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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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads (which has the book with the US title pictured above)

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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