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.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, December 12, 2008 | Category: |

I have not commented on books that I have read for quite some time. Here are a few paragraphs on a selection of books that I've read since last posting on the topic.

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson: Bryson is always good to read and this book didn't disappoint. I reveled in the little anecdotes about the context in which Shakespeare wrote. I remain convinced (as Bryons is) that Shakespeare wrote the plays, but lament the fact that we don’t have more documentary evidence of his history and his literary ‘processes’. What made reading the book even more fun was the fact that I have met Stanley Wells, who Bryson regularly quotes in the book. He is based at the Shakespeare Institute where Amy (my wife) volunteered during her year in Stratford. He took a shining to her and, consequently, I have met him on several separate occasions. He took Amy and I to lunch when we were in Stratford during August. Paul Edmondson (who presided over our wedding) is also quoted a few times in the book, which made it even more entertaining to talk to Paul about speaking with Bryson about the book: this brought a double joy to the reading. Don't go in expecting a book about the plays, go in expecting a book about Shakespeare, his time and his England.

Talking It Over by Julian Barnes: A fantastic little novel which tells the stories three people (two men and a woman) who end up in a love triangle, each telling the story from their perspective as the narrative progresses. Barnes has a fantastic sense of humour and the voices of each of the characters is distinct and seems to encapsulate that character’s foibles, complexities and modes by which they interact with others. Very funny, and quite deeply satirises certain British stereotypes.

Daniel Martin by John Fowles: Is an epic novel that traces the steps of the title character from a brief retelling of his childhood, to his life as a student at Oxford, to his adult life as a screen- and playwright. The book drips with irony, and, rather like the Magus, you cannot believe that there are so many ways in which characters can interact, or threads by which the narrative can be extended. Still, it is a beautifully written novel, it captures a sense of what it must have been like to be a British scriptwriter or author in the US in Los Angeles, but still retaining an essential Britishness that cannot, or is not, adequately understood by many (North) Americans. It is also interesting because during the writing Fowles often goes on philosophical tangents: he tries to navigate an understanding of the con´Čéicts of capitalism and socialism, something in which I am deeply interested, as well as problems of aesthetics, such as whether art should be instructive or not. It is a challenging, fantastically written and epic novel. It makes me want to retrace the routes that the characters do to remote places in the US, certains spots in the UK (yes the UK does have remote beautiful areas) and also Egypt. I'd give this book a big thumbs up if you can deal with his occasional over-writing.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison: I enjoyed this book far more than I
enjoyed the previous book of hers that I read, Beloved. Beloved was very well-
written and understandably lauded (for example the New York Times did a survey of American authors and they voted it as the best American novel of the past 25 years). However, I found the writing style of Song of Solomon easier to read, as well as finding it more manageable in terms of the characters and narrative Morrison introduced. The main character’s name is Macon Dead, an African American growing up in the US during the period spanning the 1940s to 60s. Morrison tells his life: how his experience, as the son of an African American who owns property is both an intrinsically African American experience, but also distinctly not African American in the advantages that he has because of his father being a property owner. Combine this with a backdrop of odd family members, a narrative that takes you back to his grandparents and their tale and the book makes for riveting reading - it's a window into the paradoxed of African American life in 20th Century USA.

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje: I picked this up in Borders Bookstore in Heathrow's Terminal 3 to read on my flight back to Cape Town. I read about half of it on the flight, distracted by action movies, mindless entertainment and the copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers that I have on my ipod (not quite finished more on that book another time). Anyway, this book is somehow caressingly written, as if Ondaatje is drawing you in with the lyrical nature of his writing, drawing you in to the stories of how people love one another, how it damages them, how it helps to construct who they are. This is the second novel of his that I have read (The English Patient was my first, glorious delving into Ondaatje's fiction) and it contrasts oddly with his poetry, which I find to be more comical and more playful, definitely more playful with respect to how he treats and interacts with words. Nevertheless, this book is wonderful and now that it is in soft-cover it constitutes a good gift to the Ondaatje uninitiated.

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely: This book constitutes a fun introduction to a fairly limited draw of modern experimental economics and social psychology, the barried between the two is quite small with respect to what Ariely does as I would not always call what he does 'experimental economics'. Although I think that Ariely does some intriguing and worthwhile work, he suffers from the experimentalists Achilles' Heel (in my mind) in that he overstates the parallelism, or generalizability, of the results that he obtains in small-scale and localized experiments. I don't believe that he gives sufficient credence to cultural difference, or to heterogeneity of individual responses. That being said, I would recommend this book to most critical thinkers as it restates many examples of how we, as humans, thinking irrationally and do it in a predictable manner. For as many overly general or slightly inaccurate statements that he makes, Ariely makes many more that are worthy of our consideration in modern economics and psychology, especially in the contemporary crisis-wracked world.

Experimental Methods: A Primer for Economists by D. Friedman and S. Sunder is a book from which I read a chapter or two for a course on decision theory and behavioral economics. I decided to read the book and found it very valuable. Most of my reading in experimental economics has tended towards individual decision-making and individual preferences, the book, though quite dated (published in 1994) now in terms of the field, but is still a classic. They have a significant focus on market, auction and asset-market experiments with barely a mention of preference-based experiments, yet they provide general guidelines for conceiving and implementing experiments, data analysis and writing up that are very valuable. The book is an easy read and I found it worthwhile considering how I want to undertake experiments as part of my disseration research.

Otherwise, I am reading a book of Italian Short Stories, Gladwell's Outliers as mentioned, a book on Italian History, and another on neuroeconomics, in addition to which I am still doing my best to read Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments when I have the time (and the patience). Oh yes, I also forgot to mention reading the inestimable 'On Liberty', but I don't believe that I can add much to criticisms or laudatory remarks on that book as it really is one of the great texts in philosophy (or so I believe, whether you disagree with its conclusions or not). Sherbet, I also realise I read Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto for the first time, I found it interesting with some of the content agreeable and other content particularly disagreeable, but I suppose that was bound to happen. I know I am forgetting others, but this will have to do for now.

Currently have 4 comments:

  1. Have you ever read the autobiography "Dreambirds" by Robert Nixon? I'm just starting it now and have loved it so far. He grew up in South Africa and talks a lot about the Ostrich boom, as well as other colonial capitalist booms. Pretty interesting. Also is Anne McClintock's husband. So there are brief mentions of "his lover anne" who i've learned really likes to garden:)

    I read Song of Solomon in a Toni Morrison Seminar and didn't really get into it as much as beloved. Ho hum. Both are brilliant, regardless. She just came out with a new novel a month ago and i'm pretty eager to get my hands on it.

  2. No, I have not read Robert Nixon. I'll look into it. We are still intending to send your book to you, but life has been crazy! I am also going to read the new Morrison, just have tons of books on my personal reading list first, as usual.

  3. I actually emailed Amy about the book. My brother is going to South Africa and Zim for Christmas (well, now actually) and is going to bring it back for me. He bought his ticket two weeks ago and left yesterday, crazy kid. So I told her not to worry about it. Thanks so much though!

  4. Good stuff Si. I listened to the audiobook of Shakespeare on your recommendation, and enjoyed it a lot!