what i've been reading

What I’ve been reading

1. Gregory M. Collins, Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke’s Political Economy.  Burke is underrated as an economist, and also more generally.  This very thorough and thoughtful book goes a long way toward setting the record straight.  In the meantime, it is not sufficiently well known just how much Keynes was influenced by Burke.

2. Terryl Givens, Mormonism: What Everyone Needs to Know.  Perhaps if one needs to read this book, one is also under-qualified to comment on it.  Still it seemed very good to me and providing one of the better introductions.  I hadn’t know for instance that Abraham and even Adam to some extent were “in on” the covenant all along.

3. R.F. Foster, On Seamus Heaney.  A very good “short book essay” on one of my favorite poets.  That is a UK link, here is what you get when you search U.S. Amazon.  How can that be?  These days you can search Amazon better using Google than using Amazon itself.

4. Charles Camic, Veblen: The Making of an Economist Who Unmade Economics.  It makes sense that a biography of Veblen should be…somewhat verbose.  Nonetheless this is a valuable contribution for anyone interested in the topic.  To me the main question is why the libertarian right takes Veblen more seriously these days than does the Left, perhaps it is because they read Veblen and immediately think of Wokeism?

5. Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology.  From the 1830s, this remains one of the great scientific classics.  I had never known how well-reasoned or beautifully written it was, a big positive surprise for me.  Not just a bunch of crusty old rocks, though it is also about…a bunch of crusty old rocks.

There is Judith Flanders, A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order.

John Fabian Witt, American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law from Smallpox to Covid-19 is a short but useful treatment of what its title promises.  I had not known that both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X were opposed to compulsory vaccination.

What I’ve been reading

1. Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climactic Regime.  Mostly not about climate per se, rather how we are failing at being true materialists: “In a sense, Trump’s election confirms, for the rest of the world, the end of a politics oriented toward an identifiable goal.  Trumpian politics is not “post-truth,” it is post-politics — that is, literally, a politics with no object, since it rejects the world that it claims to inhabit.”  Mostly interesting, as one expects from Latour, but not exactly in the Anglo-American style either.  It also shows a kind of convergence with the ideas of Bruno Macaes, reviewed here by John Gray.

2. Robert Townsend, Distributed Ledgers: Design and Regulation of Financial Infrastructure and Payment Systems. Bitcoin and crypto yes, but the more fundamental concept in this book is…distributed ledgers, which include Thai rice allocation schemes and Mesopotamia circa 4000 B.C.  It is highly intelligent and well done, but somehow I think books like this work better when they are more speculative and future-oriented.

3. Hermione Lee, Tom Stoppard: A Life.  So many pages, and perhaps this will not be surpassed soon.  Yet it never quite tells you how he got to be so smart, or how his intellectual development proceeded, or even what his smartness consists of.  So I can’t say I liked it.  By the way, for those of you who don’t know, it seems to me that Stoppard is one of the smartest people and also the most important living playwright, most of all for anyone interested in intellectual history.

4. Ronald Bailey and Marian L. Tupy, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know.  Lovely visuals, blurb from Pinker, the curves slope upward, get the picture?  Let’s hope they’re right!  Ultimately I find this kind of exercise less convincing than I used to, instead preferring a broader theory that also accounts for what I perceive to be a growing disorientation.  Which brings us to the next title…

5. Slavoj Žižek, Hegel in a Wired Brain.  How do transhumanism, Elon Musk/Neuralink, the Singularity, Book of Genesis, and Hegel all fit together?  There is only one person who could pull off such a book, noting this version is dense and not for the uninitiated.  Here is one squib: “Police is closer to civil society than state; it is a kind of representative of state in civil society, but for this very reason it has to be experienced as an external force, not an inner ethical power.”  If you take away all the people who quite overrate him, Žižek is in fact remarkably underrated.

What I’ve been reading

1. Martin Amis, Inside Story: A Novel.  Except it is a memoir rather than a novel, definitely fun, and has received excellent reviews in Britain, less so in the U.S.  Does not require that you know or like the novels of Amis.  Christopher Hitchens plays a critical role in the narrative.  Idea-rich, but somehow I don’t quite care, and this one feels like it would have been a much better book twenty years ago.

2. Tobias S. Harris, The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan (UK Amazon listing, I paid the shipping charge, here is the U.S. listing). Yes a good biography of Abe, but most of all a book to make Japanese politics seem normal, rather than something connected to a country with a Kakuhidou movement.

3. Donald W. Braben, Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization, Stripe Press reprint.  Here is the book’s home page.

4. Les Payne and Tamara Payne, The Dead Are Arising: the Life of Malcolm X.  I pawed through this book, and it gave off signals of being high quality.  But somehow reading it didn’t hold my interest.  I then googled to a few reviews, but I rapidly realized (again) that such reviews are these days untrustworthy.  Try this NYT review, starting with this sentence: “Les Payne’s “The Dead Are Arising” arrives in late 2020, bequeathed to an America choked by racism and lawlessness.”  The reviewer makes a bunch of intelligent observations, interspersed with gushing about Malcolm X (“It is hard not to want Malcolm back, because his charisma is undeniable”), but I am never told why I should read the book.  At the end I learn the reviewer is “…the dean of academic affairs and a professor of American studies at Wellesley College.”  Signal extraction problem, anyone?  I call the current regime a tax on my willingness to put more time into the book.

Adam Thierer, Evasive Entrepreneurs & the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments, extends the important idea of permissionless innovation.

Jason Brennan, Good Work If You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia.  My blurb said “The one book to read about trying to become a professor.”

What I’ve been reading

1. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears).  A fun look at the Free Town project as applied to Grafton, New Hampshire: “During a television interview, a Grafton resident accused the Free Towners of “trying to cram freedom down our throats.””

2. Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeulen, Law & Leviathan: Redeeming the Administrative State.  Self-recommending from the pairing alone, there is a great deal of interesting content in the 145 pp. of text.  It is furthermore an interesting feature of this book that it was written at all on the chosen topic.  Perhaps the administrative state is under more fire than I realize.  And might you consider this book a centrist version of…maybe call it “state capacity not quite libertarianism”?

3. Michael D. Gordin, The Pseudo-Science Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe.  A somewhat forgotten but still fascinating episode in the history of science, extra-interesting for those interested in Venus.  I had not known that Velikovsky pushed a weird version of a eugenicist theory stating that Israel was too hot for its own long-term good, and that its inhabitants needed to find ways of cooling it down.

4. History, Metaphor, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader, edited by Bajohr, Fuchs, and Kroll.  I love Blumenberg, but the selection here didn’t quite sell me.  Better to start with his The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, noting that book is a tough climb for just about anyone and it requires your full attention for some number of weeks.  Might Blumenberg be the best 20th thinker who isn’t discussed much in the Anglo-American world?  And yes it is Progress Studies too.

5. Laura Tunbridge, Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces.  Smart books on Beethoven are like potato chips, plus you can listen to his music while reading (heard Op.33 Bagatelles lately?).  In addition to some of the classics, this book covers some lesser known pieces such as the Septet, An die Ferne Geliebte, and the Choral Fantasy, and how they fit into Beethoven’s broader life and career.  Intelligent throughout.

6. Sean Scully, The Shape of Ideas, edited and written by Timothy Rub and Amanda Sroka.  Is Scully Ireland’s greatest living artist?  He has been remarkably consistent over more than five decades of creation.  This is likely the best Scully picture book available, and the text is useful too.  Since it is abstract color and texture painting, he is harder than most to cancel — will we see the visual arts shift in that direction?

Jonathan E. Hillman, The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century, is a good introduction to its chosen topic.

Robert Litan, Resolved: Debate Can Revolutionize Education and Help Save Our Democracy: “…incorporate debate or evidence-based argumentation in school as early as the late elementary grades, clearly in high school, and even in college.”

I am closer to the economics than the politics of Casey B. Mulligan, You’re Hired! Untold Successes and Failures of a Populist President, but nonetheless it is an interesting and contrarian book, again here is the excellent John Cochrane review.

There is also Harriet Pattison, Our Days are Like Full Years: A Memoir with Letters from Louis Kahn, a lovely romance with nice photos, sketches, and images as well, very nice integration of text and visuals.

What I’ve been reading

1. Leonard Mlodinow, Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics.  One man’s version of “the real Stephen Hawking story,” including the marital arrangements and rearrangements, told by a former good friend.  I am not sure that books such as this should be written (or read), but…this one is pretty good.  It also gives Hawking’s account of why he did not win a Nobel prize (“radiation must be observed”), among other tidbits.

2. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody.  The authors serve up many on-target criticisms of current academic nonsense, but somehow it is not how I would proceed.  Given the ridiculousness of so much of what is going on, I say there are new intellectual profit opportunities to mine the best insights from critical theory, postmodernism, intersectionality and the like.  I would rather read a book that did that.  Start with Foucault, and steelman everything as you go along.

3. Ed Douglas, Himalaya: A Human History.  Truly an excellent book covering the history, politics, and culture of…the Himalayan region.  Full of substance, lovely cover too.  The USA link here has a worse cover, no surprise.  But you’ll get the British version quicker, with the preferred cover, and at a lower price.  Arbitrage!

4. The Early Political Writings of the German Romantics, edited by Frederick C. Beiser, but basically Novalis, Schlegel, and a bit of Schleiermacher.  In particular I was surprised how well the Novalis has held up: insightful, to the point, and laying out the aesthetic approach to politics (and more) with a stark and memorable clarity.  If you are looking for something to read that is non-liberal, but not the tiresome version of non-liberal being beat to death these days, maybe try this book.

5. George Prochnik, Heinrich Heine: Writing the Revolution.  Heine has aged very well, circa 2020, and he is an appropriate liberal but also satiric counterpart to the writers mentioned immediately above, plus he was more historically prescient, and for all the talk about culture from the Romantics, it was Heine who was the perceptive observer of other people’s cultures.  This is a good book for additional historical background once you already know Heine, though not at all an introduction to his charm and import, available only from the man himself.

And I have just received my copy of Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius.

What I’ve been reading

1. Stephen Hough, Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More. Scattered tidbits, about half of them very interesting, most of the rest at least decently good, mostly for fans of classical music and piano music. Should you develop the habit of warming up?  Why don’t they always have a piano in the “green room”?  How many recordings should you sample before trying to play a piece?  What kinds of relationships do pianists develop with their page turners?  That sort of thing.  I read the whole thing.

2. Jeremy England, Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things.  A fun and readable popular science book on why life may be likely to evolve from inanimate matter: “Living things…make copies of themselves, harvest and consume fuel, and accurately predict the surrounding environment.”  Who could be against that?

3. Dov H. Levin, Meddling in the Ballot Box: The Causes and Effects of Partisan Electoral Interventions.  “A fifth significant way in which the U.S. aided Adenauer’s reelection was achieved by Dulles publicly threatening, in an American press conference which took place two days before the elections, “disastrous effects” for Germany if Adenauer was not reelected.”  A non-partisan, academic work, “This study is the first book-length study of partisan electoral interventions as a discrete, stand-alone phenomenon.”  From 1946-2000, there were 81 discrete U.S. interventions in foreign elections, and 36 by the USSR/Russia, noting that outright conquest did not count in that data base.

4. John Kampfner, Why the Germans Do it Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country (UK Amazon link, not yet in the USA).  You should dismiss the title altogether, which is intended to provoke British people.  In fact the author spends plenty of time on what is wrong with Germany, ranging from an incoherent foreign policy to the weaknesses of Frankfurt as a financial center.  In any case, this is an excellent book trying to lay out and explain recent German politics and economics.  It is more conventional wisdom than daring hypothesis, but the conventional wisdom is very often correct and how many people really know the conventional wisdom about Naomi Seibt anyway?  Recommended, the best recent look at what is still one of the world’s most important countries.

5. David Carpenter, Henry III: 1207-1258.  “No King of England came to the throne in a more desperate situation than Henry III.”  The Magna Carta had just been instituted, Henry was just nine years old, and England was ruled by a triumvirate, with a very real chance that the French throne would swallow up England.  This is one of those “has a lot of unfamiliar names that are hard to keep track of” books, but don’t blame Carpenter for that.  In terms of scholarly contribution it stands amongst the very top books of the year.  And yes there was already a Wales back then.  They also started building Westminster Abbey under Henry’s reign.  Here are some of the origins of state capacity libertarianism, volume II is yet to come.

6. Elena Ferrante, The Lying Life of Adults.  The last quarter of the book closes strong, so my final assessment is enthusiastic, even if it isn’t in the exalted league of her Neapolitan quadrology.  It will probably be better upon a rereading, which I will do.

What I’ve been reading

1. Daniel Halliday and John Thrasher, The Ethics of Capitalism: An Introduction.  This book is reasonable, empirical, non-dogmatic, readable, and largely but not uncritically pro-capitalist.  It is indeed “an introduction,” and not designed for say yours truly, but we need many more works like this.

2. Ken McNab, And in the End: The Last Days of the Beatlesxxx.  I regularly opine that sports and entertainment books — provided you already have familiarity with the topic area — provide better management lessons than do management books.  This volume, as I read it, presents the Beatles story as a tale of two sequential founders — first John (who had most of the early excellent songs), and then Paul, the turning point in my view being when Paul commandeered the engineering of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” otherwise very much a John song but in fact Paul did most of the actual work on it.  Eventually the first founder rebelled against the ever-more-domineering second founder, and then the Beatles went poof.

3. Martyn Rady, The Habsburgs.  Most books about the Habsburgs confuse me, this one confuses me less than those other ones, consider that a recommendation.  I learned the most from the section about all of the early ties to what is now part of northern Switzerland.

4. Jeff Selingo, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. Most books about college admissions do not confuse me (the reality already is so absurd), but this one informs me, consider that a recommendation.  Selingo has done actual extensive research, including a direct pipeline into the processes of several major institutions, and he puts informativeness above moralizing or exaggeration.

5. Richard E. Spear, Caravaggio’s Cardsharps on Trial: Thwaytes v. Sotheby’s.  A surprisingly taut and suspenseful treatment of a dispute and then lawsuit over whether a supposed Caravaggio was in fact “real” or not.  NB: if they have to ask whether or not it is real, most of the time it ain’t.

6. William C. Summers, Félix dHérelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology.  I wanted to read up on bacteriophages, in part as a broader proxy for abandoned lines of scientific inquiry (superseded by antibiotics, and did you recall they play a big role in Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith?), and it seemed this was the right book for that.  Short enough and to the point, clear enough for the non-specialist, and it has plenty on the history of science more broadly.  It also covers d’Hérelle being invited to Georgia, USSR, to pursue his research, a fascinating episode in his life.  For a brief introduction, here is his Wikipedia page.

7. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, The Discomfort of Evening.  A few months ago I started reading this one, figuring it would win a Booker, and indeed it just did.  I read up through p.102, and quite liked it, but also figured that a Dutch farm tale of mucky perversion, flapping meats, and a mordant, vibrant nature did not in fact fit into my broader life plan.  Indeed it did not. But if you are considering this one, while likely I will not finish it, I still would nudge you slightly in the positive direction.  Cumin cheese makes an appearance (ugh).

I have not had a chance to read Adrian Goldworthy’s Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conqueror, but it appears promising.

Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe is a reprint of a 1980 classic, with an emphasis on the roots of liberalism in European religious thought.

What I’ve been reading

1. Fredrik deBoer, The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice.  A well-written, highly intelligent book, inveighing against various aspects of the current meritocracy, and how they contribute to what the author calls “social injustice.”  People who do educational policy, or who think about inequality should read this book.  But ultimately what is his remedy?  I would sooner attack homework, credentialism, and bureaucratization than testing.  And yes, IQ is overrated, but the correct alternative view emphasizes stamina and relentlessness in a manner that I don’t think will make deBoer any happier.  To lower the status of smarts, in the meantime, I fear is not going to do us any good.

2. Chris Ferrie and Veronica Goodman, ABCs of Economics (Baby University).  Is this for a 5 or 6 year old?  It seems good to me, though perhaps the part where they teach “Nash equilibrium” is a stretch.  I say calculus should be available in the fifth grade, stats in the eighth grade, so full steam ahead.

3. Christopher I. Caterine, Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide.  Did you realize that most of the supposed advantages of academia, such as control over your own time, do not exist to the extent they once did?  The advice in this book, such as about how to prepare your resume, seems correct to me, although that it needs to be given does not convince me of the marketability of these academics in the private sector or indeed anywhere at all.

4. Robert D. Putnam, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.  A fact-rich, well-reasoned and indeed reasonable take on numerous American trends, most of them related to social solidarity.  A good book, provided you are not looking too hard for what the title and subtitle would seem to promise.

5. Greg Woolf, The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History.  A very useful introduction and overview to its chosen topic, a good and readable book for urbanists who are looking for general historical background.

Notable are two new books on liberalism abroad.  The first is Ingemar Stahl: A Market Liberal in the Swedish Welfare State, edited by Christina and Lars Jonung, and The Hand Behind the Invisible Hand: Dogmatic and Pragmatic Views on Free Markets and the State of Economic Theory, by Karl Mittermaier, with other contributions, concerning South Africa, and free on Kindle at least for the time being.

What I’ve been reading

1. Christopher Tugendhat, A History of Britain Through Books, 1900-1964.  Most of all a look at the “well-known in their time, and reflecting their age, but not read any more” books from the stated period, using short, capsule portraits of each work.  It induced me to order some more Elizabeth Bowen, C.P. Snow, and other works.  There should be more books like this.

2. Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet.  Perhaps my favorite novel of the year so far, noting this is from Northern Ireland and my #2 pick by Anne Enright is from Ireland proper.  Usually I dislike stories with a “gimmick” — this one recounts part of the life of Shakespeare’s family during plague times — but this one was tasteful, subtle, and suspenseful.

3. Charles Freeman, The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700.  A gargantuan work at over 800 big pp., the size and the breadth and title all might seem to herald trouble.  Yet it is really good.  It has chapters on whether England really had a scientific revolution, what was actually published with the new printing press, and how medieval universities really worked.  There were fewer tired summaries of “the usual” than I was expecting.  The author is a specialist on the ancient world, and so there is coverage of Cassiodorus, and what Montaigne took from Plutarch, and numerous other “ancient world” sorts of topics.  Which is a good thing.

4. Despina Strategakos, Hitler’s Northern Utopia: Building the New Order in Occupied Norway.  What did the Nazis have planned for Norway after a supposedly successful conclusion of the Second World War?  Lots of reformed urban townscapes, and with plenty of detail to boot.  Sometimes it is books like this, rather than the recounting of atrocities, that make WWII seem like the truly bizarre event it was.  I am still not sure if restructuring Norway is something fascinating to do, or still super-dull.

Thomas A. Schwartz, Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography is consistently good and readable.

I found David Broder’s First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy to be a useful explainer of a complex situation.

Jacob Goldstein, Money: The True Story of a Made-up Thing is a good introduction to its chosen topic.

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’NealShaq 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.

What I’ve been reading

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 GraceGravity 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.

What I’ve been reading

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.

What I’ve been reading

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.

What I’ve been reading

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.

What I’ve been reading

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.