2023 By The Books: Q2
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar caused a massive stir when it was (pseudonymously) published in 1963, the same year Plath committed suicide by suffocating herself in her oven. Publication in the US, Plath’s home country, was delayed until 1971, according to the wishes of her husband and mother. It’s spectacularly well written, but obviously not exactly the kind of novel people read on a summer day on the beach.
I wouldn’t claim that the protagonist (whose biography has a lot of overlap with Plath’s own) appears to be just another regular girl at the start of the, but I’m surprised so many reviewers are fascinated by her slow descent into insanity. For me, this transformation came a bit out of nowhere — she just goes bonkers from one day to the other, without any obvious reason. In fact, the reader is sometimes left to wonder whether there’s really something that changed about her, or whether the diagnosis she receives just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that being so, my hope that the book would help me to better understand what it means to be (clinically) depressed was not met.
Also, is the combination of scant knowledge about the nature of bipolar disorder + lack of compassion + excessive faith in the latest technology indeed characteristic of the state of psychiatry in the 1950s? We’ve come a long way in that case.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote
The main thing everyone associates with Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the famous Audrey Hepburn movie of the same name, which is notorious for feel-good dialogues and plotlines that go nowhere. Capote’s novella, however, on which the film is loosely based, is excellent, plain and simple. At less than 200 pages, it’s the kind of thing that you can easily finish in a single session, and you probably want to. Much darker than expected, too.
Apropos, some unrelated trivia about Hepburn I was not aware of (thank you, Wikipedia!):
“In the mid-1930s, Hepburn’s parents recruited and collected donations for the British Union of Fascists (B.U.F). Her mother met Adolf Hitler and wrote favourable articles about him for the B.U.F.”
Conscious Capitalism, John Mackey & Raj Sisodia
Despite the title, the book has a distinct New Age vibe (co-author Sisodia has another book out, entitled “The Healing Organization: Awakening the Conscience of Business to Help Save the World”), and if you want to be very cynical, then this sure looks an awful lot like the 80s’ televangelists. They argue against two extreme, but popular notions — Milton Friedman’s claim that the social responsibility of a corporation is to maximize shareholder value on the one side, and the idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) on the other. I think their general message is quite sound — it is bad practice for businesses to think of themselves only as profit-maximizing machines, and that one should take pride (and responsibility) in entrepreneurship, so it’s a little unfortunate that the book is largely preoccupied with what a wonderful organization Whole Foods is (and, to a lesser degree, what a wonderful person John Mackey is).
Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo
The title is provocative, and so is the content. Not that there’s something wrong with this — I’m no fan of watering down your argument to appease potential critics — and yet, this tends to correlate awkwardly with a rather one-sided perspective. The first half of Dead Aid follows this pattern without missing a beat, to the point where Moyo would not even bother to erect a strawman version of the other side’s arguments. Here’s all the ways in which aid is bad.
The thrust of her arguments is not even wrong, and aid (by which she means loans and transfers from rich countries to poor — private charity and in-kind donations are not covered, arguably because they pale in comparison) probably does more harm than good on balance. Even so, the urge to pass a sweeping verdict prevents her from acknowledging cases where aid actually works well, and try to understand what could be learned from that. And, conversely, she glosses over the shortcomings of the instruments she favors such as microcredits, which do not seem to work quite as well as many ardent critics of aid would have you believe.
The chapter on how to integrate developing countries better into international financial markets, and why the much less forgiving conditions these institutions impose are actually a blessing in disguise, is well worth reading. I also wasn’t aware just how sizable the EU’s agricultural subsidies and tariffs are (were?), and yes, they should definitely go.
Liberation From Excess, Niko Paech
The degrowth movement has been around for some time (think Club of Rome), but it hasn’t exactly enjoyed much popularity within the economics profession. Paech’s is one of the first popular works (in German, at least) that attacks the growth paradigm from within, which makes him very popular with the mainstream press but not so much among his colleagues.
Just like Vaclav Smil in his work on energy and civilization, Paech is very skeptical of “green growth” and the prospect of being able to keep growing while reducing our energy intake. Cautious not to make too many friends along the way, he doesn’t just attack market liberals and small-government conservatives, but is equally critical of climate activists and Marxists, whom he portrays as either misguided or hypocritical.
I have to admit that I liked the book more than I would have expected, and it made me question a number of assumptions. Ultimately, however, it’s a book of many flaws, some quite serious. First and foremost, there is the unchallenged notion that the environment is an absolute good in and by itself that we are only allowed to make very limited use of. With this being elevated to the only value that matters, much else in his discussion follows indeed. But it seems even he is unwilling to draw the full consequences of such a stance, which might very well include rather drastic population management measures.
It also seems to look at things from an extremely narrow, Western perspective, where people (in his view) consume way more than could ever be justified. By contrast, it says exactly nothing about how an archipelago of inward-looking, maximally local economies will help poor people escape destitution. Neither does it address how the same narrowly conceived, unsophisticated economies would be able to make progress on pressing problems that, it would seem, require a lot of specialization and infrastructure, such as the development of new vaccines. And it doesn’t even have very good answers for how any one country embarking on the degrowth path would make a meaningful difference for climate change, which remains a contentious global coordination problem.
There is, however, a psychological dimension to his work that I believe does matter, even if you reject much of his framework. It’s certainly true that we often define ourselves by what we can afford, and in fact get so used to any given level of wealth that we become trapped by it. Learning how to live with less makes use freer, and sometimes trading a bit of material comfort for more independence is a good deal.
Main Street, Sinclair Lewis
Typically described as a satirized account of the petty ways of small-town America, I’m unsure if Lewis is indeed mocking the backwardness and closed-mindedness of the rural population, or rather the reform-minded protagonist, Carol Kennicott. If the town folks seem ignorant, mean-spirited and resistant to change, Carol is arrogant, aloof and technocratic. I have no doubts that Lewis’ sympathies lie with her, but she represents an urban smugness that, unsurprisingly, doesn’t bode well with her new neighbors.
There isn’t much of a plot to speak of: The orphaned Carol marries a village doctor, Will Kennicott, and spends the next couple of years trying to improve the place according to the then-prevalent progressive ideals. But it’s not the action that matters anyway, but the minute rendering of the manners of the inhabitants, and the events around which village life revolves, that makes it worthwhile. I read the book over many many months, a practice which usually results in me giving up, but somehow this time I went all the way until the end, even though I can’t exactly claim it was a favorite of mine. By contrast, H.L. Mencken was a big fan.
Final bit of trivia: Sinclair Lewis is the first American to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
Apparently everyone in Japan has read this book, and in its wake Murakami became so annoyed with the paparazzi that he temporarily left the country to live abroad. I’m not sure why it was such a massive success. I mean, it’s OK as a novel, more so if you like plots that involve lots of casual sex and suicide. Infuriatingly, the main character is seen by everyone as “such a good boy”, an assessment that is never justified by his actions and behavior. That other characters are hardly more interesting.
My biggest disappointment, however, was that the novel is so choke-full with references to Western culture that little space is left for any authentically Japanese elements. In fact, by changing the names of some places and signature dishes, one could have easily been fooled into thinking this was written by an American author in the wake of the 1960s student protests. Of course it’s perfectly fine for authors to break with their country’s literary traditions, but at least for me the reason (one major reason, anyway) for leaving the well-trodden path and seeking out non-Western works is the challenge of unfamiliar perspectives. Maybe this can be found in Murakami’s other works, none of which I read so far, but Norwegian Wood is, well… let’s just say there’s a good reason why it’s named after a popular song by the most influential band of all times.
The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt
A one-phrase summary of Arendt’s seminal tome might read “Totalitarianism is not just autocratic government on steroids”. Despotic rulers tend to be corrupt, arbitrary, nationalistic, driven by status and financial motives, but ultimately rather confined in what they attend to accomplish. National socialism and Soviet communism, by contrast, were out for total control — not ruling for personal benefits, but fanatically rational in subjugation the masses to whatever greater goal they choose to pursue. In Arendt’s view, these ultimate goals are often obfuscated by what are merely convenient vehicles for the ultimate aspirations of such movements. Precisely because they recognize no limits to what they attend to accomplish, “collateral damage” may accumulate on such a scale that it is mistaken for the thing itself. Thus, Arendt argues, the extermination of the European Jewry was for Hitler merely a means to an end, not an end in itself. (Naturally, this last point has been the subject of heated debates.)
Which raises the question: Why would the leaders of totalitarian movements not be satisfied to become lowly autocrats, a career path that offers not only many more perks, but that also has a track record to show for itself? Neither Bolshevism nor Nazism were particularly religious movements, although they often get called quasi-religious. I don’t think Arendt really provides an answer to this. She offers colonial imperialism as a potential precursor for what was to follow, in the sense that it represents the first serious attempt to make politics global, transcending the boundaries of not just the nation-state but empires as well. Historical precedence, however, should not be mistaken for a causal chain (otherwise, should we not have expected the British Empire to become the forerunner?), and Arendt is generally hesitant to offer grand theories. “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule … [are] people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction … no longer exist”, she tells us, and this squares rather poorly with the mindset of a Cecil Rhodes.
There’s of course much more in this book, including lengthy accounts of the Dreyfus affair and Disraeli’s reign as prime minister, which are mostly of historic interest.
Poor Economics, Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo
See full review here.
Running Smart, Mariska van Sprundel
It doesn’t always have to be high literature or academic treatises, right? Still, I was hoping to learn at least something new, or get an idea what else to try, to improve my own training, but it mostly just confirmed my priors. No doubt the popularity of running has spurred all sorts of questionable “innovations” around nutrition, gear and how to exercise, and very few of them hold up to scrutiny. Sad as it may be, there is no high road to success in sports other than consistency in training.
Besides that, the book is too self-indulgent for my taste (I couldn’t care less what her boyfriend does when she goes for an early-morning run, or whether she likes beetroot juice), and suffers from a certain home bias when it comes to the study cited, which — somehow! — were almost all conducted in the Netherlands.
The Scout Mindset, Julia Galef
For a book that’s all about how to change your mind (“update your beliefs” in rationalist-speak), it shifted my views very little, if at all. Now that may be because I’m already largely in agreement with the author; even so, I often found it a little too polished, orderly, neat. No doubt this might be a great book for the right people, but if you’re already familiar with e.g. Philip Tetlock’s research on forecasting, the heuristics and biases literature, effective altruism, and maybe even bloggers like Scott Alexander — well, let’s just say it’s more synthesis than original contribution. I did like the section against self-deception, which makes a number of good points why fooling yourself in order to stay motivated/make decision/not despair is *not* a great strategy.
Stylistically, it reads a bit like a (long) series of blog posts and contains many more Reddit quotes and personal anecdotes, none of which are exactly illuminating, than I would have wished for. But OK, matter of taste. What I find more worrisome — and ironically, this is precisely because the movement she represents is so willing to concede that they may be wrong about almost any subject — is the tendency to declare victory prematurely as far as the general approach is concerned: Essentially, “our way of reasoning is correct”. (That they would unironically adapt the moniker “rationalists” to describe their enterprise is a telltale sign.) I believe this explains why so many of them are tremendously worried about AI doomsday scenarios, an idea that springs very naturally from a mindset that prizes raw intelligence above everything else.
Slack, Tom DeMarco
You’d be surprised to learn that the author of this book was past his 60th birthday by the time he wrote it (“How do you do, fellow kids?”), and because the other is so busy cutting the crap and getting to the point and telling how it really is, there’s very little actual content left once you dig a little below the locker room talk surface. Written in 2001, which was apparently a time when companies just tried to be very busy and have their employees do a million things at a time, have them work late and expect miraculous results as a consequence thereof, it has aged extremely poorly. I have no idea whether the picture he paints was an accurate description of corporate reality at the turn of the century, particularly in the IT domain he’s mostly concerned with, but — based on first-hand experience and reports I’ve heard from friends — such companies seem to be exceedingly hard to come by nowadays. Apart from a few correct, though obvious ideas — companies that try to cut slack mercilessly have no wiggle room when change becomes a necessity is one of them — it is, quite frankly, a total waste of time. The fact that it’s a short book (“can be read on a flight from Amsterdam to Rome” is how the author advertises it, blissfully unaware of the irony) does not change this verdict in the least.
Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, J.E. Gordon
“Plants and animals [and humans!] might be regarded to a considerable extent as so many systems of tubes and bladders whose function is to contain anddistribute various liquids and gasses.”
And people say engineers lack literary sensibilities! Structures will, at least for a while, make you see the world with different eyes. While I was reading the book, I found myself constantly trying to decipher why a certain building around me would not collapse, a fun kind of mental gymnastics. This isn’t just a book about how to construct bridges so they don’t cave in, but about structures (and materials — the boundaries are fluid) in the most general sense of the term, including why muscles are so much thicker than tendons, why it took modern governments to build ships that broke apart at sea, why meat is typically cooked, and the role the droll gargolyes play for Gothic cathedrals (they’re not just there for decorative purposes): Structures are the antidote to entropy, our (ultimately futile) attempt to defy the boring, monotonous low-energy regime. The book is dated, and the presentation of the few formulas a bit archaic, but it’s a lovely accomplishment, especially for those among others who regard engineering as rather dull.
The Western Canon, Harold Bloom
Not to be confused with Howard Bloom of The Lucifer Principle fame. Bloom, a second-generation immigrant whose Orthodox Jewish parents fled Eastern Europe, was as an unlikely candidate as any to assume the role of chief defender of the supremacy of Western (and for the overwhelming part, male) authors, but he seems to have enjoyed playing the cantankerous anti-iconoclast very much. Fortunately, he is no stale traditionalist with a vision of a past golden age, but very lively and at times quite unconventional in his interpretations.
His rants against what he calls, varyingly, the feminist, neo-Freudian or new historicists attacks against the canon are slightly annoying, because they don’t probe deep enough to provide an actual, informed counterargument to their claims. The reader is left with the impression that Bloom knows he cannot ignore their input, but at the same time does not seem to believe that his own case is strong enough to stand the test of time without the occasional tirades against what he calls “schools of resentment”. That’s a shame, because I think the extreme solipsism he argues for — if we are to understand great literature at all, we have to approach it from a purely aesthetic perspective — clearly has some merit. Indeed, what is the purpose of such works if not to intrigue the reader — an experience that is made much more unlikely if we are to turn reading into a political act. Of course, it is illusory to believe that there is such a thing as a purely aesthetic work: One need only think of the many writers that have gladly offered their services to help shape a political narrative with their stories. And if discussion about literature, not to mention a potential canon, are to serve any purpose, there has to be more to it than purely individual enjoyment.
For my part, I have yet to answer the question whether works in any proposed canon matter because of their originality and the new standards they set, or whether they remain unsurpassed in some sense. It will be interesting to see how our response to this will shift as large language models will create more and more works of art by sampling from the greatest authors past and present! While Bloom does not answer this question satisfactorily either (at least for me), I came away with a newfound motivation to give some of the classics I have not yet read a try.
What We Owe The Future, William MacAskill
A moral framework that by default excludes future people would be very hard to defend, and I’m not aware of any philosopher who has done so. Just how much they should matter is a topic of heated debate. If we follow William MacAskill, intellectual rock star of the effective altruism movement, the answer has to be: Quite a lot more than we actually give them.
His book centers around three central metaphors — intuition pumps, if you will — to help us understand why that must be so. They are:
The Reckless Hiker
Imagine you go for a hike and drop a glass bottle on the trail. Because you are lazy, you decide not to pick it up. Clearly you’d feel guilty if five minutes later a kid steps into the shards and cuts its feet. Would your action be less reprehensible if those five minutes were in fact ten years? A hundred?
Humanity as a teenager
Most of us did some pretty stupid things while we were young, things that, with hindsight, we now consider pretty reckless. We’d have to admit to ourselves that we got pretty lucky, and risked a lot for little or no reason. Humanity as a whole might similarly still be in its teenage years, and it’s probably a good idea to approach our decision-making from the vantage point of those who’ll live a few centuries from now.
If you want to make a vase, you’ll have to heat the glass a lot. While molten, it is rather easy to blow it in its desired shape, but once it has cooled, any attempt to remodel it will result in breaking the vase. We may be living in an era that’s closer to the molten glass stage, so action is required right now.
I don’t even really want to discuss why these metaphors fall short or provide counterexamples where the analogy breaks down. In my view — and I understand that this may seem a bit dogmatic — it’s just obvious that you cannot just start from there and use these metaphors to derive a fairly expansive set of obligations towards future generations. In fact, I’m rather shocked that this would not seem obvious to MacAskill and his fellow long-termists as well. Debating the specific merits of each analogy would, I suspect, not lead them to question their mode of argument, but rather to devise clever thought experiments to rebut narrow criticism.
All things considered, I found this book to be more carefully argued, and maybe less extreme, than Toby Ord’s The Precipice, but the two differ in degree, not in kind (in fact I think it’s more than enough to read one of them). The idea that we live in a very special moment in time — often the argument is something like look at world economic growth during the last two hundred years and see it going through the roof! — and indeed the time since the industrial revolution has been special. Exponential growth, however, has no one special point — 1900 was just as special as 2023! It feeds the human ego a little too well to believe that only our era truly matters, that whatever actions we settle on will shape the fate of the universe. And this idea — that we can somehow “lock in” certain values to set humanity on the right track for all of eternity — I find just plain crazy.
Why Is Sex Fun?, Jared Diamond
It’s always interesting to compare human sexual behavior with that of other mammals, or animals more broadly. Many things we consider perfectly natural are indeed extreme outliers in “mating and reproduction space”, and looking at these from an evolutionary perspective sheds light on many (surprising?) facts: Why is there such a thing as a menopause, why don’t men lactate, why are humans best described as “serially monogamous”? All of this is rather interesting, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the question formulated in the book’s title. Diamond talks a lot about why we have sex the way we do, but not why it’s fun. The latter, I think, should at least discuss some neurochemical pathways that achieve the sensation of pleasure and how they might have evolved, why orgasm is so different for men and women, and indeed why female orgasm usually requires deliberate efforts. But no such thing is ever brought up. Good read, topic missed.
Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson
Robinson and Acemoglu are titans in the field of economic history, and Why Nations fail is their most famous work — so famous, in fact, that it would be fair to call it the Standard Model of Development. They represent what might be named the “institutionalist camp”, which maintains that political economy reigns supreme. In plain English, this means that they believe that until and unless a society has good (political and social) institutions, it won’t make sustainable progress. Put this way, such a view seems rather unremarkable, but it is in fact hotly debated, especially when it comes to countries that seem to be trapped in poverty. What, if anything, can rich countries do to support them?
Since Acemoglu and Robinson believe that good institutions are necessary for economic growth, their answer would be: Very little. Inclusive institutions are hard to set up and require a broad coalition of civil society actors to support them. Anything that is too dependent on a single group risks to eventually become co-opted, even with the best of intentions. But even that is not sufficient, and they detail many examples of countries that seemed to be on a similar trajectory diverged over time, due to what they call “small differences at critical junctures”.
This rather pessimistic view has a flip side, however. It implies, one, that we actually understand rather well what the correct ingredients are, even if they are hard to procure. Two, countries betting on authoritarian growth — China being the most prominent example — won’t be able to keep up their momentum. Writing these lines in 2023, it doesn’t quite look as if this prediction will bear out, with China consistently catching up with the West.
Why the West Rules — For Now, Ian Morris
A veritable tour de force, stretching all the way back to the early days of the agricultural revolution, when the first proto-states emerged and one could at least make a case, however weak, that “West” or “East” refer to meaningful concepts. Like all grand theories, this one is probably wrong, too, but if it is, at least it fails in an entertaining and thought-provoking way.
Morris, an archeologist by training, identifies to main camps that offer conflicting accounts about why a number of countries, typically referred to as the “West”, dominate the globe nowadays: Lock-in theorists who believe it had to happen because of environmental/geographical/genetic/cultural factors, and those who view the present situation as the result of a series of lucky accidents. Morris thinks both of them are wrong: He agrees with Jared Diamond’s famous Guns, Germs and Steel thesis that geography is destiny, except that the meaning of geography is not static. So, depending on things like institutions and technology, oceans, rivers, mountains and forests can at times confer an advantage to certain regions, only to show its Janus face at a later point in time. But even though he’s convinced that the West got a head start, it lost its lead more than once (only to regain it later). Civilizations muddle through until the early 19th century, when suddenly social development (his term for a civilization's capacity to extract energy from its environment) turns exponential.
But what is the West? In Morris’ account, the earliest group to which the name should be attributed are the settlers that descended from the “hilly flanks” of Mesopotamia. The opponent is, unsurprisingly, the East, by which he originally means the Yangtze valley civilization. So even though centers of power shifted to Washington and Beijing, respectively, he thinks that there is a thread that ties these very different societies together across the millennia. To argue like this requires a certain leap of faith, as well as the ability to turn a number of blind eyes on events such as the two world wars. One also wonders how the countries that now occupy the supposed cradle of the West fit into the narrative, and similar for India, Africa and South America. If you want to argue for some form of continuity over such long stretches of time, you will have to identify what holds them together: A shared culture such as Christianity (but this emerged much too late)? Geography (but what about Arabia)? A shared legal tradition? Genetics (hard to square with what we know about migrations and interbreeding)? If there is such a factor, I’m afraid Morris has failed to identify it.
In any case, what does it matter? The thing that’s striking about social development is not the little ups and downs along an (ever so slightly increasing) baseline, but when economic growth really took off during the industrial revolution. Few people really appreciate just how massive a transformation this has been (and arguably still is), but does the fact that Mesopotamians had a better initial selection of animals to domesticate really help us explain it? Personally, I think the somewhat more “myopic” alternative theories of e.g. Deirdre McCloskey about the rise of the bourgeoisie, or the institutional approach of people like Douglas North and Daron Acemoglu are more illuminating.