Category: Books

Those new (old) service sector jobs: personal book curator

From the unusual products flogged on health and wellbeing site Goop to her one-of-a-kind beauty habits, Gwyneth Paltrow never fails to surprise us. Case in point: she once hired a ‘personal book curator’.

Back in 2001, the former actress decided to redesign her Los Angeles home and realised that to complete the gram-worthy look, she needed a good five to six hundred books to fill the empty shelves.

So what does a Hollywood star do when their personal novel collection doesn’t quite make the necessary requirements? They call in a celebrity-approved book curator of course.

The 46-year-old asked longtime friend, Thatcher Wine, a long-time book collector and the founder of Juniper Books, to complete the task. But with A-list clientele including the likes of Laura Dern and Shonda Rhimes, he was certainly no stranger to the job in hand.

And this is indeed an art:

Over in the dining room, Wine made sure to organise the books in a more minimal fashion in keeping with a “rigid colour palette of black, white, and grey since it was less of a space where one might hang out and read”.

Upon closer inspection, heavyweight coffee table books take price of place with shelves dedicated to artists including Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dali and Leonardo Da Vinci.

Here is the full story, here is the interview with Thatcher Wine.  Via Ted Gioia.

What I’ve been reading

1. Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell, Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World.  A good, short “give it to your high school kid” book on why socialism is not an entirely ideal way to arrange society.

2. Ben Lewis, The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting.  I felt I knew this story already, but nonetheless found interesting information and conceptual analysis on virtually every page.  And while the author is agnostic and balanced, the text upped my opinion of the “likely Leonardo weighted expected value” component from about 0.1 to maybe 0.25?  Yet so much fuss about a painting that resurfaced in 1907 — model that…  And don’t forget: “None of the great art historians and connoisseurs who saw it before 1958 identified it as a Leonardo.”  Recommended.

3. Lene Rachel Andersen and Tomas Björkman, The Nordic Secret: A European story of beauty and freedom.  There should be many more books about why the Nordics are special, and this is one of them.  The central notion here is “secular Bildung” as a means of elevating society and cooperative relations.  Uneven in its structure of exposition, but definitely interesting in parts and the importance of the question makes this better than most of the other books you might be likely to read.  Just don’t expect 100% polish.

4. David Cahan, Helmholtz: A Life in Science.  At 768 pp., I only read about half of this one.  Nonetheless I read the better half, and it is one of the more useful treatments of 19th century German science.  I hadn’t realized the strong connections with Siemens and Roentgen, for instance, and one clear lesson is that German science of that time had some pretty healthy institutions outside of the formal university system.

David Wright interviews me

Dave is an actuary, super-talented, and one of my very favorite interviewers and best prepared interviewers in the whole wide world (do say yes if he offers to interview you for his podcast).

Here is the audio, most of the questions go well beyond the usual.  It starts with my book Big Business but even gets into the Straussian side of things, globalization, the price of fame, and much more.

Recommended.

What should I ask Ben Westhoff?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event, here is from his home page:

Ben Westhoff is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes about culture, drugs, and poverty. His books are taught around the country and have been translated into languages all over the world.

His new book Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic releases September 3, 2019 in the U.S. (Grove Atlantic) and October 10, 2019 in the UK, Austrailia, and New Zealand (Scribe). Here’s more information.

His previous book Original Gangstas: Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the Birth of West Coast Rap has received raves from Rolling Stone and People, a starred review in Kirkus, a five-star Amazon rating, and made numerous year-end best lists. More info can be found here.

…his 2011 book on southern hip-hop, Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop was a Library Journal best seller.

Here is my review of his excellent forthcoming Fentanyl, Inc.  He also has a well-acclaimed book on New York City bars and dives.  All of his work is fascinating.

So what should I ask him?

Venice adopting the Renaissance

Venice’s adoption of these Renaissance styles was itself a remarkable break with the past, for the Venetians had always favored the sophisticated East when it came to artistic expression.  But times were changing.  The flame of Byzantium was flickering and even Venice turned its attention to the Western terra firma.  Among the earliest Renaissance artists in Venice was Jacopo Bellini.  The son of a Venetian tinsmith, Bellini worked under Gentile da Fabriano, who produced various now-lost works for the Great Council in 1408.  Bellini accompanied his master to Florence, where he remained for some years learning the new artistic techniques pioneered there.  Later, Bellini traveled to Bruges, where he was introduced to the use of oil paints on canvas — a medium that would forever change Venice.

The seat of high culture in fifteenth-century Venice was not at the governmental center, but in its outskirts at Padua.  There, since 1222, a university had flourished that drew the best minds in Europe and provided an excellent education for Venice’s elite.  After returning to Venice, Bellini set up shop in Padua with his two sons, Gentile and Giovanni.  They were likely influenced by the arrival in 1443 of Donatello, who lived in Padua for about a decade.  His masterwork during those years was the equestrian statue of the condottiere Erasmo da Narni…This magnificent life-size bronze was the first such statue produced since the days of ancient Rome.

That is from Thomas F. Madden, Venice: A New History.

Slavery in the history of Venice

There was a thriving trade in human flesh.  By the twelfth century the slave trade in Venice far surpassed that of other cities and other countries.  The Venetians were incorrigible slave traders, and the markets of the Rialto and S. Giorgio were centres of slavery.  They were eager for this particular source of income, since the profit on each item was said to be 1,000 per cent.  They sold Russians and even Greek Christians to the Saracens.  Men and women and children were bought or captured in the region of the Black Sea — Armenians and Georgians among them — before being despatched to Venice where they were in turn sold on to Egypt and Morocco and Crete and Cyprus.  They sold boys and young women as concubines.  One doge, Pietro Mocenigo, had in his seventies two young Turkish men in his entourage.

Many of them were consigned to Venetian households.  No patrician family was complete without a retinue or three or four slaves; even Venetian artisans owned slaves, and used them in their shops or workshops.  Venetian convents possessed slaves for domestic service.  The galleys were stocked with slaves.  But the city always needed a fresh supply; servile status was not inheritable.  Many slaves were freed in the wills of their masters or mistresses.  Marco Polo manumitted one of his slaves, Peter the Tartar, before his own death in 1324.  In 1580 there were three thousand slaves in the capital.  The black gondoliers in Carpaccio’s paintings of Venice are all slaves.

That is from Peter Ackroyd’s Venice: Pure City.

My favorite things Venice

1. Favorite playwright: Carlo Goldoni, eighteenth century, best if you can see one rather than try to read it.

2. Play, set in: William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice.  Read it carefully and repeatedly, it is far subtler on issues of racism and prejudice than you might have been expecting.

3. Opera, set in: Verdi’s Otello (James Levine recording).  Even as a dramatic work I (perhaps oddly) prefer this to Shakespeare’s play.

4. Memoir, set in: Casanova, though I suggest you read an abridged edition.  I strongly recommend reading Marco Polo as well, though I am not sure that counts as a “memoir.”

5. Short story, set in: Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice.”  But a close runner-up is Henry James, “The Aspern Papers.”

Are you getting the picture? Venice has inspired numerous major writers and artists.  However I don’t love John Ruskin on Venice.

6. Painting: Ah!  Where to start?  I’ll opt for Giorgione’s The Tempest, or any number of late Titian works.  And there are so many runners-up, starting with Veronese, Tintoretto, the Bellinis, and later Tiepolo.  Even a painter as good as Sebastiano del Piombo is pretty far down the list here.  Canaletto bores me, though the technique is impressive.

7. Sculptor: Antonio Canova was born in the Venetian Republic, and I believe he is now one of the most underrated of Western artists.  His greatest work is in Vienna.

8. Composer: I can’t quite bring myself to count Monteverdi as Venetian, so that leaves me with Luigi Nono and also Gabrieli and Albioni and Vivaldi, none of whom I enjoy listening to.

9. Conductor: Giuseppe Sinopoli.  I enjoy his Mahler and Strauss and Elgar, and his take on Verdi’s Aida was special as well.

10. Photographer of: Derek Parfit, here are some images.

11. Movie, set in: I can recall the fun Casino Royale James Bond scene, but surely there is a better selection attached to a better movie.  What might that be?

11. Maxim about: Pope Gregory XIII: “I am pope everywhere except in Venice.”

All in all, not bad for a city that nowadays has no more than 60,000 residents and was never especially large.

I’ll be there in a few days time.

*More from Less*

The author is Andrew McAfee and the subtitle is The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources — And What Happens Next.

I am a fan of Andrew’s work more generally, and most of all I am pleased to announce this is a book full of good economic reasoning.  From the publisher’s attachment:

How did we start getting more from less?  Largely because of two unlikely heroes: capitalism and technological progress.  As the book explains, capitalism’s relentless quest for profits is also an endless search for lower costs — after all, a penny saved is a penny earned — and natural resources cost money.  Tech progress gives companies countless opportunities to dematerialize: to use bits instead of atoms, and so consume fewer resources even as they grow.

I have yet to read my way through all of the book, and I will be reporting more on this.  I can assure you, however, that Andrew is not a denialist on the issues where worry really is called for.  Here is the Marc Andreessen blurb:

“In More from Less Andrew McAfee conclusively demonstrates how environmentalism requires more technology and capitalism, not less. Our modern technologies actually dematerialize our consumption, giving us higher human welfare with lower material inputs. This is an urgently needed and clear-eyed view of how to have our technological cake and eat it too.”

In any case, I wanted to bring this book to your attention as soon as possible.

Reading and rabbit holes

Let’s say you want to read some books on Venice, maybe because you are traveling there, or you are just curious about the Renaissance, or about the history of the visual arts.

Maybe you will write me and ask: “Tyler, which books should I read on Venice?”  Now, there are many fine books on Venice, but I actually would not approach the problem in that manner.  In fact, I don’t know a single particular “must read” book on Venice that stands out above all others, nor do I know a book that necessarily will draw you in to the study of Venice if you are not already interested.

I instead suggest a “rabbit holes” strategy, a term coined in this context by Devon Zuegel. Come up with a bunch of questions about Venice you want answered, and then simply do whatever you must to pursue them.  Here are a few such possible questions, drawn up by me:

How did Venetian architecture draw upon Byzantine styles?

How did the Venetian salt trade evolve? Glasswork? Publishing?

What were the origins of accounting in Venice?

Why did Gordon Tullock think the Venetians had the finest and wisest constitution of history?  How much power did the Doge really have?

How did the different Bellinis reflect different eras of Venetian history, both artistic and otherwise?

How did oil painting come to Venice and why did it become so prominent there?

Why are late Titian paintings better than almost everything else in the visual arts?

What factors led to the decline of Venice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?  How did Napoleon treat Venice?

Now, those are just sample questions, obviously you could come up with your own and add to or alter that list.  But here is the thing: simply pursue the list of questions.  It may well induce you to buy books, such as this work on Venetian architecture and the East.  Or it may lead you down Googled rabbit holes.  Or it may lead you to…

Follow the questions, not the books per se.  Don’t focus on which books to read, focus on which questions to ask.  Then the books, and other sources, will follow almost automatically.

Read in clusters!  Don’t obsess over titles.  Obsess over questions.  That is how to learn best about many historical areas, especially when there is not a dominant book or two which beat out all the others.

My question: Is it ever possible for an individual book to present and realize this very process for you?  If not, why not?

How I choose fiction

An MR reader emails me:

Reading: what is your decision model for choosing fiction?

Here is a description, these are not necessarily recommendations for you:

1. If a woman as smart (or smarter) as I am tells me to read a particular work of fiction, it is likely I do so.  If a smarter man tells me to read a particular work of fiction, odds are I will ignore it.

2. I am least likely to read American fiction.  The 1850s, Faulkner, and Pynchon aside, American fiction seems more superficial to me than say European or Latin American fiction.  American fiction is also very popular in…America, which leads to an excessively loose selection mechanism for those residing in this country and reading its media.  Whereas if a novel from El Salvador (Castellanos Moya) makes its way in front of your eyes, it may be quite good.

3. In genre fiction, I am most likely to read American fiction.  Superficiality is less of a problem, and vitality is more likely to be relevant.

4. I track fiction reviews in the NYT, Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, Financial Times, the WSJ and WaPo, BookForum, The New Yorker, New York Review of Books, and on-line, and I buy what seems interesting to me.  I read the blog Literary Saloon which covers fiction in translation.  I will randomly sample other sources as well, sometimes the Guardian too or the London Times.  I will click on “best of” lists relating to fiction.

5. If I am in a German- or Spanish-speaking country, I’ll buy a few titles from the front tables and also ask an intelligent-seeming clerk what I ought to be reading.  I don’t always get around to actually reading those, noting that the final equilibrium has not yet arrived.

6. I used to scan the “New Arrivals” section of the local public libraries for fiction titles, but in recent years I have cut back on my fiction consumption and this practice has fallen by the wayside.  It was not leading to a high hit rate in any case (too many second- or third-tier books by writers I already like but who are past their peak years).

7. I will periodically reread old classics, on a more or less random basis, mostly correlated with how long ago I last read them.

What I’ve been reading

1. Jonathan Paine’s Selling the Story: Transaction and Narrative Value in Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Zola combines several interests of mine in an effective fashion.  This book is most useful for seeing economic themes in some of the classic authors, above and beyond their citations of monetary values and payments.

2. The Bretton Woods Agreements, Together with Scholarly Commentaries and Essential Historical Documents, edited by Naomi Lamoreaux and Ian Shapiro.  Virtually all edited collections are sleep-inducing, but this one is consistently interesting, at least if you are the kind of person who might possibly be drawn in by the title.  Doug Irwin, Barry Eichengreen, Kurt Schuler, and Michael Bordo are among the contributors.

3. Ken Ochieng’ Opalo, Legislative Development in Africa: Politics and Postcolonial Legacies.  The book also is more exciting than the title and subtitle indicate.  It covers the determinants of cross-national African legislative successes, and argues that often the best and strongest legislatures emerge from a context of previously effective autocracy.

4. Roger Faligot, Chinese Spies: From Chairman Mao to Xi JinPing.  A sobering account of how much spying — indeed spying on a mass level — has been central to Chinese history since the advent of communism.  I found some parts of this book too detailed for me to read the entire thing, but arguably that ought to scare you all the more.  Note that the narrative essentially ends around 2008.

5. Mario Bertolotti, The History of the Laser.  Only about half of this book, at most, covers the laser.  Those parts seemed fine enough, but what I really enjoyed was the coverage of the development of electromagnetic theory leading up to the laser.  The book is also good for showing that the “transistor revolution” starting in 1948 was not really so distinct from the earlier industrial and electromagnetic revolution of the late 19th century.

My Conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Here is the audio and transcript.  We covered Ghana, Africa more generally, cosmopolitanism and the resurgence of nationalism, philosophy and Karl Popper, Lee Kuan Yew, the repatriation of cultural objects, Paul Simon, the smarts of Jodie Foster, sheep farming in New Jersey, and the value of giving personal advice.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Take Pan-Africanism. Do you think, in the broader course of history, this will go down as merely a 20th-century idea? Or is Pan-Africanism alive and well today?

APPIAH: Pan-Africanism involves two different big strands. One is the diasporic strand. The word Pan-Africanism and the Pan-African Congresses were invented in the diaspora by people like Sylvester Williams in Jamaica and W. E. B. Du Bois from the United States and Padmore.

That idea of a diasporic African identity seems pretty lively in the world today, though it doesn’t produce much actual politics or policy, but the sense of solidarity of people of African descent, of the African diaspora seems pretty strong to me.

COWEN: But strongest outside of Africa in a way, right?

APPIAH: Yes, where it began. In Africa, I think, on the one hand, that most contemporary sub-Saharan Africans do have a sense of themselves as belonging to a kind of Black African world. But if you ask them to do something practical about it, like take down borders or do more political integration, I don’t know that that is going to go anywhere anytime soon, which I regret because I think, for lots of reasons, it would be . . .

My sister and her husband live in Lagos. If they want to go to Accra by road, they have to cross the border between Nigeria and Benin, the border between Benin and Togo, the border between Togo and Ghana. And at each of those borders, they probably have to interact with people who are going to try and extract an illegal tax on them.

COWEN: Easier to fly to London, right?

APPIAH: Much easier to fly to London and back to Accra. That’s crazy. And we’ve had these weird things. On the one hand, there’s probably a million Ghanaians in Nigeria, living Ghanaian citizens.

And:

COWEN: Is cosmopolitanism not only compatible with nationalism, but in a way quite parasitic upon it? And in a sense, the parasite is being ejected a bit? Think back to your boyhood in Kumasi. You have all these different groups, and you’re trading with them. You see them every day, and that works great, but there’s some central coherence to Ghana underlying that.

You go to Lebanon today — that central coherence seems to have been gone for some time. You could call Lebanon a cosmopolitan place, but it’s not really an advertisement for Lebanon the way it’s worked out. Are we just moving to a new equilibrium, where the parasitism of cosmopolitanism is now being recognized for what it really is?

APPIAH: I don’t like the metaphor of the parasite.

[laughter]

APPIAH: But yes, I do want to insist that cosmopolitanism . . . Look, cosmopolitanism, as I said, does not only require, or the right kind of cosmopolitan requires a kind of rootedness, but its point, precisely, is that we are celebrating connections among different places, each of which is rooted in its own something, each of which has its distinctive virtues and interest, each of which has its own history. And we’re making connections with people for whom that place is their first place, just as I am in a place which is my first place.

So yes, cosmopolitanism requires, I think, a national sense of solidarities that are not global. That’s why, as I say, you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. Now, if the nationalist says, “Okay, but why do we need anything beyond national citizenship?” The answer is, we have a world to manage. The economy works better if we integrate.

There is much, much more at the link, self-recommending…