Category: Books

What I’ve been reading

1. Elaine Dundy, Life ItselfShe as a teen taught Mondrian how to jitterbug, married Kenneth Tynan and moved into London high society, became an important writer in her own right, and got tired of him wanting to whip her.  I was never inclined to stop reading.

2. Amina M. Derbi, The Storyteller and the Terrorist in Our Newsfeeds.  In this novella a Muslim girl in Northern Virginia posts stories of murders on-line and those murders start coming true.  I finished this one too.  Unusual in its approach.

3. Timothy Larsen, The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith.  On the surface this is an account of various famous British anthropologists and their views toward Christianity.  At a deeper level it contrasts the anthropological and religious approaches to understanding society.  Why do so many anthropologists have more tolerant attitudes toward the religions they study than to Christianity?  Do the Christian beliefs of an anthropologist help or hurt that individual’s understanding of other religions in the field?  Once you’ve seen another religion “from the outside” as an anthropologist, and observed its apparently arbitrary features, can you still be religious yourself?  Definitely recommended, here is my previous review of Larsen on John Start Mill.

4. Colin M. Waugh, Paul Kagame and Rwanda: Genocide and the Rwandan Patriotic Front.  This is perhaps the most conceptual book I know on the Rwandan genocide, most of all because it ties the killings to both prior and posterior events very well.  Recommended, but (for better or worse) note the author is relatively sympathetic to Kagame in the post-conflict period.  I did just buy Waugh’s book on Charles Taylor and Liberia, which you can take as a credible endorsement of this one.

Noteworthy is Kieran Healy, Data Visualization: A Practical Introduction.  I have not read it, but had positive impressions from my paw-through.

Sister Wendy has passed away

Here are some notices.  In addition to her duties for the Church, she was an art historian “for the people.”  I thought she had a remarkably good eye, and was especially strong in explaining the virtues of late medieval/early Renaissance art, most of all works “from a school” or attributed to a pseudonym.  She was “a thing” in the 90s, so if you don’t know her work I would recommend all of her books, they are full of life and love for art and yes love for the reader too.  Here is the NYT obituary.

Life at the margin?

With Seamus Heaney:

Poetry isn’t important in one sense — it’s more important to live your life and be a good person. Who cares about poetry, there’s plenty already around. Life is more important than art.

Under what conditions is that true?  Under what conditions is it actually believed by Heaney?  Here is the rest of the interview, interesting throughout.  I enjoyed this bit:

MB: What do you like to discuss in terms of literature in your classes?
SH: I’m radical about this, but it seems strange to have discussions with people who don’t know anything and who overreact. They usually don’t have much to say. Maybe discuss literature with them the following year — after the class — when they’ve had time to have the material enter their memory. Until it’s entered their personality they can’t say much.

Via Anecdotal.

Philip Serzo on travel writing

Philip sent me this email, and very generously allowed me to reproduce it:


I know you’ve been going back and forth recently on travel writing. I don’t read a ton of travel writing, but I could totally see why it has limitations, like all genres. I say this after studying Graham Greene a favorite writer of mine. He crossed over successfully into many genres of writing. Travel writing being one of them.
Here’s my point. Rolf Potts interviews Pico Iyer on a book he wrote about Graham Greene and Pott’s asks this questions below:

One interesting contradiction you raise in your book is how Greene was better at evoking the humanity of faraway places in his fiction than in his nonfiction travel books. You even go so far as to say that “his travel books were a near-perfect example of how not to write or think about travel.” Why do you think this is the case, and what does it say about Greene’s way of seeing the world?

We are never less forthright than when writing of ourselves; that’s one of the lessons I feel I share with Greene (or maybe partly learned from him). Memoir to me is a kind of fiction, and the most striking autobiographical works I know—whether Philip Roth’s The Facts or W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn or V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival—all present themselves as novels. So it’s always seemed perfect to me that in his two quasi-memoirs, Greene uses charm and anecdote and childhood memory to avoid really telling us anything about himself, his loves or his beliefs; yet in his novels, given a mask or cover, he’s as naked and unguarded as any author I know. Give yourself an alias or call your work fiction and you can say things you might not say to your closest friends.

In his travel-writing, likewise, Greene was always on the outside of what he was observing, ever more English, seated in a corner, pouring abuse and scorn on the alien scene around him. Yet as soon as he worked up the material he’d seen in Mexico into a novel—The Power and the Glory—he was so deeply inside his characters, both the whisky priest protagonist and even the lieutenant in pursuit of him, that he wrote perhaps his most affecting and compassionate novel, and the one, liberatingly, without a single English character in it.

He might be almost offering us—inadvertently—a lesson on the limitations of travel-writing, much as Naipaul or Theroux or Maugham also do in novels that are far more compassionate and sympathetic than the travel-books that gave rise to them. In writing a non-fictional book about travel, you usually have to create a fictional persona of sorts, some convenient version of the self that will make the narrative work. But that front is almost never as rich or deep or conflicted as the self we allow ourselves to entertain in fiction; it can’t be. Very often the travel-writers we enjoy are engaging or buoyant or splenetic on the page, but all those are really just useful props, tiny fragments of the self, and don’t always take us very deep.

The Museum of the Bible, Washington, D.C.

“I love bringing my kids here,” I heard from my Eritrean Uber driver, the first person I’ve met who admits to going.  The lavishly funded museum is indeed a world unto itself.  Here is what struck me on a recent visit:

1. The interior and the staff feel like nowhere else in D.C., like a cross between the Midwest and a Mormon temple perhaps.  There is much more wood paneling than one sees around town.

2. It is unabashedly the most universalistic and cosmopolitan interior in the area.  There is a large room with circular shelves, containing all the Bibles in different languages they could find.  Long columns list the languages of those Bibles, and a flashing sign indicates that 977,977 different Bible chapters would need to be translated before every chapter of the Bible is available in all of the world’s languages.

3. You can see plenty of old Bibles from the centuries, and while they are attractive, none are quite good enough for an art museum like say The Walters in Baltimore.

4. There is a station playing references to the Bible from popular music.  As I stopped by it was serving up “Four Horsemen” by The Clash, and then it segued into “Hard Headed Woman” by Elvis Presley.

5. Entrance costs $25.99, plus premia for special exhibits.


6. The museum bends over backwards to be non-denominational, that said the intended neutrality imposes biases of its own.  The big losers are the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, because this is indeed a museum about a book, not about a church community.  The connection between this book, and the communities it has spawned, is precisely the murky angle here and it seems almost deliberately obscured.  The Amish also are not prominent in the displays.  Imagine if people really just read and worshiped the book.  This truly is a museum about a book.

7. The museum tries not to refer to “the Christian Bible” or “the Hebrew Bible,” but that intended neutrality breaks down when you encounter the two sections for “the Old Testament” and “the New Testament.”  The Jews lose.

8. There is a section — entirely respectful — where a Jewish scribe writes out biblical text for viewers.  There is another exhibit of ancient Biblical life where you can walk among stone houses, read panels about biblical references to water, read about the Second Temple, and employees are paid to dress in (supposed) clothing from that period and say “Shalom” to you.

9. The museum is extraordinarily literal, and if you wanted to explain to space aliens what the Bible was, you could take them here.  That said, they would end up understanding the Bible far better than Christianity.

10. There is a very interesting section on bibles for slaves, and which sections of the original Bible they omitted.  On a wall display, visitors are asked to write out whether they consider these “slave bibles” to be proper Bibles or not.  Most say no.

11. There is a questionnaire, a bit like a Twitter quiz.  It first notes that Elizabeth Cady Stanton reinterpreted the Bible in the late 19th century, so as to make it more sympathetic to the rights of women.  It then asks the visitors whether reinterpretations of the Bible should be allowed today.  So far 61 percent have answered “no.”

12. The gift shop is lavish.  The museum restaurant Manna serves kosher food.  Here is the Wikipedia page for the museum.

13. The google headline for the museum has the subtitle “One of the Ten Best Museums in DC.”  It is odd they do not think it is the best.

What I’ve been reading

Leo Damrosch, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends who Shaped an Age.  The same 18th century British club had as members Samuel Johnson, Boswell, Burke, Gibbon, Adam Smith, Joshua Reynolds, Sheridan, Goldsmith, and David Garrick (often considered the greatest actor of the time).  I never tire of reading about them.

Andrew Arsan, Lebanon: A Country in Fragments.  At first this book feels like a kind of running splat, but with a bit of patience it becomes a remarkably compelling portrait of a society on the brink, most of all a desperate love letter to Beirut.  If you can get through the squirrelly early political material, this is one of the best “country books” and also “city books” of the last few years.

James Simpson, Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism, feels throughout as if it is an important book.  And anyone interested in religion and development should read this one.  Yet I had trouble following the actual arguments.  It is probably good.

Marixa Lasso, Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal, stresses just how interesting a place was pre-canal Panama, contrary to what I had thought.

Vernon Smith, The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Reflections on Faith, Science, and Economics.  Published by the Acton Institute, this is Vernon on his conversion to Christianity, Kahlil Gibran, and why science and religion are compatible.  Short, of interest to those looking to understand the man.

Joel Waldfogel, Digital Renaissance: What Data and Economics Tell Us about the Future of Popular Culture.  My blurb is: “Digital Renaissance makes a real contribution to the economics of the Internet and the economics of art and culture.”

My Conversation with Daniel Kahneman

Here is the transcript and audio, a rollicking time was had by all.  We covered what you would expect us to have covered.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: And that people want to maximize their overall sense of how their life has gone — do you think that is ultimately Darwinian roots? Why is that the equilibrium? Happiness feels good, right?

KAHNEMAN: Yeah, happiness feels good in the moment. But it’s in the moment. What you’re left with are your memories. And that’s a very striking thing — that memories stay with you, and the reality of life is gone in an instant. So memory has a disproportionate weight because it’s with us. It stays with us. It’s the only thing we get to keep.

COWEN: If you think of your own life, have you maximized happiness or the overall sense of how your life has gone?

KAHNEMAN: Neither.


COWEN: Neither. Citations?


And on his new project:

KAHNEMAN: I’ll tell you where the experiment from which my current fascination with noise arose. I was working with an insurance company, and we did a very standard experiment. They constructed cases, very routine, standard cases. Expensive cases — we’re not talking of insuring cars. We’re talking of insuring financial firms for risk of fraud.

So you have people who are specialists in this. This is what they do. Cases were constructed completely realistically, the kind of thing that people encounter every day. You have 50 people reading a case and putting a dollar value on it.

I could ask you, and I asked the executives in the firm, and it’s a number that just about everybody agrees. Suppose you take two people at random, two underwriters at random. You average the premium they set, you take the difference between them, and you divide the difference by the average.

By what percentage do people differ? Well, would you expect people to differ? And there is a common answer that you find, when I just talk to people and ask them, or the executives had the same answer. It’s somewhere around 10 percent. That’s what people expect to see in a well-run firm.

Now, what we found was 50 percent, 5–0, which, by the way, means that those underwriters were absolutely wasting their time, in the sense of assessing risk. So that’s noise, and you find variability across individuals, which is not supposed to exist.

I enjoyed this particular exchange:

COWEN: Do you think of low intelligence as yet a third independent source of error? Or is that somehow subsumed in bias and noise?

KAHNEMAN: You mean plain stupidity?


COWEN: In some cases.

And this:

COWEN: A society such as Argentina that relies so heavily on psychoanalysis — as a psychologist, do you see that as bias? Is it a placebo? Is there a placebo effect in psychoanalysis?

KAHNEMAN: You seem to attribute . . . You seem to think that I think of bias all the time.


COWEN: I can’t imagine why. That’s my bias.

KAHNEMAN: It’s like thinking of sex all the time. I really don’t think of bias that much.


COWEN: Some questions about psychologists outside of what you’ve worked on, but maybe related — Freud. What do you think of Freud’s body of work? And has it influenced you at all?

Definitely recommended, and you will find cameo appearances by Michael Nielsen and Daniel Gross.

*Scouting and Scoring: How We Know What We Know About Baseball* (scouting bleg)

The role of reports and bureaucracy in the quantification of baseball prospects is a story that has long been obscured by a romantic notion of what scouts do and who they are.  Outside of scouting memoirs, only a handful of book-length studies of scouts exist, none of which take scouting tools and training as the central topic.  Scouts actively participate in their own mischaracterization.  Its possible to read entire memoirs of scouts without ever learning about the need to fill in a report, let alone how it is done.

That is from the forthcoming book — quite interesting — by Christopher J. Phillips. Not surprisingly, this book also discusses “scouting the scout.”

And so I ask you readers, what are the best things to read about scouts, scouting, and the scouting process?

Michael’s short review of *Stubborn Attachments*

From my email, he said this was the entirety of his review:

A reflection on how to best worship humans or some form of enduring human community as a god or gods. From a religious perspective, such an approach may at first seem illusory, but an attentive reader will be left wondering how close that illusion is to the actual truth.

A Progressive review of *Stubborn Attachments*

By Joshua Kim, here are a few excerpts:

An oddity of Stubborn Attachments is that Cowen is reluctant to apply his pro-economic growth philosophy to real-world political choices.

[TC: that is on purpose of course]

Stubborn Attachments would have been more persuasive if Cowen was more willing to explore the implications of his philosophy on the political and policy choices before us. The question is, are progressive values are at odds with the belief that long-term economic growth is the engine of progress?


Nor does Cowen answer the question of at what point a wealthy society should be able to provide a measure of economic security to all of its citizens? Does the guarantee that work should come with a living wage and that everyone deserves access to health care and education incompatible with a long-term focus on economic progress?

As is always the case with a Cowen book, his writing will make you think. Stubborn Attachments is too abstract for my tastes.  But I’m happy to have spent 3.5 hours arguing with Cowen.

If he reads MR, he can always spend more.

Who read what in 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Jed McCaleb

Tyler Cowen’s “Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals” is a well-reasoned moral argument for how we should behave as a civilization. It makes two main points: First, we should take a longer view of things. Right now we place too high a discount rate on the future, when in fact most of humanity is there. This leads to the second conclusion: that almost everything else we attempt to do to help the world is far less effective than just increasing the economic growth rate. My only complaint about the book is that I was left wanting more. I wish Mr. Cowen had gone into more detail, for instance, about individual freedoms vs. economic growth. There are inevitably trade-offs between the two, and he doesn’t delve into how we should make these decisions.

*A Life of Experimental Economics, volume I*, by Vernon Smith

I learned a great deal from this stimulating and highly unorthodox biography.  Here are a few points from the book:

1. It offers a brief but excellent early economic history of Wichita, where Vernon grew up.

2. Vernon, at the time, was very critical of the use of the atomic bombs on Japan, which he considered to be a disproportionate use of force.

3. In the 1940s he became active in CORE and its fight against racial discrimination.

4. In 1948 Vernon was an antiwar pacifist and a supporter of Norman Thomas.

5. At MIT, Paul Samuelson was a show-off lecturer, according to Vernon.

6. The book has plenty of sentences like: “Grandpa Smith and Uncle Norman were always a delight to have around — lots of jokes, wisecracks, and laughs.”

7. pp.163-164: “The details, as we came to know them, were not the least bit complicated…It was at first thought that she had considered using the knife on herself, but apparently the knife was there because she considered cutting a length from a nearby piece of rope.  Instead, she used a chain.  It was so like my mother — a clean job with no mess.  Everyone who knew her knew that she would never have used the butcher knife.  Even the hanging could never have occurred in the house.  No fuss, no mess; a clean job, with no room for error.”

8. On attention-switching: “I have always had what my mind has gradually come to recognize — by comparative observation of others — as a brain task-switching problem.  When I am thinking, writing, or composing, I pass into another world of experience, a world that is isolated from my surroundings…I experience many chaotic but loosely connected thought.  One, then another, rises and there emerges a hint of how they are to come together.”  He notes that interruptions are very costly to him, and he much prefers one-to-one conversations rather than group dialogues.  Furthermore, he argues that his capacity to “hyper-focus” is more valuable than his measured IQ of 130.

9. There are considerable and interesting discussions of autism, Asperger’s and ADHD.

10. The book offers an excellent account of why Purdue was an important economics department in the 1950s and 1960s.

11. In 1957, Vernon considered going to work for a private railroad and leaving Purdue for St. Louis.  He didn’t.

You can buy the book here, vol.II is good too.

Gustave Flaubert on travel books

Only, travel writing as a genre is per se almost impossible.  To eliminate all repetitions you would have had to refrain from telling what you saw.  This is not the case in books devoted to descriptions of discoveries, where the author’s personality is the focus of interest.  But in the present instance the attentive reader may well find that there are too many ideas and insufficient facts, or too many facts and not enough ideas.

That is from his November 1866 letter to Hippolyte Taine, reproduced in the Francis Steegmuller collection.  Here is my recent post on why most travel books are not good enough.  Here is a 2006 MR post on which are the best travel books.

Interstate trade is relatively high in India

The first-ever estimates for interstate trade flows indicate a trade to GDP ratio of about 54 per cent, a number that is comparable to other large jurisdictions and that contradicts the caricature of India as a barrier-riddled economy; the ratio of India’s internal and international trade also compares favourably with others.  De facto, at least, India seems well-integrated internally.  A more technical analysis confirms this: trade costs reduce trade by roughly the same extent in India as in other countries.

When it comes to internal trade, the big negative outlier is in fact Indonesia.

That is all from the new and interesting Of Counsel: The Challenges of the Modi-Jaitley Economy, by the excellent Arvind Subramanian.

*The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay*, by Christopher Clapham

A splendid book, why can’t the rest of you ****ers write books this good?  Here is one bit:

…the dynamics of clan works in a significantly different way in Somaliland from the way it does in south-central Somalia.  A single clan-family, the Isaaq, occupy the central areas of the territory, and account for by far the greater part of its population.  Though the Isaaq clans, inevitably, are divided both between and within themselves, they provide a reasonably solid ethnic core, that contrasts with the far more mixed and complex composition of southern Somalia, with its two major clan-families, Darood and Hawiye, and the further problems created by the presence of the Digil-Mirifle and other minority groups.  Somaliland is by no means entirely Isaaq…but its demographic structure means that other clans must either accept Isaaq hegemony and work within it, or else reject the Somaliland state altogether.  They cannot expect to control it.  At the same time, the fact that the Isaaq clans — characteristically of Somali clan politics — do not form a single united bloc provides other clans with the opportunity to build alliances with one or another group of the Isaaq.

Have you ever wanted to read about how ethnic groups in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti fit into this same broad picture?  Just exactly how Somalian and Ethiopian history intersect, from the 1970s onwards?  This here is your book.  I’m running to Amazon right now to buy more from this wonderful author.  You can buy it here.