Posts in “Books”
I’m teaching Weber next week in my social theory class. This afternoon I uploaded some of the recommended reading to the class website—a longish excerpt from the first volume of Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power, a book which made a big impression on me when I read it as an undergraduate. It didn’t turn me in to a Big Structures/Huge Comparisons guy, if for no other reason than the ambition it entailed seemed so gigantic, but of all the products of the so-called “Golden Age” of macro-sociology, *Sources*—and the first volume in particular—seemed to come closest to fulfilling Weber’s vision for what really big-picture sociology could be.
The current issue of Accounts has an interesting article by Dan Wang called “Is there a Canon in Economic Sociology?”. It’s a study of the contents of more than fifty Econ Soc syllabuses looking to discover which authors are most often assigned. (I don’t remember seeing the call for the data, which is odd.) There’s a lot of interesting stuff in there, including a variety of measures of “canonicity” and different ways of counting the importance of different texts and authors.
Michael Dorf and Sid Tarrow have an Op-Ed piece today on CNN titled “How the right helped launch same-sex marriage movement.” It’s a clever argument about the role that the conservative movement played in galvanizing and even decisively re-orienting the direction taken by one of its antagonists, to its likely long-run cost: How, in less than a decade, did America go from being a country in which some states punished gay sex with criminal penalties to one in which the highest elected official in the land now champions the right of same-sex couples to marry?
We are pleased to present a short excerpt from the long-anticipated new work by the leading historical biographer of our time. The Path to the Kitchen When he was young—back on his family’s small homestead in Cork, Ireland—Kieran Healy came down the stairs for breakfast with his mother, who would light the tiny gas heater (this was the 1970s; Ireland had yet to convert fully to nuclear power) in the damp, early morning chill.
I’ve been using the Readmill ebook reader on-and-off. I like it quite a bit. Using it prompted me to make an ebook of my own. Because I moved this entire blog over to Octopress a little while ago, everything I’ve ever written on it going back to 2002 is now in Markdown format. So over lunch today I took advantage of John MacFarlane’s amazingly useful Pandoc, which can make EUPB format ebooks out of markdown files, selected thirteen posts from the Archives and made a little anthology called Books I Did Not Read This Year.
It’s Bloomsday, or Christmas for intolerable Joyceans everywhere. The Wall Street Journal explains the literary background: What is it about Joyce’s novel about a day in the life of a fictional Jewish mayor of Dublin, Leopold Bloom, that has inspired an international literary event cum pub crawl cum Halloween parade? What other Interesting Facts about Ulysses have I been unaware of, I wonder? While I wait for you to enlighten me, I will perform the sacred Bloomsday ritual of genuflecting solemnly before the Poster of Great Irish Writers.
The current issue of New Left Review has an article by Franco Moretti applying a bit of network analysis to the interactions within some pieces of literature. Here is the interaction network in Hamlet, with a tie being defined by whether the characters speak to one another. (Notice that this means that, e.g., Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not have a tie, even though they’re in the same scenes.) And here is Hamlet without Hamlet: I think we can safely say that he is a key figure in the network.
This morning I listened to an interesting interview on one of Dan Benjamin’s shows. He was talking to Erin Kissane about her new book, The Elements of Content Strategy. Say you are using a website to communicate something to someone, or enable communication between a group of people, or both. The something you are conveying or facilitating is your content. According to Kissane, the job of a “content strategist” is to figure out how best to make sure that content is assembled, presented, and maintained in a way that’s appropriate to its audience.
Lucien Karpik’s Valuing the Unique: The Economics of Singularities came out with Princeton University Press recently. From the book jacket: Singularities are goods and services that cannot be studied by standard methods because they are multidimensional, incommensurable, and of uncertain quality. Examples include movies, novels, music, artwork, fine wine, lawyers, and doctors. Valuing the Unique provides a theoretical framework to explain this important class of products and markets that for so long have eluded neoclassical economics.
Erik over at The Monkey Cage points me towards the excellent Better Book Titles, where you can find numerous contemporary and classic works slightly altered in a way that the title is more informative about their actual content. In closing he says, If you can do anything like this with a political science book, I’d consider putting it on the Cage. So what he’s looking for are titles that better convey the core of the argument of academic monographs.
Influential upon myself, I mean. Everyone else is doing it. I suck at lists like this. It’s hard to give an honest answer, in part because I’m not prone to conscious conversion experiences, but mostly because I’m good at repressing things and so really find it hard to remember things I read that really hooked me at the time. In any event, and in roughly chronological order: Clive James, Visions Before Midnight or The Crystal Bucket.
Mark Pilgrim: I’m a three-time (soon to be four-time) published author. When aspiring authors learn this, they invariably ask what word processor I use. It doesn’t fucking matter! I happen to write in Emacs. I also code in Emacs, which is a nice bonus. Other people write and code in vi. Other people write in Microsoft Word and code in TextMate+ or TextEdit or some fancy web-based collaborative editor like EtherPad or Google Wave.
A prompt from Dan Hirschman made me dig up this review essay on Donald MacKenzie’s An Engine, Not a Camera. A shorter version appeared ages ago on OrgTheory, and this version never quite got finished, but some people have found the discussion useful so here it is as a PDF.
Besides double espressos in the morning and vodka tonics a bit later in the morning, I mean. Books, books, books. Social Structures, by John Levi Martin. I started reading this at six o’clock this morning while waiting at my departure gate, which was perhaps unwise. Two flights, five cups of coffee and three muffins later, I am in the middle of Chapter 4 and up to my neck in scribbled marginal notes.
I guess Anthem is finally in public beta, under the guise of Microsoft SongSmith.
Pride and Prejudice, the FaceBook feed.
Henry beat me to the punch by about five minutes, dammit. Here’s my wordley representation of my book, Last Best Gifts. I didn’t look at the site closely enough to see if I could get a PDF of the output, but it would be nice to have one.
Matt Yglesias’s book Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats is nearing publication, providing further evidence that very long subtitles beginning with “How …” or “Why …”, and which explain the main thesis of the book, are now completely entrenched in the U.S. publishing industry. It’s the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century “Being a …” subtitle. Anyway, the blurbs are up and the best one is from Ezra Klein, who wins the inaugural CT American Blurbonomics: How to Praise your Friends while Surreptitiously Taking the Piss out of your Enemies award.
Further evidence that blogging has eclipsed the Traditional Publishing Model. Exhibit A. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, by Pierre Bayard (2007). “A witty and useful piece of literary sociology” (LRB), “funny, smart, and so true” (Clare Messud), “evidently much in need” (NYT), “The runaway French bestseller … that readers everywhere will be talking about—and despite themselves, reading—this holiday season.” Exhibit B. Books I Did Not Read This Year, by Kieran Healy (2003).
So Laurie, the lucky duck, got a copy of the Atlas of Creation, the amazingly large-format, glossy-photo-laden, funtastic creationist slice of life, courtesy of whoever is bankrolling its author Adnan Oktar. It’s a fantastic educational resource for our three-year-old: she’s already excited about cutting out the photos of the bunnies and fishies, etc, and making them into collages, puppets and so on. Strongly recommended.
Tyler Cowen has a “secret” blog and he made a deal with his readers: pre-order my book and I’ll send you the URL. Don’t link to it, and don’t tell anyone. Inevitably, now, we have this request from this guy: DO YOU KNOW THE URL OF TYLER COWEN’S SECRET BLOG?? IF YES, PLEASE, SEND ITS URL TO CHRIS MASSE. ANONYMITY GUARANTEED. AND I PROMISE I WON’T PUBLISH IT. YES I KNOW HE’S SHOUTING.
Question: what is the latest—i.e., most recent—example you know of an academic’s first book where, in the acknowledgments, the author thanks his wife (or some other person’s wife, as in “the redoubtable Mrs Elizabeth Arbuthnot”) for typing and retyping the manuscript with great patience, forbearance, accuracy, and so on? The acknowledgments to academic books are a mini-institution with pretty clear rules that change only slowly over time and show a high degree of homogeneity, particularly for first books.
Quite dull for the most part, I thought. Should have been c. 300 pages long. Backstory inserted by way of newspaper articles and book excerpts or what have you is tedious. But you knew all that from Books 4, 5 and 6. Did I mention there are spoilers below the fold? Potentially good ideas re: Wizard Fascism were not handled that well. Potentially good ideas re: Quests that do not turn out as planned were not handled so well, either.
The other day David Brooks wrote a column which appeared to be a stock piece of standard conservative anxiety about what he called “hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, fedup, emotionally self-sufficient and unforgiving” young women. Matt Yglesias picks up on on the piece today, salvaging the key insight of Brooks’ piece from the muddled pop-culture framing. As Brooks says, Now young people face a social frontier of their own. They hit puberty around 13 and many don’t get married until they’re past 30.
Via Andrew Gelman, a post by Aaron Haspel about the evils of poorly-done endnotes, and endnotes in general. This is something John has written about before, too. Endnotes really are a problem in scholarly books. In general, footnotes are better. Both are better than author-in-text citations (Healy 2006). Haspel also arues that Each endnote page should be headed by the page numbers of the notes it contains, to facilitate easy flipping.
Following up on the ongoing discussion about Freakonomics, my review of the book just came out in Sociological Forum, and I think it overlaps a bit with some of the things Omar was saying in the comments to Fabio’s post. (A layout issue in headline makes it look as though I’m the author of the book and Levitt and Dubner are reviewing it. Sadly for my bank manager, this is not the case.) As it happens, this essay started out life as a blog post I wrote for Crooked Timber’s Seminar on the book.
This is just too funny. John Lott, having had his lawsuit against Steven Levitt and Freakonomics thrown out, has gone and written a knock-off called—I’m not making this up—Freedomnomics: Why the Free Market Works and Freaky Theories Don’t. The jacket design is right out of the David Horowitz playbook, too. Presumably it’s blurbed by Mary Rosh. Now if you’ll excuse me I have to get back to the final chapters of my two forthcoming books, Greedonomics: A rogue trader shoots first and Fritonomics: Exploring the hidden side of snack foods.
And I got this cool present: These are Penguin 60s, the original (orange) series and the Classics, which Penguin brought out in 1995 for their 60th anniversary. (They recently issued a similar series for their 70th, though not in the United States.) When they came out I really wanted the Classics collection, but had no money. I remember there was a certain amount of snotty declensionist commentary on the sort of people who would only spend 60p for excerpts of Civilization rather than reading the originals entire.
My book, Last Best Gifts: Altruism and the Market for Human Blood and Organs, is reviewed this weekend by Virginia Postrel in the New York Times. Obviously, I’m delighted: Virginia’s review is generous and perceptive, and in many ways it’s hard to think of a better choice of reviewer. For one thing, as many readers will probably know, Virginia is herself an organ donor—she gave one of her kidneys to her friend Sally Satel—and now regularly writes about the organ shortage and market incentives.
Aha, via Andrew Gelman I see that a book I’ve been waiting for has just been published. Sarah Igo’s The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public is a study of the history of quantitative social research in America, documenting how Americans came to think of themselves as the subjects of social science, and how the categories of survey research got embedded in our culture. From the publisher: Igo argues that modern surveys, from the Middletown studies to the Gallup Poll and the Kinsey Reports, projected new visions of the nation: authoritative accounts of majorities and minorities, the mainstream and the marginal.
I have been extremely irresponsible about my contribution to our OrgTheory book seminar on Donald MacKenzie’s An Engine, Not a Camera. But for once this is because my thoughts on the book metastisized into an article-length something-or-other. I’m still working on it so I won’t inflict it upon you (but stay tuned: eventually I will). Instead, here is a long excerpt. At the risk of sounding like Saul Kripke, some disclaimers: I’ve dropped some of the throat-clearing sign-posting introductory stuff and also left out supporting material in the middle; there’s another whole bit to the paper which I’m not putting in here; and I’m still not sure what I think on some points.
Just to piggyback on Henry’s post about Orson Scott Card’s new novel, I was pleased to learn from the excerpt Scott Lemiuex posted that, like me, the hero spent his grad student years at Princeton. Princeton University was just what Reuben expected it to be—hostile to everything he valued, smug and superior and utterly closed-minded. … Yes, a doctorate in history would be useful. But he was really getting a doctorate in self-doubt and skepticism, a Ph.D.
I came across The Cambridge Companion to Keynes in the bookshop yesterday and went to add it to my Amazon wishlist this morning. When I looked it up in the catalog I saw that it had a rating of only 2 stars and my first thought was: I bet that guy is responsible! And I was right. A while ago I was poking around in the literature on Keynes and Post-Keynesianism and anytime I checked a book on Amazon there would be a review from Michael E.
I was browsing in the campus bookshop over lunch and saw the UK/Australia edition of Freakonomics for sale—this is the recently released revised and expanded version. Looking to see what had changed, I was surprised and gratified to see that the new version incorporates much of Steven Levitt’s response to our seminar on the first edition. The essay is prefaced by a generous comment from Steve to the effect that the CT seminar is the best available discussion of the book.
My new book, Last Best Gifts: Altruism and the Market for Human Blood and Organs has just been published by the University of Chicago Press. You can buy it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells or of course any bookseller worth the name. There’s a website for the book, too. Amongst other things, there you can learn more about the cover image, which the people at Chicago did such a nice job with after I came across it by chance.
Inside Higher Ed reports that some people got together and went through David Horowitz’s book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America looking for errors. They found a bunch, of course, but by far the funniest one was the discovery that “While Horowitz’s book promises a list of the 101 most dangerous academics, he actually includes only 100.” The report says “that’s because he included at least two and possibly three professors in his introduction.” This stuff writes itself.
David Bernstein speculates about the casting for a new film of Atlas Shrugged. Inevitably, someone in the comments points out the obvious, viz, that Rand is an atrocious novelist fit only for insecure fifteen-year-old boys. Some other Volokh readers are not amused, and stomp off in a huff to listen to their Rush CDs. In the course of his snipe at Rand, the commenter says “At least Marx, for all his faults, didn’t attempt fiction.” Well, as a matter of fact, he did.
Via Making Light comes the entertaining saga of Another Hope, a Star Wars fan-fiction novel that you can buy on Amazon, though I should imagine not for very much longer. Apparently the author believes that this doesn’t contravene George Lucas’s copyright because “I wrote this book for myself. This is a self-published story and is not a commercial book. Yes, it is for sale on Amazon, but only my family, friends and acquaintances know it’s there”—Amazon being your local, small private website.
Continuing my tradition of being several years behind (I find it easier as time goes by), someone gave me a copy of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons to read on a flight. I knew about the Da Vinci Code and all that but hadn’t read anything by him. The result was very nearly as painful as my attempt to read Cryptonomicon last year. Cryptonomicon consisted of nerdish Mary Sues afloat in a sea of Cliffs Notes for popular science books.
I picked up Alan Bennett’s new collection, Untold Stories over the weekend. It looks as though it is at least as good as Writing Home. The prose is—well, here’s an example from the diary entries: I’m sent a complimentary (sic) copy of Waterstone’s Literary Diary which records the birthdays of various contemporary figures in the world of letters. Here is Dennis Potter on 17 May, Michael Frayn on 8 September, Edna O’Brien on 15 December, and so naturally I turn to my own birthday.
Scott McLemee is a superb critic, and one of the things that makes him good is that he is generous. He can get something interesting out of not very interesting books, and he doesn’t go out of his way to be snarky. But when he feels like filleting something, his knife is very sharp. THE MAN ON WHOM NOTHING WAS LOST: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill, by Molly Worthen. Houghton Mifflin, 354 pp.
The phenomenon of Biblically Correct Tours is much in the news recently. (P.Z. Myers has a summary). Essentially, a creationist named Rusty Carter leads people on tours around museums chatting away about how dinosaurs and people lived together, how the world was created in seven days, and how the earth is only six thousand years old, ad nauseam. So I thought I’d mention Martin Rudwick’s new book, Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution, a (very, very large) history of how scientists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries figured out that the earth was very, very old.
The BBC reports a remarkable find: A “lost” science manuscript from the 1600s found in a cupboard in a house during a routine valuation is expected to fetch more than £1m at auction. The hand-written document – penned by Dr Robert Hooke – contains the minutes of the Royal Society from 1661 to 1682, experts said. It was found in a house in Hampshire, where it is thought to have lain hidden in a cupboard for about 50 years.
I missed this over the weekend, but here’s Garrison Keillor tearing a strip off of Bernard-Henri Lévy and his book about America. (The San Francisco Chronicle liked it a bit better, but only a bit.) Based on Keillor’s review, it sounds like BHL has a case of the disease that Bruce McCall brilliantly parodied in his travelogue “In the New Canada, Living is a Way of Life.” That article (which I’ve talked about before) is written in the prose characteristic of the cultural tourist/feature writer touring around Russia, c.1982 for Readers Digest: serious, curious, with an outsider’s eye for paradox and an uncanny ability to miss the point altogether: The cabin attendant on our Air Canada flight answers a request for the correct time in almost perfectly unaccented English.
Any society that can make both John Tyler Bonner’s The Ideas of Biology and The Evolution of Complexity available to me for two dollars each on sale has to have something going for it. On the other hand, Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures ‘They’ don’t want you to now about still cost eighteen bucks, and rather more copies of it were available.
In her hugely successful memoir, Olivia Saves the Circus, Olivia gives a virtuoso account to her school class of how she single-handedly rescued a circus performance (all the performers were sick with ear infections, she claims) by doing everything herself. The book is replete with astonishing but true accounts of Olivia the Lion Tamer, Olivia the Queen of the Trapeze and Olivia and her Amazing Trained Dogs. At the end, Olivia’s teacher suspects something and the following exchange takes place.
A few years ago, way back in the days before Crooked Timber, I wrote a post about Princeton’s old library-borrowing cards. A snippet: When I was a grad student at Princeton, someone told me that (just like most libraries before computers) the books in Firestone library used to have a pocket inside the cover where the book’s borrowing record was kept on a card. When someone wanted the book from the library, the card would be removed and stamped with the date.
Technorati’s List of Popular Books introduces me to There is Eternal Life for Animals, which argues that All animals go to heaven. How do we know? We look in the book that God left us, the Bible. This book takes you through the Bible and proves through the scriptures that there is life after death for all the animals. It covers:—God’s relationship with the animals;—The current life of the animal kingdom;—The future life of the animals and its restoration;—What animals are currently in heaven;—Whether animals have souls and spirits;—Praying for animals.
David Kopel has a post about the origins of the Thanksgiving hymn We Gather Together. (Originally Dutch: a “Nederlandtsch Gedenckclanck,” which is a phrase I could say all day.) It put me in mind of the stuff I learned when growing up in Ireland. Much of it was pretty thin gruel, like the execrable Christ be beside me. But there were a few standouts—mostly leftovers from the pre-Vactican II fire-and-brimstone era.
On a couple of long plane flights this week, I read Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, the second volume of her biography of Darwin. (I haven’t read Volume One.) I strongly recommend it. Three things stood out for me. First, in an unobtrusive but compelling way, Browne brings insights from the sociology and social history of science to bear on her narrative. She discusses how Darwin was at the center of a vast and remarkable network of written correspondence: he wrote thousands of letters to all kinds of people, in the effort to gather information and clarify points of interpretation about everything from rare Malaysian birds to common English flowers.
I just finished reading Doormen, by Peter Bearman. It’s a study of the residential doormen who work in the buildings of New York’s Upper West and East sides. A fairly restricted topic, to be sure, but the book is a small gem: the kind of sociology that takes a particular job and investigates it in a way that derives quite general lessons even as it delves into the specifics. Appropriately, Doormen was featured in the New Yorker recently, though the article didn’t convey the flavor of the book all that well.
Speaking of website gadgets, yesterday I tried out Library Thing, a service that lets you catalog your books online. Think of it as Flickr for your books. About 70 percent of the books in my office are already in a Delicious Library catalog, which Library Thing can import, so I uploaded the lot. Like Delicious Library, the most obviously useful feature of a catalog is as yet unavailable—namely, the ability to do a full-text search on the books you own.
Routledge publish a nice line of classic social science, literary criticism and philosophy. A couple of months ago I picked up their edition of Words and Things, Ernest Gellner’s entertaining hatchet-job on linguistic philosophy a la Wittgentein, J.L. Austin and the like. The flyleaf has a couple of blurbs from Bertrand Russell and the Times (“The classic attack on Oxford Linguistic Philosophy”, etc) but also one from Bryan Wilson, the sociologist of religion.
I imagine that Joel (the thorough and keen-eyed guy who is copyediting my book manuscript) probably considered throwing in a few of these lesser-known copyediting and proofreading symbols as he dealt with my alleged prose last month. (Via Making Light.)
I gave up on Cryptonomicon shortly after my despairing post about it and decided I needed something a bit funnier. So I picked up Cold Comfort Farm and Scoop. The latter was OK, but the former was terrific, right down to the helpful marking of “the finer passages with one, two or three stars.” An ancestor of a well-known blogger shows up early on, too. This should really find its way into Dr.
Good to see all the fuss and hype over the new Harry Potter. I wonder whether it’ll be better than the last one, which I thought was a bit of a disaster. It’s a little shorter, which is a good sign. Like many people, I have my doubts that Potter will still be read by children a few generations down the line. He may end up a curio like Billy Bunter, or even the Oz books, whose characters enter the culture but the novels hardly bear re-reading.
My usual few years behind the curve, I picked up Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon yesterday. Right now I’m about a hundred pages in, and I’m wondering whether I should keep reading. The prose is flat. Stephenson keeps lathering-in in chunks of his background reading. Much of that material is interesting, but it’s applied with a trowel. Most of all, a strong whiff of Mary-Sue wish-fulfillment pervades the whole thing. Here is the author/soldier in Shanghai on the eve of the second world war, earning the respect of Nipponese soldiers by composing haikus, eating sushi and learning judo.
Regular readers will know that my list of indispensable applications includes the Emacs text editor, the TeX/LaTeX typesetting system,and a whole array of ancillary utilities that make the two play nice together. The goal is to produce beautiful and maintainable documents. Also it gives Dan further opportunity to defend Microsoft Office. I am happy to admit that a love of getting the text to come out just so can lead to long-run irrationalities.
Review of Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I’ll admit that I rolled my eyes a little at first. Behold the Freakonomist! “Politically incorrect in the best, most essential way,” said the blurb. A “rogue economist,” who goes out of his way in the first few pages to say he is “afraid of calculus” and doesn’t know how to do theory. Amazing! Incidentally, he trained at Harvard and MIT, was at the Harvard Society of Fellows, won the John Bates Clark medal and teaches at the University of Chicago.
A post over at the Valve asks, inter alia, “Do you compose on the computer? Why or why not? … Do you have a stationary and/or a pen fetish?” Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed chimes in with a column about his own writing habits: The reading notes, the rough outline, the first draft or two … all will be written there, in longhand. … My friends and colleagues are occasionally nonplussed to learn that someone trying to make a living as a writer actually spends the better part of his workday with pen in hand.
Matt Yglesias should be pleased to hear that Princeton University Press has re-issued Harry Frankfurt’s well-known essay, “On Bullshit,” as a small book. You can buy it at Amazon. There’s a nice piece in the Times about it, distinguished by the fact that the newspaper’s stylebook forbids the word “bullshit”—though of course its pages are filled examples of the stuff—so it’s referred to throughout as “[bull]” instead. As I think
Draft review of A Man After His Own Heart, by Charles Siebert. (Final version to appear in The Drawing Board.) The language of the heart is all-pervasive. Art and everyday life are full of emotions expressed through talk about the heart, be it given or joined, singing or broken, closed or kind. The Ancient Greek view that the liver is the seat of the soul can seem plausible on a good Friday night, and Descartes’ case that it’s our head that matters may be felt with some force the following morning.
My pile of Books to Read grew considerably over the past two months (though not as much as my pile of books to not read). Robert C. Allen’s Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution sounds interesting, though I’m not likely to get to it. It makes the argument that, comparatively, the Russian economy was very successful from the late 1920s to the early 1970s. The gray world of ‘70s Communism wasn’t exactly Big Rock Candy Mountain, but economically it was in the same league as second-tier capitalist countries like those on the European semi-periphery.
I spent a lot of a flight from London to Singapore reading Tragically I was an Only Twin, a well-edited collection of the comedy sketches, monologues and occasional journalism of Peter Cook. It turns out that Cook addressed many of the issues that preoccupy us at CT. Like intelligent design theory: Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling: Well, I’d like to say I believed in God, of course, but I’m afraid that, as a thinking person … there are two very good reasons why I simply can’t.
David Bernstein feels he doesn’t have enough to read: I find it a bit odd that I’ve been blogging for the VC for almost a year but have not made it on to any publisher’s review copy lists … a smart university press (or even trade press) would put me on their list for review copies of law books, or at least some subset of law books. … I just find it interesting that book publishers have been so slow to recognize a new medium through which they can publicize their wares.
Some comments to this post by Ted raised the question of the public face of academic disciplines, as seen at Barnes and Noble or Borders. The shelf-test isn’t perfect, of course, because not every field needs to have a public face, even chain bookstores vary quite widely, and Borders and Barnes and Noble are not really meant for academics. But they are meant for everyone, and academics must form part of that category.
Coming up with a good title for your book is a tricky business. There was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few weeks ago about the convention of “Vague General Title: More accurate but perhaps less interesting subtitle.” Sadly, the working title of my own draft book falls squarely into this mode. It’s hard to avoid it while also staying away from the grandiose, the misleading, the glib or the overly cheesy.
From Chapter 3 of Tacitus’s Annals: In the same year, there was a religious innovation: a new Brotherhood of Augustus was created, on the analogy of the ancient Titian Brotherhood founded by King Titus Tatius for the maintenance of the Sabine ritual. Twenty-one members were appointed by lot from the leading men of the State; and Tiberius, Drusus, Claudius, and Germanicus were added. The annual Games established in honour of Augustus were also begun.
A choice bit from Juliet Barker’s gigantic Wordsworth: A Life. Tom Wedgwood was a committed philanthropist and Godwinian. Anxious to do his part for the furtherance of mankind, he had, in correspondence with Godwin, determined to devote a portion of his wealth to the education of a genius … Wedgwood had come up with a scheme. The child was to be protected from contact with bad example and from sensory overload by never being allowed to go out of doors or leave its apartment.
As 2003 draws to a close, it’s time for me to reflect on all of the great books I did not read this year. This has been a particularly good year for not reading books. I would go so far as to say that there are more books I did not read this year than in any year in the recent past. Although a significant part of my job consists in sitting somewhere and reading something, I have still managed to find the time not to read a very wide range material from many different fields.
As I’ve said before, the Latham & Matthews transcription of the Diary of Samuel Pepys is a marvel of scholarship. I would be enjoying myself a good deal less if I didn’t have the footnotes to read. Take October 13 1664, for example, which I read last night. Pepys has just read a book containing the story “that Cromwell did in his life time transpose many of the bodies of the kings of England from one grave to another, and that by that means it is not known certainly whether the head that is now set up upon a post be that of Cromwell or one of the kings.” Then we get the editorial footnote: The book is Samuel-Joseph Sorbiere’s Relation d’un Voyage en Agletterre … (Paris, 1664; not in the P[epys] L[ibrary]).
Who knew that the book publishing world was so full of bizarre criminal intrigue? If this were fiction, an editor would laugh at the absurdity of a villian whose alias was Melanie Mills but whose name in fact turned out to be Roswitha Elisabeth von Meerscheidt-Hullessem. Real life, having no moral to impart or plot to resolve, has no such difficulties.
I picked up a copy of The Money Game over the weekend in a second-hand bookshop in Melbourne. It’s a minor classic in the literature on the stock market, so naturally I hadn’t heard of it until a few months ago when Daniel mentioned it in a comments thread. The book is thirty five years old and it shows. It’s also very good. That shows, too. The Money Game is assiduously laid-back in tone.
Dan Drezner quotes Clive James to good effect on snarky literary reviews. James is the author of the poem “The Book of my Enemy has been Remaindered,” which captures the quintessence of literary schadenfreude that we get a whiff of when reading snarky reviews: The book of my enemy has been remaindered And I am pleased. In vast quantities it has been remaindered Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized And sits in piles in a police warehouse, My enemy’s much-prized effort sits in piles In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
My gradual progress through the multi-volume Latham and Matthews transcription of The Diary of Samuel Pepys continues. Here we are on February 1st 1664: Thence to White-Hall, where in the Dukes chamber the King came and stayed an hour or two, laughing at Sir W. Petty, who was there about his boat, and at Gresham College in general … Gresham College he mightily laughed at for spending its time only in weighing of ayre, and doing nothing else since they sat.
Our household has just finished reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the general feeling is one of disappointment. Henry has already written about the claim, made recently by the much-reviled A.S. Byatt,that Harry is derivative and ersatz. The real problem is more that Harry seems to be an idiot. Spoilers, and a certain amount of ranting, ahead. J.K. Rowling is not good at plots. She is superb when it comes to the incidental touches that make Harry’s world entertaining—the paper aeroplane memos, the names of Hospital wards, and all the rest of it—but she is constantly painting herself into plot corners where the only way out is for a character to be quite unbelievably stupid.
In the next couple of months, I’m going to be making three trips across the Pacific ocean. (Don’t ask.) The big question is therefore, what to read on the plane? It’s 14 hours from L.A. to Sydney. Subtracting all the eating, fitful sleeping and laptop use still leaves lots of empty time. Any suggestions for good long-flight fiction? My tastes are pretty broad (that’s what everybody in my class position says) but I don’t read enough fiction.
Today is the 99th Bloomsday. I bought Ulysses for myself on my 16th birthday, picking up the now much-despised Penguin ‘Corrected Text’ edition, edited by Hans Walter Gabler. (It’s still the only copy I have.) I bounced off of it two or three times before finally getting past Stephen’s monologue in Chapter 3 (the ‘Proteus’ episode). I go back to it pretty regularly, and read it again last year. Joyce was in the news recently, in a poll of people’s least-favorite books (brought to my attention by Tim Dunlop).
Over the last few days I’ve been reading A History of Economic Thought, by Lionel Robbins. The book is a version of a lecture course he gave at the LSE in 1979 to a mixed audience of undergraduate and postgraduate students. It’s not the standard “book of lectures” that’s been reworked and cleaned up into a more considered argument. Rather, the lectures were tape-recorded by his grandson and then (just a few years ago) transcribed and very lightly edited.
May Day is a good day to recommend the book I finished reading last weekend, Meghnad Desai’s Marx’s Revenge. It’s a vigorous, reliable and entertaining account of the fortunes of capitalism and its major theorists from Adam Smith to more or less the present. Desai’s Marx emphasizes the dynamism of capitalist accumulation and the flexibility of market mechanisms. Marx’s role as the best student and chief critic of classical political economy is brought out well.
I just finished reading Larry Gonick’s (;http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/%3Cbr%20/%3E%0A%3CMTAmazonASIN%3E/%3CMTAmazonAssociateID%3E/ref=nosim/). Yes, yes, I know I ought to be constantly poring over (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN%3CMTAmazonASIN%3E/%3CMTAmazonAssociateID%3E/ref=nosim/) by the McNeills, or Michael Mann’s (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/%3CMTAmazonASIN%3E%3CMTAmazonAssociateID%3E/ref=nosim/), or (for local color) Kenneth Pomerantz’s (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/%3CMTAmazonASIN%3E/%3CMTAmazonAssociateID%3E/ref=nosim/) And in fact I may have looked into these here and there. But where’s the fun? Trying to keep track of the details of theories of world-historical development is like being on some nightmare episode of Jeopardy: “Um, I’ll take Akkadians for 800, Alex.” “I think you mean Assyrians.” “Whoever it was that came down like a wolf on the fold.
A new batch of books for the Reading List to the right. San Francisco has some very good bookstores, by the way. Let me sing the praises again of MTAmazon, the Movable Type plugin that makes it trivial to switch out the books on the list. It’s great. And if you buy one of these books through its link here, I think I get a cut or something. (Let me
I upgraded to Movable Type version 2.62 and took the opportunity to install the MTAmazon plugin, which lets me more or less automatically plug into Amazon’s search system and have Movable Type parse the results. The upshot for you is the little reading list off to the side there. As time goes by, it’ll probably contain links related to stuff I’m posting about, working on or want someone to buy for me.
I’ve been reading Samuel Pepys’ diary most nights before bed since late last Summer, when I picked up the first volume of the superb Latham & Matthews edition in a bookstore in Bellingham, WA. So naturally I was immensely irritated when Pepys got his own blog and became the flavor of the month. Well, I wasn’t really that irritated, I suppose. I’m nearly done with 1663, wherein Pepys manages to suffer from irrational jealousy of his wife’s dancing teacher, Pembleton, endures a quite spectacular 10-day attack of flatulence, and cheats on his wife a few times, fits of jealousy against her imagined suitors notwithstanding.
Chris Bertram wrote about the Ladybird Book view of history yesterday. I read those books too. Reading them while growing up in Ireland gave them a weird postcolonial tinge. (In retrospect, I mean: this didn’t occur to me at the time.) Whereas the local culture had anti-Englishness (except for Manchester United) playing as a kind of background muzak, Ladybird histories would be telling you about how England was Top Nation. Like Chris, though, I think Ladybird books are great.
The Volokhs have been dogging Amazon’s and Barnes and Noble’s reviews of Arming America, waiting for them to recant their support for the book. This horse is starting to look well flogged, but fortunately—- as Natalie Solent noticed, to my surprise, because I’d forgotten myself—- I am immune from the purge.
Alas, a blog, has further thoughts on the moral worth of Harry Potter, with a critique of my earlier post on this.
John Rawls, the colossus of liberalism, died over the weekend. News of his passing reminded me of something buried in a box in my back-room drawer, which I just fished out. Click for a small version or a full-sized image (about 560k). When I was a grad student at Princeton, someone told me that (just like most libraries before computers) the books in Firestone library used to have a pocket inside the cover where the book’s borrowing record was kept on a removable card.
Mark A. R. Kleiman responds to Chris Sullentrop’s attack on Harry Potter’s character, which I wrote about, and partly joined, here. Mark suggests that I “earnestly agree” with Sullentrop’s smears. I wouldn’t go so far. Although I’ve read the books (purely in my capacity as a sociologist of culture, you understand) I hadn’t thought of Sullentrop’s angle before, and I just thought it was well done and funny. But now I’ve been cast in this role—- Mark suggests (perhaps with some accuracy, alas) that I brim with “deep resentment of the ‘cool kids’ who do so much to make life a misery for everyone else in high school”—- I can stick with it for a while.
Today’s quote of the day comes from D-squared Digest, in connection with Darts, Snooker, Curling, Golf and other useless sports: I think it’s pretty safe to say that these sports are products of an advanced society; one wouldn’t want to categorically say that Steven Pinker couldn’t come up with a story about how taking iron shots over water hazards is a skill developed from instincts that were vital to our survival on the African veld, but it would surely take him at least a couple of coffee breaks.
I picked up a copy of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station recently—- it’s a little hard to find, but very good. It’s absorbing material: Wilson is so well-read, and his prose is so limpid, that you quickly get drawn in. He can be funny, too. Here is Karl Marx just before getting run out of Cologne in 1848: Marx put up a tough fight to the end. Cologne was full of soldiers that spring; and the authorities did their best to intimidate him.
I finally figured out where I’d read that quote I was trying to remember two posts ago, after memory-jogging comments from Chris Bertram and Max Sawicky. (Max’s suggestion, “To understand capitalism, read Marx; to understand socialism, read Marshall” is pithy, but not what I was half-remembering. The paragraphs I had in mind are by Oscar Lange, and are quoted in Mark Blaug’s Economic Theory in Retrospect (5th ed., pp253-4). Here they are: Let us imagine two persons: one who has learned his economics only from the Austrian School, Pareto and Marshall, without ever having seen or even heard a sentence of Marx or his disciples; the other one who, on the contrary, knows his economics exclusively from Marx and the Marxists and does not even suspect that there may have been economists outside the Marxist school.
I picked up William Baumol’s The Free-Market Innovation Machine: Analyzing the Growth Miracle of Capitalism this weekend. From the first chapter or two, it looks like a good book. Baumol wants to explain why capitalism is so much more productive than alternative systems. His answer is not the standard micro-economic one (intense price-competition in the market makes products cheaper and more widely available), but rather focuses on the way innovation gets institutionalized and significantly routinized by firms.
The American Sociological Association’s annual meetings took place this week in Chicago. As usual, there were far too many sessions and not nearly enough time to catch up with everyone I wanted to talk to. If you are hoping to run into people at giant conferences like these, the best place to meet them is at the book exhibit. This is also the best place to hang out for another obvious reason: the books.
I promised to give this topic up for a bit, but have clearly failed. Donald MacKenzie, the sociologist of technology, has a draft review essay [pdf] about Philip Mirowski’s Machine Dreams on his website. (My own views are here). MacKenzie’s take is interesting—- he focuses on the self-fulfilling (or “performative”) potential of much economic theory, drawing on Michel Callon’s work. MacKenzie suggests that Mirowski’s abrasive account of the processes forging economic orthodoxy over the past sixty years will annoy his orthodox colleagues, delight economics s dissidents (except the followers of those about whom Mirowski is scathing), educate outsiders whose view of the discipline is often decades out-of-date, and pull the history of economics firmly into the mainstream of the history and social studies of twentieth-century science.
Here’s a good review of an interesting book.
I was in New York for a conference most of last week. On my way home—- a four-hour wait in JFK, a long flight to Salt Lake City, another two-hour layover and then a two hour flight to Tucson—- I read Eric Schlosser’s excellent Fast Food Nation. It’s a terrific piece of muckracking journalism that looks at how fast food became “as American as a small, rectangular, frozen and reheated apple pie” and what that has meant for American society.
I spent the weekend and most of Monday reading Philip Mirowski’s Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science. It’s a fascinating—though often exasperating—partial history of modern economics. I’ll be very interested to see how (and if) it plays to its different audiences, especially within the Economics profession. Machine Dreams is 650 pages long. This is partly because of Mirowski’s prose style, which oscillates between the pithy and—- to use one of the author’s favorite words—the perfervid.
Finally, finally, finally, a good article on a mainstream Internet site that explains why Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science is a crock. I read the New York Times’s appallingly ill-informed review of it the other week. Jordan Ellenberg gives a good account of what the book is and isn’t. But more importantly, he discusses why it and its author are getting so much media attention. Journalists love the idea of the lone genius too much to let those boring mainstream scientists with their boring research articles and dull literature reviews get in the way.
I just finished writing a review of Against Essentialism (by Stephan Fuchs) for Contemporary Sociology. You can click here [pdf] to read it.