Books

I asked that question of Michael Orthofer, and his answer was this:

Underrated, I would absolutely think the regional language and literature of India. I think surprisingly, even though, perhaps, English is the main literary language of India and a great deal is locally translated, even there much of the vernacular literature still isn’t available in English.

What one can see of it and also in part hear about it — we’re missing an awful lot. There is a literary culture there, especially, for example, in Bengali, but we’ve had that since Tagore. One of the remarkable things is Tagore won his Nobel prize over a hundred years ago, and there are still novels by him which haven’t been translated into English. He is really a very good novelist.

It’s truly worthwhile, and this goes for many regions. The southern region of Kerala where they write in Malayalam — there’s remarkable literary production there, and we just see so little of it.

My inclination was to suggest Chile.  Here’s why this country of below 18 million people is nonetheless a fierce literary contender:

1. Pablo Neruda was one of the two or three best poets of the latter part of the twentieth century.   His Canto general is not his best poetic work but as a general statement of the history and underlying unity of the New World it is unparalleled.  Gabriela Mistral is noteworthy too.

2. José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of the Night is one of the very best Latin novels, yet it is hardly read these days, I am not sure why.  I think it is clearly better than say One Hundred Years of Solitude.

3. Roberto Bolaño is probably the most important Latin author post-García Márquez, and he is from Chile, though he wrote much more about Mexico.

4. Antonio Skármeta isn’t even a top figure in this lineage yet he is still quite good, the same holds for Ariel Dorfman (born in Argentina, moved to Chile shortly afterwards), Alejandro Zambra, and yes Isabel Allende, who is the Chilean author most in the public eye in the United States.  She is usually too sentimental for my taste but some of it I enjoy nonetheless.

And why is Chile underrated?  Well, when you are there it feels fairly provincial — just ask a Porteño.  Bolaño didn’t stick around and more generally exile from Pinochet prevented the creation of any well-defined group or movement.  The Pinochet years also gave Chile a…shall we say…non-artistic reputation, and finally both Neruda and Doñoso don’t translate so well out of the Spanish.

Do you have an alternative choice?

Swedish church to use drones to drop thousands of Bibles in ISIS-controlled Iraq

The story is here, via Joel Grus.

How should one approach an overwhelming bookstore, namely the famous Strand in New York City?  Where to start, which books should you discard, and how do you make those final choices?  What if you could pick only three books to take home?

Michael Orthofer and I spent an hour together in the store, and our interaction was distilled into this 7:59 video.  Self-recommending!  And kudos to Jeff Holmes for doing the real work.

Here is my Conversations with Tyler dialogue with Michael Orthofer, the man who wants to read everything.

What I’ve been reading

by on August 4, 2016 at 1:02 am in Books | Permalink

1. Charles Clover, Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism.  Lots of detail, not just the usual BS, scary too.  Too much detail, too scary, thus a good book.

2. Christopher Goscha, The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam.  The best general history of Vietnam I know, and it does not obsess over “the Vietnam War.”  Readable and instructive on pretty much every page.

3. Adolfo Bioy Cesares, La invención de Morel.  One of the better short Spanish-language novels, ever.  I’ve already started my reread.  Borges, Cortázar, Carpentier, and García Márquez all expressed their admiration for it.  Imagine a mysterious island that becomes more rather than less strange as the story develops, and characters start to wonder if they are living inside a simulation.

4. Samuel Arbesman, Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension.  I was very happy to blurb this book: “Why can’t we understand technology anymore? In this consistently entertaining and insightful book, Arbesman offers a necessary guide to where we are headed and why everything seems so strange along the way.”  Here are a variety of positive reviews.

5. Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai.  First published in 2000 to strong critical acclaim, the publisher ended up going bankrupt and this more or less fell off the map, until its recent reissue.  If I count it as a new edition, it is my favorite fiction book of the year so far.  I don’t think all parts of the novel work equally well, but the best parts are superb and most of all it is a book written for smart people.  Even before finishing, I went and ordered everything else she has done.  That is not a lot, but I hear through the grapevine she has a good deal of writing in the works.  Here is the lead Amazon review on Samurai:

This book is joyful and thrilling. The intimate and familiar story of a single mother struggling to raise a young son is made original and even epic by the sheer elasticity and power of author Helen DeWitt’s imagination. Mother and Son, Sybilla and Ludo, both possessed of gifted and versatile minds, are obsessed with the Kurosawa classic, The Seven Samurai (a film I always felt forced to appreciate until I read this book). Syb uses the film to provide the male role models the boy doesn’t have in his life, and Ludo uses it to develop his own version of a Samurai test with which he plans to find the best father possible for himself. Armed with the refrain that ‘a good samurai will parry the blow’ he sets out to test and win over men of samurai mettle who might recognize his merits. The true joy of reading the book comes in the fact that even though mother and son are both geniuses, multi lingual and well versed in history, literature, math and sciences, their pursuits in learning and discovery seem exciting and comprehensible. What at first description might sound intellectually intimidating (Ancient Greek, Old Norse, Ptolemaic Alexandria, Fourier Analysis and a blow by blow with variations on the theme of the Rosetta Stone) are made accessible and often hilarious by the dazzling ingenuity and finesse of the wonderful Dewitt. Reading it made me feel I had suddenly come across a vast unrealized potential in myself for the power of creative thought and the ability to comprehend complex ideas. All this disguised in a book of fabulous adventure and tremendous longing.

Here is her superb short LRB piece on being stalked.  Here is one earlier and somewhat explicit profile of Dewitt, here is her response: “If you don’t see the dead books, turning down a $525,000 deal looks strange.”  Here is a very good New York profile.

I say it is Peter Navarro, of UC Irvine, and here is my Bloomberg View profile of him.  Excerpt:

Trump praised a Navarro book and documentary film critical of China, and while the economist has never met the candidate, he describes a campaign role as follows: “I now work closely with the campaign on issues related to the economy, trade, China, and foreign policy in Asia.” He endorsed and defended Trump in a March essay, and given that relatively few academic economists have embraced the Trump candidacy, Navarro is plausibly a leading candidate for a top job in a Trump administration.

…Navarro’s other writings on China have hovered between these extremes of tone, but in general he has been pushing the line that the U.S. should be tough on trade, crack down on intellectual property theft, tax Chinese exports, combat Chinese mercantilism, bring jobs home, and yes, make America great again. If you want to read one thinker to understand Trump on China, it is Navarro.

There is much more at the link, including a discussion of Navarro’s academic career (he has many good pieces in a Chicago School, public choice, law and economics vein), his writings on investing (unreliable and oversold), and how he is a significant transitional figure for the Republican Party on moving from a mostly pro-China attitude to extreme China skepticism.  It is very easy for me to imagine the not-yet-on-the-radar-screen Navarro having one of the leading economic roles in a Trump Administration, do read the whole thing it may be (p = 0.3) our future.

Over the past two years, 18 cities have reported how many bookstores they have, and 20 have reported on their public libraries.

Hong Kong leads the pack with 21 bookshops per 100,000 people, though last time Buenos Aires sent in its count, in 2013, it was the leader, with 25. New York does OK, with around 840 bookstores for 8.4 million people, but London, whose population is only slightly bigger than New York, counts only 360 stores.

Taipei and Madrid do well too.  In terms of what you actually get, I think of Buenos Aires and Madrid as standing at the top.  My casual impression is that a lot of the Asian bookstores are more vocational than useful to a reader such as myself or Michael Orthofer.

For libraries Edinburgh is #1 by more than a factor of five.

That is the new Joel Mokyr book, due out in November, file under Arrived in My Pile.

Here is the book’s home page, here is a related talk.

That is the latest entry in the Conversations with Tyler series, here is the transcript, audio, and video.  Here is the overview:

Michael Orthofer, one of the world’s most prolific book reviewers, joins Tyler Cowen for a conversation on — what else? — books. Read to discover why Michael believes everyone should read more fiction, how we should choose books, why American popular literature is overrated, what he thinks about authors like Herman Melville, Fyoder Dostoevsky, Goethe, J.K. Rowling, Arno Schmidt, and many others, his recommendations for the best sites for readers, why studying literature at college was such a big disappointment, how much book covers matter, and why his opinion will never be the final word.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s another life hack which I totally reject, but it may just be because I’m an addict of sorts. You tell me why, for you, it’s wrong.

A lot of people say to me, “Well, I love fiction, but I’m never going to read new works because I can’t tell what’s really good. I’ll just wait 20 years and then look back on what was truly excellent from 20 years ago and read that 20 years later. In the meantime, now I’ll just read classics or things in other areas which are verified as being truly excellent.” Does that make sense?

ORTHOFER: I worry very much about people who rely on what gets that stamp of approval. Just because it has a cover review in the New York Times Book Review does not mean that that book really is, if we look at it from five or ten years down the road — that that book will still be a significant work. I find so much which is highly praised at any one point long‑term won’t be. Again, however — .

Another question:

COWEN: If we take American citizens, who are not necessarily the people who read you, but at the margin, we could give them more nonfiction, we could give them more travel, we could give them more fiction, or we could actually give them more of some really good TV, which of those things are we rooting for them to do more of, at the margin?

And this exchange:

COWEN: Bottom’s Dream. Most people have never heard of Arno Schmidt.

ORTHOFER: Regrettably, no.

COWEN: We have a chance now to read his masterwork. Some of his others are in English already. Tell us why we should care.

COWEN: But you giggled when you read Bottom’s Dream, right?

ORTHOFER: Yes.

COWEN: You giggled a lot.

ORTHOFER: The English edition, I think, is just under 1,500 pages.

COWEN: A mere pittance compared to Dream of the Red Chamber, right?

Do read the whole thing.

Here is my short review of Michael’s big book on world literature: “If you measure book quality by the actual marginal product of the text, this is one of the best books written, ever.  Reading the manuscript in draft form induced me to a) write an enthusiastic blurb, and b) order about forty items through Amazon, mostly used of course.  The book is basically a comprehensive guide to what is valuable and interesting in recently translated world literature, a meta-book so to speak, with extensive coverage of most of the countries you might want.”  And here is Michael’s blog.  You can order Michael’s book here.

Thank you all for making the first day of The Complacent Class such a success; pre-orders were strong and according to one standard metric it was the #1 best-selling book for Monday.

I am working to get you information on Kindle pre-order, as of now the pre-order extra book offer still stands.  I also am told that on UK Amazon you have to search for title, not by my name, for whatever reason.

That is my new Bloomberg View column, here are some excerpts:

Enter Richard von Glahn’s “The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century,” a book likely to go down as one of the year’s best. Over the last 15 years, the economics profession has gone from a poor understanding of China’s economic history to knowing quite a bit. Von Glahn’s exhaustive but readable book is the best guide to this rapidly growing body of knowledge.

…a lot of autocratic Chinese regimes in history have proven stable even in periods of fairly slow economic growth. It can take them centuries to fall and be replaced, and even then a foreign invasion, like ones by the Mongols or Manchus, may be required.

From today’s media, one sometimes receives the impression that a Chinese growth rate below 4 or 6 percent could mean radical instability and a rapid fall of the government, but Chinese history does not show this pattern. That is hardly proof of how things will run in the future, but it should shift our expectations in the direction of greater Chinese political stability.

Other times, Chinese regimes can fall for what might at first appear to be relatively arbitrary reasons.  And the key point is this:

If there is a single common theme running through the many centuries covered by this book, it is the never-fully-successful quest of the Chinese state for revenue and fiscal stability. One reason China fell behind Western Europe in the 18th century is simply that the Chinese state spent less on creating valuable public goods and infrastructure.

In 1993, 15 years after it began making market-oriented reforms, the Chinese central government’s direct revenue was only 3 percent  of gross domestic product, with the usual caveat that no Chinese numbers should be taken as exact measures. Only in the last 10 years has that revenue share exceeded 10 percent of GDP; by comparison, in the U.S. in normal times that number sits in the range of 17 to 18 percent. For all the images Americans might have of China’s government as a communist behemoth, the country’s political order is better understood as still somewhat immature.

Do read the whole thing.  You can order Glahn’s book here, it is one of my favorites of the year so far.

That is my next book, now finished, due out February 2017 from St. Martin’s Press.  You can pre-order it from Amazon or Barnes&Noble.  Recommended!

Very little of the content of this book has appeared on Marginal Revolution.  It contains my thoughts on the death of American restlessness, what is happening with segregation by race and income, how we have become a nation of “matchers,” why crime rates will move up, the ultimate sociological roots of the economic great stagnation, why Steven Pinker is probably wrong about world peace, what we can learn from the riots and violence of the 1960s, why the bureaucratization of protest matters, marijuana vs. cocaine vs. heroin, in which significant way gdp statistics really do under-measure productivity, the importance of cyclical theories of history, and what Tocqueville got right and wrong about America.

And much more!  Most of all it is about why the future will be a scary place.

I also am making a special offer for those who pre-order the work.  Just send me an email to tcowen@gmu.edu (or my gmail), and tell me you have pre-ordered The Complacent Class, and I’ll send you a free copy of another work by me — about 45,000 words — on the foundations of a free society.

I have been revising this second one for over fifteen years, and it is called Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.  It is finally ready.

You will receive links to an on-line version with images, a pdf with images, and a plain vanilla pdf for Kindle.

In that work, I outline a true and objectively valid case for a free and prosperous society, and consider the importance of economic growth for political philosophy, how and why the political spectrum should be reconfigured, how we should think about existential risk, what is right and wrong in Parfit and Nozick and Singer and effective altruism, how to get around the Arrow Impossibility Theorem, to what extent individual rights can be absolute, how much to discount the future, when redistribution is justified, whether we must be agnostic about the distant future, and most of all why we need to “think big.”

These are my final thoughts on those topics.  And to be fair, this is likely to come out someday as a more traditional book, but that will not happen soon as I have not shopped it around to any publisher.  So if you pre-order The Complacent Class, you’ll get what is an advance and also free copy of Stubborn Attachments.

Are you feeling down because of the political conventions?  Or maybe you’re feeling down because of me?  This is exactly the bracing and optimistic tonic you need.  These two works, taken as a whole, cover where we are at and also where we need to go.

Addendum: If you are a member of the media and would like to receive a review copy of THE COMPLACENT CLASS (St. Martin’s Press; On-sale: February 28, 2017), please contact Gabrielle Gantz: gabrielle.gantz@stmartins.com; or 646-307-5698.

Three new books on Europe

by on July 24, 2016 at 9:32 pm in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

Markus K. Brunnermeier, Harold James, and Jean-Pierre Landau, The Euro and the Battle of Ideas.

Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, Europe Isn’t Working.

Philipp Ther, Europe Since 1989.

All three appear to be useful…

That is the new and excellent book by Kerry Brown.  Almost all books on China are either bad or mediocre, but this one is the best book I ever have read on the exercise of power in contemporary China.  Every page is good, here is a short excerpt:

More important than a cabinet in the Western system of government, yet ostensibly separate from day-to-day decision making, the Politburo owns the crucial function of dispensing ideological, spiritual and political leadership.  This description means it covers nothing and everything.  It has the broadest framework within which to operate, which means it can wander into every area of administrative and governmental life in the country.  But like the ideal city described in Plato’s Republic, in a strange way China is really run on the model of philosopher kings.

Definitely recommended, one of my favorite non-fiction books of the year so far.  I can readily imagine re-reading it.

What I’ve been browsing

by on July 22, 2016 at 12:43 am in Books | Permalink

1. Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion.  I am not right now looking to read 595 pp. on mid-19th century Marxism, but this is a high quality Belknap book which should be of great interest to some.

2. Marc-William Palen, The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalization, 1846-1896.  On how free trade debates reshaped America’s political parties and also how free trade and anti-imperialist views were connected.  Interesting in parts, but too dependent on concepts such as “neoliberalism.”

3. Lawrence Rosen, Two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew.  A very fine work of anthropology about Morocco, focusing on the lives of four men, read this very good review.

4. Marc Levinson, An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy.  There need to be many more books on this critical topic.

5. Matthew D. Adler and Mac Fleurbaey, The Oxford Handbook of Well-Being and Public Policy.  A superb collection on contemporary welfare economics, and I usually dislike edited collections.