Category: Books

Books of the year

The Economist and The New York Times (password required) have put out their "best books of the year" lists.  Each list is at the respective link, the common elements are:

Philip Roth – The Plot Against America

Anne Tyler – The Amateur Marriage

Colm Toibin – The Master

Alan Hollinghurst – Line of Beauty

David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas

Orhan Pamuk – Snow

Moving on to non-fiction, we have:

Ron Chernow – Alexander Hamilton

Seymour Hersh – Chain of Command

The 9-11 Commission Report, and

Stephen Greenblatt – Will in the World

As for my favorites in fiction, Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is my clear pick, with nods to Garcia Marquez and Alice Munro.  For non-fiction, my memory summons up Craig Seligman’s Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me, Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, and Bart Schulz’s Henry Sidgwick: An Intellectual Biography.  For science I’ll nominate Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos.  I’m leaving off everything that has made our "Books we Recommend" list over the months.

My apologies if I forget your book.  No, I haven’t forgotten its content (yet), I simply have no idea whether it came out this last year.  Age has compressed my sense of time into two rather gross categories: "my plans for the future" and "the distant past."

The unhealthy price of textbooks

Henry over at Crooked Timber wants to know why some books are so expensive.  The answer is that the books he has in mind are textbooks and the person choosing the textbook isn’t the one paying the price.  In effect, the professor is buying the book but with someone else’s money.  Hmmm, does this remind you of any other markets?  Here’s a hint, the 3rd edition of Health Economics by Charles Phelps is $122.60.  Here’s another application.

Addendum: Mark Steckbeck has a nice post explaining one reason why textbooks prices have increased in recent years.  The internet has made resale easier thus adding to the book’s value and, as publishers realize that demand has increased, to the book’s price.   Interesting possibility mentioned by Mark is that increases in nominal prices are consistent with decreases in real (after resale) prices.

Warring against the division of labor

A group of British scientists has come up with a brain-taxing spin on the old formula of 100 things to do before you die.

The group – which includes the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, neuroscientist Susan Greenfield and the inventor James Dyson – urges us all to take samples of our DNA, measure the speed of light with chocolate, and solve the mathematical mystery of the number 137.

The list, compiled by New Scientist magazine, suggests booking to see Galileo’s middle finger (preserved in Florence) or ordering liquid nitrogen to make the "world’s smoothest ice-cream" at home.

Another option is learning Choctaw, a language with two past tenses – one for giving information that is definitely true, the other for passing on material taken without checking from someone else.

Here is a summary article; I cannot find the entire list on-line, here is the book.  My personal "before I die" goal is to study Indian classical music before my dexterity gives out completely; I no longer expect to play in the NBA or even to hold season tickets.

Red in Tooth and Claw

Is it possible that near-universal affluence and the social safety net inevitably make for less moving fiction? This thought is suggested by  A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry’s heart-wrenching novel of India that invites comparison to the English novels of the 19th century–complete with a kind of workhouse in which our heroes are briefly incarcerated. Such is life in the developing world; fans of Sister Carrie should read "At 18, Min Finds a Path to Success in Migration Wave" at wsj.com (requires subscription), about the odyssey of one young woman from rural China.

Mistry’s book is set around 1975, with periodic excursions into the deeper past, and gives us a portrait of a place (India during the suspension of civil liberties under Indira Gandhi) where affluence is rare and the social safety net almost non-existent. It’s a society where the dead hand of bad government blights almost everything: there is rent control, food rationing, and a bureaucracy so extensive that "facilitators" negotiate it for you for a fee. Corruption abounds, abetted by all the regulation.

In literary terms, it’s too bad modern Western novels aren’t much concerned with money nowadays (you can read more about this), but to the extent the phenomenon reflects reader prosperity it’s probably just as well. Read A Fine Balance and you’ll come away feeling that the characters in most Western novels-like the people in most Western societies-have no idea how good they have it.

Kiss of Fire

First, full disclosure: Barbara Nitke is my friend.

Barbara is an exquisitely sensitive photographer whose self-imposed mission is to record lovers at the precise moments when they exchange power, trust and intimacy. Her work (best exempified in her book Kiss of Fire) is not porn; her photos are tinged with sexuality but they’re rarely overtly sexual. On the other hand, they won’t be easy for everyone to look at. Often they depict dominance, submission and pain. Always they depict love. It’s not the naked bodies that jump out at you; it’s the naked souls.

Barbara’s new show, Illuminata: Are You Curious?, opens on Thursday, November 11 at the Art At Large gallery in New York. If the photos aren’t to your taste, you can still go to support Barbara’s courageous lawsuit against John Aschcroft and the Communications Decency Act.

Too Many Books?

This year’s Man Booker Prize, Nobel Prize for Literature, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction have now all been awarded for works I will never read, and next month’s National Book Award is certain to follow suit. Which causes me to wonder whether the world’s got enough books already. I own hundreds of novels that I will never have the time to read. If these were the only copies on earth and a fire destroyed half of them, my life would not be signifcantly impoverished.

Of course there are great novels that have brought me a lot of pleasure—most recently, Ian Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpostand Donna Tartt’s The Secret History come to mind—(warning! Do not read the Amazon reviews of Fingerpost; they give away the ending!). But the opportunity cost of reading a great novel is reading some other great novel, so if either of these had gone unwritten, I’d probably have some other wonderful book to recommend.

There’s an important economic point here: The vast rewards that go to successful novelists can grossly overstate the social value of their work. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has sold over 6 million copies and almost surely earned its author over $20 million. But if The Da Vinci Code hadn’t been written, some other now-unnoticed book might have taken its place as the blockbuster of the year, and readers would have been almost as happy.

Writing a book is not like growing an orange. If you grow the best orange in the world, the second best orange still gets eaten. But if you write the best book in the world, the second best book loses a lot of readers. So the market price of an orange is an excellent reflection of its true social value, whereas the bulk of Dan Brown’s $20 million is only an excellent reflection of what he was able to divert from some
other author to himself.

Harold Bloom at work

A conversation between [Samuel] Johnson and Goethe is all but inconceivable. Perhaps a gathering of Shakespeare, Plato, and Oscar Wilde, put together in Eternity, could create it. Shakespeare would convey the inability of the English critic and the German poet to listen to each other, while Plato would mold the irony of the encounter, and Wilde suggest the wasted wit.

That’s from Harold Bloom’s new Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?. It doesn’t matter how flawed Bloom’s recent books may be, he is still a smarter reader than just about anyone else. I buy his stuff on sight and gobble it up within twenty-four hours.

Another good Christmas gift is Richard Dawkin’s The Ancestor’s Tale, his most systematic treatment of evolution to date.

Addendum: Alan Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty just won the Mann Booker Prize; here is more info.

Who benefits from R&D?

…the main finding — that R&D capital stocks of trade partners have a noticeable impact on a country’s total factor productivity — appears to be robust… [consider] a coordinated permanent expansion of R&D investment by 1/2 of GDP in each of twenty-one industrial countries. The U.S. output grows by 15 percent, while Canada’s and Italy’s output expands by more than 25 percent. On average the output of all the industrial countries rises by 17.5 percent. And importantly, the output of all the less-developed countries rises by 10.6 percent on average. That is, the less-developed countries experience substantial gains from R&D expansion in the industrial countries [emphasis added].

That is from Elhanan Helpman’s just-published The Mystery of Economic Growth. I’ll add that, more generally, Europe is a massive free-rider on American investments in pharmaceutical R&D; see Alex immediately below.

Are you looking for a good and readable summary of what economists know about economic growth? Helpman’s book is the place to start. And here is my earlier post on external returns from innovation.

The growing cost of textbooks

As many textbooks now break the $100 barrier, complaints are rising

Some college and public-interest groups charge that the publishing industry is forcing textbook prices higher by introducing unnecessary new editions and packaging books with expensive study materials that not all students want or need. The National Association of College Bookstores says wholesale prices of college textbooks have risen nearly 40 percent in the past five years.

And students are finding that many of the same books are sold overseas at much lower prices.

Note, by the way, that textbook prices have not risen as rapidly as tuition and fees (admittedly the latter is difficult to calculate in real terms, given different way of valuing financial aid). This makes it harder for universities to make a stink.

The economic problem is simple: professors assign a book without worrying much about the cost that students will pay. In fact a pricey book might be a nice way to drive down your enrollment and lower your workload.

But do we really need Congressional hearings on the matter?

How about this for a simple solution? If a professor can lower the price of classroom materials, the university adds one-tenth of the class’s gain to that professor’s salary or research account. Yes in the short run there might be inefficient skimping but in the longer run prices should come down. Some professors, of course, might resort to teaching their classes through blogs. As the subtitle of this blog notes, “Small Ideas for a Much Better World.”

Arnold Kling, a master expositor of economics, has another excellent solution.

Why reading Homer’s Iliad is good for you

Reciting the Iliad could have epic effects on your health. German physiologists have recently shown that such poetry can get your heart beating in time with your breaths. This synchronization may improve gas exchange in the lungs as well as the body’s sensitivity and responsiveness to blood pressure changes.

The poem’s use of hexameter — six rhythmic units per line — is seen as especially important to this result.

Here is one brief account, see also the October issue of Scientific American, p.29.

The Sledgehammer of Wow

By this point in life I’ve stuffed so much material down my gullet I feel I am hard to impress. When it comes to new books and music in particular, I can go many moons without feeling The Sledgehammer of Wow. But yesterday I felt it twice:

Blueberry Boat by The Fiery Furnaces dispays a level on ongoing invention that one expected from Brian Wilson circa 1968.

Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: A Novel has been called a “Harry Potter for grown-ups”; it starts by asking whether magic has disappeared in England. Only rarely have I been captivated so quickly and so deeply by a novel of our time. Read the ever-insightful Henry Farrell (CrookedTimber.org) on this wonderful book. Here is another good review, also courtesy of Henry; here is a Slate.com review.

On a sadder note, Johnny Ramone has passed away. “Twenty-twenty-twenty-four hours to go, I wanna be sedated…!”

The politics of Nobel Prizes

Jorge Luis Borges was one of the greatest writers never to win a Nobel Prize (try the early short fiction if you don’t already know his work). Now I know why:

The visit to [Pinochet’s] Chile finished off Borges’s chances of ever winning the Nobel Prize. That year, and for the remaining years of his life, his candidacy was opposed by a veteran member of the Nobel Prize committee, the socialist writer Arthur Lundkvist, a long-standing friend of the Chilean Communist poet Pablo Neruda, who had received the Nobel Prize in 1971. Lundkvist would subsequently explain to Volodia Teitelboim, one of Borges’s biographers and a onetime chairman of the Chilean Communist Party, that he would never forgive Borges his public endorsement of General Pinochet’s regime.

Borges, it should be noted, did believe in democracy but thought Pinochet the best of the available options at the time. For purposes of contrast, consider the following (slightly overstated) description of Laureate Pablo Neruda:

On the eve of his [Neruda’s] death, in 1973, he could still describe Stalin as “that wise, tranquil Georgian”. His feelings were similarly soft for Mao’s China, where he loved to see everyone in those vast landscapes and streetscapes dressed in regulation blue.

The former quotation is from p.426 of Edwin Williamson’s excellent Borges: A Life.