Books I want to read (before the end of the year)
No time for long posts this week, so I’ve decided to just list the many books that are currently on my have-to-read list. I’ve started with some of them already, but its too early to pass judgement. Some have not even been published yet. So don’t take this as approval – it is little more than a wishlist.
Genes seem to be making a comeback as explanation for our persistent inequalities. The Son Also Rises by Gregory Clark will certainly be controversial. I happened to be in Clark’s office last year on the day he submitted the final manuscript, and he was excited about the book’s prospects. His thesis: class differences are the result of genetic inheritance. Conclusions: 1) The Swedes are far less socially mobile than they like to think. 2) We can do very little to accelerate social mobility; all government attempts to redress the income distribution are useless. 3) If you believe this thesis, then it has serious implications for whom you decide to marry. Perhaps less controversial but still in uncomfortable territory will be Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance. Wade will draw on scientific research to discuss evolutionary differences in human traits. These books, if read insensitively, will give ammunition to racists everywhere. That is not their purpose. Caution is advised.
I often like reading about the history of objects, and there are four new books about everyday things that look quite interesting: On Paper by Nicholas A. Basbanes documents paper’s two-thousand-year history. (Get the hard cover, it is done beautifully.) Milk by Deborah Valenze is a local and global history of how humans have used and abused milk. The People’s Car by Bernhard Rieger tells the story of the Volkswagen Beetle, probably the most loved car in history. And Tom Standage has written a new book on the history of social media, Writing on the Wall.
For the more hard core economics gurus out there, Thomas Piketty has written a seminal book – Capital – which is scheduled for publication today and should be on every economists wish list. Here’s the blurb:
What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth, and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. But satisfactory answers have been hard to find for lack of adequate data and clear guiding theories. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, “Thomas Piketty analyzes a unique collection of data from twenty countries, ranging as far back as the eighteenth century, to uncover key economic and social patterns. His findings will transform debate and set the agenda for the next generation of thought about wealth and inequality.
If you want more on wealth and inequality (and economic history), certainly read Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality. It is an excellent overview of what we know about the process of economic development. For a more local flavour, I’ve ordered Jade Davenport’s Digging Deep: A History of Mining in South Africa. This is the first South African economic history text in nine years, and should make for fascinating reading. (Although, if I have to be critical without reading the book, the blurb suggests that Davenport has not read much of what has been published recently in South African economic history. She writes: “Before the advent of its great mineral revolution in the latter half of the 19th century, South Africa was a sleepy colonial backwater whose unpromising landscape was seemingly devoid of any economic potential.” Uhm, no, no and no. For a summary, read this.) On South African history, I’m also reading Bill Nasson’s The War for South Africa, an excellent account of the Anglo-Boer War, I’ve just finished Tim Couzen’s South African Battles and I’ve just received Lindie Koorts’ biography of DF Malan (available in Afrikaans and English) in the mail. Hopefully I’ll write a post or two about these books in the future.
For now, though, it’s back to marking essays, setting tests and preparing for class. And maybe sneak a few minutes to watch the cricket.