Category: Books

Most Popular MR Posts of the Year!

As measured by page views here are the most popular MR posts of 2021. Coming in at number 10 was Tyler’s post:

10. Best non-fiction books of 2021

Lots of good material there and well worth revisiting. Number 9 was by myself:

9. Revisionism on Deborah Birx, Trump, and the CDC

TDS infected many people but as the Biden administration quickly discovered the problems were much deeper than the president, leading to revisionism especially on the failures of the CDC and the FDA. Much more could be written here but this was a good start.

Number 8 was Tyler’s post:

8. The tax on unrealized capital gains

which asked some good questions about a bad plan.

7. We Will Get to Herd Immunity in 2021…One Way or Another

Sadly this post, written by me in January of 2021, had everything exactly right–we bottomed out at the end of June/early July as predicted. But then Delta hit and things went to hell. Sooner or later the virus makes fools of us all.

6. Half Doses of Moderna Produce Neutralizing Antibodies

One of my earlier pieces (written in Feb. 21) on fractional dosing. See also my later post A Half Dose of Moderna is More Effective Than a Full Dose of AstraZeneca. We have been slow, slow, slow. I hope for new results in 2022.

5. A few observations on my latest podcast with Amia Srinivasan

Listener’s took umbrage, perhaps even on Tyler’s behalf, at Srinivasan but Tyler comes away from every conversation having learned something and that makes him happy.

4. The Most Impressive AI Demo I Have Ever Seen

Still true. Still jaw-dropping.

3. Patents are Not the Problem!

I let loose on the Biden administration’s silly attacks on vaccine patents. Also still true. Note also that as my view predicts, Pfizer has made many licensing deals on Paxalovid which has a much simpler and easier to duplicate production process (albeit raw materials are still a problem.)

2. A Nobel Prize for the Credibility Revolution

A very good post, if I don’t say so myself, on this year’s Nobel prize recipients, Card, Angrist and Imbens.

1. How do you ask good questions?

Who else but Tyler?

To round out the top ten I’d point to Tyler’s post John O. Brennan on UFOs which still seems underrated in importance even if p is very low.

Erza Klein’s profile of me still makes me laugh, “He’s become a thorn in the side of public health experts…more than one groaned when I mentioned his name.” Yet, even though published in April many of these same experts are now openly criticizing the FDA and the CDC in unprecedented ways.

UFOs going mainstream or Tabarrok’s view of the FDA going mainstream. I’m not sure which of these scenarios was more unlikely ex ante. Strange world.

Let us know your favorite MR posts in the comments.

What I’ve been reading

1. Richard Hanania, Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy: How Generals, Weapons Manufacturers, and Foreign Governments Shape American Foreign Policy.  Could this be the best public choice treatment of U.S. foreign policy?  Gordon Tullock always was wishing for a book like this, and now it exists.  I see Hanania’s views as more skeptical than my own (in East Asia in particular I think the American approach has brought huge benefits, Europe too), but nonetheless I am impressed by his careful analysis.  This is a book that should revolutionize a field, though I doubt if it will.

2. Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These is one of the best written pieces of literary fiction this year.  Very Irish, and it helps to have a one paragraph knowledge of Ireland’s earlier “Magdalen laundries” problem.  It is not exciting for the action-oriented reader, but a perfect work within the terms of the world it creates.

3. Justin Gest, Majority Minority.  The book considers racial transitions and how majorities may lose their ethnic or racial majority status.  To see where America might be headed, the author considers histories from Bahrain, Hawaii, Mauritius, Singapore, trinidad and Tobago, and New York City.

4. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Persians: The Age of Great Kings.  The Persian empire had the best infrastructure of any of the great ancient civilizations.  The Royal Road for instance stretched 2,400 kilometers.  Read more about the whole thing here.

Hannah Farber’s Underwriters of the United States: How Insurance Shaped the American Founding is a good and economically literate treatment of the importance of maritime insurance during the time of America’s founding.

Gregory Zuckerman, A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of The Life-or-Death Race for a Covid-19 Vaccine is a good account of what it promises.

In the Douglass North tradition is Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Ilia Murtazashvili, Land, the State, and War: Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan.

What should I ask Chuck Klosterman?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  If you do not already know, here is part of his Wikipedia entry:

Charles John Klosterman (born 1972) is an American author and essayist whose work focuses on American popular culture. He has been a columnist for Esquire and ESPN.com and wrote “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times Magazine. Klosterman is the author of eleven books, including two novels and the essay collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto.

His forthcoming book is about the 90s, namely The Nineties: A Book.  So what should I ask him?  Including about the 90s of course.

*The Man From the Future*

That is the new biography of John von Neumann, by Ananyo Bhattacharya, highly recommended, probably the best book about him.  Here is one short bit:

Von Neumann himself attributed his generation’s success to ‘a coincidence of some cultural factors’ that produced ‘a feeling of extreme insecurity in the individuals, and the necessity to produce the unusual or face extinction’. In other words, their recognition that the tolerate climate of Hungary might change overnight propelled some to preternatural efforts to succeed…Moreover, one could reasonably hope that good work in these fields would be fairly rewarded. The truth of general relativity was established through experiment and was not contingent on whether the person who developed the theory as Jew or Gentile.

By the way, a lot of those famous mathematicians thought their high school was crap.  And here is another excerpt:

Equally, von Neumann had no interest in sport and, barring long walks (always in a business suit), he would avoid any form of vigorous physical exercise for the rest of his life.  When his second wife, Klari, tried to persuade him to ski, he offered her a divorce. ‘If being married to a woman, no matter who she was, would mean he had to slide around on two pieces of wood on some slick mountainside,’ she explained, ‘he would definitely prefer to live alone and take his daily exercise, as he put it, “by getting in and out of a pleasantly warm bathtub.”.

I believe my original pointer here came from Tim Harford.

What should I ask Sebastian Mallaby?

From Wikipedia:

Sebastian Christopher Peter Mallaby (born May 1964) is an English journalist and author, Paul A. Volcker senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and contributing columnist at The Washington Post. Formerly, he was a contributing editor for the Financial Times and a columnist and editorial board member at The Washington Post.

His recent writing has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic Monthly. In 2012, he published a Foreign Affairs essay on the future of China’s currency. His books include The Man Who Knew (2016), More Money Than God (2010), and The World’s Banker (2004).

I am also a big fan of his new and forthcoming book on venture capital, namely The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of a New Future.

So what should I ask him?

*The Books of Jacob*

By Olga Tokarczuk, so far I am about 300 pp. through a total of nearly 900 pp.  Might this be one of the greater novels of our time?  I liked this description:

The Books of Jacob by the Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk is an epic chronicle of the life and times of Frank and his followers. Over a thousand pages long, dense with history and incident, it is vast enough to make this reader’s knees buckle. As crowded as a Bruegel painting, it moves from mud-bound Galician villages to Greek monasteries, 18th-century Warsaw, Brno, Vienna and the luxurious surroundings of the Habsburg court. It takes in esoteric theological arguments, diplomatic history, alchemy, Kabbalah, Polish antisemitism and the philosophical roots of the Enlightenment. It is a dauntingly ambitious piece of work and one of the responses it arouses is just plain amazement at the patience and tenacity that have gone into its construction.

And:

Dense, captivating and weird, The Books of Jacob is on a different scale from either of these. It is a visionary novel that conforms to a particular notion of masterpiece – long, arcane and sometimes inhospitable. Tokarczuk is wrestling with the biggest philosophical themes: the purpose of life on earth, the nature of religion, the possibility of redemption, the fraught and terrible history of eastern European Jewry. With its formidable insistence on rendering an alien world with as much detail as possible, the novel reminded me at times of Paradise LostThe vividness with which it’s done is amazing.

Both passages by Marcel Theroux.  I still need to read more, but this stands a very good chance of being one of the must-read novels of the twenty-first century.  I ordered my copy pre-emptively from the UK and am very glad I did so, other Americans need to wait until February.

*The Last King of America*

This biography of King George III is a new and excellent book by Andrew Roberts, who also wrote a great biography of Napoleon. The subtitle of this one is The Misunderstood Reign of George III, and here is one excerpt:

The war was not unwinnable for the British, but they helped to make it so by refusing to change their basic military doctrine and almost anything fundamental at home, in terms of finances, commercial arrangements, conscription and tax levels.  Had Germain possessed the concentration of powers that William Pitt had enjoyed during the Seven Years War, he might have imposed his will on the whole governmental structure, but an overdevolving of competencies between ministries was rife for the first two years of the struggle.  Until 1777, for example, the responsibility for transporting men and their supplies across the Atlantic was divided between the Ordnance Board (responsible for artillery, engineers, guns and gun powder), the Navy Board (men, horses, uniforms, tents, medicine and camp equipment) and the Victualling Board (food), the Treasury being responsible for all other supplies.  This inevitably led to vast amounts of bureaucracy; Germain and Barrington even corresponded over the selection of a single doctor for Howe’s command.  This Whitehall system of waging war had been successful in the Seven Years War at a distance of over 3,000 miles across the ocean, but this was to be much harder without a single leader like Pitt; indeed it has been described as ‘an effort without parallel in the history of the world.’

I found this book especially good for giving the reader a realistic sense of the American Revolution from the British perspective.

*The Anomaly*, by Hervé Le Tellier

A very fun book, it is hard to review without giving spoilers, which would indeed spoil.  I would put it this way: if you enjoyed David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, this is a good next book to read.  Not of the very highest depth, but smart enough to be more than mere entertainment.  Here is the Amazon link.  It was a runaway bestseller and Goncourt Prize winner in France, here is NYT coverage.  It is the best “fun” book I have read in some time.

How to read canonical Western literature

From a reader:

You should do a post on tips for reading canonical Western literature.  Especially on whether, and to what extent, one ought to read secondary stuff like criticism, biographies, histories alongside.  Also, to reread, or to read another canonical work for the first time instead.  Tips for the average interested reader…

For your consideration, feel free to ask me anything you’ve ever wanted to know about Kosrae (one of the four states that make up the great Federated States of Micronesia!)

I am hardly the expert here, and I don’t pretend these techniques will work for you, but here are my pointers:

1. Assume from the beginning that you will need to read the work more than once, or at least read significant portions of the work more than once.  Furthermore, these multiple readings should be done back-to-back (and also over many years, btw, after all this is the canonical).  So your first reading should not in every way be super-careful, as you don’t yet know what to look for.  Treat the first reading as a warm-up for the second reading to follow.

2. The first fifty pages very often should be read twice, in a single sitting if possible, even on your “first reading.”

3. Assemble three to five guides to the main book you are reading, or significant fairly general contributions to the secondary literature.  Consult those works throughout, and imbibe an especially large dose of them between your first and second readings of the classic itself.  But you shouldn’t necessarily read those books straight through, or finish them.  They are to be pillaged for both conceptual structure and particular insights, not to be reified as books in their own right.

4. Always be asking yourself how the classic work you are reading is engaging with other classic works you might know or know of.  Starting with the Bible, but not ending there.

5. Find people to talk to about the book.

6. Read Western canonical literature.  This is actually the most important item on the list.

p.s. Don’t forget the small groups and mentors!

Addendum: Nathan Meyvis comments.

What I’ve been reading

1. Jenny Erpenbeck, Aller Tage Abend [The End of Days].  The first quarter of this book I thought it was amazing, a candidate for one of the better novels of the last thirty years.  But as the pages passed, it slipped ever more into various sentimental cliches about the tragedies of German 20th century history.  Frustrating, and I fear the author’s success will make it harder to get back on the right track?

2. T.R. Fehrenbach, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans.  Almost certainly the very best book on the history of Texas, and also one of the very best books on the USA and the history of the southwest, especially pre-1870.  The writing is dramatic, many segments are vivid, and the book (1980) precedes the cult of political correctness.  If you wish to read a semi-libertarian defense of how the United States obtained Texas (or do I have that backwards?), this is the place to go.  725 pp.  In 1880, Galveston was the largest settlement in Texas.  And here is a good sentence: “Because poor people settled the West, the frontier was always in debt.”

3. Peter Doggett, Growing Up: Sex in the Sixties.  A book more of substance than sensationalism, that said the substance is one of sensation.  An excellent cultural history, and it also drives home the point that things back then really were not so great, matters sexual included.  The focus is on Britain, but the coverage is global.

4. Joe Posnanski, The Baseball 100.  A very long (827 pp.) and thorough look at who might be the best baseball players of all time.  Entertaining, and I have relatively few gripes.  Given that Babe Ruth was a first-rate pitcher, should he really be #2 to Willie Mays at #1?  Oscar Charleston is at #5, but I might have put Satchel Paige there.  I can’t bring myself to put Tris Speaker ahead of Mike Schmidt, and Cy Young doesn’t do as well as you might think.  Pete Rose and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are not canceled, but are allowed to take their rightful places in the rankings.  Recommended, for those who care.

I won’t have time to do more than browse Naomi Oreskes’s Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know About the Ocean.  But it appears to be an entirely serious book about the government funding of science, a drmatically understudied topic area.

*Where is My Flying Car?*

Engineer J. Storrs Hall is the author of this new Stripe Press book.  Let’s be honest: you might think this is just the usual blah blah blah, heard it a thousand times since 2011 kind of treatment.  But no, it is a detailed and nuanced and original treatment — at times obsessively so — of why various pending new physical technologies, such as nuclear power and nanotech, never really came to pass and transform our world as they might have.

Definitely recommended, worthy of the best non-fiction of the year list.  Here is the Stripe Press website for the book.

My Conversation with the excellent Ruth Scurr

A fine discourse all around, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Ruth joined Tyler to discuss why she considers Danton the hero of the French Revolution, why the Jacobins were so male-obsessed, the wit behind Condorcet’s idea of a mechanical king, the influence of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments during and after the Reign of Terror, why 18th-century French thinkers were obsessed with finding forms of government that would fit with emerging market forces, whether Hayek’s critique of French Enlightenment theorists is correct, the relationship between the French Revolution and today’s woke culture, the truth about Napoleon’s diplomatic skills, the poor prospects for pitching biographies to publishers, why Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws would be her desert island read, why Cambridge is a better city than Oxford, why the Times Literary Supplement remains important today, what she loves about Elena Ferrante’s writing, how she stays open as a biographer, and more.

And an excerpt:

COWEN: Is there a counterfactual path where the French Revolution simply works out well as a liberal revolution? If so, what would have needed to have been different?

SCURR: In terms of counterfactuals, the one I thought most about was, What would have happened if Robespierre hadn’t fallen at Thermidor and the relationship between him and [Louis Antoine Léon de] Saint-Just had continued? But that’s not the triumph of the liberal revolution. That would have merely been a continuation of the point they had gotten to. For a triumph of the liberal revolution, that would have needed to be much, much earlier.

I think that it was almost impossible for them to get a liberal constitution in place in time to make that a possibility. What you have is 1789, the liberal aspirations, the hopes, the Declaration of Rights; and then there is almost a hiatus period in which they are struggling to design the institutions. And that is the period which, if it could have been compressed, if there could have been more quickly a stability introduced . . .

Some of the people I’m most interested in in that period were very interested in what has to be true about the society in order for it to have a stable constitution. Obviously when you’re in the middle of a revolution and you’re struggling to come up with those solutions, then there is the opening to chaos.

Definitely recommended.  And I am again happy to recommend Ruth’s new book Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows.