an “opposite” of this list, namely important authors whose works are mostly not worth reading, and you could start with Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley. The existence of Kindle makes it easier to discover who these people really are.
The subtitle is How Economic Growth Has Made us Smarter — and More Unequal, you can buy a copy here.
From Chris Acree:
I’m planning a trip which will take me through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I recently began selecting a few books about each country to read to cover the history, culture, or other interesting aspects of the area. In particular, my favorite books in this vein are Country Driving and China Airborne, both about China.
However, in searching, I’ve found Cambodia has plenty of literature (Cambodia’s Curse by Pulitzer winner Joel Brinkley seems a good starting point), and Vietnam has at least a couple good books (I picked up Vietnam: Rising Dragon at your recommendation), whereas Thailand seems bereft of strong English-language histories or non-guide travel books. Amazon searches return almost exclusively books targeted towards sex tourists, and the Economist article here http://www.economist.com/node/16155881 is mostly over 10 years old. Kindle availability is also unavailable for most of their selections, which, while not a necessity for me, hints at books that aren’t aging well or being actively updated.
Has no reputable author written a great Thai travel book in the last 10 years? If not, why not? What books would you recommend on Thailand?
How about this biography of Bhumibol Adulyadej? Falcon of Siam is historical fiction of note. Thailand — Culture Smart! is good for browsing. You can read a variety of books on Jim Thompson, and speaking of Thompson this cookbook by David Thompson is a must. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is one of the best movies ever made; watch these too, noting that Syndromes and a Century offers insight into the Thai health care system. I am not recommending use of such services, but perhaps the best of the books for sex tourists are interesting too? Siamese Soul is a good retro collection of Thai popular music from the 1960s through 1980s, hard on some ears but I like it.
People, what else do you recommend?
The subtitle is The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, and I read it straight through in one sitting. It is the best book on its topic, and anyone interested in this area should buy and read it immediately.
Well, in a time travel sort of way. Lewis once wrote this:
You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act — that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?
That quotation is from the new eBook by Steven Poole, You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture. The book is cranky, often self-contradictory, and also reasonably entertaining.
This 2011 book by John Julius Norwich is both an excellent travel book and one of the very best ways of learning more about the history of England. It is remarkably wide-ranging and properly treats economic and technological (and artistic) history on a par with political history. Here is one short excerpt:
Of all the villages of Suffolk, Lavenham — pronounced with a short ‘a’ as in have — is the most enchanting. It is a monument to the huge boom in the wool industry that occurred between about 1380 and 1550, and seems to have changed amazingly little since. Here you will find not just individual timber-framed houses but whole streets of them, their overhanging jetties leaning and lurching like drunken platoons. The Guildhall in the Market Place was built in the 1520s by one of the three guilds founded to regulate the wool trade. Another, now known simply as the Wool Hall, dates from 1464; it stands on the corner of Lady Street and now forms part of the Swan Hotel.
…These churches [TC: they are sometimes called "Wool Churches"] demonstrate, better than anything else could, the fabulous wealth of their benefactors, the late medieval wool merchants, some of whom, by the end of the fourteenth century, had become rich enough to replace the Florentine financiers who underwrote the royal debts.
Definitely recommended, you can buy the book here.
I’ve seen this work bashed a number of times in the blogosphere over the last few years. It didn’t get everything right, but it remains an important and seminal work and at the time of its publication it was a revelatory work. Let’s turn the microphone over to Albert Hirschman, hardly a right-wing ideologue. This is from Jeremy Adelman’s very useful biography of Hirschman:
…when he [Hirschman] found a copy of Friedrich von Hayek’s recently published…The Road to Serfdom in a Rome bookstore, a nerve was struck: “Reading this book is very useful for someone like me who grew up in a ‘collectivist’ climate — it makes you rethink many things and has shown me in how many important points I have moved away from the beliefs I had when I was 18 years old. The experience of the army has also confirmed or rather demonstrated forcefully the advantages of a monetary society, anonymous, and where one preserves at least a sector of private initiative.”
…Even more than a reminder of his skepticism of statist planners, Hayek got at something Hirschman felt strongly: the need to acknowledge the basic limits to the “intelligibility” of our complex world. Leaders were wont to claim complete knowledge when they did not have it and thus to squash the individual’s ability to make adjustments “to changes who cause and nature he cannot understand.”
Hirschman was never convinced by Hayek’s desire to rely so heavily on the market, but in this appreciation of the book you will find more wisdom than in the recent attempted take downs. In essence, the critics are not grasping how backward was the intellectual climate when Hayek’s book came out and what a useful corrective it was.
By the way, here is a new and good Cass Sunstein review of the Adelman bio of Hirschman.
Addendum: From the comments, Ricardo points us to Sen’s nice words about the book.
This is every bit as good as volume one. I now also know why he titled the whole thing what is in essence *Mein Kampf* (no, the author is not a Nazi, but rather he is rather savagely poking fun at modernity and the modern notion of struggle).
You can buy it here. It is better, by the way, to read volume one first, but if you picked this up blind, without having read the first part, you would do just fine with it.
Think about it: Carlsen, Knausgaard, and the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. This has been some century (so far) for The Land of the Midnight Sun.
I loved this novel. It is immediately gripping, subtle, fun to read, runs counter to cliche, and is also fairly short. You will find some (strongly positive) reviews here. I quite liked her last book, but if you didn’t, this is a whole level better, and different in nature, so you should try it anyway.