Friday, 19 August 2016

Good books - August '16

Let's start with the economics: David Evans and Richard Schmalensee, two big names in the field, have written Matchmakers: The New Economics of Multisided Platforms. Highly relevant to today's world of social media and network apps, easy to read, insightful - I especially recommend the checklist (starting on p150) of things people will need to have thought through if they want to create a successful platform - and another fine example of how economists can add value to business strategy. If that's an interest, pair it with Hal Varian's Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy (I lent my copy to someone and never got it back. If that's you...).

Politics: Niki Savva's The Road to Ruin : How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government is fascinating. Apparently there are still people (at the Spectator's Australian edition, for example) who think the more socially conservative Abbott would have been a better Prime Minister than the relatively liberal Malcolm Turnbull. That notion doesn't survive a moment's encounter with this book. It's also very good on the mechanics of coups. Assassins need to plan meticulously, but be ready to move at once when they have the numbers. And incumbents need to realise that the only numbers they can trust are those totting up the people who say they won't vote for you.

History: Philippe Sands' East West Street: On the origins of "genocide" and "crimes against Humanity" has a dry and rather baffling title that might lead potential readers to try something else instead, but carry on regardless and give it a go. It's about the family histories of two Jewish lawyers who came up with the legal doctrines of genocide, and crimes against humanity, for the Nuremberg war crimes trials: before then, there was nothing in international law to stop sovereign governments from persecuting their own citizens. As it happens, their histories, and the author's, and that of Hans Frank, the brutal Gauleiter of occupied Poland, all intersect in Lvov in today's Ukraine: the East West Street in the title is in the nearby town of Zolkiew.

Many of the family histories end badly. Both the Nazis and the Russians were determined to eliminate the Polish intelligentsia, and the Nazis also targeted Jews of every description. The genteel, bourgeois, provincial society that had prospered in what was Austro-Hungary's Lemburg was annihilated, as were others. As one way of remembering what was wiped out, have a look at the photography of Roman Vishniac's A Vanished World.

Still on a historical tack, Mary Beard's SPQR: A history of ancient Rome has had great reviews all round, and for good reason. It covers the rise of Rome from its earliest days through to Emperor Caracalla (d AD 217), is a joy to read, and is near-essential reading for anyone who want to understand the origins of the modern western world. I saw that it featured in the Wellington version of Unity Books' best-seller lists (carried in The Spinoff) but not in the Auckland one, which says something about both places.

You don't need any Latin to read SPQR, but if your interest is piqued or, like me, you learned Latin at school or university (a scholarship in Latin and Irish paid my university fees) but have let it slide since, then have a read of Ann Patty's Living With  A Dead Language: My Love Affair with Latin. At which point you've got two choices (or do both, as I did). You can go the old-fashioned learn-by-rote route, in which case your best bet is N M Gwynne's Gwynne's Latin (his Chapter 4 makes the case for the old ways), or you can go the comic book slide-up-to-it-obliquely route of Maurice Balme's and James Morwood's Oxford Latin Course. There are various commercial editions: mine came with three paperback books of lessons plus a paperback Reader with the usual suspects (Cicero, Caesar, Virgil...)

If you're like me, you'll have a finite appetite for striking camp and slaughtering Gallic tribes, and I've always found Cicero a tedious old gasbag - though he lived a dramatic life, brilliantly fictionalised in Robert Harris's trilogy Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator - so you may want to try some other authors in the original.

This is where you'll need the Loeb Classical Library, which does parallel texts, Latin on the left hand page, English translation on the right. The Letters of Pliny the Younger are worth a look: they include an eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius, and, in what feels like quite a modern section, Pliny's memos back to head office when he was a provincial governor under the Emperor Trajan, including the one asking what to do about these pesky Christians (don't witch-hunt, Trajan replied). Martial's Epigrams are fun, and handily come in mostly bite-sized chunks. The Latin is more difficult than Caesar, and at first you'll need to treat them like crossword puzzles to be teased out, but they're an exceptionally vivid glimpse of Rome in the first century AD.

You'll need a dictionary, but don't go mad about it. My Collins Latin Dictionary & Grammar was cheap and perfectly adequate.

Serious fiction: I don't know what sort of genre it can be slotted into, and others have struggled too ("a madcap new novel" isn't very helpful) but Jonas Jonasson's Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All is an absolute delight. I gather his big claim to fame is his earlier The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, which has been filmed.

Thrillers: I mentioned earlier that I love Philip Kerr's series about Bernie Gunther, a police office in the Berlin criminal police during World War Two. I can highly recommend his latest, The Other Side of Silence. Bernie has escaped from a Russian prisoner of war camp, and is working under a false name in the south of France in 1956, where he gets entangled in manoeuverings between the KGB and the Brits, centred around Somerset Maugham's villa.

Another good one is Tom Wood's A Time To Die, the latest in a series about a professional assassin. As a genre, it can be dire - though I liked Lawrence Block's 'Hit' series, Josh Bazell's Beat The Reaper, and Chris Holm's The Killing Kind  - but this is terrific. It's mostly set in Belgrade, a place I used to know reasonably well. I was there on business in the early '80s, and again in the early '90s, and it's the only place I've ever been where you could see that the standard of living had gone markedly backwards. Which is a cue for one of the best economics books I've ever read, Daron Acemoglu's and James Robinson's Why Nations Fail: The origins of power, prosperity and poverty.


  1. I'm sure there is a great econ book that came out very recently that should be on everyones reading list, if only I could remember its title!!

    As to econ history there is "The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century" by Richard von Glahn, "The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets and Growth in the City-States" by Alain Bresson and "Ancient Kanes: A Merchant Colony in Bronze Age Anatolia" by Mogens Trolle Larsem for those into ancient history.

  2. Enjoyable post.....even as I retain a strong preference for Abbott (for all his faults) as Australia's PM. Turnbull seems to be in the wrong party - rather like Key, altho Turnbull rather lacks Key's political skills.

  3. @ Donal Curtin,

    I am a student of economics final year and looking for "Good books" which can enhance my knowledge in economics.Can you please suggest me some good books?


Hi - sorry about the Captcha step for real people like yourself commenting, it's to baffle the bots