Results for “best non-fiction”
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My favorite things Turkey

1. Novelist: Orhan Pamuk.  My favorite books by Pamuk are the ones rooted most firmly in Istanbul and Turkey, namely The Museum of Innocence and Istanbul and also Snow.  Those are some of my very favorite books, period.

2. Non-fiction book, set in: There is Runciman and Kinross and Stephen Kinzer.  Is the Osman book good?

3. Movie, set in: From Russia With Love and Topkapi come to mind; my knowledge of Turkish cinema is weak.

4. Opera, set in: The Abduction from the Seraglio, maybe the Beecham recording, or Krips, plus I like the overture of the Harnoncourt version, much more Turkish-sounding than the others.  And I don't have to tell you my favorite Rondo.

Uh-oh, suddenly there is too much Orientalism in this post.  Reverse course!

5. Favorite recording showing the unities behind Turkish and classical music: Istanbul, Dimitrie Cantemir, by Jordi Savall.  Quite the revelation and it makes you wonder how well we understand the true story of classical music.

6. Singer: Tarkan comes to mind and he is well represented on YouTube.  There is an entire strand of Turkish popular song, in the direction of Sezen Aksu, YouTube here.  But overall my pick is Edip Akbayram, imagine a Turkish version of Tropicalia.

7. Economist: Dani Rodrik, Daron Acemoglu, Timur Kuran, and Faruk Gul are the best-known Turkish economists I can think of.  I believe Nouriel Roubini was born in Turkey but I don't think he counts as Turkish.

8. Music mogul: Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records.

9. Classical pianist: I still have mixed feelings about Fazil Say, who is very subjective with the score.  Idil Biret has some good recordings of romantic music and piano transcriptions.

10. Cynic: Diogenes, who in a few ways was an early version of Robin Hanson, though I am not suggesting Robin is a cynic in the lower case sense.

The bottom line: Textiles and the decorative arts weigh in as strong additional positives, but I wish there were more Turkish writers I liked.  

What I’ve been reading

1. The Aztec World, by Elizabeth Brumfiel and Gary Feinman.  Long-time MR readers will know Aztec history is a special interest of mine.  This book, a companion volume to the Aztec exhibit from Chicago’s Field Museum, is perhaps the best introduction to the Aztecs to date.

2. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. This achieved (justified) rave reviews in the UK but it has hardly made a dent in the U.S. market.  It is non-fiction but written in a hybrid form and often feels more like a novel.

3. The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory, by Torkel Klingberg.  When push comes to shove, the author fails to establish his major thesis.  Still, this book is way above average for how seriously it treats the actual science behind its argument.  I learned a great deal from it.

4. Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill.  A scary and effective memoir about how Athill, a famous editor, dealt with aging and the end of her sex life.

5. Not John Steinbeck.

Here are predicted hot reads for 2009

What I’ve been reading

1. The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, by Victor Pelevin.  A fun Russian weird novel; here is a good review of it.  It’s one of the few works of fiction I’ve finished lately.

2. The Patron’s Payoff: Conspicuous Commissions in Italian Renaissance Art, by Jonathan K. Nelson and Richard J. Zeckhauser.  Put together a collaborating art historian, a first-rate microeconomist, an interest in signaling and a preface by A. Michael Spence and this is what you get.

3. White Heat: The Friendship Between Emily Dicksinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, by Brenda Wineapple.  Yes, this is a very good book.  But it has the same problem that most other Emily Dickinson books have.  Her poems are so short you can fit them into a narrative and they are so strong they tend to overwhelm any non-fiction context they are put in.

4. Geoffrey Heal, When Principles Pay:Corporate Social Responsibility and the Bottom Line.  The main point is that socially responsible behavior is often profitable for business in the long run.  I know that doesn’t sound like such a compelling message right now, but this is a highly intelligent and now a sadly neglected book.

5. Samuel Johnson: A Biography, by Peter Martin.  This is only the third best biography of Johnson (Walter Jackson Bate is #2) and it is still one of the best books of the year.  What does that say?

Markets in everything, Thorstein Veblen edition

A watch that doesn’t tell time.  Oh, it costs $300,000.  And:

He added that anyone can buy a watch that tells time – only a truly discerning customer can buy one that doesn’t.

And here’s the best part: The watch sold out within 48 hours of its launch.

I thank Darren Klein for the pointer.

Addendum: I am reminded of Borges on Veblen: "When, many years ago, I happened to read this book, I thought it was a satire.  I later learned it was the first work of an illustrious sociologist."

Kindle

It’s pretty good.

The worst part: On day one the screen froze and it wouldn’t even turn off.  Natasha had to read the instructions and press on a battery point with a pin to reboot it.  What if that happened to me on an airplane?  Must I now always carry around a small, sharp pin?

The best part: For fiction — that is fiction I’m actually going to read — I would rather use this screen than a traditional book.  It is somehow easier to have a more focused appreciation of the words without being distracted by the book as a whole.

The actual worst part: For non-fiction it is not fast enough for real scrolling, flipping through, browsing and reading.  The machine is best for linear, sequential consumption of the text.

I’m not sure if this entry should go under the "Books" or the "Web/Tech" category.

Meta-recommendations

I’ve spent lots of time scouring this year’s "Best of" lists, and I thought I should pass along what I have learned.  These are not my recommendations (though I often approve), these are what I have gleaned from the recommendations of media critics.  They are my judgment of the most common selections on the "Best of" lists, noting that I did not check the lists from publications I do not enjoy and thus there is an implicit filter being applied.

So here is my aggregation:

1. Non-fiction book: Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise.

2. Fiction book: Tree of Smoke, or The Savage Detectives.

2. Miscellaneous book: Letters of Ted Hughes.  Everyone loves this, I haven’t read it yet.

3. Movie: No Country for Old MenThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly gets lots of picks, given that it is playing in only two cities.

4. Classical CD: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson Sings Peter Lieberson, "Neruda Songs."  Read the excellent Ed Uyeshima review on Amazon, it is first.

5. Popular music: LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver, or possibly Neon Bible, by Arcade Fire.

I still can’t figure out the consensus jazz CD of the year.  Any help?

I might add that the non-meta me basically approves of this list, with two caveats.  First, the Lieberson CD, while quite good, in part received so many mentions because the singer, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, met a young and tragic death this last year.  It was her husband who composed these songs for her.  Second, I don’t myself have clear picks for popular music.  I do a lot of my popular music buying in December, when the "Best of" lists come out.  I did put on LCD Soundsystem this morning but was bored by it on first listening.

What I’ve Been Reading

1. Love, Life, Goethe: Lessons of the Imagination from the Great German Poet, by John Armstrong.  The author does not demonstrate overwhelming expertise but this is nonetheless not a bad place to start on the most neglected of all the great writers.

2. The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, by Mark Lilla.  Why Schleiermacher really matters, how Kant painted himself into a corner trying to solve the problems laid out by Rousseau, and why it all springs from Hobbes.  I found this well above average for its genre, though you must have a taste for Straussian-like books where big ideas clash at the macro level and there is little attempt at any kind of empirical resolution.

3. How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom, by Garry Kasparov.  This is a fun book, except that life mostly doesn’t imitate chess.  Chess is characteristic for its lack of self-deception; it is hard to avoid knowing where you stand in the hierarchy and excuses are few and far between.  That’s why most chess players are depressed.  Kasparov seems to save his self-deception for politics; let’s hope he is still alive a year from now.

4. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, by Richard Rhodes.  This favorite book of Jason Kottke is first-rate non-fiction, it is also one of the best books on the Cold War.

5. The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa.  One of the best studies of the psychology of political power and the connection between tyranny and the erotic.  A fun albeit sometimes harrowing read.  Another superb translation by Edith Grossman, might she be the best translator ever?

The theology of popular economics

Once I pick up a popular economics book, I ask myself: what is this book’s implicit theology?  (How would you in this regard classify FreakonomicsUndercover Economist?  Steve Landsburg?)

That is one of the best first questions to ask about any non-fiction book. 

I view Discover Your Inner Economist as largely Thomist and more Catholic than anything else.

It is suggested that people are capable of simply doing the right thing, although we should not necessarily expect them to do the right thing.

It is suggested that a unified perspective of faith and reason, applied in voluntarist fashion, can indeed give people better and more complete lives.

It is suggested that not everything can be bought and sold, yet markets have a very important role in human life.

The chapters on food, or the seven deadly sins, are too obvious to require explanation.

The book is highly cosmopolitan, and it is suggested that acts of will and understanding can open up the sacraments to us.  The possibility of those sacraments lies right before our very eyes, and they are literally available for free.  Except the relevant sacraments are those of culture, and not of the Roman Church.

I am not a Catholic or for that matter a believer, but as I tried to solve various problems in the exposition, the argument fell naturally into religious ideas.  Religion has so much power over the human mind, in part, because its basic teachings about life are largely true.  Furthermore classical liberalism is far more of an intellectual offshoot of Christianity than most non-Christians are keen to admit.  (Muslims and Chinese often see this more clearly.)

So when I realized that Inner Economist had this strongly Thomist philosophic flavor, I was greatly comforted.

In this post the Episcopalians ponder their Inner Economists.

I hope to write more soon on political philosophy in Discover Your Inner Economist.

My favorite things Brazil

1. Painter: Candido Portinari is the obvious choice, try this one, or here, but he is not well-represented on-line.  Jose Antonio da Silva, the naive painter, is a personal favorite; here is one image, here are two more.

2. Movie: Black Orpheus, if seen on a big screen, is splendid from beginning to end.  Imagine Rio with empty, unpopulated hills.  More recently, I am fond of Central Station, and regard City of God as just a bit overrated.

3. Music: This topic needs a post all its own, and you will get one soon enough.

4. Novel: Brazil (or is it the translators?) is oddly weak in this category.  I’ll nominate Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor, or Machado de Assis, his still underrated Epitaph of a Small Winner.  Here are more authors, but I await your guidance.  By the way, I think Paulo Coelho’s Eleven Minutes is a good read but I haven’t been able to finish any of the others by him.

5. Natural wonder: Iguassu is one of the best natural sights in the world.  Imagine a big waterfall 17 km long, and with coatimundis, amazing butterflies, and churrascaria nearby.

6. Non-fiction books about: I love Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s transcendent Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil.  My runner-up pick would be Alex Shoumanoff, Capital of Hope, about Brasilia.  The classic works of Gilbert Freyre are good background on the country, as is Brazil: Once and Future Country.

7. Sculptor: Avant-garde Helio Oiticica is all the rage these days.  They put two of his works out at MOMA, a big Tropicalia show in the Bronx, plus a big solo show is coming to Houston, I hope to see it there.  The on-line images destroy the angles and the content of the boxes, maybe try this one, but best to see it live.

8. Favorite food: The small towns near Curitiba, in the south, have the world’s best beef plus amazing pasta.

The bottom line: Might Brazil be the best place, period?  To visit, that is.

How to read fast

I am unfamiliar with speed reading techniques, so I cannot evaluate them.

The best way to read quickly is to read lots.  And lots.  And to have started a long time ago.  Then maybe you know what is coming in the current book.  Reading quickly is often, in a margin-relevant way, close to not reading much at all. 

Note that when you add up the time costs of reading lots, quick readers don’t consume information as efficiently as you might think.  They’ve chosen a path with high upfront costs and low marginal costs.  "It took me 44 years to read this book" is not a bad answer to many questions about reading speed.

Another way to read quickly is to cut bait on the losers.  I start ten or so books for every one I finish.  I don’t mind disliking a book, and I never regret having picked it up and started it.  I am ruthless in my discards.

Fairfax and Arlington counties have wonderful public library systems, and I go about five times a week to one branch or another.  Usually I scan the New Books shelf and look at nothing else.  I can go shopping at the best store in the world, almost any day, for free. 

I am both interested and compulsive.  How can I let that book go unread or at least unsampled?  I can’t.

Virtually every Tuesday I visit the New Books table at Borders.  Tuesday is when most new books arrive.  Who knows what might be there?  How can I let that New Books table go unvisited?  I can’t.  About half the time I buy something, but I always walk away happy.

Here is another reading tip: do less of other activities.

Blogging hasn’t hurt my writing, it has helped by non-fiction reading, but I read fewer novels.  That is the biggest intellectual opportunity cost of MR, though for the last month I’ve made a concerted effort to read more fiction.  But it is not like the old days when I would set aside two months to work through The Inferno, Aeneid, and the like, with multiple secondary sources and multiple translations at hand.  I no longer have the time or the mood, and I miss this.

Here are two earlier posts on time management.

Addendum: Jane Galt comments.  And here is Daniel Akst.

My favorite things New Jersey

1. Music: There is Count Basie, Lauryn Hill (download "I Just Want You Around"), Paul Robeson, and Deborah Harry’s best songs; my favorite is the reggae-inspired "The Tide is High."  Paul Simon was born in New Jersey, and of course there is sax player Wayne Shorter.  Even at age 44, I’m still not into Frank Sinatra.  Bruce Springsteen I now find mostly unlistenable (monotonous rhythm sections), but parts of Born to Run still send a thrill through my heart.

2. Author: Philip Roth is the obvious pick, but I prefer Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, a neglected masterpiece, and the first half of his Executioner’s Song.  Stephen Crane is from the state, but somehow he doesn’t count in my eyes as a New Jerseyan.  Mencken had the bottom line on James Fenimore Cooper.

3. TV show: Duh.  I still don’t get the appeal of The Wire; for obvious biographical reasons, I’d rather watch white New Jerseyans kill each other than black Baltimoreans.

4. Poet: William Carlos Williams, here is a quickie poem.

5. Comic: Jason Alexander, by far the funniest guy on that show.  Bud Abbott is another pick.  James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) can be funny when they let him.

6. Director: Steven Spielberg, AI is about how morally superficial people can be; Sugarland Express and Close Encounters (director’s cut) are other favorites of many.  There is also Brian de Palma, his best film is the Hitchcockean Dressed to Kill.

7. Non-fiction writer.  John McPhee has raised the bar for all of us.

8. Painter: Jacob Lawrence, especially the early works.  There is also George Inness, who painted Montclair, and Ben Shahn, here is my favorite of his.

9. Sculptor: George Segal I am not so fond of, but otherwise I draw a blank.

10. Economist: Milton Friedman.

11. Movie, set in: Here is a list, plus there is Clerks and other Kevin Smith creations, not to mention Big (Tom Hanks) and Buckeroo Bonzai.  I opt for Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.  What else am I missing?

12. Mom: Mine.

The bottom line: Too obvious to state.

The second bottom line: Population density is a wonderful thing.

What I’ve been reading

1. Michael Crichton, Next. Yes it is "writing-by-numbers," yes it is better than his recent work, but no, it is not nearly as good as Jurassic Park, Sphere (my favorite), Congo, or for that matter his book on Jasper Johns.  Some critics like it.  The start is OK but it falls apart as it proceeds.  By the way, here is my previous post on human-chimp hybrids

2. Robert Bolaño, Distant Star.  A minor masterpiece.  He is another of those first-tier Latin writers, along with Asturias and Rulfo, who for mysterious reasons no one in the United States seems to read.

3. Richard Powers, The Echo Maker.  A deserving winner of a National Book Award, plus I am interested in the neurology theme.  I find many of Power’s earlier books too intellectualized, but this one held my attention throughout.  By the way, I also tried the non-fiction National Book winner, the book about the Dust Bowl years, but it didn’t hold my interest.

4. The Poor Always Pay Back: The Grameen II Story, by Asif Dowla and Dipal Barua.  A very good look at the micro-credit movement.

Addendum: The NYT picks its ten best books of the year.

What I’ve been reading

1. Dave Eggers, What is the What.  Despite its preciousness, I quite liked A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  Sadly this quasi-fictional tale of a Sudanese refugee reveals that most contemporary writers are lightweights, pure and simple.

2. Gore Vidal, Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir.  I loved Palimpset, volume 1, but this follow-up is junk.  Julian is his best book, but overall he has more misses than hits.

3. Othello.  I’ll teach this in my spring Law and Literature class.  I read Shakespeare as despising the Moor for turning his back on his natural Muslim allies and fighting them in Cyprus.  In a strange way Othello deserves some of the bad treatment he receives — why should anyone trust him?

4. The new Stephen Dubner book…I am not reading it yet, but I don’t want to be slow with the news.  Discover the other Dubner.

5. Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic.  This is from the guy who brought us Everything Bad is Good for You, except it turns out that cholera isn’t good for you, it is bad for you.  A brisk and readable story of public health issues in Victorian London.

6. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold [Crónica de una muerte anunciada].  I regard One Hundred Years of Solitude as a good but overrated book; this slim volume may well be his most exciting fiction and it is clearly the most humorous.  I’m also fond on his non-fiction book about the kidnapping and volume one of his memoirs, plus of course the short stories; that is what he will be known for.

Christmas gifts

This is not quite a year-end "best of" list, but if you are looking for gifts, here are my off-the-cuff picks in some select areas. 

1. TV show: Season one of Veronica Mars.  Matt Yglesias and Dan Drezner are fans as well.

2. Classical music: Maurizio Pollini, Chopin’s Nocturnes.
This recording has none of the flaws that Pollini would have shown in
these pieces 20 years ago; they are lyrical and beautiful.  For something
new try Golijov’s Ayre song cycle, and don’t neglect the accompanying Berio pieces.  Richard Egarr’s Goldberg Variations is the only harpischord recording which stands up to Glenn Gould.  Finally, Paul McCartney’s Ecce Cor Meum was better than most other new releases, and yes I hated Liverpool Oratorio but he finally figured out how to do it.

3. Non-fiction: Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling Upon Happiness, or for the economist David Warsh’s Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations.  Google back to my reviews if you don’t remember them.

4. Fiction: A slow year for this category, maybe I will pick Suite Francaise.  I’ll bet against the new Thomas Pynchon being any good but if I am wrong I will let you know.

5. DVDs: You might try Solo con Tu Pareja, the new Criterion release of the 1991 Mexican film by the guy who did Y Tu Mama Tambien.  After that, stick with TV, at least for the time being.

6. Popular music: You could try the new Dylan, or the new Beck, but so far I think the new Justin Timberlake is — against my will I might add — more interesting than either.  My real pick here is the Argentine sensation Juana Molina.  Buy Son
Acoustic guitar, clear voice, light percussive rhythms, ringing bells,
sheer magic.  This is that "isn’t it amazing I never heard of her
before" CD you were looking for…

7. Jazz CD: The new Monk/Coltrane find is the obvious pick, but the new Ornette Coleman release is one of his best.

If you read only one book by Orhan Pamuk

The White Castle is short, fun, and Calvinoesque.  Not his best book but an excellent introduction and guaranteed to please.  Snow is deep, political, and captures the nuances of modern Turkey; it is my personal favorite.  The New Life isn’t read often enough; ideally it requires not only a knowledge of Dante, but also a knowledge of how Dante appropriated Islamic theological writings for his own ends.  My Name is Red is a complex detective story, beloved by many, often considered his best, but for me it is a little fluffy behind the machinations.  The Black Book is the one to read last, once you know the others.  Istanbul: Memories and the City is a non-fictional memoir and a knock-out.