What I’ve been reading

1. Andrew Mango, Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey.  A pleasurable read and full of information.  For me it was most useful as a foreign policy history of Turkey, more than a biography of Ataturk himself.  One implication is that Turkey won’t be making too many more concessions on the global stage, or for that matter with the Kurds.

2. Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill.  This is insanely good, and I can’t believe I had never read it before.  It’s super short, but a thrilling reading experience at every word.  It’s in the “jaw hits floor” category.

3. Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930.  The best history of electrical infrastructure which I have found.  It is very good on explaining the difficulties in organizing an entire economy around electricity and why it took so long.  It is also fascinating on why the English lagged behind the Germans and Americans in the transition to electricity, in large part because of local interest group politics.  It sheds light on the “mystery” of British decline.  A long, nerdy book, with unintelligible Cooper Union-like diagrams, I loved it.  It’s one of mankind’s most stirring stories.

4. Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain.  I didn’t enjoy this book, so I didn’t read much of it, but I thought it was splendid in conception.  It requires some working knowledge of British urban landscapes and I, for one, have never been to Sheffield.  It’s a smartly written conceptual survey of the empty buildings that have come to populate British cities and I am sorry that I wasn’t up to it.


On Virginia Woolf's On Being Ill. Send $17.65 to Amazon for a 64 page book? No wonder I've never heard of this before. Is the publisher exploiting a market niche here with a volume sold mostly in hospital gift shops to visitors of bibliophile patients?


Had the same feelings to start with on the new ruins of great Britain. The chapter on Southampton drags on! But I promise you it's worth the effort. Local government have under invested in the housing stock to the detriment of the populous and it accounts for significant social malaise. The construction and finance industry have got seriously rich through a culture of debt / ppi schemes - and i think the central question to the book is to reflect on what this legacy is. Will we be left with the sort of housing that lasts? Is socially useful? Or will it prove temporary. Architecturally weak and historically insignificant. Good read.

Why does the electrification book end in 1930? Rural electrification in the '30s was one of the most economically significant events of the past century.

Well, it covers 1/2 century already, and stopping in 1930 is a convenient place to stop to avoid all that Nazi/WW2 stuff.

I guess 50 years makes it more marketable, but still...

Dear Tyler,

Thanks for the post, your recommendations are often valuable.

Perhaps for a future post you might elaborate on the "jaw hits floor" category? How might it differ from your "Books which have influenced me most" list? What I have in mind is a sort of lexicographic ordering where the 'jaw-dropping' element is infinitely preferred to any post hoc considerations such as 'it got me excited about economics.' With such an ordering rule, we could also remove the "gut list" requirement; I feel it will be more informative as a 'I've thought about this for some time list."

If you can wait a few months, all the works of Virginia Woolf will become public domain by the end of this year. (And thus they will be available for free online or for a dollar or two on paper instead of the current extortionate charges.)

The obvious parallel to 'networks of power' for our times is broadband, eh? With Time Warner, Comcast et al now the 'local interest groups' that prevent expansion and improvement.

We did so well to build infrastructure in the 20th century and now no one wants to pay for anything. Hell, Jersey wouldn't even take money to build rails. It's nutty.

Woolf wrote a lot of essays to pay the bills, and not all her novels work, but when she was on, she was ON.

... Thx for the rec on the Ataturk book; I've almost acquired it a time or two. Will have to pick it up now.

Thanks for the recommendations. I live next to the Cuneo Museum (built by the Insull before the crash of the electrification bubble) so I feel obligated to pick up #3.

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