BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS

Hey there! I’ve been on a reading kick lately and I happened to have written a few brief book reviews for a Nicaraguan Peace Corps Volunteer magazine that I help put together, so I thought I’d share them. I have also added a new page to my blog (next to the ‘about’ page above) to share what I’ve been reading and what rating I have given it. If I can get my act together I’ll write one-sentence synopses of them also, but for now it’s just a way to share what I’ve been exploring intellectually and a way for people to recommend books that they think I might like.

Poor Economics (2011) by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

This book proposes that the opposite of idealism is not pessimism, but that empiricism is the opposite of both. Pessimism is, like idealism, based on assumed outcomes and a willful ignorance of reality. Empiricism, on the other hand, is based on experimentation, measurement, and results-based strategies. By turning this powerful perspective on many of the world’s developmental problems the authors shed light on the inner workings and incentives present in the lives of poor people. They deal with how developing countries can improve health, nutritional, educational, business, and political outcomes. They discuss how in different settings we need to use different models to understand how incentives work. This book surveys a broad swath of developmental economic theories and compares their explanations of the world to the results of on-the-ground research to find many counter-intuitive conclusions about microlending, food aid, and the prices of mosquito nets—to name a few. The whole book is extremely readable, clear, and gives the reader not just fascinating information about successful development strategies, but a whole new outlook on how we can design and measure those efforts. This is one of those books that makes the reader see the whole world in a new light, and is especially applicable to the work and lives of international development professionals like Peace Corps Volunteers.

The Portable Atheist (2007) by Christopher Hitchens

When Christopher Hitchens died last year I read a couple of commentaries and realized how big of a deal he was. I had heard of his books and had been intending to read them at some point, so at last I picked up The Portable Atheist. It was very different than I imagined because it’s not really written by Hitchens. It’s a collection of essays and selections from famous philosophers and writers throughout history with brief introductions by Hitchens. It was still very illuminating and gave a broad context and variety of perspectives on the skepticism surrounding the existence of God. I was a religious ‘undecided’ until I read The Portable Atheist, and now I consider myself technically agnostic but in a practical sense, an atheist. I don’t believe that this book is going to convert anyone who has grown up their whole lives truly believing that God exists, but it does give perspective on the reasons why many people have become skeptics. Not all of the selections are as engaging as others, but skipping an essay that’s not as engaging is easy because none of them are integral for understanding the overall arguments of the book.

God is Not Great (2007) by Christopher Hitchens

God is Not Great is a book that, when I first saw the title, I was instinctively against. It seemed to me an unnecessarily inflammatory title and one that belied an unreasonableness and condescension that immediately turned me off. After reading The Portable Atheist, however, I was more interested in giving it a try, and then a German volunteer recommended it and pressed it into my hands. Once I started reading it I realized that the contents of the book are much less radical than the title suggests. Certainly it portrays religion in a very unflattering light and points out the myriad of hypocrisies, contradictions, and flat-out atrocities committed in its name, but as a whole Hitchens’ thesis is much less in-your-face. He believes that people should be free to believe or practice whatever religion or belief that they wish, as long as they don’t try to impose it on anyone else or restrict the freedoms of anyone else. This seems reasonable, but Hitchens then takes it to its logical conclusion and points out that most religions throughout history have not been content to mind their own business. After all, claiming ultimate truth and divine revelation has a tendency to make anyone a bit unwilling to respect others’ claims to alternative perspectives. His writing is superb and his arguments very sound. The wit, sarcasm, and merciless exposing of religion’s least savory details is riveting, and, all things considered, eminently reasonable, which is the whole idea of course. Hitchens has convinced at least one more reader that reason, not supernatural explanations without evidence, should be modern humanity’s guiding light.

The Worldly Philosophers (1953) by Robert L. Heilbroner

If you like economic theory at all, you will LOVE this book. Even if it’s not really your thing, you will likely find it a fascinating read. It traces economic thought from Adam Smith through Marx and Keynes up to the mid-1950s and shows the context in which they were written as well as what previous ideas influenced them. The author treats all of economic theory as a long, diverse dialogue across centuries and continents about how humans organize resources to further their goals. It’s extremely accessible and reads like bike ride down a gentle hill. I’d place it in the top five nonfiction books I’ve read in the Peace Corps, along with Poor Economics (Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo), The Social Animal (David Brooks), The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson), and The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins).

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