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What I’ve been reading this month

Misbehaving was the autobiography of the professional life of Richard Thaler, recently awarded the Nobel Prize for economics. I found it completely thrilling! Thaler talked about he and his colleagues changed the ‘standard’ view of economics. It began with early career insights, where Thaler realised there was something ‘not quite right’ with standard economic theories. The book then described the whole process of developing those insights into formal theories, debating and refining them with the help of peers, publishing them (and dealing with critical responses to publication), and ultimately putting his by-now largely accepted theories into practice through developing government policy. Transforming a field and then using those new insights for the public good would be a dream come true for many of us – and this book was the easy-read description of how Thaler did exactly that. I couldn’t have asked for more!
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Despite being a fan of Jeff Wayne’s musical version, I’ve always avoided reading H. G. Wells’s original The War of the Worlds on the basis that I rarely enjoy science fiction. It is one of those books which is so notable and worthy of reading that my opinions on it seem a little extraneous, but for what it’s worth, I wish I’d come round to it sooner. Much of it struck me as being an allegory for major social change, with the major characters having reasonably stereotypical responses – but reading it like that makes the end a little more depressing than I think the author intended.
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Last month, I really enjoyed reading Ali Smith’s Autumn, so this month, I read the next book in the series: Winter. Winter tells the story of Sohpia, a former lover of Daniel, Autumn’s main character. Winter explores many of the same themes, including the passage of time and reality versus perception. It continues with the same revealing juxtaposition of art and events in the contemporary real world, this time including the election of Trump and the Grenfell Tower fire. Like Autumn, this is a book in which every page forces the reader to look at something from an unusual and intriguing new perspective. I very much enjoyed it, and look forward to re-reading both books some time, as I’m sure there’s much in them that passed me by at first reading.
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Tim Harford’s Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy provided an enjoyable set of brief stories about the varied impact of inventions on economies. The book sometimes felt a bit superficial, but I suppose the “50 Things” format will always suffer from that. Many of the stories are well known and familiar, but the breadth of stuff covered is very impressive, and Harford occasionally takes the discussion of an invention in an unexpectedly illuminating direction. I particularly enjoyed the Epilogue’s description of the decreasing cost of artificial light over the last few centuries which, as Harford says, is such a huge change that it goes beyond intuition.
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When people ask me what my favourite book is, I often mention Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. It had been a few years since I last read it, so I cracked it open again this month. I’d quite forgotten it’s Genevan roots, which were especially apt since I co-incidentally visited Geneva this month. Frankenstein is essentially a book about ethics, and a rather ponderous one at that – and that’s exactly why I love it. On this particularly re-reading, I was struck by the fact that Frankenstein’s creature was explicitly vegetarian (underlining his ethical benevolence). I’d never particularly noticed this before, but it makes for an interesting counterpoint to the many ‘bloody-thirsty’ popular interpretations of the character.
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Given that it was Christmas, I thought I’d also re-read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. This re-reading was, in fact, inspired by the homage in the first line of Ali Smith’s Winter: “God was dead: to begin with.”. On this particular re-reading, I was reminded how genuinely laugh-out-loud funny the book is from time-to-time.
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This 2,325th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt was a short-ish book of sharply observed anecdotes of life as a junior doctor, which ended with a poignant and moving description of the events which led Kay to leave the profession. Kay’s description of medicine taking over his entire life certainly rang true, and his observations about the degree to which patients dehumanise doctors were interesting too. Funny and insightful, this book deserves all the acclaim it has received since publication.
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Along similar lines in some ways, Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm is an autobiography describing the professional life of a neurosurgeon. Despite a lot of interesting insights into his branch of practice, my over-riding feeling was that Marsh was an unpleasant character. He hurled instruments around his operating theatre, yelled at his colleagues, knowingly and intentionally humiliated his juniors as a teaching technique, refused ever to have students in his clinics. Since I posted that on Goodreads, though, a couple of people have been in touch to say he’s actually a very nice man. This has made me wonder whether it’s brutal honesty and a hard assessment of his own flaws which made him come across as he did.
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Murder in the Yoga Store by Peter Ross Range has been heavily pushed at me by Amazon over the last few months, so I thought I’d give it a go. It was a fairly straightforward factual description of a murder investigation, obscured by poor writing packed with subclauses upon subclauses of extraneous detail. I didn’t take much from it.
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Naked Statistics is Charles Wheelan appealed to me because I occasionally find myself in situations where I have to explain statistics to a general audience, and appreciate the opportunity to see how others manage it! Compared to similar books by people like Michael Blastland, Andrew Dilnot and David Speigelhalter, Wheelan went much further in the statistical concepts he explored, including a section on multiple regression analysis alongside the more typical explanations of averages, p values, and simple hypothesis tests. Unfortunately for me, his examples were heavily drawn from US cultural touchstones, and I found some of these difficult to follow – I know nothing about American sports! Mainly for that reason, I prefer other authors’ attempts in this field, but nonetheless enjoyed Wheelan’s version.
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Ali Smith’s Autumn was a novel exploring time and people’s perception of it, and how that perception shifts over a lifetime. It also explored truth, and the difference between reality and perceptions of it, featuring the Brexit referendum as an example. There are some books where I find myself longing to read another little bit. Most of the time, that’s because of a driving plot. In this book, it was because every bit I read made me look at something a little bit differently. This was one of my favourite books of 2017.
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This 2,324th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

The final instalment of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy, Last Friends focused on the life of Veneering, the third leg of the central love triangle. This was beautifully written, and despite covering lots of different stages of life and lots of different eras of the 20th century, powerfully evoked them all. I struggled a bit in parts because it’s a while since I read the first two books, and there was a reliance on recalling quite a lot of detail. So while I very much enjoyed this, I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I’d read the three in quicker succession.
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Tim Marshall’s Worth Dying For gave an entertaining and informative discussion of the history of a number of different flags. Those included were not just nation state flags, but also those of organisations like the UN and the Olympic movement, and those associated ideas, such as the white flag of surrender. I found Marhsall’s discussion of the cultural aspects of flags interesting: for example, the comparisons he drew between the treatment of the US flag by US citizens and the treatment of the Union Flag by UK citizens are not particularly novel, but are used to illustrate differences between the cultures of the nations in a fun, enlightening way. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography, but it was still a good read.
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Graham Swift’s much-loved Waterland left me bit conflicted. This was a very clever novel spanning centuries of carefully plotted family history and with a wonderfully evocative sense of the history of the Fens… but, on the other hand, there were some very long factually dense passages that were really quite dull. That’s clearly intentional and reflective of the narrator’s character, but it was also a bit of a slog to get through.
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After her election defeat, Hillary Clinton sat down and wrote about What Happened. Unfortunately, I think she did so before she had chance to get some perspective and context, leading to a book that raised more questions than it answered. I ranted a bit more about this on Goodreads. All of that to one side, the book gave an interesting insight as to what it is like to be a candidate in a modern US Presidential election, and was worth reading for that alone.
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This 2,323rd post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

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