best book

What are the best sources on how to be a good teacher?

Charlie Clarke, a Finance PhD student at UConn, and a loyal MR reader, writes to me:

Hi Tyler,

I’m a grad student teaching for the first time, and I was wondering if  you had any recommendations for a book relaying evidence based advice for teaching methods.  I know Cowen’s law, “There is a literature on everything.”  Just hoping there is a good book or two synthesizing that literature so that I can use it to improve my teaching.

Love the blog.

The most important lesson is to use the right textbook.  Beyond that:

1. Give a damn.

2. Get to the point when you speak.

3. Expect something from them.

4. Teach to the students who are interested in learning.

5. At all levels, do not overestimate the attention span of your audience.

6. Do not be afraid to be idiosyncratic, provided you adhere strictly to #2.

Those are my tips.  But to be honest, I do not consider them RCT-tested and I am not sure they maximize social welfare.  They instead start from the premise that the key question is what kind of person do I want to be, and then the method asks the students to conform to that vision.  Some or all of them might prove RCT-neutral, or worse.  Nonetheless, the approach is a good way to motivate me and that is part of the problem.

Doesn’t Bryan Caplan have a post on this?  Here is John Baez on how to teach.  Peoples, what can you recommend from the literature?

Tony Judt’s new book *Thinking the Twentieth Century*

It is a wide-ranging dialogue with Timothy Snyder, you can buy it here.  I will gladly recommend this book, but I have mixed feelings about it.  It is Judt’s “deathbed conversations” with Snyder, when he was paralyzed.

Is it fascinating?  Yes.  Did I read it straight through without pausing?  Yes.  Did I learn a lot?  Yes.

Yet it doesn’t show Judt in such an overwhelmingly favorable light.  He is cranky, unfair to his intellectual opponents, and he repeatedly misrepresents thinkers such as Hayek on some fairly simple points.  He conducts unsubstantiated attacks on various New York Times columnists, as if they had once beaten him in a debate and this was his revenge.  It shows his lifelong and mostly unhealthy obsession with what Daniel Klein has called “The People’s Romance.”  Unlike in some of his previous writings, his proposals for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem come off as an irresponsible and somewhat flip symbolic gesture, easy enough to make because he doesn’t have to live with the outcome.  As a reader and reviewer it is hard to not wonder whether/how Judt was medicated during these conversations, and how well he had thought through his lack of editing options before publication.  Or is this the real Judt?  Are we all really like this?  Pondering that question is as interesting as the dialogue itself.

The Austrians will be happy when Judt writes: “The three quarters of century that followed Austria’s collapse in the 1930s can be seen as a duel between Keynes and Hayek.”  Yet he has the odd view that free market ideas were “imported to the U.S. in the suitcases of a handful of disabused Viennese intellectuals.”  Others may underrate the importance of central/eastern Europe but in these dialogues he overrates it.

One does not have to agree with Hayek’s Road to Serfdom to find this an unfair characterization:

Hayek is quite explicit on this count: if you begin with welfare policies of any sort — directing individuals, taxing for social ends, engineering the outcomes of market relationships — you will end up with Hitler.

My favorite part of the book comes at Kindle location 1294, here is part of that discussion:

But even when Blunt was outed as a Soviet spy, in 1979, his standing in high society, and in the distinctive codes of that society in England, still protected him…Thus Blunt — a spy, a communist, a dissembler, a liar and a man who may have actively contributed to the exposure and death of British agents — was nonetheless deemed by some of the his colleagues to be guilty of no crime serious enough to justify depriving him of the fellowship of the British Academy.

If you are seeking to “normalize” this review, I consider Judt’s Past Imperfect to be one of the best books of the last few decades, his Postwar to be one of my favorite books ever, and his late essays to be some of the best writing, in any genre, in a long time.  (Though I didn’t like Ill Fares the Land.)  I can recommend this too, as something worth consuming and pondering and spending money on, but I still have a slightly queasy feeling in my stomach.

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.