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.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


Posted by Simon Halliday | Saturday, May 30, 2009 | Category: |

So here's a summary of books that I have recently read or listened to.  I am trying out a new thing - star ratings here.  I cross-post these reviews to under my account details there (SD Halliday "Economics Grad Student").  I thought I may as well give the star ratings here too.

Non-fiction White - Essays of E.B. White -
I have seldom come across a book of essays that I want to read, re-read and read yet again.  E.B. White's collection left me wondering if I could ever construct a piece of writing, essay or otherwise, to compare to the worst (least good?) in this collection.  I think it unlikely.  His writing conjures clear and beautiful images.  With detailed descriptions of sounds and moments he brings his experiences to the present, to the moment when you read the essay.  I found so many quotes in the novel that I wrote down either in my journal or on scraps of paper, laughing all the while, intrigued and hoping I could find essays or articles into which I could insert his crystalline depictions of moments, sentiments, and behaviours. I cannot recommend this book enough: find it, read it, realise how your writing can improve having read it. Wolfe - The Right Stuff -
Whenever I mention this book to someone I seem to get the response, "It was such a great movie." Well, even if the movie was good, it can't be as good as the book.  Wolfe commands 'the long sentence' (OK not Joyce-length, but long enough) while maintaining rhythm and pace, and driving you on to whatever comes next.  The Right Stuff retells the stories of US space flight's early days, of the worship of those who became astronauts, of how they came from flight jockey stock. Wolfe shows us how the astronauts' history motivated them to do as much as they could to incorporate piloting into the space program, when what many scientists wanted instead was rats pushing levers.  The book holds importance because of its relevance as an historical text, and because of its literariness.  Wolfe's writing makes what might have been just a somewhat interesting story into a mythic tale of courage, training, perseverance, and 'the right stuff'.   William Zinsser refers to the book in his On Writing Well, where he marvels at Wolfe's abilities with the long sentence.  Zinsser quotes Wolfe as the exception to the 'brief and clear' general rule.  Zinsser was correct, Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is the exception that proves the rule.

Sam Harris - The End of Faith [Audiobook]
I am an atheist (as the big 'A' on the side of the blog announces).  This is one of those books one is meant to read, it's in the atheistic canon if you will.  I don't think that the book is as much about atheism, as it is about the dangers of extreme religiosity and the moderate religiosity that enables it.  My feelings on this topic are conflicted, mainly because I favour religious practices because they contribute to the formation and maintenance of social capital, but I have a problem with them for other reasons (not to be discussed here).  Anyway, what I found interesting about Harris's book was the methodical attack on the position that Islam is a 'peaceful' religion and that practising Muslims have different views on what constitutes reality to more secularly inclined Jews and Christians. The litany of violence-promoting passages that Harris quotes from the Quran was devastating, I had not realised there were that many.  Harris also attacks Christianity, and Christians, for their choosiness about passages to obey or not to obey. A part of the book I found interesting, and not 'new age' or 'non-atheistic' as some comment, was the final chapter where Harris discusses meditation and reflections on the self.  I found the sentiments about the notion of reflecting on the self, while realising it is the self doing the reflecting to be pleasing (he refers to Eastern philosophers here, some of which I find coherent, some of which I don't).  His discussion of torture was relevant to contemporary events, though I remained unconvinced because the evidence is conflicted on the 'confessions' of the tortured.  Though interesting, the book was sometimes overwrought. Nevertheless it is timely.  I think it is relevant mostly for promoting discussion and for arguing that religion should not be given precendence over secularism (say, tax exemptions for churches).   That said, I found the book to be over-written.  There are only so many times I can hear 'admit of' in a book written for the layperson in the 21st century.  What was he thinking? Instead of writing simply and clearly Harris often used strange and obtuse language.  This indicates either a bad editor, or an obdurate writer. I get the sense Harris might be just a bit obdurate.  Nevertheless, the book is worth reading to clarify those points with which you agree, and those with which you do not. 

A People's History of the United StatesHoward Zinn - A People's History of the United States [Audiobook]
Howard Zinn set out to produce an alternative representation of the history of the United States in this landmark, and rather (in)famous book.  (Some) Conservatives detest it.  Leftists (tend to) love it. That said, some of his most vociferous critics are on the left.  Zinn makes the point that most histories are often about Big Men, normally White and Christian.  But, there have been many other big people involved, women, men, black, white, hispanic, native American, LGBT, and more.  He believes that a great gap exists in most American histories of the activities of the 'people' qua public, and that many historians ignore collective action as a driver of change.  I sympathise with this view.  As much as single people matter, there are many who fall by the wayside having done their bit, others who contine to work in the shadows, who write (and send!) letters, raise money, carry placards, and generally show their discontent with the status quo.  What makes the book even better is that Zinn is quite up front about the failings of the book, he knows and admits that he predominantly ignores the 'big people' (though he recognises their occasional follies and successes). Zinn admits too that in earlier editions of the book he didn't pay sufficient attention to LGBT people and to their suffering, their mass movements.  But, having done so, he gives us access to a story of collective action and mobilisation that is remarkable, and that distinguishes the book from many other histories that I have read.  The audiobook only covered the second half of the print book, which focused on the 20th century and its movements in the US.  What made the audiobook even more enjoyable was that Matt Damon read it, and he was a better reader than I expected him to be - the Harvard dropout continues to entertain and learn it seems.  Anyway, I would definitely recommend this book, but with a caveat, make sure you read (or listen to) other histories of the US that focus on the 'big men' (mostly DWMs), or histories that provide more conservative views on the country and its peoples.  With History, who tells and what they tell as a consequence are very important. If you have only read 'big people' and conservative histories, then be sure to read this as an important complement. 

Fiction Leavitt - Martin Bauman
Wow.  If ever a book captured the pettiness of humanity, this was it. The characters are petty, the storyline is petty, it's all just petty.  Leavitt obviously has a strong command of the English language, and he appears capable of chiselling beautiful sentences from dreck, but the book left me dreadfully annoyed.  I read and I read in the hope that a likeable character would appear.  One did.  I read too in the expectation that something consequential would occur.  Expectation unmet.  Supposedly, the book was a semi-autobiographical confession. If that is the case, I would have expected genuine contrition or something resembling true apology.  There were no genuine apologies or any exculpatory passages; the attempts were thin, lacking substance, they sounded like the protests of a chastised child.  Martin Bauman annoyed me.  I wouldn't bother.  I give it two stars for the occasional beautiful sentence that grew out of the muck. Bolano - 2666
I didn't finish it.  I reached the second last section of the book and I couldn't read the phrase, 'She was anally and vaginally raped' any more.  I understand that Bolano tried to depict the different hues of corruption - personal, political, thematic, and others.  But, I couldn't find the will to continue reading.  This didn't worry me too much.  I enjoyed the second and third sections of the book, but the first and the fourth? No.  I didn't get to the fifth.  I also believe that the book generally required more serious editing, it required someone to examine it, cut it, shape it.  Bolano didn't live long enough to do it himself.  I believe that the point (as much as it could be isolated) could have been conveyed in many fewer words and with more grace.  I can neither recommend nor  discourage the reading of 2666 - any pleasure from this one is probably (and largely) intellectual. It wasn't enough for me.  I admit that I was disappointed after all the hype. Oddly enough, from the reviews I read it seemed much better received in the US than it was in the UK. 

Kate Atkinson - When Will There Be Good News
I enjoyed Atkinson's previous book, One Good Turn, also featuring her character Jackson Brodie.  Brodie doesn't feature too greatly in this novel, though his position is crucial.  The book is set in Scotland and plays around a character, Joanna, whose family was murdered when she was a child. Atkinson writes with characteristics literariness, yet she maintains a velocity in the events that kept me entertained.  I appreciated her characterisation of Joanna's behaviour with her baby - the reciting of nursery rhymes that I recall from my childhood (my Liverpudlian grandmother recited similar rhymes to me).  Reggie, Joanna's 'mother's assistant', is a determined orphan set on getting her A-levels and acts the part of detective, she's accompanied by another character from Atkinson's previous book, DCI Louise, who keeps us entertained with her cynicism and her fervent aggression towards her in-laws.  With a series of coincidences and errors woven together the tale reaches its finale.  It was a fun read, and kept me going while studying.  I always need fiction, this was a humorous, romping-three-star-movie equivalent.  I don't believe it was as good as Atkinson's previous novel. Beaumont - Thirteen 1/2
I devoured Thirteen in two days.  Stephen Bardot, a taxi-driving, failed businessman reflects on the world while driving his taxi.  The world, time, and space, however, seem to do strange things once he has reached a dreadful enough level of fatigue: plastic bags become rabbits in a sideways glance, a house, once there, disappears.  But the people he meets in this alternative reality seem to be present in his own world, to be recognised by people he knows to be real, to be able to affect him in ways that he didn't believe possible.  Having read it so quickly, I almost feel like I should go back and re-read it to see if there are clues I missed, hints dropped that I did not pick up.  One of the few things I did not like about it was the author's use of italics on words that did not I believe require them.  The ways he constructed the sentences naturally gave the words emphasis, then he gave them additional emphasis with italics.  I didn't get it, I don't get it. The book was recommended to me by Amazon's 'you liked that book, you might like this one' algorithm.  I appreciate Haruki Murakami, and consequently Amazon recommended Beaumont's Thirteen. Have a look for it if you appreciate books combining the surreal with psychological drama.

Currently have 4 comments:

  1. Good stuff Si, thanks.

    Re: Harris. The Eastern mystecism stuff annoyed me endlessly - he's not NEARLY as critical of that stuff as he is of "Western" religion. It's bollocks.

    More re Harris. He uses, you should note, the N.J. Dawood translation of the Koran (which I've read -- it's good), but it's contested. Several Muslim scholars have argued that it "militirizes" the text. I don't speak Arabic, so I can't judge but there is a controversy.

  2. Thanks Mike, good to know. I don't find Eastern 'mysticism' anywhere near as problematic as I find most other religions, mainly because religions like Buddhism (when they aren't worried about worshiping people or spirits) try to be based in logic, like, say, arguments by Nagarjuna (sp?). I don't always find the logic convincing, but that's another point entirely.

  3. Another note, if anyone else comments on this, I'm not too interested in getting into a lengthy discussion of Harris's book. I know it's flawed, I know he's contentious. I'd rather talk about the other books really :-)

  4. Simon, I didn't realise you'd read Nagarjuna! And your spelling is perfect ;)

    Sick reviews, well done. I will try to pick up Thirteen, as I do like psychological mindfuck books as long as they're not too tortuous (a la Ian McEwan) and I also dig what little I've read of Murakami.