Thought Provoking Reads 2019

Since I launched this blog, sharing my favorite books for the year has been one of the posts I’ve most enjoyed writing. I hope you enjoy reading them and sharing with me your recommendations.

While I read a lot of thought-provoking pieces appear in feature article, academic journal and other formats, it’s a bit easier to chart the books (print, e-book and audio). So apologies in advance to authors of such shorter fare.

What follows are books that stuck with me this year, with non-fiction to begin and fiction to follow. I chose from books of which I read more than 80%. Some of these will be familiar to you from my newsletter’s feature What I’m reading? I conclude with a few books on my holiday to-read list. What’s on your holiday list?

A few things made 2019 book reading different from the last few years.

Firstly, I ended up reading more fiction, both dystopian and escapist lighter stuff, than non-fiction for the first time I can remember. This may reflect the dominance of shorter thematic reads for work and less of a push to catch up on cross-over economic and political economy literature than in 2018. Secondly, I read a lot more political biographies, including those of five presidential hopefuls. Interesting reads for primary quarterbacking, but not the stuff of major thoughtfulness. None of those made my best reads list, though Andrew Yang’s probably came closest. Neither did Trumponomics, which I read to better understand Stephen Moore ahead of his potential selection to the Fed – Ironically, the book said little that was relevant to monetary policy, but that’s another story. Third, only one of the several books I read ahead of my adventure to Central Asia and Western China made the list. Others may appear in a forthcoming Best Reads on Central Asia list that will appear on my travel blog.

Enough digression. On to the list. Do get in touch to let me know what you recommend and what’s next on your to-read list.

What did I miss? What did you enjoy in 2019?

Non-Fiction

First off two books that track an industry, and by design or accident highlight changing supply chains, those supported by it and the broader economy.

Rockonomics:A Backstage Tour of What the Music Industry Can Teach Us about Economics and Life  by Alan Krueger.

This book, Krueger’s last looked at how the economic trends of popular music mirror the broader economy, including the consolidation, shifts to one-off experiences rather than goods dominate revenues and new distribution channels. Its a good primer about the economics of Rock and Roll (and other popular music), including the staggering share of profits that come from repeated touring  (rather than other income sources) and the challenges of streaming and other disruptive technologies. It also helps illustrate the importance of cross-border intellectual property and challenges tracking supply chains. (Audiobook)

The Vanishing Fleece: Adventures in American Wool by Clara Parkes

Like Rockonomics, this book tracks an industry from raw material to finished product, highlighting the experience of those that produce and market each part of the supply chain and the challenges of a segment of the U.S. manufacturing sector. However, Parkes’ case is a good not a service – that of producing yarn and woolen materials – and the plight of the American small woolen production. Her book tracks a bale of raw wool from shearing, through cleaning, carding, spinning, dyeing and more, casting a light on the vulnerability of this supply chain. I was struck by the contrast between the precariousness of this element of the industry while other parts small dyers, knitting designers, teachers benefit from social media and other platforms to grow and maintain their businesses in ways that would have been difficult years ago. Its an interesting read even for those who aren’t in the woolen arts.

When Things Don’t Fall Apart by Ilene Grabel

At a time when many countries are trying to rewrite global rules and norms or at least change how they are applied within borders, Grabel looks at how much global economic governance changed following the global financial crisis. Writing several years ago, she highlights significant signs of continuity in global governance, but sees some scope for evolving adaptation of norms such as capital controls within key institutions such as the IMF. She also maps some the way in which some power vacuums and discrediting of old rules provide some scope for multiple divergent views – worth considering in light of of the many books criticizing the economics profession.  Definitely an academic book, with the structure befitting it, but an interesting read with good case studies of global economic institutions.

Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution and Why America Might Miss it  by Susan Crawford and AI superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order by Kai-Fu Lee

With 5G rollout underway and other IT developments, in Fiber,Crawford highlight is a needed set of case studies about locations that managed to leapfrog to faster data access and support local economies. Not only a story of Seoul and other Asian tech hubs, but also select small towns in Tennessee and Michigan, it highlights the importance of infrastructure and alignment of schools and businesses. However, vested interests especially cable companies often stand in the way. Avoiding such anti-competitive practices are key. Note that Kai-fu Li’s book on AI in China and the U.S. and their differences is an important read when thinking about U.S. and Chinese competitiveness. In particular, he highlights the quick moving evolution in parts of the IT sector in China, the adaptation to local clients (which their global counterparts lacked. In a different vein WTF (Women Tech Founders) is happening was another useful short read, highlighting a large number of the women founders doing interesting things in Silicon valley and beyond, despite greater challenges accessing capital.

Life Along the Silk RoadSusan Whitfield

My favorite of the in-print books I read about central Asia and the Tarim basin (which includes parts of today’s  Xinjiang, Gansu and other provinces), Whitfield’s book uses the ample Duhuang Papers (a selection of documents about the region) as primary source materials tell stories about the type of people who braved the tough journeys in the area from the 7thto 12thcenturies.  The book read like a central Asian Canterbury tales, with a princess, a monk, an abbess, many traders, soldiers and more all telling their stories. While it could have benefited from a few more maps, and occasionally consistency of naming historical cities, it was a great example of well researched historical writing that brought the challenges of traversing the region to life. Her follow-up book Silk, Slaves and Stupaswas also good, taking a most important objects approach to tell the story of the region.

The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxietiesby Paul Collier and The Third Pillar: How Markets and the States leave the community Behindby Raghuharam Rajan

These two books epitomize a key trend in the literature – focus on communities and cities to explain some of the political economy ructions including the trend toward populism. epitomize the general trend of refocusing on local entities and getting the right rules to help cities build resilience at a time when national governments are beset by populist forces. Both have good examples and cases about these issues.

 

Fiction

A People’s Future of the U.S. I started the year reading, these short stories, mostly dystopian, revolve around technology, immigration and other modern challenges help think through potential futures for the U.S. including fluid borders, the future of health care and more. This book was one of the first volumes of short stories I’d read in a while (Hat- tip Siobhan Carroll) and worth reading to contemplate many human/technology interactions.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris This book on post-apocalyptic Britain rightly got a fair amount of press due to Brexit coverage, though it isn’t necessarily about Brexit. It questions about what institutions and societal norms might survive an upheaval, including the role of religious  and secular institutions  and our building materials. . It also considers how future generations may view us, and the limitations of  our electronic recordkeeping may imply. A quick read – but maybe because it was a welcome distraction while on the Amtrak regional train awaiting results of the December 12 UK general election and the US-China Phase 1 deal.

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung

Chung’s book, her second, highlights a biracial Asian mathematician who goes on a mathematical and personal investigation with lots of twists. While an interest in the history of science and math helps, the book’s twists transcended it and would be interesting to many readers.

Women Talking byMiriam Toews

Toews’ disturbing book takes place in a Mennonite village where the women have been subject to assault by their menfolk and are debating their next steps including silence, speaking out or running away. Their discussions, which highlight these difficult choices and are quite relevant for other communities.

Alaska by James Michener.

Ahead of, during and after my short visit to Alaska I worked through this tome, which was one of the few big Michener epics I had failed to read in my teen and young adult years. (Note: How did I read such large printed books back in the day? ). While a few of the early chapters could have used some editing, the book shone a light on critical economic development themes including the drivers of the Jones Act, the gold and fishing rush and the challenges of corruption throughout … A nice companion to the great museums I saw in Juneau and conversations.

Learning to See: A Novel of Dorothea Langeby Elise Hooper

Dorothea Lange, photographer of the Depression and more, was one of the artists I studied in school – and a prime example of photography as social commentary. This book was a compelling story of her challenges, especially honing her craft, balancing her family and the political challenges. An interesting read (or in my case listen), especially ahead of the forthcoming exhibition at the MoMa in NYC next year.  (Audiobook)

The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

Just in time for the release of the new version of Little Women, I picked up the Other Alcott, about May Alcott, the younger sister who was the inspiration for Amy. The book, like a few others on my list, was most interesting for fleshing out some prominent and relatively successful women about whom I had not heard, including the artistic lessons in Boston and Rome. A light book, but an enjoyable one for fans of historical fiction.

What’s next on my list:

As I head off for a few days off towards year end, I have a few books on the go – in e-book and audio form. While I’ve started most of these, its too early to give a full judgement.

 

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire 

by William Dalrymple

Dalrymple’s latest book on India takes as its subject the East India Company, the company which shaped, leveraged and drove key elements of Britain’s imperial policy in India and beyond. The historical platform is vast, and occasionally a bit dense, but the takeaways about adventurism on the ground and the links between local government and officials at home are key. While EIC may not have been an SOE, its links with the UK officials from its inception made it a key part of British policy… and the passage of wealth outside of India.

 

Do Morals Matter?: Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump by Joseph Nye

Nye develops a taxonomy for looking at how much morals drove post-war presidents and the foreign policy they espoused – looking at goals, effectiveness and outcomes.  He rewards prudence, particularly in times of little war, as opposed to entanglements, and has a useful take on the President as fiduciary or Trustee of the country – an interesting take. A useful summary also of the main schools of IR theory and good review of the recent presidents. As a short book, its hard to go into each case in detail, but it includes some useful metrics to assess ongoing developments.

Energy: A Human HistoryRichard Rhodes

Rhodes focuses on energy transitions through history and the development of different energy technologies. The shift between different innovations is particularly powerful and a good reminder that technologies can shift quickly.

The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution by Gregory Zuckerman

Jim Simons, the founder of Renaissance’s Medallion Fund has had a reputation as a secretive individual and one with tough non-competes, but also some of the highest returns. Zuckerman tells a chatty story of how he got there, leavened with some information on quantitive trading, including colleagues, competitors and more. My Dad William Ziemba (see his biography here) wrote a lot about the fund in our joint book a few years back and is a global expert on some of the Kelly Criterion which was key to sizing some of the funds bets. Its an easy read, despite the quant finance elements – focused more on the individuals rather than the math. For a deep dive on these theories I suggest Mark Davis’ short history of mathematical finance, which covers some of the ground, though its a slightly different field.

What else should I read?

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