Saturday, 29 December 2018

My 2018 reading list


January

Empire by Niall Ferguson – I am aware of the criticism surrounding Ferguson and his interpretation of British imperial history. Empire may be subject to similar criticism. The general conclusion, that being that the British Empire has helped sow the seed of liberal democracy around the globe, is not without some worthy discussion. But the book seems to hide from other, harsher criticisms of empire by accepting the history of the British Empire is murky and grey. This leaves something missing from the critical narrative.

What if Latin America Ruled the World? by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera – This is a hard book to read. At times it is hard because it is abstract, almost philosophical. At times (from my perspective), it is hard because it is about a distinctly different culture and history. But there are valuable insights to be gleamed from this book. The arguments that South American culture is unjustly viewed in comparison to Western culture, creating ignorant ideas of sophistication or enlightenment are very interesting.

Streaming, Sharing, Stealing by Michael D. Smith and Rahul Telang – This is not a bad book, but it is one I found disappointing. To be sure, the subject matter – the changing nature of consumer entertainment and technology – is interesting and important, but I feel like this book brings nothing new to the table. This is especially egregious given this book was published in 2016. As supplementary literature, this book is fine.

The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen – Veblen’s classic book feels at time like an odd addition to the economics discipline, and by present standards would certainly be considered heterodox. At times, the greater point of this book feels lost somewhere between obvious and uninteresting observations of human behaviour; but this would be too harsh a conclusion, and indeed an underdeveloped one. Veblen’s theory of power, the construction of hierarchy (patriarchal, feudal, class-based etc.) and the role of consumerism within those systems is one I keep coming back to. Everyone should read some Veblen.

February

Former People by Douglas Smith – It is easy to lose sympathy with the Tsarist nobility when one hears of the Russian system of serfdom that was once practiced. Likewise, I don’t suppose the Soviet propaganda machine following the revolution has helped to cast the nobility in a great light. Smith’s book on the lives of Russian nobles following the Russian revolution is, on the one hand, a fascinating perspective to explore. On the other, it is a beautiful and tragic character study of how people – in body and in spirit – can be made to disappear. Certainly, an interesting read.

Capital by Thomas Picketty – I have counted at least five copies of this book in my economics department. For specialists, or those with specialist knowledge, I feel Picketty’s magnum opus has a lot to offer. For those with a more casual interest, this book will probably be too heavy, and provide too much detail to the narrative of growing inequality throughout the world.

March

Why Economists Disagree by David Prychitko – Anyone interested in economics should read this book. From Austrian economics to radical political economy, Why Economists Disagree is expansive in its scope without showing favouritism to one particular school of thought. For those interesting in pluralist thinking, this book is thus a great guide.

April

Western Europe Since 1945: A Short Political History by Derek Urwin – I read this book because I like history generally, but as an overview to the foundation of the European Union I think this book is very useful. The dynamics of de Gaulle, Adenauer and successive British prime ministers confuses my, and I think many others’, notions of the European Union as a project. Whilst I suspect there are better books, both on the EU and on modern Europe, as a quick and concise read I think this is a worthwhile book.

Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein – Nudge is a book I had to read for my Masters dissertation, and the central concept behind this book features prominently in my PhD. Compared to the academic literature which the book draws on, I found its content simplified and lacking. This is certainly unjustified, as it is written for the general reader. That does not mean I cannot also voice my disdain for the chatty, matey narrative the authors have adopted. Nevertheless, this is not a bad book, and it contains some interesting insights. The problem with much of the book, I believe, is it does little that other books on behavioural economics – for example Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational – have not already done.

Identity Economics by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton – Much like above, the quality of these authors should not be in doubt. This, however, does not exempt this book from criticism. Identity Economics attempts to carve out a new niche in the economics discipline, much like behavioural economics has done. However, upon reading, I remain to be convinced of this new sub-discipline. The underlying principle of social strata influencing economics decisions should be applauded as a subject of enquiry for it is undeniably important, but it is not yet clear to me how identity economics distinguishes itself from being a specialised subset of behavioural economics.

May

Seduction by Contract by Oren Bar-Gill – Another book I read for my academic work, this book is particularly specialised and is not one I would recommend to people outside of my immediate field. For my purposes, however, I think this is a great contribution to the political economy of behavioural economics.

Popular Political Economy by Thomas Hodgskin – I feel many of the insights of this book were lost on me. To be sure, it was an interesting read, and having read some of Hodgskin’s previous work there is no doubting the intellectual value of his ideas. This is a book I may return to one day.

Nudge Theory in Action by Sherzod Abdukadirov – Again, I read this book for my academic work. An interesting read if you’re into that sort of thing.

June

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari – For a while, this book was the darling child of those people that like to post pictures of books they have/are/are-planning-to read on their Instagram feed. That’s just an observation, not a criticism. Having not read Harari’s previous book Sapiens, I went into this book intrigued by the premise. My thoughts at the end were mixed. On the one hand, this is a good book with a compelling narrative and some interesting discussions. On the other, I am left with a feeling of false grandiosity. For example, one of Harari’s core ideas is that humanism and liberalism are dying ideas, and we are entering into a new age of dataism. Algorithms control everything, including us, and free choice is illusory and mythical. Maybe all these things are true, but if false, how might we ever argue so? The person who does rile against this narrative may easily be branded as na├»ve, and I am left with this feeling when reading Harari. A compelling book, and a challenging book, I would recommend this book as an intellectual exercise is nothing else.

July

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill – Mill is one of those authors whom I feel was a creature of his time but, if you are willing to give him the time, may be the source of value ideas. On Liberty is not the libertarian manifesto I expected before reading it; the author spends a great deal of time considering the value of opinion and the use of opinionated debate, a discussion I feel has a lot of worthwhile applications to today’s world. The harm principle emergences as obvious, and is notably flawed, but should be recognised as an important benchmark from which to proceed. Personally, I find Mill’s observation that human liberty is often at the expense of others’ liberty a most compelling observation: “All that makes existence valuable to anyone depends on the enforcement of restraints on the actions of others.”

Where I was From by Joan Didion – After hearing the film Ladybird was based upon (or perhaps it is better to say inspired by) Didion’s memoir Where I was From, I decided to pick up a copy. Initially, I found this book lacking something. With Didion being a much-acclaimed writer, I expected to find the narrative more compelling and a sense of structure – I expected a typical memoir. It was only towards the end of the book I realised what Where I was From is, and what Didion’s goal is with this book. If the book has a central idea, it is that California is a land of false tradition, where the way things are now is the way things have always been, even though that is clearly not the case as landscapes, workplaces and politics change. In tying this idea loosely to that of her family, Didion draws a subtle parallel. This book, from my perspective, is hard to describe, but is more complex than an initial read would suggest.

August

The Economic Consequences of Peace by John Maynard Keynes – This is a brilliant if niche book. Keynes’ description of the 1919 treaty of Versailles negotiations is insightful and at times rather humorous. The tragedy of his prescience and the Allies’ failure to listen, however, returns today’s reader to the importance of this book. The Economic Consequences of Peace is, in my opinion, not a book that should be read as a novelty or even as an economic case study, but as a rare learning aid in this field.

Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell – This book is really an essay, and one with a rather simply theme of moderation. Much can be learnt from reading Notes on Nationalism, and in doing so I feel all readers should be self-reflective. Today, nationalism seems to be a collage of swastikas, football hooliganism and Donald Trump; to be sure, these things are nationalistic, but Orwell restates the importance of thinking not about what nationalism looks like, but rather what it is, that being aggressive, uncompromising commitment to an idea.

Socrates’ Defence by Plato – Whilst I enjoyed this book, and I enjoyed the way it was written, I wasn’t blown away by its content. To be sure, as a ‘story,’ the persecution of Socrates offers a lot of interesting things to think about, though I would be lying if I said I found it anything more than a quick read. Again, this is a book I may revisit.

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – Marx is sometimes described as the most influential person never read. The Communist Manifesto is for many people their introduction to Marxism, but it’s certainly not the full picture, and to that end I found this book lacking a level of detail I desired. That, to an extent, is by design. On the one hand, the Communist Manifesto was originally a pamphlet and a manifesto; on the other, Marx would subsequently write 5 volumes of Capital. My introduction to radical political economy came in reading Hodgskin’s Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital, which offered a more succinct and conceptually interesting discussion of the problem of surplus value, but I feel that the Communist Manifesto is a text which would, on multiple re-readings, reveal something new each time.

The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes – There’s a reason why this book is regarded as a classic by economists, and it is a brilliant, if often difficult book. There is little I feel I can say about this book which would add value; I will say, however, that amongst Keynes’ writing the Economic Consequences of Peace is my favourite.

Great Transformations by Mark Blyth – This is a book I have had for a while but each time I tried to read it I felt I was not giving it enough time to truly understand the central thesis. Blyth is an endlessly digestible economist, and his written work is always insightful, if at times specific to the point of quandary. This is not a book I would read again without a specific academic reason to do so; likewise, I would not recommend it unless it served an academic purpose.

The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov – I picked up this book after reading a Morozov article in the Guardian about data security. I was impressed by the quality of research in the article and hoped for more of the same in the book. I will not criticise the research, but I found this book difficult and at times rather boring. Whilst Morozov is clearly correct in his assessment that the internet may as much be a tool for oppression and manipulation as it could be for liberation, in my opinion this book frequently reverts to a told-you-so narrative where the author picks a famous (often American) politician, cites a speech and presents contrary real-world results. This is fine to do, but the frequency this is done throughout the book drained on me as a reader, to the point where I wonder if this book is less about data and the internet and more about international relations. There is clearly value in this book, but I would not recommend it.

September

The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo – I have never read a biography before, but Farmelo’s biography of Paul Dirac was thoroughly entertaining. It is at times funny, at times very sad and sometimes rather educational. More than anything, this book is a very accomplished attempt to explore the life of a man who, on reflection, clearly was a rather peculiar person. Such peculiarities, however, are often side-lined for a discussion of Dirac’s many achievements. It does not diminish his character one way or another, and the whole book benefits from this approach.

The World Economy Since the Wars by John Kenneth Galbraith – I had not read any Galbraith until reading this book, and to be honest I’m not quite sure what this book was designed to achieve. Perversely, however, I very much enjoyed this book. Rather than starting with a central premise, the World Economy Since the Wars feels more like an in-conversation-with book where Galbraith recounts several decades of wisdom. The book, therefore, languishes in an odd place of not being a book to read for pleasure, nor for academic merit, but yet still one worth reading.

The End of Utopia by Russell Jacoby – Jacoby is clearly a very intelligent writer, and his argument that the abandonment of utopian ideas in favour of practical political positioning is detrimental seems compelling, particularly in our present political climate. What this book does badly, in my opinion, is it discusses this idea with all the intellectual meandering of someone in Jacoby’s position. I liked this book, and many people that will want to read this book will like it; that doesn’t mean it’s a book with universal appeal. Nor, I suspect, does it want to be.

October

Behavioural Finance and Wealth Management by Michael Pompian – This is essentially a textbook, or, I suppose, a handy reference guide for applied behavioural economics. Pompian makes a good effort to write an accessible and interesting book, which is why I believe as assigned reading for an introductory behavioural finance class this book would be fantastic. For more serious research however, this book is insufficient.

Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher – Fisher is a writer whom I want to read more of in 2019, partly because I am a sucker for (somewhat meaningless) cultural criticism, and partly because Fisher is a good writer. Capitalist Realism provides very little in terms of economic debate, but it acknowledges a phenomenon that is increasingly being cited in the capitalism/anti-capitalism debate, that there is no alternative (TINA). Intellectually, this is an empty idea, and Fisher recognises this; more than that, he explains how capitalism in its ethos erodes other alternatives, permeating into the arts and ethics. Whether or not capitalism should be ended or simply reformed, Fisher makes a compelling argument for the existence of the Capitalist Realism phenomenon.

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things by Raj Patel and Jason Moore – Something I have tried to do this year is engage more in ecological economics literature, and Patel and Moore’s book is a very good contribution to this literature. Whilst not proposing any particularly revolutionary ideas, the book is a good holistic look at the global environmental challenges and the productive (lamentably capitalist) systems behind them. A good read.

The Long Twentieth Century by Giovanni Arrighi – This was a tough book for me. The book is intellectually sound with some compelling ideas, but I feel this book is outside of my field of interest to really resonate with me. I suspect one day I will return to it, but right now I find myself with little to say about the Long Twentieth Century.

November

The Next Revolution by Murray Bookchin – Being a collection of separate essays, the Next Revolution can sometimes feel disjointed and repetitive. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The author writes with the knowledge and consideration of a man who has spent several decades pondering the future of the anarchist movement, and whilst at times there is a sense that Bookchin presumes his readers have knowledge of his previous work, many of the ideas around community organisation, notions of the state and the role of workers are intriguing and optimistic ideas.

December

The Atlantic Ocean by Andrew O’Hagan – One of my favourite books in recent years has been David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. O’Hagan’s own collection of essays do not disappoint, though I would not say they compare to the standard of DFW. The premise of the Atlantic Ocean is a study of Britain and America and the relationship between them; whilst an interesting concept, in my opinion, the collection doesn’t seem to fulfil this goal. America, for the most part, feels absent, and when included the author comes across as clearly not being from the States. Britain, on the other hand, dominates this book and is clearly where O’Hagan feels more comfortable, and writes with much more authority. Of course, not everyone will like this book, be it the style of writing or the subject matter, but I was not disappointed.

Turkish Awakening by Alev Scott – I have never quite understood what to make of Turkey, with histories such as the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian genocide and the occupation of Cyprus being the subject areas in which I have most often heard Turkey discussed. Scott’s Turkish Awakening does little to clarify the notion of Turkey in the mind of a non-Turk, but, on the one hand, she acknowledges this eclectic picture of the country and, on the other, challenges the idea that any tangible notion exists at all. I enjoyed this book, and will try to read more about Turkey in the future.

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