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, March 27, 2009


Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, March 27, 2009 | Category: |

I am planning to return to regular blogging soon - coursework and exams ensured that I was not able to blog recently. I apologise. I'll try to blog as the work continues. Still, I have been reading, so I thought I'd update you.
Graham Greene - The Quiet American
As The Quiet American was the first Greene novel that I read, I had to accustom myself to Greene's style - it's clean and can stab you suddenly with a particularly deft or accurate description. I thought his characterization was precise: Phuong and her Princess Anne, Fowler's responses to his wife, Pyle's naiveté. Greene's voice is well-directed, displaying his contempt for polar morality, and specifically the jingoistic, with-us-or-against-us thinking of 20th century USA.

The plot unfolds inevitably - the inertia of Pyle's beliefs about the US and Indochina propel the narrative onwards. Greene depicts a game of political chicken. In the ultimate moments, neither driver has the insight to spin their steering wheel to avoid collision. The end must be violent. Greene was known to dislike US foreign policy, and to portray the world as a palette of moral greys - The Quiet American captures both sensibilities well.

On Chesil BeachIan McEwan - On Chesil Beach
On Chesil Beach is the first Ian McEwan book I've read. In it he describes a newly married couple's relationship and their struggle to culminate their wedding vows. McEwan maps their relationship up to their marriage: how
their intimacy evolved, how they came to love each other, how personal taboos result in their inevitable repulsion.

McEwan's prose is direct: it cuts you, sews you back up, then slices the sutures to expose the wound. Occasionally though his attempts to re-slice don't succeed and you get the sense that a medical intern is fumbling with your wound, rather than having a doctor perform exact surgery.

I am thankful the book is short. I think it could have been shorter. McEwen, though developing the characters a bit, does not develop Flo and Ed as fully as I would have expected from a novel. If he intended to write spare prose, to be cutting, then this book could have been a lengthy short story in a collection, rather than a short novel. That said, I still enjoyed it and don't lament having read it as some reviewers did.

Useless information: the book's front cover annoyed me. A red information circle told me that the book was written by 'The Bestselling Author of Atonement'. As much as I appreciate this information, I detest images on the covers of books that are not to do with the book itself. I always remove all price tags and stickers from books and I scratched at this circle many times wishing I could erase it.

On writing: I have recently read several books on writing. All of the books were useful as each filled a gap the others did not.

Clare Kehrwald Cook, 1985, Line By Line: How to edit your own writing Cook's advice on editing is separated into five sections: Loose, Baggy Sentences; Faulty Connections; Ill-matched Partners; Mismanaged Numbers and References; and Problems with Punctuation.

Cook advises that you revise repeatedly. She argues that no one is better than the author at understanding the meaning that they intend, and that they can best select the appropriate verb, and delete the unnecessary adverbs, prepositions and other fluff. Her method includes instructions on tracing subjects and verbs, clearing out lurking prepositional phrases, and more. We understands her method because Cook provides many examples and many solutions, while reminding us to propose our own solutions for practice.

The book contains two appendixes: the first reviews the parts of sentences, the second is a glossary of 'questionable usage'. The appendix on grammar is particularly useful because you can refer to it if you come across an odd or forgotten term that you need to clarify.

I found the book useful and instructive. It complements other grammar and style texts well. I plan to re-read it to incorporate the rules into my writing and my editing.

Booth, Colomb and Williams, 2008, The Craft of Research, 3rd Edition.
Booth, Colomb and Williams's book is probably best read by an undergraduate, an inexperienced graduate student, or a junior professional. Nevertheless, I found it useful because my research education was predominantly experiential: an osmosis of 'do this' and 'don't do that' from mentors and supervisors. This book fills in the gaps. The authors instruct us in all the phases of research from the initial stages through to drafting and reviewing. I appreciated the framework as I have never done a formal research course. (Odd for a graduate student I think - it seems economists believe in research 'tools' other than writing and drafting.)

The book has four main sections. Booth, Colomb and Williams introduce by asking What is research? and Why write it up? They proceed to the initial steps of research: research questions, research problems and the nuances of sources. Third, they consider the basics of argumentation: claims, reasons and the problematic notion of 'warrants'. Fourth, they discuss drafting, revision, visual evidence, introductions and conclusions, and style. They provide useful examples and concrete advice; the 'Quick Tips' at the end of each chapter are
very good and I will probably quote them to students one day. They write with a humorous and avuncular tone - like someone giving you kindly advice rather than chastising you from on high.

I plan to re-read the book to reinforce the need to discipline myself, to obey rules I should, and to adopt methods superior to my half-evolved ones. As the authors comment, the book should be accompanied by other guides on style, grammar and editing. I would recommend Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and Cook's Line by Line. For social scientists, McCloskey's Economical Writing serves well. For other non-fiction writers William Zinsser's On Writing Well (comment below).

William Zinsser - On Writing Well
Zinsser's book, first published in the 70s, is part how-to, part autobiography and part travelogue. I say travelogue because he writes by telling us about the landmarks in 'good writing', the individuals who populate it and the methods that we should adopt to understand and better relate to good writing. His book verges on ethnography.

Echoing messages from Strunk & White; Booth, Colomb & Williams; McCloskey; Cook and several others, Zinsser endorses a writing style derived from accurate verbs and precise nouns. I believe this is the best advice he could give and he provides many motivations for his claims about style.

One Amazon reviewer felt let-down by Zinsser's continuous referral to his own writing processes, the reviewer wanted something even more 'how-to'. I found this criticism odd. Zinsser describes a method to write, contextualised in his work. He repeats a writer needs to write and edit, write and edit. He describes several ways to do this. He instructs the reader on methods for given subject matter and applies his methods by conjuring examples from his extensive knowledge of good writing, as well as his acquaintance with poor writing. Additionally, I have not read any writing guide that was 'independent' of its author, in fact if such a guide were written it would probably be hollow and vapid. Read the book and enjoy Zinsser's insight into writing well. I treasure this book already and I shall probably refer to it many times in the future.

On other topics
Ryszard Kapuscinski - The Shadow of the Sun
This book is fantastic. Kapuscinski's essays on his experiences of living in, toiling through, and growing to adore Africa are phenomenal. I intend to put essays from this book on my reading lists for students when I teach courses about African Development one day.

When he writes, Kapuscinski captures what economists take reams to deliver. African development remains dependent on aid in many countries, many societies lack basic resources, and institutions built for extraction and exploitation obstruct their development.

Kapuscinski laments Africa's poor development and wishes that something could have happened to put more of African countries on paths to development. Kapuscinski's writing pulls you into the deep sadness he feels when he reflects on Africa, but the root of that sadness is a strong, powerful love that will draw him back to the continent, and, I hope, one day make him happy about the continent's achievements.

Anne Fadiman - At Large and At Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist
Prior to reading Fadiman's Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, I had not delved much into the personal essay genre. Reading Fadiman has changed that. My wife bought me Ex Libris for our first anniversary, subsequent to which and a couple of weeks after returning home, I looked up Fadiman online to see that At Large and At Small had recently been published. It is most definitely a 'literary gem', as one of the Amazon reviewers comments.

Fadiman deals with sensitive topics gracefully and wittily. In an interview, Fadiman commented that writing personal essays requires that you turn up the 'loudness of your voice'. If so, then somehow Fadiman has managed to select the perfect decibel equivalent at which her writings retain intimacy and factualness while they sustain humour and poignancy. Fadiman shows how she, and anyone really, can be simultaneously enamoured of an historic figure, while perturbed by their character, as evidenced by her commentary on Coleridge and Stefansson. Such personal paradoxes tie well into her essay on the culture wars where she laments the polarization of what makes literature worthwhile. She concludes that both literary value and moral lessons engage the reader and promote literature of all kinds and that the dichotomy is false. These and other ideas float tantalizingly on the surfaces of her essays, while anchored suitably by her research and by her breadth of reading.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in Fadiman's previous collection Ex Libris, while telling them to be aware that they are in for a different literary journey: equally as good, but with a more varied landscape of subject matter. Buzbee - The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
Having read Ex Libris and At Large and At Small
(above) I rated them on This book appeared on my 'recommendations' list soon afterward. It was relatively inexpensive and well-reviewed, so I took the risk. I was very happy that I did so.

Buzbee's memoir and history detail his experience of book-selling in addition to describing the dynamics of selling books in the past, from Alexandrian scroll-sellers to modern day door-to-door Bible and encyclopedia salesmen (they seem always to be men, don't they?).

The book is easy to read, informative and well-written. It fills a space in my burgeoning collection of books about books. It is worth reading simply for the anecdotes that Buzbee recounts about the book industry. The research he put in to the history of books, book selling and publishing makes the book even more entertaining. I was happy Amazon's algorithms selected this book for me.

Next time
I am currently reading E.B. White's Essays of E.B.White, Paul Johnson's Creators and Marc Hauser's Moral Minds. I'll let you know how they go.

Currently have 2 comments:

  1. You should read Atonement, it is perfectly paced and is one of the best examples of economical, yet vivid writing I have seen. Also uses subjective narration really well by portraying one event through the eyes of several people, an event which is distorted and reworked as you progress through the story. I browsed through Chesil Beach once in a bookstore and it looked terrifying!

    Speaking of terror, your next Greene novel should definitely be Brighton Rock. I am living in the UK now and I see many manifestations of the protagonist, Pinkie, on the streets of London. Only nowadays they call them 'Hoodies', but pretty much the same thing.

    I need to read more about writing, so your suggested titles might be a good place to start.

    Love your reviews. Why do you post them together and not break them up into constituent parts?

    Also, do you have to buy books from Amazon in order to access the reviews you mention?

  2. Dave, I will definitely take a look at Atonement and Brighton Rock for my injections of fictions.

    I am not sure why I post all my reviews at once. I think I find it easier to work on a 'Books I've recently read' post, rather than posts reviewing each one immediately subsequent to reading it, although I do type some notes into blogger when I've finished reading or while I'm reading a book.

    The amazon reviews are there for all to see - you don't need an account. Alternatively, I regularly use the book depository as a book source as they seem to work better for me in Italy than Amazon does (don't know why). Getting English language books locally and inexpensively just isn't that easy with the breadth of stuff I like to read.

    On 'hoodies' in the UK - they are a terrifying manifestation of contemporary UK society aren't they? I don't feel too threatened by them, but Amy does when we see them. Luckily we haven't been in that many places where they are too prevalent.