best book

Libraries destroy books carrying costs exceed liquidity premia no free disposal edition

The first and most obvious objection is, why not give the books to the poor? They need stuff to read. Or to prisoners? Or to sick kids? Or to struggling independent booksellers? It doesn’t cost a thing to give something away, right?

The problem is the situation for a library is more complicated than when you just take a bunch of old clothes and unwanted porn down to the Salvation Army. A library book is stamped and bugged and cataloged so that the library knows that it belongs to them. When a book is given away or sold, the library has to go through and remove all that crap, so whoever winds up with it can prove they didn’t just steal it off the shelf. I’m not kidding about that, either — some people who wind up with such books helpfully return them to the library.

And we’re talking about a lot of books here — these libraries are having to cut down their stock in a hurry. Imagine you’re the manager of a library, and some accountant tells you that you need to get rid of 100,000 books, and do it in a week. You really have two options. One, you can get a bunch of academics to scour your collection and painstakingly rate each book according to its value and importance. Then you can hire a bunch of people to take down the 100,000 least important books and painstakingly stamp and debug them, one by one. Your second option is to get the computer to spit out a list of the 100,000 least borrowed books, and hire a few people to walk down the aisles with their arms out, throwing those books in a shredding machine.

That second option is much quicker and much cheaper. Sometimes you can find a paper recycling centre that will pay you for the pulp, so destroying the books leads to a net profit. Nobody likes it, but for a librarian it’s like your best friend just got bitten by a zombie and you’re the only one with a gun.

Also, remember that the stuff worth saving is buried among a lot of other books that are basically garbage. Though everyone realizes that extremely valuable books are going to inevitably get caught in the same net, there’s not much that can be done about it. Nobody is going to order a first-edition Moby-Dick from a library warehouse if the 2011 reprint is sitting right there on the shelf. A computer list that ranks books by popularity can’t tell the difference.

Another downside to this option is that you have to ensure total destruction. You can’t just throw the books in a Dumpster for some asshole to come along and grab later. If you go the Dumpster option, you have to tear out chapters so that people won’t want them, or just fill the Dumpster with detergent. You don’t want people to get in the habit of treating your Dumpster like the clearance rack — it’s dangerous and messy for everyone involved.

There is much more at the link.

Michael Lewis’s *Boomerang*, and the new Richard Pomfret book

The subtitle is Travels in the New Third World, and it is a convenient collection of Lewis’s recent and sometimes controversial writings on the financial crisis.  I liked the Iceland piece best, the German one least.  It is out next week, but a review copy is in my hands.

There is also in my pile Richard Pomfret’s The Age of Equality: The Twentieth Century in Economic Perspective, Belknap Press, a popular economic history of the 20th century, listed as due out October 15 but my paid-for copy just arrived.

Ralph Waldo Emerson on books

From his Notebooks, (the best Emerson to read, in my view) circa 1841:

We are too civil to books.  For a few golden sentences we will turn over & actually read a volume of 4 or 500 pages.  Even the great books. “Come,” say they, “we will give you the key to the world” — Each poet each philosopher says this, & we expect to go like a thunderbolt to the centre, but the thunder is a superficial phenomenon, makes a skin-deep cut, and so does the Sage — whether Confucius, Menu, Zoroaster, Socrates; striking at right angles to the globe his force is instantly diffused laterally & enters not.  The wedge turns out to be a rocket.  I have found this to be the case with every book I have read & yet I take up a new writer with a sort of pulse beat of expectation.

Books about America, by foreigners, bleg

George Hawkey writes to me:

I know you’ve posted “best books” queries on the site before, so here goes. Do you have any input on the best books about American History and Culture, but written from a non-American point-of-view?

Obviously Tocqueville, and there’s a whole raft of Canadian published books on the US culture as well. What I’m looking for is more like: what would “The Best and the Brightest” be if it were written by a Japanese journalist. Or what if Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters”  trilogy was written by a Russian sociologist? “The World Is Flat” but written about the US by an Indian?

In many cases, I’m guessing these texts are not yet or will never be translated, but I’m still interested in finding greater perspective on the US than what’s provided by the traditional pundits, authors and historians.

I’ll recommend these five works of fiction, starting with Nabokov and how about Ayn Rand as well?  The comments are open for your further suggestions…

Best Rejection Letter Ever

…it is with no inconsiderable degree of reluctance that I decline the offer of any Paper from you. I think, however, you will under reconsideration of the subject be of the opinion that I have no other alternative. The subjects you propose for a series of Mathematical and Metaphysical Essays are so very profound, that there is perhaps not a single subscriber to our Journal who could follow them.

Sir David Brewster editor of The Edinburgh Journal of Science to Charles Babbage on July 3, 1821. Noted in James Gleick’s, The Information.

Tips for book recommendations

Nicoli asks:

Any tips, other than reading this blog, on how to find a good book recommendation? I want something like a netflix for books, but feel that system wouldn’t work given the significantly greater time and attention requirement for reading versus let’s say, watching Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

1. Go to the public library and browse both the new books section and the “Books Returned” carts.

2. Read the archives of this blog, filed under “Books.”

3. Weight Amazon reviews by the intelligence of the writer, and the length of the review, not by whether it is positive or negative.

4. Every year read some of the classics on Harold Bloom’s list in The Western Canon.

5. The very best books in categories you think you cannot stand (“gardening,” “basketball,” whatever) will be superb.  It is not hard to find out what they are.

In praise of picture books

No, I don't mean the pictures, I mean the text.  Picture books are one of the best ways to learn basic information about a topic.  First, by viewing the photos you are more likely to remember some aspects of the material.  It works for kids and maybe it works for you too.  Second, the text is stripped down to essentials.  Third, the authors of picture books are often relatively "agenda-less," since most people don't read the text, the selling point is the pictures, and the book is so expensive that the publisher doesn't want to rule out the broadest possible audience.

I would not use picture books to resolve disputes over details or to find the best conceptual framework.  The text in picture books has some of the same strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia pages.  It's odd to see a similar blandness in both the lowest cost and highest cost corners of the publishing world.

Lately I have been "reading" Ottoman Architecture, by Dogan Kuban, Toyokuni (oddly I can't find it on Amazon or remember the author's name), Textiles: Collection of the Museum of International Folk Art, by Bobbie Sumberg, and Architectura, by Miles Lewis.  You can walk into any public library and take home more splendid picture books than you will have time for.  How many you can carry is another constraint. 

Books of the year, 2010

Here is a meta-list of "best books of the year" lists; the selections I looked at did not thrill me, so here's my own list, in no particular order.  First tier:

Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography, by John A. Hall.

Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Charles Emmerson, The Future History of the Arctic.

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

David Grossman, To the End of the Land.

State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974, by Dominic Sandbrook.

The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, edited by Patrick Crotty.

Winston's War: Churchill 1940-1945, by Max Hastings.

Kai Bird, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978.

Peter Hessler, Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory.

Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850.

As toss-ins, from the second tier, there are Understanding the Book of Mormon, Philippson's Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, Peter Watson's The German Genius, Mark Schatzger's Steak, Lydia Davis's Madame Bovary translation, Vietnam: Rising Dragon, Daniel Okrent's Last Call, Gary Gorton's The Panic of 2007, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, W. John Kress, The Weeping Goldsmith: Discoveries in the Land of Myanmar, a few more good books here, and last but not least Cowen and Tabarrok Modern Principles

Brought to you by The Age of the Infovore.

France outlaws discount pricing for eBooks

A mobilization by French publishers at last month’s Frankfurt Book Fair has proven successful: Last Tuesday the French Senate voted for a law imposing a fixed price on eBooks for sale within French territory – that is, just as with print books in France, everyone has to sell a given ebook for the same price. No discounting.

Here is more; solve for the equilibrium!  Oddly, in the United States, the market has been moving toward an approximation of this outcome, at least for new books, though not for classics.  Probably both prices need to fall, though perhaps they will in rough tandem.  I believe the equilibrium value of a hardcover or e-version of a bestseller is below $10, given the recent shift out of the supply curve for the written word.

Selling books through a single retailer

Andrew Wylie has decided to become a publisher…I am appalled, however, that Andrew has chosen to give his list exclusively to a single retailer.

That is from the president of Macmillan, Wylie is a famous agent, the topic is eBooks, and the retailer of course is Amazon.  The authors in this newly consummated deal include John Updike and Philip Roth.

Giving Amazon exclusive rights boosts their incentive to market the book.  For books there is significant "spillover" demand through consumer word-of-mouth, but in this case all the recommendations will lead to purchases at Amazon and none to Barnes and Noble.  On the downside, you lose sales to people who don't buy through Amazon, but for eBooks how many people can that be these days?  You also lose spillover sales from the marketing of other, now-excluded retailers, such as Sony eBooks.  Maybe that's small potatoes.

If the president of Macmillan is upset, he fears the Amazon marketing will drain demand from his titles.  (Bookstores are upset too.)  If I were Wylie, his letter would have me cackling with glee. 

For a while.  Does Wylie know he is the next middleman to be cut out of the deal?  His agent-like services are more valuable to the extent there are competing bidders for the book rights.  The only question is whether the authors (or their estates) will squeeze him or Amazon will squeeze him, or both.

(You might think that Wylie would gain by extending the market power of the authors to market power at the retail level.  The economic theory of "double marginalization" shows this won't work and that the market power of Amazon cannot benefit the upstream rights holder, who does best by seeking out competitive retail and charging a higher transfer price for the IP rights.)

Antitrust aside, does competition constrain Amazon from acquiring ever more eBook titles in this fashion?  It works for Amazon only if their (potentially) stronger marketing increases net sales and thus increases output.  It's easy enough for that marketing to work for any single set of titles, especially when accompanied by all this publicity.  It's much harder for that marketing push to work for books as a whole and therefore there is a natural check on how much of the market Amazon will lock up in this fashion.

Got eBook, anyone?

I thank S. for the pointer.

A Korean most influential books list

The list is here, I especially liked the first selection:

1.  Fisher-Price Toy Catalog (Age 6)

Yes, I'm serious. Laugh all you want for being childish, but heck, I was a child. At around age 6 while living in Korea, I somehow came to have a spiffy catalog from America that listed all Fisher-Price toys that were available for mail-order. The catalog had all these incredible toys that neither I nor any of my friends have ever seen. I read that catalog so many times, imagining playing with those toys, until the catalog eventually disintegrated in my hands one day.

The catalog was the book that confirmed to me — who was six, mind you — that America must be the best and the greatest country in the world. Later when I came to America, my faith was validated.

Books which have influenced me most

Chris, a loyal MR reader, asks:

I'd like to see you list the top 10 books which have influenced your view of the world.

I'll go with the "gut list," rather than the "I've thought about this for a long time list."  I'll also stress that books are by no means the only source of influence.  The books are in no intended order, although the list came out in a broadly chronological stream:

1. Plato, Dialogues.  I read these very early in life and they taught me about trying to think philosophically and also about meta-rationality.

2. The Incredible Bread Machine, by Susan Love Brown, et.al.  This was the first book I ever read on economics and it got me excited about the topic.

3. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand.  This got me excited about the idea that production is what matters and that producers must have the freedom and incentives to operate.

4. Friedrich A. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order.  The market as a discovery procedure and why socialist calculation will not succeed.  (By the way, I'll toss a chiding tsk-tsk the way of Wolfers and Thoma.)

5. John Maynard Keynes: The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.  Keynes is one of the greatest thinkers of economics and there are new ideas on virtually every page.

6. John Stuart Mill, Autobiography.  This got me thinking about how one's ideas change, and should change, over the course of a lifetime.  Plus Mill is a brilliant thinker and writer more generally.

7. Willard van Orman Quine, Word and Object.  This is actually a book about how to arrive at a deeper understanding than the one you already have, although I suspect few people read it that way.

8. Reasons and Persons, by Derek Parfit.  This convinced me that a strictly individualistic approach to ethics will not in general succeed and introduced me to new ways of reasoning and new ways to plumb for depth.

9. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae.  I don't think the ideas in this book have influenced me very much, but reading it was, for whatever reason, the impetus to start writing about the economics of culture and also to give a broader focus to what I write.  Alex, by the way, was the one who recommended it to me.

10. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past.  This is still the best book on interiority.

I'd also like to mention the two books by Fischer Black, although a) I cannot easily elevate one over the other, and b) I capped the list at ten.  La Rochefoucauld's Maxims also deserves honorary mention, on self-deception and related issues.  Plus there is Shakespeare — also for thinking with depth – although I cannot point to a single book above the others.  Harold Bloom's The Western Canon comes to mind as well.

I would encourage other bloggers to offer similar lists.