Posts Tagged ‘Books’
Some call economics “the dismal science.” Others don’t think it even deserves to be called an art, let alone a science, and consider it hocus-pocus veiled in obscure mathematics.
Science, art, or hocus-pocus, economists are everywhere these days – professional, amateur, and would-be/wanna-be economists. Most people don’t know who to listen to or believe, since relatively few non-experts have much background in the subject.
If you are one of those who are curious about economics, but either have no exposure to the topic or suffered from toxic overexposure in school, here’s a suggestion:
Pick up a copy of Robert L. Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers (7th Edition). It is the most fun you will ever have reading about economics, and you will also learn enough to start cutting through at least some of the economic sense and nonsense we are hearing every day.
Heilbroner published the first edition of The Worldly Philsophers in 1953, when he was still a doctoral student at Harvard. It was so successful that it took him ten more years to finish his degree. The 7th edition was published in 1999, and the book has become the most popular non-textbook in economics history, selling more than four million copies.
This popularity came at a price. As his 1995 obituary in the New York Times notes:
Although popular with students and the general reader, he was regarded by mainstream economists as a popularizer and historian whose insights made no great contribution to the study of the field. He, in turn, saw their reliance on mathematics and computer modeling as narrow in vision and as losing sight of the very purpose of economics – to help improve the well-being of people at work and of the society they work in.
The book brightly covers the lives and theories of economic giants such as Adam Smith, Robert Malthus, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, Thorstein Veblen and Joseph Schumpeter. But whatever else you read in the book, you will find nothing more relevant or entertaining than the portrait of the amazing John Maynard Keynes.
Keynes’ name is thrown around a lot these days, either as a blessing or a curse, depending on whether you believe that we can – we must – spend our way out of this recession. Just this week, Newsweek carries this cover story: Stop Saving Now! This is pure Keynes. If you are interested in knowing how this is supposed to work, without having a degree in economics, read The Worldly Philosophers today.
I haven’t thought about children’s author Jon Scieszka (SHEH-ska) for a few years. But just because the child in our family who grew up on those books is now in college doesn’t mean that Scieszka is forgotten. Far from it. Because his work is unforgettable. And popular: he has sold over 9 million books.
Which is why it was great to see him in Parade magazine this week (Getting Kids to Read). Even more remarkable was learning that Scieszka was named the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Librarian of Congress. Whatever that means exactly, it sounds important and well-deserved.
If you have children, please consider adding Scieszka’s books to their diet. Even if you don’t have children, please consider adding some of the books to your own book pile. Your life could be better for it.
To get a complete listing of his books, and to get a real sense of the intelligent originality and playfulness that continue to make kids and adults laugh, visit Jon Scieszka Worldwide. This is absolutely one of the most fun sites on the Web. Also, as Scieszka talks about in Parade, one of his missions is to get boys to read. For more about this, see his site Guys Read.
Where to start with Scieszka books? Well, in our family, the Time Warp Trio books were popular. And I gather that The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs is considered a signature book. But for me nothing beats The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales (illustrated by Lane Smith). This is a completely crazy reworking of the standards, a book I read out loud way more times than I had to, simply because it cracked me up, laughing out loud, every time I did. Also, this fall Scieszka published an autobiography for kids, Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka.
Thank you, Jon Scieszka.
Any discussion of media today has to begin with Marshall McLuhan.
In the early 1960s, McLuhan was already a respected and provocative social and media theorist, with books such as The Mechanical Bride and The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. While he was well-known mostly in academic and intellectual circles, his next book in 1964, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, changed that.
Understanding Media turned out to be the right book at the right moment. It made him a worldwide celebrity. It was not an easy book, and while most people who knew his name would never read it, they recognized the motto that crystallized one of his key points: the medium is the message.
The deep character of a medium matters as much as the content it carries, said McLuhan. So, for example, there were “hot” and “cool” media, classifications based loosely on how much involvement the medium demanded of readers, listeners or viewers. Print and radio, for example, were hot media, while television, was a cool one. Whether some of the specifics were perfectly sensible or consistent, it was the new perspective and attention to media that was exciting. And while the list of media that McLuhan discussed circa 1964, from comics to clocks to computers, hardly anticipated the media that were yet to come, this vision works for the most contemporary media too.
Given the density (some would say obscurity) of his thinking, McLuhan’s celebrity led to much simplification, misunderstanding, and trivialization of his work. McLuhan embraced his celebrity (see him in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall), probably giving support to those who said he was more style than substance. He followed up Understanding Media with some typically-sixties idiosyncratic books that tried to graphically capture his ideas on paper, The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village.
At the height of McLuhan’s celebrity, one of the rising stars of American journalism, Tom Wolfe, covered Marshall McLuhan for New York magazine, then the Sunday supplement to the New York Herald Tribune. The title of his McLuhan piece (which appears in Wolfe’s anthology The Pump House Gang) asks the question, “What If He Is Right?”
Wolfe was, by his own definition, one of the New Journalists, specializing in capturing in multi-dimensional literary style not just the events but the sense of the times. “What If He Is Right?”, in this regard, is sort of a fun house mirror: Wolfe was practicing at the edge of an old medium evolving into a new one (or so he thought), applying those tools to write about a man thinking about how old media evolved into the new. Wolfe was chronicling a New World. He recognized McLuhan as one of the explorers, one of the mapmakers of that world. This piece remains an insightful and entertaining profile of McLuhan and that moment in media history.
The details of McLuhan’s vision have been the subject of much debate, with some ideas rejected out of hand, others that continue to be pursued. And as the types of media proliferate (and with so much money involved), the tendency is to build now, ask questions later — if ever. McLuhan asked questions about media that hadn’t been asked before, questions that are as relevant now as they were then.
The most relevant question, though, may be the one that Tom Wolfe asked: “What If He Is Right?” It seems clear that in directing us to investigate the deepest character of media, and not just settle for talking about the content, McLuhan was right — and still is.
When we look back on what we learned from our high school teachers, it is a mixed bag. Some gave us gifts we’ve carried through all our lives, others took up space and time that might have been better spent.
I had an English teacher, Miss Arena, who, looking back now, must have really loved the language. One day she handed out a copy of an article making fun of all the sports cliches that broadcasters used. I don’t have the article (though I’m sure there are thousands of such items online), but her point stuck with me: if you’re trying to communicate, don’t let this happen to you.
We are now in the midst of the most intensive political/Presidental reporting in the history of the world. And if you watch even a small portion of it, you have seen how quickly a clever idea or turn of phrase can evolve into a cliche and then a joke (see, for example, how fundits like Jon Stewart ridicule this process).
The latest has been the brouhaha surrounding the formation of the Obama cabinet. Historian and commentator Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote a book about the Lincoln cabinet, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, recalling how that President surrounded himself with his former political opponents.
Applying the “team of rivals” concept proved irresistible to the political media, given the Obama-Lincoln connection, and it has now been beaten to death. Even Doris Kearns Goodwin, despite the welcome PR for her bestselling book, is probably tired of it.
So now a related quote has been added to the media mix: Keep your friends close but your enemies closer. Separate from questions of just how much sense this bit of wisdom actually makes, one of the new games is to discover just where this vaguely familiar proverb comes from. There are three major candidates, of various likelihood:
The Bible (possibly Jesus)
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War
The Godfather movies (specifically The Godfather 2)
Google was created for just such moments as this. There is no definitive consensus out there in the information democracy/anarchy. While Sun Tzu seemed to have the edge for a while, The Godfather now appears to be winning (Jesus was oft-mentioned, but was never a serious contender).
My point, though, is not to perpetuate the cliche, but to broaden and deepen the pool. I turned to one of my many trusty reference books, The Dictionary of American Proverbs, to see what other wisdom might be doled out to viewers on the subject. The Dictionary is based on recordings of proverbs that Americans have actually been heard to utter.
(Note to pundits: In your search for variety in relevant sayings, you might want to check out – or have your researchers check out – a good Bible concordance, which indexes every subject covered in the book of books. And if all else fails, well, just attribute anything you hear to Benjamin Franklin, who in his guise as Poor Richard seems to have said virtually every pithy morsel of wisdom worth saying. None of which, however, ever got him to the Presidency.)
Herewith a few gems about enemies, including the American state in which the researchers heard the proverb. See if any of these apply to the Obama cabinet. And if you happen to be from one of the proverbially wise states, please consider that a point of pride:
Better a certain enemy than a doubtful friend. (recorded in Utah)
Beware of enemies reconciled and meat twice boiled. (Michigan, also Benjamin Franklin)
Don’t believe your enemy even when he’s telling the truth. (Illinois)
Love your enemy—but don’t put a gun in his hand. (Illinois, again) (Note: Unless, of course, the gun isn’t loaded. See, for example, the movie Die Hard.)
Never underestimate an enemy. (Florida, Kansas)
Once an enemy, always an enemy. (New York)
Final note: The Dictionary includes 195 proverbs in the category “Friend”, but only 36 under “Enemy”. That’s a fitting and happy balance in real life, but I’ll leave the analysis of what it means to wiser heads than mine.