Category: Books

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.

My Conversation with Annie Duke

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the opening summary:

Annie joined Tyler to explore how payoffs aren’t always monetary, the benefits and costs of probabilistic thinking, the “magical thinking” behind why people buy fire insurance but usually don’t get prenups, the psychology behind betting on shark migrations, how her most famous linguistics paper took on Steven Pinker, how public policy would change if only the top 500 poker players voted, why she wasn’t surprised to lose Celebrity Apprentice to Joan Rivers, whether Trump has a tell, the number one trait of top poker players, and more.

Here is one bit from Annie:

DUKE: So when I went on my first date with my husband, my brother and brother-in-law immediately decided to make a market, and it was whether we were going to get married. Now to be fair, my husband and I — before we went on our first date, we’d been friends. Both my brother and my brother-in-law knew my eventual husband, but this is when we’re going on our first date. They make a market. I think that my brother-in-law ended up bidding 23.

My brother then called me up, cracking up, that my brother-in-law had bid 23 when we hadn’t been on a first date yet. And I then started laughing at my brother, said, “Well, that means you had to bid 22. Why are you laughing at him? You somehow bid 22. It’s our first date.” Now, that’s because we’re all people who sort of think this way. And so this sort of becomes the fun of the friendship, but there are other people . . .

And this from Annie:

DUKE: My suspicion is that if only the top 500 poker players voted, people would be thinking a lot more about edge cases — where things could go wrong, for sure, because poker players just are obsessed with that. I think that there would be more long-termism as opposed to short-termism, again, because you have to be obsessed with that as a concept. I think that people would be thinking about “What are the unintended consequences? How does this look?”

Another thing that’s really important that poker players think about is, “If I put this policy in that looks like it’s awesome, how can someone come in and find the cracks in it so that it can turn into something bad?” I feel like the top 500 players would definitely be thinking in that way more.

You will have to read or hear the dialogue to take in my many good questions.

*Porcelain: A History from the Heart of Europe*

By Suzanne Marchand, this a tale of commerce, creativity, mercantilism, nation-building, globalization, industrial organization, and much more.  And this book actually delivers on all of those fronts. Short excerpt:

In accordance with mercantile practices, porcelain makers first sought to pay their bills by increasing sales abroad.  The two markets most hotly pursued at midcentury were the Ottomans and the Russians, both big consumers of hot beverages but lacking functional tableware factories.

Yes it’s that kind of book.  And this:

This focus on porcelain and material goods generally is not an approach familiar to most historians of Germany, who, for understandable reasons, typically feel obliged to treat more serious, often political, subjects.

Recommended, you can pre-order it here.

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.

That was then, this is now

About 55 percent of British servicemen [in World War II] were married.

Furthermore, by mid-1943, British military units were dealing with almost one hundred cases of “family anxiety” a day, with about two-thirds of those being infidelity issues, summing yearly to about 7.5 percent of the married British servicemen in North Africa and the Middle East at that time.

That is from Daniel Todman’s Britain’s War 1942-1947, a book I already have reviewed positively.  Reading further, it remains excellent and interesting on every page, is still grossly under-reviewed by MSM, and would make the top five or even top three non-fiction books of the year list since I have started blogging.

*Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition*

That is the new, excellent, and timely book by Hollis Robbins, the title is descriptive, here is one excerpt:

“If We Must Die” calls for resistance to violence in an environment of violence. The power of [Claude] McKay’s sonnet—Shakespearean and yet with modern diction—is the tension between the measured lines and rhyme, the poetic phrases and the brutal words, the combination of enjambments and exclamation points in the octave, and the more deliberate and determined pace of the sestet. “If We Must Die” is a defiant call to action. The rage of the poem is made more potent by the tension of the sonnet form straining to contain it.

The book argues for the centrality of sonnet writing to African American poetry, and that the African American tradition was not simply parasitic on European models.  A “sestet,” by the way, is the last six lines of a sonnet, but not a good Scrabble word because you have to waste two “s’s” to play it.

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.

*The Address Book*

The author is Deirdre Mask and the subtitle is What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power.  The opening bit would have fit under “New York City fact of the day”:

In some years,  more than 40 percent of all local laws passed by the New York City Council have been street name changes.

I guess that is because garbage collection, education, and policing are running so smoothly.  Does any other fact so well sum up the pathology of our time?

In Paris, only 2.6 percent of the street names commemorate women, and this is expected to be a “growth sector,” as they say.  I liked this sentence:

Tantner is perhaps the world’s leading expert on house numbers.

House numbers were in fact one of the more important results of the 18th century Enlightenment.  For all their benefits in enabling mail, or finding your way, there was a dark side because they also made it easier to tax or imprison you, sometimes a good thing but not always.

Number streets are an especially American phenomenon, and today “every American city with more than a half million people has numerical street names.  Second Street is the most common street name in America…”

Recommended, you can order it here.

That was then, this is now, *Mayday 1971* edition

That forthcoming book is authored by Lawrence Roberts, and the subtitle is A White House at War, A Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest.  Here is one excerpt:

The president had made his wishes clear.  That was why Kleindienst was pushing a military solution.  The police chief made one last attempt to dissuade him.  Let’s just suppose the crowd is big enough to shut down the government, Jerry said.  Wouldn’t it be better for us, he gently suggested, if the militants could crow only that they had defeated the police, rather than the mighty U.S. military?  An army official chimed in on Jerry’s side.  Why not wait a day, see if the troops were really necessary?

Recommended.

My excellent Conversation with Ashley Mears

Tired of lockdown, pandemic, and rioting?  Here is a podcast on some of their polar opposites, conducted by “a bridge and tunnel guy” with an accomplished sociologist.  Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:

Ashley Mears is a former fashion model turned academic sociologist, and her book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit is one of Tyler’s favorites of the year. The book, the result of eighteen months of field research, describes how young women exchange “bodily capital” for free drinks and access to glamorous events, boosting the status of the big-spending men they accompany.

Ashley joined Tyler to discuss her book and experience as a model, including the economics of bottle service, which kinds of men seek the club experience (and which can’t get in), why Tyler is right to be suspicious of restaurants filled with beautiful women, why club music is so loud, the surprising reason party girls don’t want to be paid, what it’s like to be scouted, why fashion models don’t smile, the truths contained in Zoolander, how her own beauty and glamour have influenced her academic career, how Barbara Ehrenreich inspired her work, her unique tip for staying focused while writing, and more.

Here is one excerpt especially dear to my heart:

COWEN: Let’s say I had a rule not to eat food in restaurants that were full of beautiful women, thinking that the food will be worse. Is that a good rule or a bad rule?

MEARS: I know this rule, because I was reading that when you published that book. It was when I was doing the field work in 2012, 2013. And I remember reading it and laughing, because you were saying avoid trendy restaurants with beautiful women. And I was like, “Yeah, I’m one of those people that’s actually ruining the food but creating value in these other forms because being a part of this scene and producing status.” So yeah, I think that’s absolutely correct.

And:

COWEN: I have so many naive, uninformed questions, but why is the music so loud in these clubs? Who benefits from that?

MEARS: Who benefits?

COWEN: I find the music too loud in McDonald’s, right?

MEARS: Clubs are also in this business of trying to manufacture and experience what Emile Durkheim would call this collective effervescence, like losing yourself in the moment. And that’s really possible when you’re able to tune out the other things, like if somebody is feeling insecure about the way they dance or if somebody is not sure of what to say.

Having really loud music that has a beat where everybody just does the same thing, which is nod to the beat — that helps to tune people into one another, and it helps build up a vibe and a kind of energy, so the point is to lose yourself in the music in these spaces.

And:

COWEN: Let’s say you sat down with one of these 20-year-old young women, and you taught them everything you know from your studies, what you know about bodily capital, sociological theories of exploitation. You could throw at them whatever you wanted. They would read the book. They would listen to your video, talk with you. Would that change their behavior any?

MEARS: I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so. They might not be too surprised even to learn that this is a job for promoters, and the promoters make money doing this. Most of them know that. They didn’t know how much money promoters are making. They don’t know how much money the clubs are making, but they know that they’re contributing to those profits, and they know that there’s this inequality built into it.

…in this world, there’s a widespread assumption that everybody uses everybody else. The women are using the club for the pleasures that they can get from it. They’re using the promoter for the pleasures they can get from him, the access. The promoters are using the young women. The clients are using the promoters.

The drawing line is when there’s a perception of abuse. People have a clear sense that lying about being exclusively romantic would be a clear violation, so that would be abusive. But use is okay. Mutual exploitation is okay.

Definitely recommended, a unique and fascinating episode.  And again, I strongly recommend Ashley’s new book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, one of my favorite books of the year.

What should I ask Annie Duke?

I will be doing a Conversation with her.  Here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Anne LaBarr Duke (née Lederer; September 13, 1965) is an American professional poker player and author. She holds a World Series of Poker (WSOP) gold bracelet from 2004 and used to be the leading money winner among women in WSOP history (a title now held by Vanessa Selbst). Duke won the 2004 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions and the National Heads-Up Poker Championship in 2010. She has written a number of instructional books for poker players, including Decide to Play Great Poker and The Middle Zone, and she published her autobiography, How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker, in 2005.

Duke co-founded the non-profit Ante Up for Africa with actor Don Cheadle in 2007 to benefit charities working in African nations, and has raised money for other charities and non-profits through playing in and hosting charitable poker tournaments. She has been involved in advocacy on a number of poker-related issues including advocating for the legality of online gambling and for players’ rights to control their own image.

She also has a new book coming out this fall, How to Decide: Simpler Tools for Making Better Choices.  So what should I ask her?

*The Puzzle of Prison Order*

That is the title of the new and excellent book by David Skarbek, and the subtitle is Why Life Behind Bars Varies Around the World.  Here is part of the Amazon summary of its contents:

Many people think prisons are all the same-rows of cells filled with violent men who officials rule with an iron fist. Yet, life behind bars varies in incredible ways. In some facilities, prison officials govern with care and attention to prisoners’ needs. In others, officials have remarkably little influence on the everyday life of prisoners, sometimes not even providing necessities like food and clean water. Why does prison social order around the world look so remarkably different?

Here is one excerpt:

…Nordic prisons have a much smaller proportion of prisoners to members of staff, about one prisoner for every staff member.  These jobs attract high-quality employees, and in Finland and Norway, it is common for there to be an excess supply of applicants.  Working in corrections is a more attractive career than it is in many other countries.  The fact that students sometimes work as prison officers suggests that the environment in Nordic prisons is more relaxed than that in many other prisons and the work is socially acceptable.  Many Nordic prison officers have university and vocational education.  For example, about 20 percent of staff in Swedish men’s prisons have university degrees and staff members participate in a 20-week in-service training program and take 10-week university courses on sociology and social psychology.  In Norway, prison officers receive two years of training at full salary and nearly all have tertiary educational qualifications.  By comparison, California correctional officer training lasts 12 weeks and requires only a high-school diploma.

The book is due out from Oxford University Press on August 3rd.

The Spanish-language Kindle edition of *Stubborn Attachments*

The various subtleties of the title “Stubborn Attachments” do not translate well into Spanish, so here is “El imperativo moral del crecimiento económico: Una visión de una sociedad libre y próspera de individuos responsable.”

You can order it here, and I expect a print edition will be coming in due time.

I thank all of those involved for helping this project come to fruition, and thank Gonzalo Schwarz for doing the translation.