Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Literarily Tempting

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, June 16, 2005 | Category: |

Just thought I should fill you all in on some of the books I’ve read recently:

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson
A Really good introduction to the history of science. I especially enjoyed his anecdotes about how people we idealise because of their role in science are so damn whacky. Really liked the story of how the Yellowstone Park Volcano was found. It is comically written in parts and includes many interesting commentaries of how he met some of those scientists who are still alive (i.e. not Newton et al). Good book, 8/10.

Freakonomics - Steve Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Written by a recent winner of the John Bates Medal (an Economics award for the best Economist under 40) and a journalist for the New York Times this delves into interesting new approaches that Levitt has for economics, hence the title. This is a really good layman’s introduction to what economics is all about – a return to trying to understand what incentives really are and how people respond to things which manipulate incentives and hence behaviour. He makes important reference to problems of modern economics, law and social norms. Was the drastic reduction in the US crime rate as a result of the legalisation of abortion in the 70s? Does education legislation incentivise cheating by teachers? How feasible is it to ask people to voluntarily pay for things? The only thing that this book suffers from is an occasional aggrandisement of Levitt by
This book deserves its rating purely because of the ideas that Levitt has and the new ways that he deals with old issues. 9/10.

Mukiwa - Peter Godwin
This is a memoir of a Zimbabwean white man who fought in the Rhodesian war. It recalls what it was like being white and growing up on a farm in eastern Zim. It shows how being political but trying to survive are very difficult things to reconcile. Although Godwin became more and more political as time passed and he basically lived in exile, and he portrayed how awful the ZANU government was in its dealings with the purges in Matabeleland, Godwin did not portray accurately enough how violent the Smith government was. Note that this is simply in my opinion. This side has been portrayed by others. The book is good because it portrays the paradox of being white in Africa. Believing you are African, but others believing you are not. Does race place us on the side of an irreconcileable barrier? I don’t know, but it is a good read, a suitable memoir, and a good introduction to the beauty and ugliness of Zim. 7/10.

Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman - Richard Feynman.
This is another non-fiction book. It’s an autobiographical work (one in a series) written by Richard Feynman, the Nobel Physicist. Although, he hated being classified as a Nobel Winner, his genius is conveyed on every page on the book, from his frenetic discussions of repairing radios to his portrayals of cultivating hallucinations. He goes into everything from his experiences of Japanese language and culture to his ability as a ‘code cracker’. You cannot help but be astounded by the brilliance and the comedy of the man. I cannot help but recommend this book. 9/10.

Chainfire - Terry Goodkind
This is the 8th (I think) book in the acclaimed Sword of Truth series. The thing about Terry Goodkind is that he comes up with incredibly good ideas in a fantasy environment, innovative concepts for dealing with magic and how people and magic interact. His dealings with the phenomenon of prophecy are also interesting and fun. The idea that forms the backbone of this book is that somehow someone has unleashed a massively effective spell that has forced everyone to forget his wife the Mother Confessor, Kahlan Amnell. The problem is that Richard is the only person to remember her. Everyone thinks Richard is mad, he believes he isn’t, etc. The book reveals how this forgetting has come about. The problem with Goodkind is his verbosity. Although the ideas are really fun and interesting, wading through verbose and almost arresting dialogue and sentimental dealings with self-doubt can become problematic at best and a reason to put the book down at worst. The book also ends with a serious ‘to be continued’. It’s a good book for the ideas, but Goodkind really needs to learn how to write more eloquently and to learn when to edit and abbreviate what he is writing. 5/10.

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe
This, his first book, displays the ways in which a new writer is trying to come to reconcile his own background and the life and context in which he now lives. This was obviously a landmark book as far as African literature is concerned, delving into Nigerian tribal custom and the unique perspectives of a man within in that context trying to struggle against the advances of the culture of White Europe on his own. Okonkwo, the protagonist, is an ambitious, troubled character trying to overcome the shadows of his father’s laziness and lack of ambition. It is forcefully written, and I can see why he was lauded for what he has done. The problem for me arises in the intricacies of writing and literature, I don’t find this book at all intricate, but it definitely serves a purpose and was one of the better written works portraying the clash of African and European culture. 7/10.

Currently have 1 comments:

  1. Must say I agree with the review of Feynman's book. Will read 'Freakononics' based on this enthusiastic assessment.