what i've been reading
My local public library has reopened! From the library and from elsewhere, I have been enjoying:
1. Orlando Figes, The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture. The three lives are Turgenev, his mistress Pauline Viardot, and the husband of his mistress, Louis Viardot, a noted financier and activist. Consistently interesting, even if you are not looking to read about those three particular figures.
2. John Dickie, The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World. Although it has a stereotypically bad subtitle, this is an excellent book. It clarifies exactly where the Freemasons came from (dissident thought connected to James II), its connection to actual masons, how the movement got routed through Scotland, its prominence to the Enlightenment, its African-American component (Martin Delany), how it influenced Joseph Smith and Mormonism, why Castro tolerated it and the Shah of Iran encouraged it, and much more. Not in the book, but did you know that the Freemasons claim Shaquille O’Neal? Shaq confirms.
3. Callum Williams, The Classical School: The Turbulent Birth of Economics in Twenty Extraordinary Lives. A clear, well-written, and useful introduction to the lives and thought of some of the leading classical economists. The “unusual picks,” by the way, are Harriet Martineau, Rosa Luxemburg, and Dadabhai Naoroji. The author is a senior economics writer for The Economist.
4. Michael Hunter, The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment. “Though it is often thought that the scientists of the early Royal Society tested magic and found it wanting, this is a misconception. In fact, the society avoided the issue because its members’ views on the subject were so divided, and it was only in retrospect that this silence was interpreted as judgmental.”
Forthcoming from Marc Levinson, the author of The Box, is a new book Outside the Box: How Globalization Changed from Moving Stuff to Spreading Ideas, a more general history of globalization.
1. Brent Tarter, Virginians and Their Histories. The best book I have read on the history of Virginia, by an order of magnitude. And in turn that makes it an excellent book on race as well, and also on broader American history. If I have to spend the whole year in this state, I might as well read about it. I learned also that 21,172 Virginians have identified themselves as American Indians, and that this movement is more active than I had realized.
2. Diary of Anne Frank. It seems inappropriate to call this a “good” or even “great” book. I had not read it since high school, I will just say it deserves its enduring status, and the reread was much more rewarding and interesting than what I was expecting.
3. Howard Brotz, editor, African-American Social & Political Thought 1850-1920. A fascinating selection from the debates of the time, reprinting Douglass, Booker T., Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Martin Delany, and others. Douglass holds up best, including his critique of colonialism. The weakest argument in the volume was “Haiti is working out fine, so Liberia will succeed as well.” Of greatest interest to me was the extent to which the African-American debates of that time overlapped with opinions about Africa and the Caribbean. Recommended, and excellent background for many of the current disputes.
4. Simone Weil: An Anthology, and Gravity and Grace. Gravity and Grace is the early work. Its ten best pages are superb, but reading it is mostly a frustrating experience, due to the diffuse nature of the presentation (to be clear, overall I consider that a relatively high reward ratio). The former collection is the best place to start, noting again there is a certain degree of diffuseness, but as with Žižek there are insights you just don’t get anywhere else. A good question for any talent selection algorithm is whether it would pick out the teenage Weil and give her a grant to pursue her writing projects. Sadly she died at age 34 in 1943.
1. Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea. Yes compelling, and a sufficiently influential book that you should read it. But aren’t you ever tempted to ask: has anyone ever behaved like that?
2. Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History. An elegantly written book, offering an optimistic take on human nature and cooperativeness. I am not sure there is anything fundamentally new in here, but I did in fact read and finish it.
3. Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary. A very good and readable biography of exactly what it promises, also manages to avoid hagiography.
4. R. James Breiding, Too Small to Fail: Why some small nations outperform larger ones and how they are reshaping the world. A very useful book expanding on the theme that smaller nations have the potential to be much better governed and thus to have smarter policy and greater accountability.
I have not yet read Steven Johnson, Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt, but in general I enjoy his works and find them smart.
There is also Jim Tankersley, The Riches of This Land: The untold, true story of America’s middle class.
Richard W. Hamming, The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn is the latest Stripe Press blockbuster. Here is more information about the book.
1. Jon Elster, France Before 1789: The Unraveling of an Absolutist Regime. A useful historical introduction to the period, but most notable for taking canons of good social science explanation seriously throughout each step of the analysis. For one thing, it helps you realize how few people do that, but at the same time you wonder how much restating events in terms of social science mechanisms actually helps historical explanation. A smart book and very well-informed book in any case.
2. Paul Preston, A People Betrayed: A History of Corruption, Political Incompetence and Social Division in Modern Spain. A highly detailed but also analytical account of how Spanish political economy became so screwed up. Runs from the 1830s up through the financial crisis, and focuses why Spain was backward in nation-building. Maybe too detailed for some but I believe there is no other book like it.
3. Henry M. Cowles, The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey. Argue that the true scientific method did not develop until the mid-to late 19th century. A good book, although perhaps more for historians of ideas than students of science per se.
John Anthony McGuckin, The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History is both a good introduction and deep enough for those well-read in this area.
There is also Paul Matzko, The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built and Modern Conservative Movement. I don’t listen to (non-satellite) radio, but some of you should find this interesting.
1. Alex Wiltshire and John Short, Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation. Thrilling photos, I suspect the text is very good too but I don’t need to read it to recommend this one.
2. Jonathan Bate, Radical Wordsworth: the poet who changed the world. A magisterial biography by Bates, who has been working on this one for many years. The best Wordsworth (ah, but you must be selective!) is at the very heights of poetry, and Bate exhibits a great sympathy for his subject. if you wish to understand how the still semi-pastoral England of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution transformed into…something else, Wordsworth is a key figure.
3. Maria Pia Paganelli, The Routledge Guidebook to Smith’s Wealth of Nations. It goes through WoN book by book, this is the best reading guide to Smith that I know of.
4. Daniel Todman, Britain’s War 1942-1947. An excellent book, one of the best of the year, full of politics and economics too. You might think you have read enough very good WWII books, but in fact there is always another one you should pick up. Right now this is it.
5. Carl Jung, UFOs: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. A short book of high variance, occasionally fascinating, half of the time interesting, often incoherent. The most interesting parts are the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” discussions, basically suggesting that decentralized mechanisms do not give people a sufficient sense of “wholeness.” He is trying to find a classical liberal answer to the fascist temptation, and worried that perhaps he cannot do it.
I have only skimmed Bruce A. Kimball and Daniel R. Coquilette, The Intellectual Sword: Harvard Law School, The Second Century, but it appears to be an impressive achievement at 858 pp.
1. Jordan Mechner, The Making of Prince of Persia: Journals 1985-1993. A memoir and game development journal from a game developer. The content is foreign to me, but this is one of the most beautiful and artistic books I ever have seen and I suspect some of you will find the narrative gripping. A product of Stripe Press — “Ideas for Progress.”
2. Jeffrey D. Sachs, The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions. This book is a series of lectures, based on Sachs’s earlier work on economic geography and development, yet somehow with a vaguely Yuval Harari sort of glow. Some parts are a good introduction to the earlier work of Sachs, other parts are pitched a bit too low or too generally. It is strange to see chapter subheadings such as “Thalassocracy and Tellurocracy.” As an economist, I still maintain that Sachs is considerably underrated.
3. Susanna Clarke, Piranesi. Yes this is a work of fiction. Clarke of course wrote Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a very long novel that I have read twice, an odd mix of fantasy, science, magic, and Enlightenment esotericism, the only novel I know with fascinating footnotes. I was thrilled to receive this one, and on p.51 I am still excited.
4. Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs. The hot new novel from Japan, it comes with a Murakami rave endorsement. To me it seems like “ordinary feminism” (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and so far it is a bore. If it doesn’t get better soon, I’ll write it off as a “mood affiliation text,” not that there’s anything wrong with that. It probably makes most sense read in a very specific cultural context.
5. Douglas Boin, Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome is a fun look at one part of ancient history through alternative eyes. I always wonder what to trust about this era other than primary sources, and if you can’t understand them or grasp them intelligibly maybe that is itself the correct inference, namely that we have no idea what the **** went on back then. Still, as imaginary reconstructions go, this is one that ought to be done and now it is.
6. Ryan Patrick Hanley, Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life. Smith as a practical moral philosopher, this short volume pulls out the side of Smith closest to Montaigne and the Stoics. You can ponder Smithian sentences such as “The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another.”
7. Sonia Jaffe, Robert Minton, Casey B. Mulligan, Kevin M. Murphy, Chicago Price Theory. A very good intermediate micro text, patterned after how Econ 301 is taught at Chicago. Apparently in the current Coasean equilibrum, this book ends up published by Princeton University Press. Get the picture?
From a legal perspective there is Ron Harris, Going the Distance: Eurasian Trade and the Rise of the Business Corporation, 1400-1700.
1. Ethan Sherwood Strauss, The Victory Machine: The Making and Unmaking of the Warriors Dynasty. On top of everything else this is an excellent book on management, and the random events along the way to making a team (the Warriors once wanted to trade both Curry and Thompson for Chris Paul). Kevin Durant ends up as the fall guy, recommended to those who care.
2. Valerie Hansen, The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World — and Globalization Began. Worth reading, my favorite part was the discussion of how Cahokia in Mississippi was connected to the Mayans. And Chichen Itza is probably the world’s best preserved city from the year 1000.
3. Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. “Drawing on inspiring examples, from Socrates and Augustine to Malcolm X and Elena Ferrante, and from films to Hitz’s own experiences as someone who walked away from elite university life in search of greater fulfillment, Lost in Thought is a passionate and timely reminder that a rich life is a life rich in thought.”
4. Alaine Polcz, One Woman in the War: Hungary 1944-1945. I am surprised this book is not better known. I found it deeper and more gripping than many of the more broadly recommended wartime memoirs, such as Viktor Frankl. And more honest about the toll of war on women.
5. Adam Thierer, Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments. A very good libertarian, “permissionless innovation” look at tech.
I have browsed Judith Herrin’s Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe, and it seems to be the definitive book on the early history of that city (one of my favorite one-day visits in the whole world).
1. Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, quite a good book.
2. Louis Galambos with Jane Eliot Sewell, Networks of Innovation: Vaccine Development at Merck, Sharp and Dohme, and Mulford, 1895-1995. Imagine a book with both Vannevar Bush and Maurice Hilleman as leading and indeed intersecting characters. How is this for a sentence?: “Hilleman had spent his boyhood on a farm on which the German-American tradition was to “work like hell and live by the tenets of Martin Luther.””
3. John Duffy, The Sanitarians: A History of American Public Health. A little boring, and not conceptual enough, but is anything on this topic entirely boring at the current moment in time? Nonetheless this is a very useful overview and survey of public health issues in American history, and so I do not hesitate to recommend it.
4. Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles, Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites. Remarkably fair-minded and substantive, here is my blurb: “”Who are the Never Trumpers, what do they want, and what are their stories? Robert P. Saldin and Steven Teles have produced the go-to work on a movement that will likely prove of enduring influence in American politics.” Here is a relevant Atlantic article by Saldin and Teles. Recommended.
5. Anne Enright, Actress: A Novel. A subtle Irish story of a woman telling the tale of her now-departed famous, charismatic mother and her career in the theater. Unpeels like an onion as you read it, and reveals successively deeper layers of the story, it would make my “favorite fiction of the year” list pretty much any year. But please note it has not have the “upfront attention-grabbing style” that many of us have been trained to enjoy.
1. Nicholas Hewitt, Wicked City: The Many Cultures of Marseille. Every city should have a good book about it, and now Marseille does. I would say you have to already know the city, however, to appreciate this one.
2. Peter Johnson, Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station, 1872-1959. British Columbia had a quarantine station that late, and this is its story. Leprosy, smallpox, and meningitis are a few of the drivers of the narrative. It continues to startle me how much pandemics and quarantines are a kind of lost history, though they are extremely prominent in 19th century fiction.
3. Steven Levy, Facebook: The Inside Story. Probably the best history of the company were are going to get, at least for the earlier years of the company. Even the jabs at the company seem perfunctory, for the most part this is quite objective as a treatment.
4. Katie Roiphe, The Power Notebooks. Power, sex, dating, and romance, but surprisingly substantive. Much of it is written in paragraph-long segments, and willing to be politically incorrect. “Rebecca West: “Since men don’t love us nearly as much as we love them that leaves them a lot more spare vitality to be wonderful with.”
5. Sean Masaki Flynn, The Cure That Works: How to have the World’s Best Healthcare — at a Quarter of the Price. A look at how to translate ideas from Singapore’s health care system into the United States. It overreaches, but still a useful overview and analysis.
6. Paul R. Josephson, New Atlantis Revisited: Akademgorodok, The Siberian City of Science. Imagine the Soviets trying to build a “city of science,” and meeting problem after problem. Yet “Marchuk acknowledged that in a number of fields researchers had contributed to…the speeding up of scientific technological progress. The physicists built synchroton radiation sources with broad applications; the biologists tacked plant and animal husbandry with vigor; the mathematicians, computer specialists, and economists were engaged in modeling and management systems.”
1. David Nutt, Drink? The New Science of Alcohol + Your Health.
A very good introduction to the growing body of evidence about the harms of alcohol, in all walks of life.
2. Samuel Zipp, The Idealist: Wendell Willkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World.
Who cares about Wendell Willkie? I received this review copy determined not to read it, but of course I could not help but crack open the cover and sample a few pages, and then I was hooked. The first thirty pages alone had excellent discussions of early aviation (Willkie was an aviation pioneer of sorts with a cross-world flight), Midwestern family and achievement culture of the time, and the rise of the United States.
3. I was happy to write a blurb for Michael R. Strain’s The American Dream is Not Dead (But Populism Could Kill It).
4. Simon W. Bowmaker, When the President Calls: Conversations with Economic Policymakers.
The interviewed subjects include Feldstein, Boskin, Rubin, Summers, Stiglitz, Rivlin, Yellen, John Taylor, Lazear, Harvey Rosen, Goolsbee, Orszag, Brainard, Alan Krueger, Furman, Hassett, and others.
4. Cheryl Misak, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers.
Thorough and useful, though not exciting to read.
5. Gabriel Said Reynolds, Allah, God in the Qur’an.
A very good treatment of what it promises, with an emphasis on the concept of mercy in Islam.
6. Sophy Roberts, The Lost Pianos of Siberia.
A wonderful book if you care about the lost pianos of Siberia and indeed I do: “Roberts reminds us in this fresh book that there are still some mysterious parts of our world.” (link here) Also of note is Varlam Shalamov, Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories, the first third being remarkably moving and incisive as well.
There is also Sidney Powell and Harvey A. Silverman, Conviction Machine: Standing Up to Federal Prosecutorial Abuse is a frank and brutal documentation of why you should never trust a prosecutor or speak to the FBI.
Also new and notable is Lily Collison, Spastic Diplegia–Bilateral Cerebral Palsy: Understanding the Motor Problems, Their Impact on Walking, and Management Throughout Life: a Practical Guide for Families.
1. Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism. A very smart, well-written, well-argued book, and an argued book indeed it is. As the title suggests, Kenworthy tries to persuade the reader to embrace social democratic capitalism, but with an emphasis on what government can do, not the market. One rebuttal: responding to the Swiss experience requires far more than the two short paragraphs on pp.105-106, and furthermore Switzerland has done very well in many sectors above and beyond being a financial safe haven (which in some regards hurts those other sectors through exchange rate effects).
Laurence Louër, Sunnis and Shi’a: A Political History of Discord. Captures the complexities, and in fact pulls the reader away from the usual tired dichotomy.
Neil Price, A History of the Vikings: Children of Ash and Elm. I have only browsed this book, yet it appears to have much more information about the Vikings than other books I know, yet without getting squirrelly. That said, I find it difficult to connect books on the Vikings with the broader conceptual narratives I know, and thus I do not retain their content very well. So I am never sure if I should read another book on the Vikings.
John Took’s Dante is the book to read on Dante after you’ve read all the other books (an interesting designation, by the way, I wonder how many areas have such books? In most cases, if you’ve read all the other books you shouldn’t bother with the next one!).
Fred Kaplan, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, is not a secret history, but it is a good general overall introduction to its chosen topic.
Dietrich Vollrath, Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy is a Sign of Success is now out, my previous review is at that link, an excellent book on economic growth and it will make my best of the year list.
Randy Shaw, Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. A YIMBY book, with good historical material on San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other locales involved in the struggle to build more.
Conor Daugherty, Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America. Coming out in February, this is a very good book about the YIMBY movement and its struggles, with a focus on contemporary California, written by a NYT correspondent.
Jennifer Delton, The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism. Why don’t more books fit this model: take one topic and explain it well?
Economists, Photographs by Mariana Cook, edited with an introduction by Robert M. Solow. Self-recommending. Interestingly, I recall an old University of Chicago calendar of economist photographs, still buried in my office somewhere, with pictures of Frank Hyneman Knight, Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, and others. At least in terms of personality types, as might be revealed through photographs, the older collection seems to me far more diverse. Or is the homogenization instead only in terms of photograph poses?
Michael E. O’Hanlon, The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War Over Small Stakes. A very useful practical book about what options a U.S. government would have — short of full war — to deal with international grabs by China or Russia. There should be thirty more books on this topic (#ProgressStudies).
Christopher Caldwell, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties. This is both a very old thesis, but these days quite new, namely the claim that 1965 and the Civil Rights movement created a “new constitution” for America, at variance with the old, and the two constitutions have been at war with each other ever since. It will be one of the influential books “on the Right” this year, I already linked to this Park MacDougald review of the book.
Robert H. Frank, Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work. From the Princeton University Press catalog: “Psychologists have long understood that social environments profoundly shape our behavior, sometimes for the better, often for the worse. But social influence is a two-way street—our environments are themselves products of our behavior. Under the Influence explains how to unlock the latent power of social context. It reveals how our environments encourage smoking, bullying, tax cheating, sexual predation, problem drinking, and wasteful energy use. We are building bigger houses, driving heavier cars, and engaging in a host of other activities that threaten the planet—mainly because that’s what friends and neighbors do.”
Chris W. Surprenant and Jason Brennan, Injustice For All: How Financial Incentives Corrupted and Can Fix the US Criminal Justice System. A good and clear introduction to exactly what the title promises. Possible reforms are “End Policing for Profit,” “Stop Electing Prosecutors and Judges,” “Required Rotation of Public Defenders and Prosecutors,” and others.
Laurence B. Siegel, Fewer, Richer, Greener: Prospects for Humanity in an Age of Abundance. A Julian Simon-esque take on the nature and benefits of economic growth and progress.
Lindsay M. Chervinsky, The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution traces how Washington created a cabinet more than two years into his first term, and modeled after the military councils of the Continental army.
Maxine Eichner, The Free-Market Family: How the Market Crushed the American Dream (and How It Can Be Restored). There are so many anti-market books floating around these days, but this one is more likely to be true than most (the book is not as exaggerated as the subtitle). The author takes too much of a “kitchen sink” approach for my taste, and doesn’t carefully enough consider trade-offs (U.S. as Finland is not actually a dream), but still I would rather spend time with this book than most of what is coming out these days.
Peter Andreas, Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs, does a good job of restoring drugs and alcohol to their rightful place in the history of war.
1. Ben Cohen, The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks. An intelligent popular social science book covering everything from Stephen Curry to Shakespeare to The Princess Bride, David Booth, Eugene Fama, and more. I am not sure the book is actually about “the hot hand” as a unified phenomenon, as opposed to mere talent persistence, but still I will take intelligence over the alternative.
2. Richard J. Lazarus, The Rule of Five: Making Climate History at the Supreme Court. A genuinely interesting and well-presented history of how climate change became a partisan issue in the United States, somewhat broader than its title may indicate.
3. Ryan H. Murphy, Markets Against Modernity: Ecological Irrationality, Public and Private. The book has blurbs from Bryan Caplan and Scott Sumner, and I think of it as an ecological, historically reconstructed account of the demand for irrationality as it relates to the environment, interest in “do-it-yourself,” and the love for small scale enterprise. Interesting, but overpriced.
4. Juan Du, The Shenzhen Experiment: The Story of China’s Instant City. An actual history, as opposed to the usual blah-blah-blah you find in so many China books. The author has a background in architecture and urban planning, and stresses the import of the Pearl River Delta before Deng’s reforms (Shenzhen wasn’t just a run-down fishing village), decentralization in Chinese reforms, and fits and starts in the city’s post-reform history. Anyone who reads books on China should consider this one.
Gordon Teskey, Spenserian Moments, The Master is finally receiving his poetic due.
Toby Ord’s forthcoming The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity is a comprehensive look at existential risk, written by an Oxford philosopher and student of Derek Parfit.
Roderick Floud, An Economic History of the English Garden. Every page of this book does indeed have economics. It just does not have interesting economics. Which may mean that gardens are not so interesting from an economic point of view. Which in turn would make this a good book. But not an interesting book.
Ajantha Subramanian, The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India. A critique of casteism and growing inequality, this book also doubles as a fascinating history of IIT. Best read in Straussian fashion as a sympathetic story of origins.
Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion & The Future of Clothes. Some parts of this book have bad economics and extreme mood affiliation, but in general it has more actual information than other books on the same topic and at times the author makes decent external cost arguments against the current system of clothes production. So a qualified recommendation, at least I am glad I read it, even though some parts are obviously too sloppy.
Razeen Sally, Return to Sri Lanka: Travels in a Paradoxical Island. People do not think enough about Sri Lanka, including in the social sciences! It is a richer and nicer country than what most people are expecting, and it is good for studying both conflict and ethnic tensions. This memoir — information rich rather than just blather — is one good place to get you started.
David Goldblatt, The Age of Football: The Global Game in the Twenty-First Century. Football meaning soccer of course, this book covers how soccer interacts with politics in many particular countries, including Africa, and just how much the game has grown in global markets. Mostly informative, good if you wish to read a book about this topic (I don’t).
Conversations with Zizek. Maybe the best introduction to why Žižek is a richer thinker than his critics allege? The book serves up insights on a consistent basis, and there is a minimum of jargon. Marcus Pound had a good blurb: “Audacious and vertiginous, this book is everything one expects from him, a heady mix of psychoanalysis, politics, theology, philosophy, and cultural studies that will leave the reader both exhausted and exhilarated.”