Category: Books

Which are the best autobiographies by women?

That question has been floating around Twitter, here are my picks:

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.

Janet Frame, Autobiography.

Claire Tomalin, A Life of My Own.

Marjane Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis.

Golda Meir, My Life.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking.

Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Dirt Road.

Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures.

Am I allowed to say Virginia Woolf, corpus?

Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir.

Helen Keller, The Story of My Life.

Anne Frank of course.

What else?  Maybe Carrie Fisher?  Maya Angelou?  Erica Jong?  St. Therese of Liseaux?  (I Am Rigoberto Menchu turned out to be a fraud.)  There are a variety of important feminist books that read like quasi-autobiographies, but maybe they don’t quite fit the category.  What is a memoir and what is an autobiography in this context?  Do leave your suggestions in the comments.

It is also worth thinking about how these differ from well-known male autobiographies…

*Maoism: A Global History*

By Julia Lovell, so far this is clearly the best book of the year.  I’ll have more to say about it, here is one excerpt:

Mao’s lack of enthusiasm for a risky conflict in Korea is understandable: the CCP’s military capacity was clustered around the south-east coast, perched for an invasion of Taiwan.  A Cold War conflagration on the north-east border would require the shifting of all these offensive troops to defence in the north-east — from one end of the country to another.  Drafts of telegrams and notes of conversations unearthed from archives make clear that Mao came within a whisker of refusing to help the Koreans…

Mao therefore was bounced into the Korean War — not as part of a long-term conspiracy, but through Stalin’s self-interested impulses and instinct for playing on Mao’s status-conscious desire to claim leadership of the Asian revolution.  Given that Mao and his immediate lieutenants had already committed themselves publicly to leading the world revolution — wit their Beijing training courses, their proclamations about the relevance of China to oppressed people in Asia — their revolutionary credentials would have been shredded had they not stepped into the war.  Stalin and Kim, in short, created a conflict that impinged not only on one of China’s most sensitive, complex frontiers — the Korean-Soviet-Chinese border — but also on Mao’s self-image.  The Chinese were thus forced to rescue Kim when the war turned against the North Koreans.

The book also covers Indonesia, Africa, Vietnam and Cambodia, Peru, Nepal, and more, all with an emphasis on China’s earlier foreign policy role.  Every chapter is full of fascinating information with strong but not overreaching conceptual framings.  Very strongly recommended, it comes out in America in September, I ordered my copy from the UK, available now and cheaper too.  Here is a review from The Economist.

*Coders*, by Clive Thompson

The list of small-person or one-person innovators is long…[long list follows]…

The reason so few people can have such an outsize impact, Andreessen argues, is that when you’re creating a weird new prototype of an app, the mental castle building is most efficiently done inside one or two isolated brains.  The 10X productivity comes from being in the zone and staying there and from having a remarkable ability to visualize a complex architecture.  “If they’re physical capable of staying awake, they can get really far,” he says.  “The limits are awake time.  It takes you two hours to get the whole thing loaded into your head, and then you get like 10 or 12 or 14 hours where you can function at that level.”  The 10Xers he has known also tend to be “systems thinkers,” insatiably curious about every part of the technology stack, from the way currents flow in computer processors to the latency of touchscreen button presses.  “It’s some combination of curiosity, drive, and the need to understand.  They find it intolerable if they don’t understand some part of how the system works.”

The subtitle is The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, I enjoyed the book very much, you can order it here.

What I’ve been reading

1. Sarah A. Seo, Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom.  “The revolution in automotive freedom coincided with an equally unprecedented expansion in the police’s discretionary power.”

2. Allison Schrager, An Economist Walks into a Brothel, and Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk.  My blurb: “Allison Schrager’s An Economist Walks Into a Brothel is the best, most readable, most informative, most adventurous, and most entertaining take on risk you will find.”

3. Marlon James, Black Leopard Red Wolf.  While the author of this new budding fictional series seems quite talented, this is more a book to admire than to enjoy.  I can’t imagine that people will read it fifteen years from now.  I’ve also read a bunch of reviews which try to praise it, without every telling the reader it will hold their interest.

4. Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro, The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging.  A good overview of their work together on economics and religion, and also more generally a take on what the social sciences know empirically about the causes and effects of religion (not always so much, I should add).

5. The Bitter Script Reader, Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films.  There aren’t enough enthusiastic, intelligent fanboy books, but this is one of them.

For prep for my Conversation with Knausgaard, I read a good deal of Ivo de Figueiredo, Henrik Ibsen: The Man & the Mask, and was impressed by how much new material he had uncovered.

Ben S. Bernanke, Timothy F. Geithner, and Henry M. Paulson, Firefighting: The Financial crisis and its Lessons: your model of this book is what this book is.

Arrived in my pile are:

Thomas Milan Konda, Conspiracies of Conspiracies: How Delusions Have Overrun America.

Uwe E. Reinhardt, Priced Out: The Economic and Ethical Costs of American Health Care.  Uwe is gone but not forgotten.

Marion Turner, Chaucer: A European Life.  This one may not please the Brexiteers.

Marie-Janine Galic, The Great Cauldron: A History of Southeastern Europe seems impressive, though I have not had time to read much of it.

My Conversation with Emily Wilson

She is a classics scholar and the translator of my favorite edition of Homer’s Odyssey, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

She and Tyler discuss these [translation] questions and more, including why Silicon Valley loves Stoicism, whether Plato made Socrates sound smarter than he was, the future of classics education, the effect of AI on translation, how to make academia more friendly to women, whether she’d choose to ‘overlive’, and the importance of having a big Ikea desk and a huge orange cat.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let’s jump right in on the Odyssey. I want you to explain the whole book to me, but let’s start small. Does Odysseus even want to return home?

WILSON: [laughs] He does as the poem starts. As the poem starts, he spent the last seven years on the island of a goddess called Calypso, originally, the poem implies, quite willingly. So, it seems as if he’s changed his mind about whether or not he wants to go home. But as the poem begins, he does want to get back home to Ithaca, to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.

COWEN: Do you think he means it? Or is he just self-deceiving? Because he takes the detour into the underworld. He hangs around with Circe for many years. There’s a contrast with Menelaus, who acts as if he actually does want to get home. Who’s lying to whom in this story?

WILSON: Odysseus, of course, is lying all the time, so it’s very hard for the reader to get a firm grasp on what are his motives. Also, when he tells Calypso that he desperately wants to get back home, it’s very striking to me that he doesn’t give his motives. He says to Calypso, “You’re much more beautiful than my wife is, and you’ve promised to make me immortal. It’s a great offer, but I want to go home.” He doesn’t explain what is it that drives that desire to go home.

And you’re quite right: he makes many detours. He spends another year, quite willingly, with Circe, another goddess. So it seems as if he’s easily distractible from the quest, for sure.

And:

COWEN: Should we consider electing politicians by lot today? Is it such a crazy idea?

WILSON: I think it’s a great idea.

COWEN: Great idea?

WILSON: Yes, yeah.

And:

COWEN: Now, you have another well-known book. It’s called Seneca: A Life. On reading it, this is my reaction: why are the Stoics so hypocritical? Seneca spends his life sucking up to power. He’s very well off, extremely political, and possibly involved in murder plots, right?

WILSON: [laughs] Yes, that’s right. Yes.

COWEN: What is there about Stoicism? Marcus Aurelius is somewhat bloodthirsty, it seems. So, are the Stoics all just hypocrites, and they wrote this to cover over their wrongdoings? Or how should we think about the actual history of Stoicism?

WILSON: I see Seneca and Marcus Aurelius as very, very different characters. Marcus Aurelius was militaristic, bloodthirsty, and an expander of the Roman Empire. He was happy to slaughter many barbarians. He was fairly consistent about thinking that was a good idea, and also fairly consistent in associating his dream of culture and military imperialism with Stoic models of virtue.

Whereas Seneca was very much constantly unable to fully act out the ideals that he had. One of the reasons he’s so interesting as a writer is that he’s so precise in articulating what it means to have a very, very clear vision of the good life and to be completely unable to follow through on living the good life.

COWEN: But why would you accumulate so much wealth if you’re a true Stoic?

You can buy Emily’s translation of Homer here, and she is now working on doing The Iliad as well.

Why is there so much suspicion of big business?

Perhaps in part because we cannot do without business, so many people hate or resent business, and they love to criticize it, mock it, and lower its status. Business just bugs them. After I explained the premise of this book to one of my colleagues, Bryan Caplan, he shrieked to me: “But, but . . . how can people be ungrateful toward corporations? Corporations give us everything! Corporations do everything for us!” Of course, he was joking, as he understood full well that people are often pretty critical of corporations. And they are critical precisely because corporations do so much for us. And do so much to us.

Does my colleague’s outburst remind you of anything? Well, immediately he followed up with this: “Hating corporations is like hating your parents.”

And:

There is another reason it doesn’t quite work to think of businesses as our friends. Friendship is based in part on an intrinsic loyalty that transcends the benefit received in any particular time and place. Many friendships also rely on an ongoing exchange of reciprocal benefits, yet without direct consideration each and every time of exactly how much reciprocity is needed. In addition to the self-interested joys of friendly togetherness, friendship is about commonality of vision, a wish to see your own values reflected in another, a sense of potential shared sacrifice, and a (partial) willingness to put the interest of the other person ahead of your own, without always doing a calculation about what you will get back.

A corporation just doesn’t fit this mold in the same way. A business may wish to appear to be an embodiment of friendly reciprocity, but it is more like an amoral embodiment of principles that usually but not always work out for the common good. The senior management of the corporation has a legally binding responsibility to maximize shareholder profits, at least subject to the constraints of the law and perhaps other constraints embodied in the company’s charter or by-laws. The exact nature of this fiduciary responsibility will vary, but it never says the company ought to be the consumer’s friend, at least not above and beyond when such friendship may prove instrumentally valuable to the ends of the company, including profit.

In this setting, companies will almost always disappoint us if we judge them by the standards of friendship, as the companies themselves are trying to trick us into doing. Companies can never quite meet the standards of friendship. They’re not even close acquaintances. At best they are a bit like wolves in sheep’s clothing, but these wolves bring your food rather than eat you.

Those are both excerpts from my final chapter “If business is so good, why is it so disliked?”, from my book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.

What do concert audiences really want?

Audiences only really like two parts of a show — the beginning and the end.  You should prolong the former by rolling directly through your first three numbers without pausing.  Then make sure you end suddenly and unexpectedly.  Audiences rewards who stop early and punish those who stay late…

Finally, there’s nothing an audience enjoys more than hearing something familiar.  If you think your songwriting and all-round musical excellence are enough to entertain a bunch of strangers for an hour with songs they have never heard before, bully for you.  The Beatles didn’t, but what the hell do they know?

That is from the entertaining and insightful David Hepworth book Nothing is Real: The Beatles Were Underrated and Other Sweeping Statements About Pop.  He lists the following as the ten best blues songs ever:

Memphis Jug Band: K.C. Moan

B.B. King: You Upset me Baby

Blind Willie Johnson: Dark Was the Night

Mississippi Fred McDowell: Shake ‘Em On Down

Lightnin’ Slim: Rooster Blues

Muddy Waters: Too Young to Know

Elmore James: I Can’t Hold Out

Otis Rush: All Your Love

Richard ‘Rabbit’ Brown: James Alley Blues

Blind Blake: Too Tight

By the way, Paul and the Beatles really did record both “I’m Down” and “Yesterday” in the same day.

The Hayek auction results are very impressive

You will find them here, for instance Hayek’s copy of Wealth of Nations went for almost 200k, it was estimated in the 4k to 6k range.

“Desktop ephemera and personal effects” were estimated at 200-300 British pounds, went for 87,500 British pounds.  Crazy!  Many of the items went for 10x or 20x their original estimates.

Perhaps Hayek is back in fashion again, if only with the wealthy.

For the pointer I thank Lotta Moberg.

Addendum: Here is BC from the comments section:

So, the central planners couldn’t accurately estimate the values of Hayek’s personal effects because the necessary information was distributed among all the auction participants?

Work as a safe haven (*Big Business*)

Another surprising feature of these results is that the “work as a safe haven” effect was stronger for poorer people. We don’t know if that is true more generally across larger samples of people, but it points to a potentially neglected and egalitarian feature of life in the workplace. In contemporary American society, poorer individuals are more likely to have problems with divorce, spousal abuse, drug addiction in the family, children dropping out of school, and a variety of other fairly common social problems. These problems plague rich and poor alike, but they are more frequent in poorer families and, furthermore, very often wreak greater devastation on poorer families, which have fewer resources to cope with them. The workplace, however, is a partial equalizer here. At least in this sample, the poorer individuals found relatively greater solace in the workplace than did the richer individuals. The poorer individuals, of course, were paid less at work. But in terms of psychological stresses, a lot of corporations are creating “safe spaces” for individuals who otherwise are facing some pretty seriously bad situations.

That is from my forthcoming book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, due out April 9.

*The People Next Door*

The author is T.C.A. Raghavan and the subtitle is The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan.  Here is one excerpt:

The massive rigging of the March 1977 election led to a Bhutto majority the size of which stunned even his supporters and, by some accounts, even embarrassed him.  He and his party had been expected to win but the near-total decimation of the opposition made the election results lose credibility.  “Why did you do this to me?” he is widely believed to have rhetorically asked a group of senior civil servants as the results came in.  In any event, the loss of popularity and personal legitimacy was swift.

This book is must reading for these days, and it will be making my 2019 “best of the year” list.  Order from abroad here, or in the U.S. it comes out in July.

*Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan*

The demographic legacy of four centuries of Slavic settlement is striking along Kazakhstan’s 6,846-kilometre frontier with Russia, the world’s second longest land border.  In 2014, when the conflict erupted in Ukraine, Russians formed 22 per cent of Kazakhstan’s population nationwide (by 2018, that figure had fallen to just below 20 per cent), but in many places in the borderlands they were in large majorities: in Ust-Kamenogorsk, 67 per cent of people were Russians, while in the town of Ridder, further north towards the frontier, the figure was 85 per cent…

By 2018, the share of Kazakhs in the population had risen from 40 per cent to 67.5 percent and the share of the other largest ethnic group, Russians, had fallen from 37 per cent to 19.8 percent.  Kazakhstan’s two main cities used to be predominantly Russians; now Kazakhs dominate.  Astana’s Kazakh population hit 78 per cent in 2018, up from 17 per cent at independence (when it was still a backwater called Akmola and not yet Kazakhstan’s capital); Almaty’s Kazakh population had risen from 22 per cent to 60 per cent.

The government is also working hard to “Kazakhify” towns along the Russian border.

That is all from the new and excellent book by Joanna Lillis.  You may also have read that Nazerbayev, who has held power in Kazakhstan since 1991, announced yesterday that he is stepping down, hoping to take on more of a Lee Kuan Yew role in the country.

Amazon bans some anti-vaccine books

Amazon has now joined other companies navigating the line between doing business and censoring it, in an age when, experts say, misleading claims about health and science have a real impact on public health.

NBC News recently reported that Amazon was pulling books touting false information about autism “cures” and vaccines. The e-commerce giant confirmed Monday to The Washington Post that several books are no longer available, but it would not release more specific information.

I cannot say I am entirely happy about that (grossly underreported) development.  Here is the full WaPo story by Lindsey Beyer.

What I’ve been reading

1. Aladdin, a new translation by Yasmine Seale.  A wonderful, lively small volume, a good reintroduction to the Arabian Nights, recommended.

2. Shalini Shankar, Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success.  Not as analytical as I was wanting, but more analytical than I had been expecting.

3. Rowan Ricardo Phillips, The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey.  Provides a good look at the interior world of tennis competition, with emphasis on very recent times.  A good look at how to think about the game, not only in the abstract, but as it plays out through the logic of particular events and tournaments.

4. Tim Smedley, Clearing the Air: The Beginning and the End of Air Pollution.  Perhaps the best extant introduction to the air pollution issue, one of the world’s most important and underrated crises, and no I am not talking about carbon.

5. Gordon Peake, Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles, and Secrets from Timor-Leste.  Mostly analytical, with real information blended with travelogue.  I can’t judge the content, but I was never tempted to put this one down and throw it away.

6. Roderick Beaton, Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation.  Excellent survey and overview, makes the late 19th century intelligible, among other achievements.  “For Greeks, unlike the concept of the nation, the state had always been an object of popular derision.”

Spufford has done a Narnia sequel

The award-winning writer Francis Spufford has spent three years on a new novel for the CS Lewis Chronicles of Narnia series despite not having permission from the Lewis estate….

Spufford, who has printed 75 copies and distributed them free to friends and fellow writers, said it was “not intended to get out into the world unless, long shot, I come to terms with the estate”.

The Lewis estate has resisted all entreaties to continue the Narnia novels, the last of which was published in 1956 by Lewis, who died in 1963. His work remains in copyright until 2034.

In part he did the sequel for his daughter.  Here is the (London) Times link, gated.  This guy has tweeted some of the work.