What I’ve been reading

1. C.E. Cubitt, A Life of Friedrich August von Hayek.  How come you don’t hear of this book more often?  It is an extensive, rambling meditation on Hayek’s last years, full of anecdotes about Hayek’s medical ailments, arguments with his wife, and which groups he did not like.  It is also short on any kind of formal documentation.  But what could be more of a document than this book itself?  Self-published by Hayek’s last private secretary, it seems too detailed and too strange to be entirely made up.  You can pull out a random sentence and get something like “He [Hayek] liked women, he told me, providing they were not hirsute and did not offend his sensitive nose, and on one occasion even told me that he was “a little in love” with one of the waitresses in the Colombi Hotel.”  Or we read that Hayek was obsessed with euthanasia, and in his last years carried around a razor blade in case it might be needed on short notice.  It’s like absorbing a Thomas Bernhardt novel without the literary skill but with real stakes in the history of ideas.  Ultimately I found this one unreadable, though it is consistent with my view that intellectual history is first and foremost a matter of biography.  And what about the biography of Charlotte Cubitt herself?  That is the real mystery here.

2. Jim Baker, Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore.  I loved this book and found every page gripping, it is hard to see how it could be better than it is.  One of the best books of last year, it turns out.

The new novels by Orhan Pamuk and David Mitchell appear to be serious efforts, but so far neither one is grabbing me.


"How come you don’t hear of this book more often?"

"Ultimately I found this one unreadable"

-You just answered your own question.

That is not fair. Salman Rushdie is famous. Feted. Showered with awards. Or at least he was, back when his fashionable but trite anti-Westernism came cheap and cost nothing. Less so now that backing him carries the risk of a beheading. Yet he is utterly unreadable.

In another sense, and closer to your heart perhaps, everyone knows about the great Russian novels. They are usually exceptionally well written and they are certainly well translated as a general rule. But most people have not read them. War and Peace is more talked about than read, I fear, much less anything by Dostoyevsky. The American equivalent would be Moby Dick. Which generations of High School teachers have tried, and failed, to make their students read.

"That is not fair. Salman Rushdie is famous. Feted. Showered with awards. Or at least he was, back when his fashionable but trite anti-Westernism came cheap and cost nothing. Less so now that backing him carries the risk of a beheading."

I think that Rushdie only became famous exactly after being condemned to death; btw, "Midnight's Children" (before fame and fatwa) is easy to read

The Enchantress of Florence, the only Rushdie novel I've read, is wonderful.

I've read most of them and that's my second favorite. First is "Midnight's Children" -- definitely worth a read.

"[M]y view that intellectual history is first and foremost a matter of biography." How true. Everyone is a product (or prisoner) of his place and time, intellectuals of the 20th century for sure. Even vocabulary is a product of a place and time. Hayek identified as a "liberal", but in the 19th century sense of the term, which can be confusing for people today. Hence, Hayek can speak approvingly of "liberal, non-democratic rule", which would strike most people today as an oxymoron. Hayek: "But a dictatorship may be a necessary system for a transitional period. [...] Personally I prefer a liberal dictatorship to democratic government devoid of liberalism." I recall that several of Cowen's recent posts have been related to this point (on transition to liberal democracy). Of course, we need only look at our recent experience in the middle east for affirmation of Hayek's point. Ironically, if Hayek were alive today, he would fit right in with the aversion of many to what is called political correctness. He might even be a popular choice for president on the Republican side.

Some small government advocates--including me--have said that it's better to have a king who has nearly arbitrary power (except perhaps the power of life and death over his subjects) in exchange for this rapacious king only being able to tax 10% of GDP rather than the 40-60% of GDP that modern, democratically elected governments do today.

I use "tax' to mean "consume", as government affects 20% of GDP directly and another 20-40% via 'rob Peter to pay Paul' transfers...

Do people still have private secretaries these days? Why would you even need one?

I was secretary to an elderly blind man.

Yes, the term has changed. Nowadays is personal assistant.

It is a sign of progress when someone prefers that their sexual objects of desire are particularly hairy and smell like rancid sweat.

And maybe he carried around a razor blade, not to slit his own wrists, throat, or whatever, but to shave uncouth hairy women on a moment's notice. You never know when you might need to clear a landing strip for safe decent.

Most significant story in the book is the story of Hayek's catastrophic mental decline in his last years, which the author attributes to Mad Cows Disease!

OT, the latest speculative finding is that dementia is caused by a fungus, akin to the killer plants making zombies out of their victims in bad "B-grade" 1950s movies. It's speculative since perhaps the fungus is coincidentally there because dementia broke down the brain-blood barrier.

It's also speculative in that the evidence that fungi are there at all is actually pretty weak. http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2015/10/21/a-fungal-origin-for-alzheimers

I don't think you understand what the blood:brain barrier is.

& the finding is a correlation. the speculative part is you ascribing causation.

@carlolospin - correlation is not causation Carl, I think we agree on that, but causation is what these studies are all about, ultimately. Nobody cares if a rooster crows just before the sun rises, but, if you were to prove that a certain Goth chicken makes the sun magically come up every day because it crows, that would be newsworthy (causation). Black hole sun....good song.

Of course, "liberal" in practical terms means protection of property rights (including protection against confiscatory taxes), from which the economy will flourish and liberty will flow. That's the theory, anyway. Does it reflect reality? Or does reality reflect increasing concentrations of income, wealth, and political power, financial and economic instability, and less "liberty" for most. Not surprisingly, the response to reality by some is a call for even greater protection of property rights (i.e., reduction in confiscatory taxes), smaller social welfare programs, and a larger domestic and international security apparatus to protect "liberty".

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