A splendid book, here is Kate Kellaway at The Guardian:
There are two things this book requires. First, it is best read aloud – it comes thrillingly to life – it sounds tremendous. Second, it repays close reading. Studying it is to listen in on a poet with perfect pitch. Getting the diction right – so that the ancient is neither modern nor archaic – is the challenge. And Heaney shows that plain words are stormproofed. It is about more than George Orwell’s tired prescription: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” It is about how plain language, like plain speaking, has integrity. And it is weight-bearing. It carries. When he introduces uncommon, eye-catching (sometimes longer) words – scaresome, asperging, hotbloods – they stand out but work harder against their plain backgrounds. Take the sighting of the golden bough. The word “refulgent” is strikingly charged, surrounded by “clear”, “green-leafed” and “cold”. Refulgent breaks Orwell’s rule and stands out like the golden branch itself. Or consider the description of Aeneas’s father, Anchises: “A man in old age, worn out, not meant for duress.” “Duress” is the pleasing surprise here (so much better than everyday “hardship”) seizing attention while “old age” and “worn out” do their unobtrusive work.
I will reread it shortly, you can buy it here.
That is a question from a very smart person, over thirty years of age, who claims not to have read very much (I don’t know how much).
So which book should I recommend?
Conditional on the person knowing me, the idea of simply introducing economics is not going to win, even if that would be the correct recommendation for many others. And “Collected Works” are not allowed.
How about a broadly philosophical novel, such as Don Quixote or Homer’s Odyssey or In Search of Lost Time? Moby-Dick? A play of Shakespeare? A current favorite, such as Ferrante or Knausgaard?
How about a perfectly constructed travel book, touting the virtues of a new and magical place? But most travel books I find dull, unsatisfying, and too scattered with wasteful, overly subjective sentences about sunsets and train trips.
A didactic, moralizing book, perhaps on charity or Effective Altruism?
For many people music may be more powerful than the written word, so perhaps the recent Jan Swafford biography of Beethoven, or John Eliot Gardiner’s book on Bach, or any number of good books on Mozart. A critical guidebook to some of the best movies available? Almost everyone can glean new ideas for their Netflix queue, even if they already have seen lots of films.
I don’t know of a biography which is inspirational for everyone or even most people, and I figure an intelligent person older than thirty already has been exposed to the world’s major religions.
How about a book which is a compendium for a hobby, such as a bird watcher’s guide, a Sotheby’s auction catalog, or a Fuchsia Dunlop cookbook?
I keep finding myself drawn to recommend a book which leads the advice recipient away from books, rather than toward them. Is that a strength or weakness of the book medium?
That is from Venkatesh Rao, retweeted by Ben Southwood, a version of “Questions that are rarely asked.”
I suppose if you haven’t read the Bible or Quran those are easy answers, but let’s say you have.
I’ve only read snippets of Mein Kampf, so that has to stand as a contender. But has the book really influenced and shaped my life? Maybe you can attribute the relevant marginal product to the life of Hitler, with the book being intermediated by Hitler himself. Therefore I am not sure that answer is true to the spirit of the question.
How about a training manual of some kind, which perhaps my early teachers read but I have never seen or even heard of? Might my mother have read Dr. Spock or other parenting books? That would be my best guess.
A random Econ ? that pops into my head: are there any goods that a US median income maker can buy that are the best available?
I can think of quite a few:
iPhones and Kindle
mineral water (Gerolsteiner)
most vaccines and antibiotics
basketballs and many other sporting goods
Coca-Cola, Mexican or otherwise
Google and Facebook
Raffi himself cites “razor blade” on Twitter.
I thought it was a stellar year for fiction, even though most of the widely anticipated books by famous authors disappointed me. These were my favorites, more or less in the order I read them, not in order of preference:
Michel Houellebecq, Soumission/Submission. The correct reading is always a level deeper than the one you are currently at.
Larry Kramer, The American People. Epic, reviewed a lot but then oddly overlooked in a crowded year.
The Seventh Day, by Yu Hua. Perhaps my favorite of all the contemporary Chinese novels I have read: “Lacking the money for a burial plot, he must roam the afterworld aimlessly, without rest.”
Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz, New World, “An innovative story of love, decapitation, cryogenics, and memory by two of our most creative literary minds.”
Vendela Vida, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. Fun without being trivial.
The Widower, by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed. My favorite novel from Singapore.
The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud. I’ll teach it this coming year in Law and Literature.
Nnedi Okorafor, Binti. Okorafor is American but born to two Nigerian parents, this science fiction novella is creative and fun to read. Ursula K. Le Guin likes her too.
Of those, Houllebecq and Ferrante are the must-reads, the others are all strong entries, with New World being perhaps the indulgence pick but indulgences are good, right?
And here are three other new books/editions/translations which I haven’t had any chance to spend time with, but come as self-recommending:
Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Dennis Washburn.
Homer’s Iliad, translated by Peter Green. Also gets rave reviews.
D’Erasmo, Mendoza, and Zhang have a new NBER working paper on this question. It is the most serious and scientific approach to American debt sustainability I have seen, ever. Here are two key sentences:
The dynamic Laffer curves for these taxes [capital taxes in the U.S., labor taxes in Europe] peak below the level required to make the higher post-2008 debts sustainable.
The results of the applications of the empirical and structural approaches paint a bleak picture of the prospects for fiscal adjustment in advanced economies to restore fiscal solvency and make the post-2008 surge in public debt ratios sustainable.
One point the authors emphasize is that, unlike after earlier episodes of American debt binges, America today has not reestablished a comparable primary surplus. The authors suggest taxes on labor or consumption can restore fiscal solvency, but higher taxes on capital won’t work, given dynamic and Laffer curve considerations. They do not devote comparable attention to changes in the trajectory of government spending.
It is wrong to call this “science” outright, but it is the closest to science we have on these questions. There is a possibly different ungated copy here (pdf).
And along related lines, consider this new Brookings study of boosting the top tax rate to fifty percent, by Gale, Kearney, and Orszag:
We calculate the resulting change in income inequality assuming an explicit redistribution of all new revenue to households in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution. The resulting effects on overall income inequality are exceedingly modest.
You will not hear everyone shouting that one from the rooftops. And of course it does not all get redistributed to the bottom twenty percent, believe it or not.
I don’t quite mean “the best novel,” rather I mean “the best novel as a novel of bureaucracy.”
There is Franz Kafka, but I find his writings more theological and fantastic than insightful about bureaucracy per se. Besides, his short stories are his best work and the novels do not have proper endings.
There are post-war Eastern European novels galore, where to start? In the First Circle? Still, communist bureaucracies are no longer so typical, so I am not ready to award any of these novels first prize. Gogol’s earlier Dead Souls also stands out as a Russian candidate.
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is in the running, as are John Le Carre, Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Here is a discussion of Dickens, Orwell, and other classics. Here is a jstor-gated survey of the topic. There are plenty of novels about universities, very few of which I can endure.
The Chinese have an entire genre of “bureaucracy literature.” And perhaps bureaucracy in science fiction is deserving of its own post.
In any case, my clear first choice pick is Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, which I started reading a few days ago. Here is the first sentence of the Amazon.com review:
This 1857 sequel to The Warden wryly chronicles the struggle for control of the English diocese of Barchester. The evangelical but not particularly competent new bishop is Dr. Proudie, who with his awful wife and oily curate, Slope, maneuver for power.
So far I am finding that just about every page has insight about bureaucracy. Trollope, by the way, had extensive experience working for the Post Office in England and Ireland, and furthermore he missed out on a major promotion.
What else am I forgetting?
By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, due out in May, here is some summary:
In this provocative book, acclaimed social scientist and bestselling author Charles Murray shows us why we can no longer hope to roll back the power of the federal government through the normal political process. The Constitution is broken in ways that cannot be fixed even by a sympathetic Supreme Court. Our legal system is increasingly lawless, unmoored from traditional ideas of “the rule of law.” The legislative process has become systemically corrupt, no matter which party is in control.
But there’s good news beyond the Beltway. Technology is siphoning power from sclerotic government agencies and putting it in the hands of individuals and communities. The rediversification of American culture is making local freedom attractive to liberals as well as conservatives. People across the political spectrum are increasingly alienated from a regulatory state that nakedly serves its own interests rather than those of ordinary Americans.
An AEI notice is here, and for the pointer I thank David Levey.
If we are going to have a nuclear agreement with them, we might as well eat their food and watch their movies. And Abbas Kiarostami is not only the premier Iranian director, he is a visionary with a major body of work and fans all over the world. But where to start? To the uninitiated, his movies seem like endless meandering and most of them have not received any U.S. release beyond New York and Los Angeles.
Here are my tips:
1. If you haven’t seen any Iranian movies before, go watch some others before trying Kiarostami. A Separation is sufficiently plot-rich to be a good place to start. Then return to this post.
2. Taste of Cherry is perhaps his best-known creation in the West, because it won the 1997 Cannes Palme D’Or. But, while it is a fine movie, it requires repeated viewings before it makes sense and anyway it is about death. It should not be one of the first three Kiarostami films you watch.
3. Ten is the best place to start. A woman drives around Teheran, taking on a changing variety of passengers, and the movie is structured around ten different conversations, all in the claustrophobic setting of the vehicle. That may not sound like much, but the viewer is gripped immediately. Could it be the best road movie ever made?
4. The charming Where is the Friend’s Home? is the most accessible of the early works. A child wants to return a friend’s notebook in a neighboring village and eventually it becomes magical. Here is from Wikipedia:
Jonathan Rosenbaum called Kiarostami the greatest living filmmaker and called the film (along with Through the Olive Trees and Life and Nothing More) “sustained meditations on singular landscapes and the way ordinary people live in them; obsessional quests that take on the contours of parables; concentrated inquiries that raise more questions than they answer; and comic as well as cosmic poems about dealing with personal and impersonal disaster. They’re about making discoveries and cherishing what’s in the world–including things that we can’t understand.”
5. There is no other movie in all of cinema like the brilliant Certified Copy, with Juliette Binoche (in French and English, not Farsi). For the first forty minutes or so, you think you are watching a stupid, cliched film, as if Kiarostami had sold out to reach the French art house audience. Eventually the narrative transforms into something quite different (I won’t spoil it for you) and you realize it was brilliant all along, not to mention a commentary on Vertigo. It is relatively briskly paced, but until you see the “trick” it does require some patience. You should all watch this one, especially if you are married, but you should not regard it as representative Kiarostami.
6. Shirin shows nothing other than the faces of Iranian women watching a theatrical production of a Persian mythological romance. I recommend this one for a very captivating fifteen minutes, but I am not sure you need more than that. It is also not representative Kiarostami. His Japanese movie “Like Someone in Love” showcases his versatility as well.
7. Once you like some of his movies, you will end up liking all of them. It just takes a while. And they all reward repeated viewings.
1. I enjoyed my page browse through Becoming Steve Jobs, which seems fun, readable, and informative, but it’s not what I feel like reading right now. But if you think you might want to read it, you probably should.
2. Charles C.W. Cooke’s The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right’s Future is all the rage right now. Books which attempt to redefine or carve up the political spectrum aren’t exactly my thing, but this one is well-written and vital. Here is a Reason interview with Cooke. Here is a NYT interview with Cooke.
3. The new edition of David Boaz’s The Libertarian Mind is out.
4. The best piece so far on Lee Kwan Yew; how much and how rapidly will it matter that the focal point has passed away?
If you read a book, how many other related or similar books does it make you order? (Of wish to order, if you are budget constrained.) If the number is at least three or four, the book you read is almost certainly very interesting and worthwhile, if not always accurate.
Andrew Roberts’s biography of Napoleon made me want to read an additional biography of Napoleon, because it made his life to me more interesting. It made Napoleon’s period more interesting too. I might read a book on cavalry tactics as well, a topic I have never read on before.
Some books pretend to be the final word on a topic, but it is unlikely they succeed. If you don’t end your read with some additional book orders, maybe you need to ask yourself what exactly went wrong.
At times it is not a book order which is the appropriate follow-up. Say you read a book on Sri Lanka and you respond by going to Sri Lanka, well that counts too. Or a biography of Beethoven may lead you to more of his music, rather than to another book on his life.
If I apply the Amazon order test, the best book for me this last year was Michael Hoffman’s Where Have You Been?: Selected Essays.
Hofmann’s book wins additional points for chain effects, namely the books I ordered, as a result of reading Hofmann, in turn made me want to order further books. But chain effects are tricky. Following my read of Andrew Roberts, and then a follow-up Napoleon biography, will I read yet another life of Napoleon? That may depend on how good the follow-up is, and Roberts should not be held liable for that. Or should he? What should you think of a book which leads you to so-so follow-ups rather than to excellent follow-ups? A blog post which does the same?
What percentage of the value of a book is derived from the quality of the follow-ups it induces? Under plausible rates of discounting, for serial readers this could easily by eighty or ninety percent or more. (Could it be that actual book reviews are not consequentialist? Horrors.) How about a book review outlet which refuses to consider the books under consideration, but rather considers and evaluates what they will induce you to read next?
I would subscribe.
A few weeks ago I listed the best non-fiction books of 2014, here are a few which I either forgot or were late coming to my attention or were published or shipped after the first list. These are all very, very good:
1. Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of World Order, 1916-1931. This one also starts slow but after about 13% becomes fascinating, especially about the internal politics in Germany and Russia, circa 1917-1918.
2. Michael Hofmann, Where Have You Been?: Selected Essays. Excellent and informationally dense literary essays, I especially like the ones on the German-language poets and writers, such as Benn and Walser and Bernhard and Grass.
3. Henry Marsh, Do No Harm, a neurosurgeon does behavioral economics as applied to his craft.
4. Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford, Rendez-Vous, a discursive chat while looking at some classics of art
5. Clive James, Poetry Notebook 2006-2014. A superb book, one of the very best appreciations of poetry and introductions to poetry of the 20th century. This book has received raves in the UK, it is not yet out in the U.S.
In fiction, to supplement my earlier list, I recommend:
6. Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq. Short stories about the conflict in Iraq, by an Iraqi. I expected to find these widely heralded stories to be disappointing, as the premise is a little too easy for the Western critic to embrace. But they are excellent and this book is one of the year’s best fiction releases.
7. Andy Weir, The Martian. Ostensibly science fiction, but more a 21st century Robinson Crusoe story — set on Mars of course — with huge amounts of (ingenious) engineering driving the story. Lots of fun, many other people have liked it too.
8. Geoffrey Hill, Broken Hierarchies, Poems 1952-2012.
Maybe that welfare cost is not very high at all. After all, if Amazon does not carry a book you can sign up at the Barnes & Noble website and that takes a few minutes at most.
There is a tension in most criticisms of Amazon. On one hand, the critic wishes to argue that a “not carry” decision by Amazon has a big impact on how a book does. On the other hand, the critic wishes to argue that the loss of access to particular titles is a big deal. You cannot easily have it both ways. If readers won’t switch to B&N.com, they must not care very much about particular titles, in which case the Amazon refusal to carry (or delay in shipping) is small even relative to the size of the (small) trade in books.
Krugman’s column today, which covers Amazon vs. Hachette, appears terrible at first glance, but in fact he presents a new and original argument. Get past the mood affiliation and you come to this:
…what Amazon possesses is the power to kill the buzz. It’s definitely possible, with some extra effort, to buy a book you’ve heard about even if Amazon doesn’t carry it — but if Amazon doesn’t carry that book, you’re much less likely to hear about it in the first place.
If I may fill in some blanks, one possible version of the hypothesis — to pull an idea from Gary Becker and Steve Erfle — is that readers consume both “books” and “buzz around books” as complements. The marginal gains from books can be low but the marginal gains from the bundled package may be much higher and those higher gains will not be measured by the (high) price elasticity of book purchases.
In the early stages of this war, Amazon boycotts have often increased the buzz for a book, such as with Beth Macy’s Factory Man. But if these practices continue, they will cease to be news stories and an Amazon refusal to carry or promote plausibly will damage how books will do, without much potential for upside.
How much of the value in a book/buzz package is due to the buzz? 65 percent? That would explain the concentration of reading interest among bestsellers and books your peers are reading. But if Amazon won’t carry or promote a book, does the total supply of buzz fall? Or does the buzz simply transfer to other titles? In the latter case we are again back to small welfare costs from an Amazon refusal to carry. Krugman’s idea is fun, but I am still inclined to think the welfare cost of Amazon supply restrictions on individual books likely is small, again even relative to the size of the book sector, much less relative to gdp.
It is fine to argue that Amazon is being unfair to some authors and to object on ethical grounds. The economist also should add that readers don’t seem to mind very much. Most of the objections I am seeing are coming from authors and publishers, who of course in this sector are much less diversified in their interests than are readers.
I loved the Michael Hofmann review of Stephen Parker’s Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life in the 15 August 2014 Times Literary Supplement. Every paragraph of that review is a gem and Hofmann calls the book perhaps the greatest literary biography he has read. I’ve ordered my copy.
Here is one part of that review, toward the end, which caught my eye:
I’m not really sure what the case against Brecht is. That he treated women and co-workers badly? That he played fast and loose with the intellectual property of others, but was litigiously possessive of his own? That he wrote no more hit shows after The Threepenny Opera? That he failed to crack America? That he wouldn’t denounce the Soviet Union? That he was drab and a killjoy? That he had it cushy after settling back in East Germany in 1949? That he was consumed with his own importance?
Perhaps the Parker book will change my mind, but for now file under “All of the Above.”
Addendum: Here is another superb Michael Hofmann review.