Results for “best non-fiction”
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What I’ve been reading

1. Ian Morris, Geography is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000 Year History.  None of the book is bad, and half is quite interesting.  Think of the treatment as “Deep Roots for Brexit,” though willing to noodle over earlier and more interesting topics in history.  From a good FT review by Chris Allnutt: “Morris succeeds in condensing 10,000 years into a persuasive and highly readable volume, even if there are moments that risk a descent into what he seeks to avoid: “a catalogue of men with strange names killing each other”, as historian Alex Woolf put it.”  Now if only he would explain why their hot and cold water taps don’t run together…

2. Michel Houellebecq, Interventions 2020.  Grumpy non-fiction essays, with plenty of naive anti-consumerism.  You need to read them if you are a fan, but I didn’t find so much here of interest.  I was struck by his nomination of Paul McCartney (!) as the most essential musician, with Schubert next in line.  Mostly it is MH being contrary.  He has earned the right, but he wasn’t able to make me care more.

3. Frank O’Connor, “Guests of the Nation.”  One of the best short stories I have read, Irish.  Can’t say any more without spoilers! 11 pp. at the link.

4. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest.  Has anyone done a systematic accounting of which Vietnam era fictional works have held up and which not?  Maybe this one gets a B+?  Not top drawer Le Guin, but good enough to read, and better yet if you catch the cross-cultural references and all the anthropological background works.

5. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, some cheap paperback edition.  I did a quick, non-studied reread of this, in prep for the new Cambridge University Press reissue edition due out June 30, which has excellent notes and I will study and reread in more detail.  One of the very best books!  Not only is the story fully engaging and deeply humorous, but it is one of the seminal tracts on progress (largely skeptical), a blistering take on political correctness, wise on the virtues and pitfalls of travel, and one of the first novels to truly engage with science and politics and their interaction.  Straussian throughout.  Swift is one of the very greatest thinkers and writers and his output has held up remarkably well.

Monday assorted links

1. Kevin Kelly lists some heresies.

2. The super-recognizers.

3. World’s largest cast-iron skillet travels down a Tennessee highway.  And the now-deleted thread on Big Tech, work from home, loneliness, Covid, etc.

4. “Under only the efficiency channel, the optimal minimum wage is narrowly around $8, robust to social welfare weights, and generates small welfare gains that recover only 2 percent of the efficiency losses from monopsony power.

5. The variability and volatility of sleep.

6. More Chris Blattman non-fiction recommendations.

7. “Even according to exaggerated figures, China’s total fertility rate in 2021 was only 1.1-1.2, far below the 1.8 forecast by Chinese State Council in 2016, the 1.6-1.7 forecast by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2019, the 1.7 forecast by UN in 2019”  Link here.

8. Scott Alexander just got married.

Tuesday assorted links

1. The economics of taxi tipping.

2. Best Chris Blattman non-fiction reads of last year.

3. Penelope Fitzgerald at age 58.

4. Austin Vernon on why nuclear power is stagnant.

5. In a Gallup survey, Americans seem to be reading fewer books.

6. “Across Congress Members, emotionality is higher for Democrats, for women, for ethnic/religious minorities, for the opposition party, and for members with ideologically extreme roll-call voting records.

My favorite fiction of 2021

Marcel Proust, The Mysterious Correspondent: New Stories.  Not the very best Proust, but even so-so Proust is pretty superb.  These are fragments to be welcomed.

Andy Weir, Project Hail Mary.  At least as good as The Martian, and arguably more conceptual.

Judith Schlansky, Verzeichnis einiger Verluste [Inventory of Losses].  Conceptual German novel with roots in Borges, not as good in English.

Patrick McGrath, Last Days in Cleaver Square.  Unreliable narrator!

Karl Knausgaard, The Morning Star.  The master returns with a full-scale novel, with theology galore.

Anne Serre, The Beginners.  Short, French, about relationships, fun.

Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You? She is quite the conservative, don’t be put off by the left-wing rhetoric.

Mario Levrero, The Luminous Novel.  The best Uruguayan novel of all time?

Domenico Starnone, Trust.  The better of the two “Elena Ferrante” novels released in English this year?

As for retranslations of classics, I very much like the new Oedipus Rex trilogy and the new translation of the Kalevala.  I hope they are fiction!  And kudos to Sarah Ruden’s work on the Gospels, I am not sure where to put them…

Overall I thought this was an excellent year for reading fiction, much better than the few years preceding.  My number one pick here would be the Andy Weir, noting that, for purposes of your norming, I do not usually select science fiction for this designation.  (Here is my earlier CWT with Andy Weir.)

Note that I just ordered a whole new batch of appealing-sounding novels (FT link), and I will read some before year’s end, so I will give you an update when appropriate, most likely toward the very end of the calendar year.  And my non-fiction list will be coming soon.  And also note: “missing” titles from this list are very often missing on purpose!

Read more!

Why you should use *Modern Principles* for your class

Alex has had numerous posts on Modern Principles, but here is my two cents.  A textbook, as the name indicates, is a book.  It has to be conceived of as a book, and thought of as a book, and written as a book, and ideally it should be read as a book.  There are many other textbooks out there, and I do not wish to name names, but consider the following question.  Which are the authors who really love books?  Who spend their lives reading books?  And indeed writing books.  And who spend their lives studying what makes books good or bad?  Who view books as truly essential to their overall output?

An ancillary question to ask is who are the authors who are truly dedicated to video, and to on-line communication more generally, as an independent outlet for their efforts and creativity?

Here is information on our new fifth edition, better than ever.  Because we love books.

*Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton*

That is the new book by Nicholas McDowell, and it is one of my favorite non-fiction works this year.  Milton is today more relevant than he has been in a long time, excerpt:

Milton’s political development is shaped by his evolving understanding of the ways in which ‘tyranny’ — defined initially in ecclesiastical and clerical terms but which grows to encompass political organization — retards the intellectual and cultural progress of a nation.  This understanding was shaped not only by historical experience of the unprecedented political turbulence of mid-seventeenth-century Britain, but by the interaction between that experience and his intellectula life.  Milton’s period of intensive and almost entirely orthodox reading in political and religious history in the mid-1630s, the record of some of which survives in the notebook that was rediscovered in 1874, revealed to him how clerical censorship and heresy-hunting had suppressed intellectual and literary life in other countries.  Milton regarded the cultural decline of Italy under the Counter-Reformation and Inquisition from the glory days of Dante and Petrarch, two of his pre-eminent post-classical models of the poetic career, as the starkest instance of this process.  His tour of Italy in 1638-9 confirmed the lessons of his reading: that in nations where ‘this kind of inquisition tyrannizes,’ as he put it in Areopagitica, learning is brought into a ‘servil condition’ and the ‘glory ‘ of ‘wits’ is ‘dampt.’

Recommended!  Every page is enjoyable, and you can profit from this book no matter your prior knowledge of Milton may be.  A sure thing for the year end’s “best of” list.

You can pre-order here.

How do you shop for books in a bookstore?

Jason emails me:

I would be interested to read on your blog about how you would shop for books in Daunt (or any good bookstore, but Daunt since you mentioned it). Is there method to your browsing/do you ask for recommendations, etc. Is there a person there who you particularly rate? It sounds basic but I think readers would be interested in knowing your approach. I live in London and too often walk out of a bookstore with books I have already heard about rather than taking a chance on something new.

Daunt has about seven or eight main “pressure points” near the very front of the store, and they are easy to find, and that is where you should look for your books. My key advice for Daunt is simply to have a basket, and/or an arrangement with the front desk that you can rest your accumulating pile of books there while you continue to look for more.

The basement floor of Daunt is organized by country, rather than by genre of book, and each visit you should scour at least two country sections for new (or older) items of interest.  Overall I find that “by country” is a better to organize the back titles than what any other bookstore does.  So, for instance, Chinese fiction is put next to Chinese history, not next to other fiction.

What makes the Marylebone branch of Daunt the best bookstore is how they organize the store, and the quality of selections they put on the front tables, not the overall number of titles.

Making random purchases of featured fiction, if it looks vaguely intelligent, is not crazy in Daunt, yet it would be in literally any American bookstore, or even in Waterstone’s in London (another superb store, go to the Piccadilly branch, but use it for history and biography not fiction).

If you are in a Barnes and Noble, mostly focus on finding the “new non-fiction” section, which these days is increasingly difficult to come across and ever-smaller.

*The Price of Peace*

The author is Zachary D. Carter, and the subtitle is Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes.  Maybe you’ve read plenty about Keynes, but still this book is good enough to qualify (without reservation) for the year’s “best of non-fiction” list published every December.

One surprise is that the author seems to “get” the Bloomsbury Circle, Woolf, and the like, even though he is not an old, crusty British pain in the ass.

A second surprise is that much of the biography goes well past the life of Keynes, though with no diminution of quality.  I very much enjoyed for instance the discussion of Samuelson vs. Galbraith, the career of Milton Friedman, the role of the Volker Foundation, and so on.

Very readable, substantive, and the main topic never ceases to be interesting.  I am not sure if there is anything truly new in here, but it is nonetheless a very good book to read about Keynes and his later influences on economic thought.

*A Treatise on Northern Ireland*, by Brendan O’Leary

This three-volume set is quite the remarkable achievement, and it would have made my best books of 2019 list (add-ons here) had I known about it earlier.  It starts with “An audit of violence after 1966,” and then goes back to the seventeenth century to begin to dig out what happened.  It has more detail than almost anyone needs to know, yet at the same time it remains unfailingly conceptual and relies on theoretical social science as well, rather than merely reciting names and dates. How about this?:

The breakdown of hegemonic control in Northern Ireland [mid- to late 1960s] exemplifies Tocqueville’s thesis that, when a bad government seeks to reform itself, it is in its greatest danger.

Here is an excerpt from volume II:

The thesis advanced here is that hegemonic control was established between 1920 and 1925 by the UUP, and, aside from a few exceptional moments, exercised successfully until 1966.  After 1925 opportunities for effective opposition, dissent, disobedience, or usurpation of power were minimal.  The major possibilities of disruption came from the outside, from independent Ireland or from Great Britain, from geopolitics, or the world economy.  Eventually, when external forces of disruption combined with major endogenous changes, hegemonic control would be contested, and would shatter.  But at no juncture did Northern nationalists or Irish Catholics in the North internalize the UUP’s rhetoric, or become significantly British by cultural designation.  When the civil-rights movement learned to exploit the claim to be British citizens entitled to British rights, the regime’s days were numbered.

I will continue to spend time with these volumes, which will not be surpassed anytime soon.  Unlike in so many history books, O’Leary is always trying to explain what happened, or what did not.  You can order them here.

As a side note, I find it shocking (and I suppose deplorable) that no American major media outlet has reviewed these books, or put them on its best of the year list, as far as I can tell.  We are failing at something, though I suppose you can debate what.  And I apologize to O’Leary for missing them the first time around.

Tuesday assorted links

1. The penis-shaped ice rink culture that is Russia.

2. The Economist on Peter Chang and the revolution in Chinese cuisine.  Price variability is rising in the Chinese cuisine market.

3. Dylan Matthews favorite social science studies of the decade.

4. “Impact funds earn 4.7 percentage points (ppts) lower IRRs ex post than traditional VC funds.

5. Arnold Kling’s books of the year.  And Scott Sumner responds to me on national security and trade.

6. “Relative to low-income households, high-income households enjoy 40 percent higher utility per dollar expenditure in wealthy cities, relative to poor cities. Similar patterns are observed across stores in different neighborhoods. Most of this variation is explained by differences in the product assortment offered, rather than the relative prices charged, by chains that operate in different markets.”  Link here.

Work on these things

Here are some projects I’d like to see funded, some through my own ventures, or others through alternative mechanisms. On these issues, the right person could have an enormous impact, whether through the research side or directly coming up with actionable ideas, including of course creating and building companies.

More studies of super-effective people. Either individually or collectively. If you take the outliers in any domain, what should our intuitions be for understanding the underlying processes determining how many people could have ended up in those positions? How many people had the right genes but had the wrong upbringing? How many people had the right genes and the right upbringing but the wrong luck, or perhaps society failed them in some other manner? The answers to these questions have significant policy implications.

A comprehensive analysis and critique of the NIH and NSF. The US funds more science research than any other country — about $35 billion per year on the NIH and $8 billion per year on the NSF. How exactly do these institutions work? How have they changed over time and have these changes been for good or bad? Based on what we now know, how might we better structure the NIH and NSF? What experiments should we run or what kind of studies should we perform?

Why is life expectancy so long in Hong Kong? Life expectancy in Hong Kong is 84.23 years, more than five years longer than the US and the highest in the world. Hong Kong is not that wealthy (median household income is $38,000 USD); it’s somewhat polluted; people don’t obviously eat what seems like a healthy diet; and they don’t seem to exercise a great deal. What should we learn from this?

Bloomberg Terminal for everything. This might be a nonprofit, a company, or a government project. To state the obvious, many analyses hinge on having the right data. If you’re in finance, getting the right data is often easy: just pull it up on your Bloomberg terminal. But there is no practical way to ask “what most correlates with life expectancy in Hong Kong?” (See above on that topic.) Figure out a way to build a growing corpus of structured data across the broadest variety of domains.

A comprehensive guide to the American healthcare system. The American healthcare system is by far the world’s biggest and also by a considerable margin the world’s most influential. Yet there is no comprehensive, dispassionate, and analytical disaggregation of how it all works. Who are the actors and what are their incentives? To the degree that the relationships between different entities are in equilibrium, what are the forces ensuring they stay there? What is the Sankey diagram of fund flows within the U.S. healthcare system?

Better answers for how to quantify worker productivity. In most knowledge industries, companies have nothing better than highly subjective measures (i.e., supervisors’ assessments) of worker productivity. In theory, it seems significant improvements should be possible. In the short term, is it possible to measure the productivity or efficacy of individual managers, software engineers, educators, scientists? How about teams, and what size of team? And can we do so without creating Goodhart’s Law problems?

What should Widodo do? Indonesia is a large, populous middle-income country. It faces no major near-term security threats. It has a small manufacturing base and no major non-commodity export sectors. What is the best non-bureaucratic 10 page economic development briefing document and set of prescriptions that one could write for Indonesia’s president? For Indonesia, substitute Philippines, Chile, or Morocco. 

A comparative study of foundations and their efficacy. Philanthropic foundations are behind a lot of important work. But how does a foundation decide what it wants and how the resulting grants should be structured? How effective are the programs of that foundation? In practice, how have its institutional mechanisms evolved? Imagine some kind of resource that answered these questions for the major American foundations.

Institutional critiques. More broadly, there is no discipline of institutional criticism. There is a very rich literature of policy criticism in economics, journalism, and non-fiction books. There is also a rich literature of “corporate criticism”: there are thousands of articles about how Facebook (budget: $20 billion) works and how it might be good or bad. But there is relatively little analysis of the most important institutions in our society: government departments. How is the Department of Agriculture (budget: $150 billion) organized and how effective or not is it? How about the Department of Energy (budget: $32 billion)? And why are not those questions paramount in the minds of policymakers?

Cultures of excellence. If you ask informed Filipinos why the street food is mediocre, they will tell you that Philippines lacks a “culture of excellence”. It seems that some kind of “culture of doing things really well” has very persistent and generalizable effects. South Korea and Japan have developed much more rapidly than many Asian countries, despite many others adopting relatively free “Washington Consensus”-style trade policies. Russia still has higher GDP per capita than Mexico despite Mexico’s economic policies having been much better than Russia’s for many, many decades at this point. How should we think about cultures of excellence?

Regeneration at the government layer. Herbert Kaufman (unsurprisingly) concludes in an empirical study that government organizations don’t die. While we might all agree that this is a problem, actionable solutions are in short supply. What can or should we do about this?

IQ paradox. Ron Unz points out that intergenerational variation of IQ may be much higher than is often assumed, citing Ireland and Croatia as examples. For instance, not long ago Ireland had sub-par measured IQ and now that figure is much higher, following growth and prosperity. The policy implications of IQ disparities across nations may therefore be different to what might otherwise obviously follow: perhaps environment matters much more than is assumed. If so, what should we be doing more or less of?

Credible plans for new top-tier universities. 7 of the best 25 universities in the world (Times ranking) were started in the US between 1861 and 1891 by ambitious reformers. It’s probably harder in many ways to start an impactful new university today… but it’s likely not impossible and the returns to doing so successfully might be very high. What might be a good plan? Why have so few of these plans come to fruition? 

Summaries of the state of knowledge in different fields. As a general matter, a lot of oral knowledge in the world is still not readily available, and reflection on this fact might lead one in many interesting directions. One obvious application is helping people more readily understand the present state of affairs in different domains. If I want to know “how we’re doing” in, say, antiviral drug development, I could spend a few hours hunting for top researchers, email a few, and perhaps get on calls to obtain their candid assessments. Are we making good progress? What are the most important open problems? What’s holding things back? And so on. How can we make all of this knowledge publicly available across all fields?

Mechanisms for better matching. One of the single interventions that could do the most to improve global welfare would be to improve the efficiency of the partner/marriage matching ecosystem. Online dating demonstrates that significant change (and maybe even improvement?) is possible, with some figures suggesting that up to two thirds of relationships in the US may now be initiated through online dating services. Accomplished people often seem to struggle with this challenge. Good solutions would be important.

What should Durkan do? Jenny Durkan is the current mayor of Seattle. As cities become more important loci of economic activity in the world, the importance of effective city governance will increase. As with the Widodo challenge, what is the best 10 page briefing document and set of prescriptions that one could write for her? What about Baltimore and St. Louis?

Garett Jones on open borders

I am very pleased that the new Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith open borders graphic novel has hit #1 on The Washington Post non-fiction bestseller list.  I am also pleased to see Garett Jones examine the idea in a new short paper, here is part of his critique:

I use the same constant returns to scale framework as Caplan, in which the migration of every human being to the United States would increase global output per capita by about 80%. I then estimate that in the benchmark model, where IQ’s social return is much larger than its private return, the per-capita income of current U.S.residents would permanently fall by about 40%. This is not an arithmetic fallacy: this is the average causal effect of Open Borders on the incomes of ex-ante Americans. This income decline occurs because cognitive skills matter mostly through externalities: because your nation’s IQ matters so much more than your own, as I claim in 2015’s Hive Mind. Therefore, a decline in a nation’s set of average cognitive skills will tend to reduce the productivity of the nation’s ex-ante citizens.

I will be sure to link to Bryan’s reply when it comes.