Some interesting non fiction

>> Friday, May 22, 2009

A short round-up of some non fiction books I've read recently:

TITLE: The Logic of Life
AUTHOR: Tim Harford

One of the fastest growing areas of economics is behavioural economics, which emphasises the ways in which, in many cases, people don't behave quite as rationally as traditional economics assumes. Harford's book is a defense of rationality in the face of this, and showcases the hidden rationality behind many real-world phenomena, such as marriage, racism, CEO pay, and many more. This is NOT a very technical book; it's very accesible to the non-economist, and I highly recommend it.


TITLE: A Long Time Coming
AUTHOR: Evan Thomas and the staff of Newsweek

This book contains Newsweek's coverage of the latest US presidential election, starting at the primaries. Apparently, Newsweek reporters had been embedded in all the campaigns, in return for not publishing some of the stories until after the election. This resulted in a fascinating glimpse of what went on behind the scenes, with very vivid portraits of the people involved.

It's great material, but I confess to a small degree of disappointment. The reason I bought it was that I wanted something I could read in a few years again, a document of the 2008 election, so to speak. Unfortunately, in some cases the authors assumes too much knowledge. There is an underlying assumption that we're immersed in the campaign at the time we're reading them, or that it's just finished. This implies there are things we, of course, know. So several pages will be spent on the preparations for, say, the third debate, and the actual debate will be covered very cursorily, in one paragraph. I can't remember what happened in the third debate, not off the top of my head, and I bet in a year, most Americans won't, either. So as a document of the campaigns, it's only half-way there.

TITLE: Pies and Prejudice
AUTHOR: Stuart Maconie

The author's from Wigan (not far from where I live, and made famous by George Orwell in his Road to Wigan Pier), and this is a travelogue about the North of England, contrasting the reality with the image of grinding poverty and rough people that Southerners seem to have of it.

It was amazing stuff. Before I came to England, I wasn't aware of the North/South divide at all, you see. England was England to me, period. After living in the North for 6 months (and in the Midlands for a year) I did have a bit of an inkling, especially when a Londoner friend commiserated and started teasing me about Northern monkeys when I told him I was moving to Liverpool (a Northerner who was standing nearby cut into the conversation after that and said something about Southern fairies). I had an inkling, but I wasn't really aware of just how big the divide was. To me, Liverpool's a pretty sophisticated place, with plenty of great restaurants and cultural offerings. This book was pretty eye-opening about what people's perceptions generally are and even why, and as a bonus, gave me some great ideas about things to do and places to visit.

The only aspect of the book I wasn't crazy about was the constant music references. The author has a background as a music journalist, so it's understandable. Unfortunately, 99% of the references meant nothing to me. I'm not very knowledgeable about music in general (or interested in it, to be honest), and much less about British music from the 70s and 80s. Never mind, I just kind of skimmed over those passages where it got to be too much.

PS - Why pies? Apparently, Wiganers are well known for their liking of pies. Paraphrasing Maconie, give a Wiganer the most exotic meats (kangaroo, oyster, wild boar),and he'll put them in a pie and eat it in a bus stop. I opened the book at random at the bookstore and this was the phrase I read, and it made me buy it immediately.

MY GRADE: Loved it. A B+.


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