Books I’ve read this summer

By | September 3, 2011

1. Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout. The author uses published works on Louis Armstrong, and tape recordings privately made by Armstrong himself during the course of his life, to tell the story of one of the greatest musicians of the last century. If jazz is your thing, and you like Louis Armstrong, you should take a look at the book.

2. Visions of a Better World: Football in the Cameroonian Social Imagination  by Bea Vidacs. The author, my friend and colleague, discusses football in the social consciousness of Cameroonians, football as escape from the grunt of everyday life, and football as an avenue for aspirations:

Those who participate in football can be seen and see themselves in a heroic light. They perceive themselves as wanting to create something: something concrete, something real, a better future, a good team, that everyone will remember and that will be the talk of the town. Coaches claim that they do not train football players, but “men”, in an “old-fashioned”, pathos-filled sense. As an ideal, at least on the level of desires and will, in Cameroon football represents an antithesis of the zombification, inertia, and impasse of the postcolonial condition, described so vividly by Mbembe and others.

If you are interested in football in Africa, you should give the book a read. Plus, although it is an academic, scholarly text, it is very accessible.

3. More Than Good Intentions: How a New Economics Is Helping to Solve Global Poverty by Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel. The book has been hailed by a number of people, and I would assume that readers of this blog have already come across some reviews. As an introduction to randomised control trials in development economics, the book does a good job. However, an anthropologist reading the book would want to learn more about the people, he would also be interested in hearing their points of view and how they themselves would represent issues that concern them. I’d for instance want to learn why the taxi driver really didn’t take a loan, not why the authors think he didn’t, just as I’d want to learn more from micro-lending clients about how they view micro-lending and other areas of their lives. I would also have liked to read more about the social and political conditions that produce the situation that aid tries to tackle. Admittedly, this is not the focus of the book, but one does feel the need to see it said that poverty is not the natural state of being, a state from which people advance towards development.

Having said that, let me add that if we live in a world in which numbers hold the magic – as we do – there would be need to show evidence of aid effectiveness in numbers, and if numerical evidence is generated, there would be some desire to know how they are generated. This book tells us about that. In any case, it is nice to see that the discussion on aid effectiveness has left the macro-economic, mutually exclusive, binary domain of aid is either good or bad. The hope is that at some point, development economics will embrace real ethnography and we’d actually be able to learn about subjects of anti-poverty measures.

4. Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. Graeber has been described as one of the best economic anthropologists of his generation. I agree. The book first of all tackles the whole barter myth – you know, the idea that there was first barter, then money, then credit – and shows that if anything, it is the other way around: economic relations, as much as there were relations that could be described as economic, relied on credit; after that came money in the sense of a special ‘commodity’  for which goods and services were exchanged. It is only in societies where there used to be money that one finds the kind of barter system that one reads of in economics textbooks.

One main point in the book is how moral obligations become quantifiable as debt, over time, and across different parts of the world. If you have any interest at all in money, you should give the book a read, especially if you’ve read Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money. And oh, did you know that the first and probably the only ever free market economy was operated in the Middle Ages by Islamic merchants and clerics? Couldn’t resist throwing that in since I am currently working on a research proposal on Islamic finance. You can start with this interview with the author.

5. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis. A number of people made money from the financial crash of ’08. The book follows some of them, and in the process discusses how the bubble got blown out of proportion, and how those who should have paid attention to it didn’t, partly because many of them didn’t understand the securities they were dealing with, and partly because many of them were making so much money out of the bubble that they couldn’t be bothered. It is one of the best and most accessible books on the crisis.

6. Open City by Teju Cole. I’ve already written about it here.