Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Five Books I wish I'd read when I was younger

In response to my post inviting ideas for more blog posts, Murthy suggested that I do the Tyler Cowen thing and list out the 10 books that have inspired me the most. Now I'd already done something similar on Facebook many months ago thanks to one of those tag things from Han, so that didn't seem like something worth rehashing. So instead here's a list of books that I wish I'd read when I was younger. Some of these I have gotten around to reading only in the recent past, while others I've only read in part or not at all, and the longer I delay getting around to reading them, the more I find that I can get by (and indeed have gotten by) passably without reading them or that my attention span is now too short to attempt picking these books up at this point. I dont think these books would have brought about any life-altering changes in my own personality (which is fine, since I quite like who I am), but I feel these would have been good reads at some point, for various reasons. So on with the list:

1. Godel Escher Bach, by Douglas Hofstader - Just as something of a geek-culture touchstone this would have been worthwhile to read and subsequently name-check (note: especially useful when having slightly tipsy Econ PhD-applicants explain computability problems to you), and it also seemed to cover a lot of things that I've never been able to get a real handle on - music, math and art, but also deeper stuff about logic and so on which I only get a peripheral idea about through Wiki-trawling. I haven't read it yet so what little I know about the book too is from Wikipedia and by word-of-mouth, so maybe I'm building it up to be bigger than it is, but given its sheer size itself, it'll probably be a while before I work up the nerve to read it.

2. The Return of Depression Economics, by Paul Krugman - Krugman came out with the first edition of this book way back around the time when I was in college, so it was a little silly of me in hindsight to wait until 2009 to read the updated edition. It wouldn't have transformed me into an economics wunderkind, but I guess it would have helped relate what I learnt in class to the real world, which, hopefully, would have made me pay a wee bit more attention. Instead I did the Delhi Times crossword, doodled or wrote atrocious schoolboy poetry and eventually had to relearn economics via pop-econ books and blogs. And of course Wikipedia.

3. The Story of Philosophy, by Will Durant - I had a copy of this when I got to college way back in 2000 and tried manfully to read through it before getting lost somewhere in the discussions about Kantian thought. I did pick it up again in my 3rd year to refer to for an assignment on Hegel and Dialectical Materialism, which I must admit was probably the best tute I ever wrote, but after that I let the book go again. Maybe I should have started with 'Sophie's World' instead...

4. The Argumentative Indian, by Amartya Sen - This started off as an OK read, but every time I picked it up it reminded me of the absolute mind-numbing horror that was my Social Choice Theory paper at D-School, and the thought that our primary reading material for the course was Amartya Sen's drier theoretical work was enough to prejudice me against him forever. Someday, perhaps, I might be able to get over it and give him a fair chance.

5. Basic Econometrics, by Damodar Gujarati - considering that I've been working in analytics for almost 5 years now, I have to admit that my knowledge of 'trics and stats is a little shakier than I'd like it to be. 'Gujarati' is something of a ready reckoner for most people working in the analytics sector in India, and although I bought myself a copy in a fit of work-related enthusiasm many moons ago, I'll admit to having opened it only sparingly since then.

So that's my list. Murthy, Han and Kanishka, consider yourself tagged. Anybody else want to talk about the books they wish they'd read, feel free to blog about it and leave a link in the comments below.


  1. Chuck Gujarati, pick up Maddala or Cameron & Trivedi instead. They are better texts and far clearer.

    Amartya Sen's writing is pretty decent. Although his drier theoretical work is more interesting...ha ha I haven't read much about it though. Social choice theory is a field in comatose at the moment in economics.

    Paul Krugman is, no, WAS good. You might want to consider reading Schumpeter's book on capitalism, or even Keynes General Theory - these are actually fairly accessible. Older generations of economists were better writers, on average, than the sort that write today. For eg I'm reading Williamson these days (the guy who won the Nobel last year) because I'm working on a related topic and although his ideas are marvelous, the writing is...not.

    One extreme exception is Roger Myerson. Cannot say enough good things about his Game Theory text. The language literally flows - and let me say that he doesn't skimp on the technical detail either. I guess the reason is Myerson did his PhD in Mathematics. In general, mathematicians write the best about the tools that economists need.

    I don't know why I ended up telling you all this.


  2. GEB is not something that will necessarily teach you much. Definitely not logic per se. Hofstadter is quite a character, and the book meanders all over the place. It has the feel of a textbook on acid. It's inspiring, strange, and fun. Worth picking up.

    I read half of Argumentative Indian. Since it's a collection he repeats himself a bit. Then someone lost my copy.

    I've never thought of books this way, so I have no idea what I'll put in my list. Let's see...

  3. And someone whacked my copy of GEB. Damn you, pustak pilferers!

    I'm working on my list. This could take a while...

  4. social choice theory was fun. and i agree with chucking Gujarati. try the infamous Greene ;)

  5. @K and Sneha: I find that chucking Gujarati and pretending to know stats by simply looking through wikipedia usually works well enough. Then again, I'm not a PhD aspirant. As for the econ-writing-was-better-before-they-discovered-math argument, I agree. Only caveat there, I suppose, is that a good writing style can hide weak arguments.
    Hopefully there won't be domestic disputes between the two of you regarding Social Choice Theory. That would be ironic, no?
    @ Han and Murthy: Feel free to tweak the subject, or even ignore the tag entirely. No pressure.
    I came up with it while thinking about the types of books I might recommend to younger cousins etc, and then jumped from thinking about the books I'd read at their age to thinking about the books I hadn't.
    Which is not to say that I recommend Gujarati, of course. I added that in because I figured having 5 items on the list sounded better than having 4.

  6. You might like 'The Solitaire Mystery' by Jostein Gaarder.

  7. Umm I'm not sure more math --> bad writing. I just think people don't seem to want to be perusasive anymore.

    Like I said, Myerson's Game Theory text is well written but doesn't skimp on the mathematics either. I guess the problem is that economists don't really understand mathematics very well and so the writing is not very good. Myerson after all did his PhD in Applied Mathematics.

    PhD aspirant or not, you should actually buy Peter Kennedy's book on econometrics:

    This is easily the clearest non-technical treatment of econometrics. Each chapter is divided into three parts - one 100% "verbal" i.e. all talk no math, then some math and finally the 3rd part is all proofs and stuff. The cool thing is you can reach each part independently of the other. This is one of those rare achievements - a big picture book that's easy to read yet not superficial.

    Greene, Cameron & Trivdei etc might be too much info I suppose...
    -- kanishka