Friday, April 17, 2009

books

Memories of My Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: I loved this book, in every possible way. It's really that simple. But I'll elaborate anyway, since I think very few people would say the same thing. It is a story of a 90 year old man who awakes on his birthday and decides to hire a 14 year old virgin prostitute. Simply watching her sleep for the next year, he falls in love. You can tell what the common objection or source of uneasiness is with this book. But that's just not the point. John Updike put it best in describing the book as a "love letter to the dying light." Marquez is a magician; he transforms a taboo subject and bluntly graphic description into a whole that feels only sweet and pure and leaves you with a sense of complete contentment and fulfillment when you turn the last page.

I also loved One Hundred Years of Solitude, but this book is crucially different in a few ways. There is less of the blatantly mystical (no flying carpets.) And there isn't a stretch of 50 years of war and depression and violence that made the middle third of 100 Years one of the more depressing books I've read. Memories is solely a love story, and those were the best sub-plots in 100 Years as well.

Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. I had a lucky spring break bookwise. First Marquez and then another of the best books I've ever read. This book was a eulogy of the southern Utah desert country (also just about my favorite part of the country, although I haven't had the chance to explore it a millionth as thoroughly as Abbey. And never will, of course, in the same undeveloped state.) The only thing that could have made this book better was a fault that the author himself admits (unapologetically) - fewer laundry lists and more philosophical unification would have been desirable. Any nature lover should definitely read this book.

Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. First I'll be brutally honest and then attempt objectivity once its out of my system. Steven Levitt's high praise of this book got my hopes up, and I was completely disappointed. This was one of the most boring, dry, unrevelatory, badly organized, and unnecessarily long-winded books I've ever read. Very little is more soporific than reading about details of 401Ks, mortgage contracts, health insurance contracts, personal finance, asset backed security contracts, etc, and discussing ad nauseum all of these avenues of financial tedium in the light of one or two nice new ideas from behavioral economics does not make it any more interesting.

Then there's the theme of "libertarian paternalism", the new catch-phrase the authors are trying to sell throughout the book, which makes my blood curdle every time I read it. First of all, both of those words are incredibly loaded with connotation and should be avoided at all costs if you want to sell a new idea on its own merits without the wolves immediately ignoring you and going off on a rant about their pre-conceived notions and jumped-to conclusions. Second of all, casting the whole book in this light is cheap pandering to the masses who crave political interpretation of every economic idea. The applications of the idea are blindingly obvious; they should not be the main theme of the book.

Then there's the lack of organization. Let me publicly plead with all pop-science authors to please follow the example of Preston McAfee in his book Competitive Solutions: The Strategist's Toolkit: Start or end each chapter with a brief outline of the ideas covered (in actual outline format, not a summary paragraph). And organize your book by idea, not by example! After going through one exhaustive example that demonstrates all of the points you make in the book, I have no interest in reading 10 more chapters of the same.

Ok, I'm calm now. And can say that, while the ideas in the book are bone-headedly obvious to me, they fall in the category of things that are most critically subject to the curse of knowledge (once you know something, it's hard to remember what it's like not to.) As a social scientist, and specifically as a behavioral economist, I've already been exposed to most of the ideas in the book, and thus yawned most of the way through it. But I'm sure it would be very interesting, if not profoundly revelatory, for those who haven't.