Books of the year

December 2019

2019 was a great year for books, and I discovered lots of new favourites. This year, I’ve started listening to more audiobooks while going for walks and runs, drifting off, or travelling.

Nonfiction

  • Walter Scheidel, Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity. I’ve long been fascinated by the proper use of counterfactuals in many areas, and Scheidel’s application of the minimal-rewrite rule (Tetlock and Belkin, 1996) - what was the smallest change necessary for history to have taken a different path, and is it plausible? - to long-run history was incredible. The book argues that the seed of the Industrial Revolution was the failure of great European powers to unify on the scale of the Roman Empire (which had 80+ percent of the total population at its peak, compared to a maximum of ~20 percent by empires after its fall), and the fragmentation between and within states encouraged the breakthroughs of the IR, as all the leading theories - a culture of innovation, institutional developments, colonial resource extraction, and so on - depend on the lack of a hegemonic empire. I enjoyed the Tides of History with Scheidel.
  • Noel D. Johnson and Mark Koyama, Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom. Another one I loved, linking religious persecution with state legitimacy and capacity. With the fall of Rome, more generalized rules of law for treating people impartially gave way to weaker states with what Johnson and Koyama call “identity rules”, where a person’s social and legal status depends on things like their religion. These states often relied on religious authority, like the Church, for legitimacy, but maintained a “conditional toleration” equilibrium, where religious minorities were tolerated for the benefits they bring, but this could suddenly switch to persecution and scapegoating in times of hardship and when politically useful. After the Reformation, rulers instead started to gain their legitimacy from increasing state capacity (such as tax collection and rule enforcement), and again moving toward general rules, as there was little to gain and a high cost to persecution. Ideas, they write, may have played a much lesser role in modern religious freedom than changing incentives for rulers. There is a Conversations with Tyler episode with each author, and a Tides of History with Koyama.
  • Alain Bertaud, Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities. An amazing book; I struggled not to highlight every page. Over 50% of people now live in cities, which Bertaud sees as primarily labour markets; an agglomeration of people and jobs allowing people to choose and switch employers based on their skills, and earn a higher wage. I learned so much about the importance of mobility, housing policy and land markets, and some of the issues with modern urban planning. The author calls for economists and urban planners to be brought together to see what they can learn from each other. Bertaud has had a fascinating career, and I’ve enjoyed seeking out all his interviews and lectures - he was a guest on Conversations with Tyler a few months ago. Thanks to Devon Zuegel for convincing me to read it!
  • John Gibney, A Short History of Ireland, 1500-2000. I’ve been hoping to visit Ireland soon, but I knew very little about its history, so it was great to see this recommendation from Anton Howes. In less than 250 brilliantly dense and nuanced pages, the book covers five centuries of history, from the introduction of the Reformation and the start of Tudor conquest in the 1530s, through British plantations, the Cromwellian war, and the Great Famine, to Irish independence and the Troubles in the twentieth century.
  • Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy. For Mokyr, ideas and culture were the basis of modern economic growth starting with Britain in the 18th century, borrowing the cultural evolutionary definitions and tools where the latter is a “set of beliefs, values, and preferences, capable of affecting behaviour, that are socially (not genetically) transmitted and that are shared by some subset of society.” He points to the “Republic of Letters”, a geographically spread community of intellectuals sharing practical and scientific knowledge throughout Europe and the Americas, as improving institutions for, and encouraging, technological innovation and entrepreneurship. Britain, Mokyr argues, was especially ready to take advantage of these conditions due to its unique supply of skilled inventors, craftsmen, engineers, and scientists. While this theory isn’t likely to be the only cause (I liked this post), I found this an incredible read and effort to integrate disciplines.
  • Carl Benedikt Frey, The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation. I’m pretty interested in the rates and prospects of automation, and its effects on people’s lives and welfare, so I really enjoyed Frey’s book on the historical effects the Industrial Revolution, the factory, mass production, and globalization has had on jobs and incomes. I was able to attend a book launch event in June hosted with Diane Coyle (video), who reviewed the book here.
  • Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change, 950-1350. Details the social and economic processes, including changes in law, language, belief, and settlement, that led to a vast increase in internal expansion, and the appearance of early European states, growth, and innovation. Paul Graham loved this one too.
  • Stephen R. Platt, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age. One of my goals has been to learn more about China and its history, and I started this immediately after finishing Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War on New Year’s Eve 2018 - the civil war was an absolutely fascinating event, and the bloodiest in human history. Both are wonderfully written, and I’ve enjoyed tracking down podcasts with Platt as a guest, such as with Jordan Schneider.
  • Eric Helland and Alex Tabarrok, Why Are the Prices So Damn High? Health, Education, and the Baumol Effect. One of the most interesting unanswered questions concerns cost disease: the fact that prices in certain sectors - such as healthcare, education, childcare, construction and repair, and professional services - have rocketed upwards, while others - particularly goods, like food, cars, air travel, and electronics - have fallen. It’s unclear what’s causing this, whether there are there any common factors in the sectors which rise, or fall, that might help us predict their behaviour, and what we can or should do about it. Hellend and Tabarrok point to one simple explanation which, they say, explains almost all of these changes: the Baumol effect - “namely, that price increases in labor-intensive sectors are a consequence of greater productivity growth in goods-producing sectors.” The world needs fewer people today to produce the same amount of cars, mobile phones, or food, while other activities remain as labour-intensive, with a similar number of doctors and teachers achieving similar quality health and education outcomes. Baumol says that wages for jobs in these areas rose because labour productivity on average has risen, with especially high wages in areas like professional services or software engineering, so the opportunity cost of not going into one of these fields is much higher. Hospitals and schools must therefore pay their staff more to keep them from switching. The book is well worth reading, and discusses many objections to the theory, though it probably isn’t the whole story. The Rationally Speaking with Tabarrok is very good, and links to a number of useful follow-ups.
  • Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. At the time of the 1854 cholera outbreak in Broad Street, Soho, the prevailing theory was that disease was caused by a miasma, or “bad air”, from decomposing or dirty organic matter. John Snow was a doctor with a practice in Soho, who was skeptical of this as early as 1849, arguing in his essay On the Mode of Communication of Cholera that cholera was spread by drinking water with contaminated feces, and that care should be taken to boil or filter at-risk water. The book tells the story of his life, weaving in some of the author’s thoughts on cities and density, through the thrilling days following the outbreak, with his early experiments with GIS in showing that people living closer to the Broad Street pump were more likely to have died. The pump’s handle was removed the day after he presented his evidence, and the deaths stopped, although it had not been enough to convince the miasmatists. I found John Snow pretty inspiring, and visited his grave earlier in December.
John Snow's memorial in Brompton Cemetery
John Snow's memorial in Brompton Cemetery
  • Deirdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. The second volume in McCloskey’s Bourgeois Era series, and my first by her. The first third of the book reviews the explosive, 16-fold (conservative estimate) improvement in human welfare in many countries since the year 1800, but I found this pretty repetitive. The next two-thirds were much better, with a chapter-by-chapter overview of all the theories of the causes of the Industrial Revolution, which was the aspect of the book I found most useful and interesting. McCloskey rejects each of these in turn, favouring her own: that modern economic growth began “because of changing forms of speech about markets and enterprise and invention”.
  • Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire. A really accessible, original take on the fall of the Western Roman Empire, highlighting the role of climate (colder, more variable, with periods like the Late Antique Little Ice Age) and disease (the Antonine plague (165–180), the Plague of Cyprian (249–262), and finally the Justinian Plague (541–542), the empire’s first experience of bubonic plague) shocks. The author’s interview on Tides of History is worthwhile.
  • Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority. Gurri suggests that technology, particularly social media, with its immediate information flows, ability to coordinate people, and constant barrage of criticism towards government, media, science, or other hierarchical institutions, has undermined trust in them, and given more power to public. The author blogs on ideas in the book, and was a guest on the 80,000 Hours podcast.
  • Sheilagh Ogilvie, The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis. A long-standing debate within economic history is whether craft and trade guilds benefitted the public overall - were they innovative? Did they work to share useful skills? Ensure consumers bought quality goods? - or were they mostly extracting rents at the expense of everyone else? Also, what was their counterfactual contribution to early economic growth and the Industrial Revolution, and can we learn anything from them about the kinds of institutions which work to grow economies today? Ogilvie’s book is super readable and interesting, based on her database and analysis of over 17,000 guild observations over nine centuries, and definitely relevant today. Her view is that guilds primarily benefited their members over non-members, although a recent paper pushes back on the idea that they were always exclusive. I loved Mark Koyama’s review essay, and she’s a really engaging speaker and guest.
  • Timothy Synder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. I am still reading this, but it’s very good; another period of history I want to learn about and understand.
  • Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. A harrowing description of the policies which led to the deaths of so many millions of people. Dikötter was on EconTalk last year.
  • Chris Wickham, Medieval Europe. A terrific, pretty detailed, overview of the changes and events in the millenium from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Reformation. I’m slowly developing my sense and knowledge of European history.

Fiction

  • Maria Dermoût, The Ten Thousand Things. A dreamy, strange novel of a woman and her family on a Moluccan island in Indonesia, about grief and death, family and home, meaning and memory. An immediate favourite.
  • Gerald Basil Edwards, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. A quiet, sometimes funny, fictional memoir of a curmudgeony man in early to mid-twentieth century Guernsey, recalling stories and relationships to his friends, family, and island.

Poetry

  • Emily Wilson (Translator), The Odyssey. I loved reading this translation, and felt I got so much more out of it than my first reading of the Iliad and the Odyssey (both Fagles’), perhaps because I was more familiar with it all. I always enjoy Wilson’s Twitter takes on the stories and her thoughts on translation. She was also a guest on Conversations with Tyler.
  • Anne Carson, The Glass Essay. One of my favourite poets. This was a really beautiful poem about love and life, set at the end of a relationship.
  • Anne Carson, Nox. I was so excited to discover the National Poetry Library this year, hidden away at the top of London’s Southbank Centre. Poetry can be especially pricey in part due to its unusual form or even physical design, and this is definitely one of those, so it was great to find this there having hoped to find it for years. Nox is a scrapbook elegy for her estranged brother, unfolding like an accordion, and made up of poems, collages, fragments of letters, and photographs.