Category: Books

Kenneth Tynan on Alec Guinness, circa 1952

He can — and this is rare — act mind, and may be the only actor alive who could play a genius convincingly: Donne, for instance, Milton, Pope, or even Shakespeare…would be comfortably within his grasp.  But he is not, and never will be a star, in the sense that Coward and Olivier are stars.  Olivier, one might say, ransacks the vaults of a part with blowlamp, crowbar, and gun-powder; Guinness is the nocturnal burglar, the humble Houdini who knows the combination.  He does everything by stealth.  Whatever he may do in the future, eh will leave no theatrical descendants, as Gielgud will.  He has illumined many a hitherto blind alley of subtlety, but blazed no trails.  Irving, we read, was rapt, too: but it was a weird, thunderous raptness that shook its fist at the gods.  Guinness waves away awe with a witty fingertip and deflects the impending holocaust with a shrug.  His stage presence is quite without amplitude, and his face, bereft of its virtuosity of make-up, is a signless zero.  His special gift is to imply the presence of little fixed ideas, gambolling about behind the deferential mask of normality.  The characters he plays are injected hypodermically, not tattooed all over him; the latter is the star’s way and Guinness shrinks from it.  Like Buckingham in Richard III he is “deep-resolving, witty”; the clay image on whom the witches work.  An innocence, as of the womb, makes his face placid even when he plays murderers.

Whether he likes it or not (and I suspect he does), his true métier will continue to be eccentrics — men reserved, blinkered, shut off from their fellows, and obsessed.  Within such minority men there is a hidden glee, an inward fanatical glow; and in their souls Guinness is at ease.

That is from Kenneth Tynan, Profiles, which is in fact a remarkable and remarkably good book.

Corporate science fiction markets in everything

…the business world has been increasingly aware of the genre’s potential. In 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the professional services firm that advises 440 of the Fortune 500 companies, published a blueprint for using science fiction to explore business innovation. The same year, the Harvard Business Review argued that “business leaders need to read more science fiction” in order to stay ahead of the curve…

A number of companies, along with a loose constellation of designers, marketers, and consultants, have formed to expedite the messy creative visualization process that used to take decades. For a fee, they’ll prototype a possible future for a [corporate] client, replete with characters who live in it, at as deep a level as a company can afford. They aim to do what science fiction has always done — build rich speculative worlds, describe that world’s bounty and perils, and, finally, envision how that future might fall to pieces.

Alternatively referred to as sci-fi prototyping, futurecasting, or worldbuilding, the goal of these companies is generally the same: help clients create forward-looking fiction to generate ideas and IP for progress or profit. Each of the biggest practitioners believe they have their own formulas for helping clients negotiate the future. And corporations like Ford, Nike, Intel, and Hershey’s, it turns out, are willing to pay hefty sums for their own in-house Minority Reports.

That is from Brian Merchant on Medium.

“Maybe it’s not that I am a regional thinker, but a regional feeler.”

Portugal has now had two lost decades. Adjusting for inflation, GDP per capita grew 7% between 2000 and 2008. I mean it grew 7% over that whole period, not on a yearly basis. Then it fell during the crisis and only last year did it get back to 2008 levels, so that between 2000 and 2017, total growth was 7%…

The population who lived in Portugal through the last 10 years now get extactic over 2.2% year-on-year growth. After so many years of nothing, mediocre growth feels amazing. Still, if you cross the border into Spain it no longer feels “this is what Portugal will be in 2021”, it feels like a much wealthier, qualititatively different, better economy. Portugal could have been that, but, at least in my lifetime, it probably won’t be. This is a lost opportunity and it brings me sadness.

Maybe it’s not that I am a regional thinker, but a regional feeler. I have a visceral feel for what it means to “grow to the level of Greece and then stop there” that comes from lived experience.

In summary, this is why I recommend you read Stubborn Attachments.

That is from Luis Pedro Coelho, there is more of interest at the link.

What I’ve been reading

1. Sevket Pamuk, Uneven Centuries: Economic Development of Turkey since 1820.  The best economic history of Turkey I know, it comes with strong recommendations from Daron Acemoglu and Dani Rodrik.  Not an engaging read, but a useful survey.

2. Nell Dunn, Talking to Women.  Interviews with British (and Irish) women, circa 1964, remarkably frank and open, “witty, anarchic, and sexually frank.”  Strongly recommended, is it possible that the quality of discourse on these matters has not much advanced or even declined?

3. Charles Allen, Coromandel: A Personal History of South India.  “I have called this book Coromandel chiefly for sentimental reasons.  I first became aware of that sonorous word as a fifteen-year-old schoolboy exiled in England.  Coromandel! was the title of the third in a series of Boy’s Own-style adventure stories set in India written by John Masters, an ex-Indian Army officer turned popular novelist.  It was all about a West Country lad who sails to India with a map to find the legendary Coromandel and make his fortune.  I reread it recently and found it not half as good as I thought it was — but the magic of that word Coromandel has always stayed with me, as the very essence of South India in all its elusiveness and allure.  I’m not alone in thinking this.”

4. Sally Rooney, Normal People.  A novel, they’re not, Irish, recommended.

Louise I. Shelley, Dark Commerce: How a New Illicit Economy is Threatening Our Future, is a useful survey of varying kinds of black and dark markets.

M. Todd Henderson, Mental State, “When conservative law professor Alex Johnson is found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound at his house in Chicago, everyone thinks it is suicide.  Everyone except his brother, Royce, an FBI agent.”

Kimberly Clausing, Open: The Progressive Case for Free Trade, Immigration, and Global Capital delivers exactly what its subtitle promises.

Jeffrey Lane, The Digital Street, is an interesting and original urban ethnography of how digitalized media, and the recording of street interactions, affect gang norms and patterns of violence.

Why is most travel writing so bad?

The most painful sections of a bookshop to have to read through would be the management books, self-help, and also the travel books.  Yet management, self-help, and travel are all very important and indeed extremely interesting matters, so I am wondering why these books are so bad.  Today let’s focus on travel.

My biggest complaint is that travel books seem not to discriminate between what the reader might care about or not.  Here is a randomly chosen passage from a recent travel book of Jedidiah Jenkins:

We walked our bikes over one more bridge and into Tijuana.  Weston was barefoot, which he noted out loud as we entered Mexico.  We got on our bikes and rode into immediate chaos.

Or this:

I drank my coffee and read the news on my phone.  I felt him sitting next to me.

Who cares? And who is Weston anyway?  (Longer excerpts would not seduce you.)  Yet this book — To Shake the Sleeping Self: A Journey from Oregon to Patagonia, and a Quest for a Life with No Regret — has 85 reviews on Amazon with an average of four and a half stars and it was a NYT bestseller.

Is travel like (some) sex, namely that you can’t write about it because it is viscerally exciting in a “you had to be there” way?  Why cannot that constraint be overcome by shifting the focus to matters more factual?

Too many travel books seem like an inefficient blending of memoir, novel, and travel narration, and they are throughout too light on information.  Ideally I want someone with a background in geography, natural history, or maybe urban studies to serve up a semi-rigorous account of what they are doing and seeing.

Here is one mood-affiliated blurb for the Jenkins book:

“A thrilling, tender, utterly absorbing book. With winning candor, Jedidiah Jenkins takes us with him as he bicycles across two continents and delves deeply into his own beautiful heart. We laugh. We cry. We feel the glory and the agony of his adventure; the monotony and the magic; the grace and the grit. Every page of this book made me ache to know what happened next. Every chapter shimmered with truth. It’s an unforgettable debut.”
Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things

What do people want from travel books anyway?  It seems the Jenkins work sold well because he is famous on Instagram, which may or may not correlate with book-writing skills.

Here is another randomly chosen passage:

I wait.  I drink some more water.  It sit in the grass and chat with the others.  I have a few false starts: “Ooh, I’m feeling it…just kidding, no I’m not.”  “Okay, now I am!  No, that’s an ant on my ankle.”

Is the problem an absence of barriers to entry for writing travel books?  That many books will sell automatically “by country” rather than because of the quality of their content, leading to an excessively segmented market?  Other travel book readers seem to obsess over the mode of transportation, such as whether a particular trip was undertaken by bicycle.  Are there too many celebrities and semi-celebrities trying their hand at a relatively easy-to-fudge literary genre?

What are the microfoundations for this failure in the quality of travel books?

Here are various lists of the best travel books of all time.  Even there I find many overrated, noting that Elizabeth Gilbert is better than most.

If you are wondering, three of my favorite travel books are Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, David G. Campbell, The Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica, and also Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, perhaps the best travel book ever written.

Somebody — fix this problem!

The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice

The excellent Jason Brennan with a short introduction to his new book, When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice:

Imagine a situation in which a civilian commits an injustice, the kind against which you believe it is permissible to use deception, subterfuge or violence to defend yourself or others. For instance, imagine your friend makes an improper stop at a red light, and his dad, in anger, yanks him out of the car, beats the hell out of him, and continues to strike the back of his skull even after your friend lies subdued and prostrate. May you use violence, if it’s necessary to stop the father? Now imagine the same scene, except this time the attacker is a police officer in Ohio, and the victim is Richard Hubbard III, who in 2017 experienced just such an attack as described. Does that change things? Must you let the police officer possibly kill Hubbard rather than intervene?

Most people answer yes, believing that we are forbidden from stopping government agents who violate our rights. I find this puzzling. On this view, my neighbours can eliminate our right of self-defence and our rights to defend others by granting someone an office or passing a bad law. On this view, our rights to life, liberty, due process and security of person can disappear by political fiat – or even when a cop has a bad day. In When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice (2019), I argue instead that we may act defensively against government agents under the same conditions in which we may act defensively against civilians. In my view, civilian and government agents are on a par, and we have identical rights of self-defence (and defence of others) against both. We should presume, by default, that government agents have no special immunity against self-defence, unless we can discover good reason to think otherwise.

I think it helps in answering this question to think of other countries say South Africa under Apartheid or China today among the Uighur in Xinjiang province…then be consistent. Note that resistance to state injustice may be unwise even when it is ethical.

Mostly returned books

I have thought about this question for at least twenty years, Elisa Gabbert spells it out (NYT):

My favorite spot in my local library — the central branch in Denver — is not the nook for new releases; not the holds room, where one or two titles are usually waiting for me; not the little used-book shop, full of cheap classics for sale; and not the fiction stacks on the second floor, though I visit all those areas frequently. It’s a shelf near the Borrower Services desk bearing a laminated sign that reads RECENTLY RETURNED.

This shelf houses a smallish selection of maybe 40 to 60 books — about the number you might see on a table in the front of a bookstore, where the titles have earned a position of prominence by way of being new or important or best sellers or staff favorites. The books on the recently returned shelf, though, haven’t been recommended by anyone at all. They simply limit my choices by presenting a near-random cross section of all circulating parts of the library: art books and manga and knitting manuals next to self-help and philosophy and thrillers, the very popular mixed up with the very obscure. Looking at them is the readerly equivalent of gazing into the fridge, hungry but not sure what you’re hungry for.

Is it better to spend time, at the margin, pawing through the “recently returned” cart, or the “New Arrivals” section or for that matter just the regular shelves?  How about the books simply left on tables and abandoned?

The big advantage of the books on the carts is that they usually are not bestsellers.  For bestsellers there is a waiting list, and they are held for another patron, never making their way to the cart.  I say go for the carts.

52 things Tom Whitwell learned in 2018

Here is one of them:

35% of Rwanda’s national blood supply outside the capital city is now delivered by drone. [Techmoran]

Here is another:

Advertisers place a single brown pixel on a bright background in a mobile ad. It looks like dust, so users try to wipe it off. That registers as a click, and the user is taken to the homepage. [Lauren Johnson]

And:

Those weirdly expensive books on Amazon could be part of a money laundering scheme. [Brian Krebs]

And:

Expensive placebos work better than cheap placebos. [Derek Lowe]

And if you ever doubted it:

There is a small but thriving startup scene in Mogadishu, Somalia. [Abdi Latif Dahir]

Here is the whole list, definitely recommended.  Via Anecdotal.

*Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities*

That is the new and excellent book by Alain Bertaud, so many pages have excellent food for thought.  Here is one simple bit:

Cities are primarily labor markets.

Or this:

…large cities are growing at about the same rate as medium and small cities in the same countries or regions.  It seems that cities’ growth rates follow Gibrat’s law of proportionate effect, which states that the size of a city is not an indicator of its future growth rate — that is, cities’ growth rates are random, with the same average expected growth rate and same variance…The population of larger cities keeps growing, but on average, so do smaller cities.  This seems paradoxical, given that larger cities are more productive than smaller ones.  However, larger cities do not play the same economic role as smaller ones do.  They complement each other’s activities.  The increase productivity of larger cities is therefore linked to the existence and growth of smaller cities.  In turn, smaller cities’ economic growth is dependent on larger cities’ innovations and inventions.

How about this:

In 1830…London’s population density had reached a very high density of 325 people per hectare.  By 2005, however, the density of London had decreased to only 44 people per hectare.  The larger decrease in London’s density has not caused a corresponding decrease in mobility.  On the contrary…

I learned a great deal from the discussion (starts p.287) of Indonesia’s “kampungs,” and how the Indonesian has managed their integration with local infrastructure relatively well.  In contrast, this is the common alternative procedure:

The predictable first reaction of governments has usually been to set minimum urbanization standards to prevent the legal construction of these unsanitary urban villages.  The regulations made the situation worse, as they prevented these informal settlements from obtaining normal urban services from the municipality.  They also created a risk of future demolition, which discourages housing improvement that the households would have naturally done themselves.  Eventually, many governments slowly regularized the older informal settlements in a piecemeal fashion, as is the practice in India, for instance.  But the regularization of informal settlements usually had been conducted with a provision that after a set date, no more informal settlements would be regularized.

The outcomes of these successive policies — first ostracism, then benign neglect followed by reluctant integration — has been disastrous.  A significant share of the urban labor force, otherwise gainfully employed, live in large “informal” settlements often with unsafe water supplies, deficient sanitation, and sporadic solid waste collection.

But:

What made a difference [in Indonesia] was a decision taken in 1969 by the government of Indonesia to concentrate its resources on the improvement of the kampungs’ infrastructure without trying to remove or restructure the existing housing, however small or inadequate it was…And, even more exceptional, since 1969 to this day, the Indonesian government’s support for KIP has been unwavering…The government housing policy objective consists of allowing the poor to settle in and around existing villages at the standards of their choice, while the government concentrates its efforts not on housing construction but on gradually improving residential infrastructure and services to all residential settlements.  The policy has proved largely successful.

Later in the book, pp.351-352 have a fascinating discussion of how relatively good urban/suburban policy, and also the fragmentation of municipalities, contributed to the early success of the tech community in Silicon Valley.

Definitely recommended, this is now one of my favorite books on cities, and it will be joining my “best non-fiction of 2018″ list.  Again, you can buy it here.

What should I ask Larissa MacFarquhar?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, no associated public event.  Here is her New Yorker bio:

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Her Profile subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Mantel, Derek Parfit, David Chang, and Aaron Swartz, among many others. She is the author of “Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help” (Penguin Press, 2015). Before joining the magazine, she was a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review, and wrote for ArtforumThe NationThe New Republic, the New York Times Book ReviewSlate, and other publications. She has received two Front Page Awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the Academy Johnson & Johnson Excellence in Media Award. Her writing has appeared in “The Best American Political Writing” (2007 and 2009) and “The Best Food Writing” (2008). She is an Emerson Fellow at New America.

She also wrote famous profiles of Richard Posner and Paul Krugman.

So what should I ask her?

Best non-fiction books of 2018

First let me start with three books from my immediate cohort, which I will keep separate from the rest:

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.

Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education.

Tyler Cowen, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

All of those are wonderful, but Stubborn Attachments is the best of the three.  Otherwise, we have the following, noting that the link often contains my longer review.  These are in the order I read them, not by any other kind of priority.  Here goes:

Varun Sivaram’s Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet.

Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game.

Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.

Cecilia Heyes, Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking.

David Reich, Who We Are and How We Got Here.

Nick Chater, The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind.

Allen C. Guelzo, Reconstruction: A Concise History.

Emily Dufton, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America.

Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: Passion, Death, and Resurrection, 1815-1849.

David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History.

David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History.

Francesca Lidia Viano’s Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty.

W.J. Rorabaugh, Prohibition: A Concise History.

Victor Sebestyen, Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror.

Porochista Khakpour, Sick: A Memoir.

M. Mitchell Waldrop, The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the revolution that made computing personal.

David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

There are also books which I think very likely deserve to make this list, but I have not had time to read much of them.  Most notably, those include the new biographies of Alain Locke, Thomas Cromwell, Gandhi, and Winston Churchill.

Overall I thought this was a remarkably strong year for intelligent non-fiction.  And as always, I have forgotten some splendid books — usually it is yours.  Sorry!

Thanks a Thousand

For Thanksgiving I read a book about giving thanks, A. J. Jacobs’s, Thanks a Thousand. It begins like I, Pencil (which Jacobs discovers half-way through his book) and I, Rose:

It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m in the presence of one of the most mind-boggling accomplishments in human history. This thing is so astounding in its complexity and scope, it makes the Panama canal look like a third grader’s craft project.

This marvel I see before me is the result of thousands of human beings collaborating across dozens of countries.

It took the combined labor of artists, chemists, politicians, mechanics, biologists, miners, packagers, smugglers and goatherds.

It required airplanes, boats trucks, motorcycles, vans, pallets and shoulders.

It needed hundreds of materials–steel, wood, nitrogen, rubber, silicon, ultraviolet light, explosives, and bat guano.

It has caused great joy but also great poverty and oppression.

It relied upon ancient wisdom and space-age technology, freezing temperature and scorching heat, high mountains and deep water.

It is my morning coffee.

Jacobs then sets out to thank everyone–which he soon finds is impossible, so he limits to a thousand people–who contributed to getting him his morning miracle. From the obvious, the barista and the coffee growers to the less obvious, the manufacturers and designers of the coffee lid and the NY water department, Jacobs sets out to offer thanks, giving the reader some interesting background along the way (“New York water is tested 2.2 million times a year.” “According to one estimate, pallets account for more than 46 percent of US hardwood lumber production.”).

Jacobs is also good on the importance of gratitude. Being mindful of and thankful for the things we ordinarily take for granted can make for a better life. He asks philosopher Will MacAskill what he is grateful for. “Sometimes I’m just thankful I have arms.” Yes.

Jacobs sometimes forgets, however, that the value of gratitude is more in the giving than in the receiving. He thus confuses gratitude with charity. But gratitude is neither payment nor alms. It’s nice to be recognized and thanked but thanks don’t make the world go round.

I ask Andy whether it feels good that the coffee in his warehouse brings joy to millions of people. Andy looks at me, his eyebrows knit. It’s as if I just asked him if he enjoys being a Buddhist monk who mediates ten hours a day.

“Well let me ask you this,” I say, “What are you thankful for?”

“My paycheck,” he says, laughing.

I like Andy. Andy understands that working solely for the sake of others can be demeaning and degrading. Andy is working for himself and his loved ones and more power to him. Beyond a few special relationships, to make doing for others one’s primary motive is undignified and subservient. Humans are not worker ants eager to die for love of their Queen. Each person’s life is their own.

The true marvel is that despite the fact that most people are not living for others we can still all live together harmoniously. As I like to put it:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the coffee brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

Best fiction of 2018

This year produced a strong set of top entries, though with little depth past these favorites.  Note that sometimes my review lies behind the link:

Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Stories.

Gaël Faye, Small Country.  Think Burundi, spillover from genocide, descent into madness, and “the eyes of a child caught in the maelstrom of history.”

Madeline Miller, Circe.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, volume six, My Struggle.  Or should it be listed in the non-fiction section?

Can Xue, Love in the New Millennium.

Anna Burns, Milkman, Booker Prize winner, Northern Ireland, troubles, here is a good and accurate review.

Homer’s Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson.

Uwe Johnson, From a Year in the Life of Gessine Cresspahl.  I haven’t read this one yet, I did some browse, and I am fairly confident it belongs on this list.  1760 pp.

Which are your picks?

The best book of 2018

Soon I’ll offer up my longer lists for fiction and non-fiction, but let’s start at the top.  My nomination for best book of the year is Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey.  It is a joy to read, the best of the five translations I know, and it has received strong reviews from scholars for its accuracy and fidelity.  I also would give a top rating to the book’s introductory essay, a mini-book in itself.

Normally I would say more about a book of the year, but a) many of you already know the Odyssey in some form or another, and b) this spring I’ll be doing a Conversations with Tyler with Emily Wilson, and I’ll save up my broader thoughts for then.  I’ll just say for now it is one of the greatest works of political thought, as well as a wonderful story.  In any case, a reread of this one is imperative, and you will learn new and fresh things.

There you go!

*A Fistful of Shells*

The author is Toby Green, and the subtitle is West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution.  Here is one excerpt:

The past twenty years have seen a huge boom in studies that show the many different ways in which — even in the shadow of slavery — Africans were decisive actors in building modernity in the Americas.  Rice-growing technologies in West Africa contributed to the emergence of rice plantations in South Carolina and northern Brazil; livestock and herding skills from West Africa were used by Africa herders in many parts of the New World, from Louisiana to Argentina; and fencing techniques  were imported from West Africa and used in agriculture and in defending communities of runaway slaves (known as maroons).  Healing practices from Dahomey and Angola were brought to Brazil and the Spanish Caribbean, and helped to develop new treatments in the colonies; healing practices and medicines were also borrowed by the Portuguese in Angola in an early form of ‘bio-prospecting’.  Warfare techniques learn in the Kingdom of Kongo and in the Oyo-Yoruba Kingdom of what is now southern Nigeria were vital to the success of the Haitian revolution in 1804, as well as the rebellions against slavery in Brazil and Cuba in the early nineteenth century.  In short, just as there were shared frameworks of diplomacy through which Atlantic African kingdoms sought political influence, so the modern world emerged from a mixed cultural framework in which many different peoples from West and West-Central Africa played a significant part.

This book is full of economics, currency movements (both gold and cowrie shells), battles between empires (Portuguese vs. Dutch, above all), and the longue durée.  It is the “Braudel of West Africa,” and the best book on West Africa I have ever read.  It is especially strong on Lusaphone Africa, and one underlying theme is that West Africa was globalizing even before colonialism came along.  Toby Green, by the way, has an impressive background in philosophy and music as well as in history more narrowly conceived.

Very strongly recommended.  It is not out until March of 2019 but you can pre-order now.