Tuesday, 5 October 2010

On borrowing books versus buying them

Usually, I end up deciding on which books to buy based primarily on 5 dimensions - learning/self-betterment, overall entertainment value, my current attention span at the time of buying, signaling value and cost-effectiveness, though not always in that order.
Let me explain them further:
A. Learning/self-betterment relates to what I expect the book to teach me, either by introducing me to something new (like say Marcus Aurelius' Meditations) or to expand my knowledge on something I have some idea about already (e.g. various pop-econ books I've accumulated through the years). It typically relates to non-fiction, though some works of fiction have probably gone a long way in helping me define my world-view as well.
B. Overall entertainment value relates mainly to how well-written a book is and/or how much the underlying ideas may tickle my mind. This usually helps when choosing what works of fiction to buy. It's worth considering since I rarely re-read books anyway, so a good writing style may leave as much or more of an impression than the plot (some of Wodehouse' lesser works provide good examples of style trumping plot by a fair distance).
C. My current attention span is defined by how busy I am, and what other books I might be reading at the same time. If I'm already reading something fairly heavy, I might consider picking up something that's easier on the mind, to read in the loo, say, or late at night before I finally go to sleep.
D. Signaling value is sometimes a factor, though I try not to give it too much weightage. this is basically related to deciding whether owning/showing off a book could affect other people's perceptions of me. Now that I have loads and loads of books at home, this isn't much of a concern when considering individual books, though sometimes I admit it can play a role when deciding what non-fiction to buy, in terms of 'if I take this book to office and leave it casually lying around my desk, will that make people think of me as an intellectual, or as a pretentious so-and-so?' Come to think of it, given that I did a Masters in Econ whereas most colleagues are engineers and/or MBAs, both the above views are probably held already, so the additional book won't shift opinions at the margin. This probably is a vestigial trait left over from having posed on main corr at various times in years past with a wide selection of books from the Stephen's library.
E. Cost-effectiveness - This may seem like a vaguely heretical idea for a lot of book-lovers, but every once in a while when deciding between 2 books, I end up considering which one offers greater bang for the buck, so to speak. So, for example, when Tom Friedman came out with 'The World is Flat', I figured that his 'The Lexus and the Olive Tree' was selling at a much cheaper price but still gave an introduction to the same broad set of ideas, and bought that instead. I got half-way through it, decided that he didn't really offer much in terms of points A,B or C above and only partially helped with D, and didn't bother reading any more of him. Saved myself some time and money in the process. Similarly, I've quite often considered picking up new pop-econ books only to leave them back on the shelf for a while until the cheaper paperback comes out. Admittedly, with my credit card and Flipkart at hand, I'm in danger of now being much more profligate.

Anyway, that was all prologue to what is really the point of this post. I've just signed up as a member of a library in my neighbourhood, and as a result it got me to thinking how this changes the way I choose what to read. Since the cost of membership has already been paid, I no longer have to worry about E so much, nor even D. I can instead choose to balance factors A, B and C, which I think is quite freeing. Since the fees are more easily perceived as a sunk cost in this case, I can opt to quit reading books without feeling guilty, and I can hopefully read across a wider range of genres that might interest me. At least, that is, until I run across cute women in the library whence the impulse for D might kick in and I suddenly reach for Kahlil Gibran.

Until that happens, I'm open to suggestions from loyal and not-so-loyal readers on stuff I ought to attempt reading . This might give you an idea of the stuff I typically tend to read, in case you're wondering. Drop a comment or two. I might even write about the books if I like (or dislike) them. I know, I've promised this before as well, but this time I really mean to do it. Dependent on points C and D above, of course.

Bonus book review: Sheena Iyengar's 'The Art of Choosing' is a good read if you're interested in topics related to choice, limited rationality, etc. all discussed with a certain amount of nuance and a few Indian anecdotes.


  1. why don't you have to worry about angle? In some ways, angle becomes more important, (if) said reading library is habituated by a small set of people (which is what I suspect since we don't read all that much).

    By "we", I mean our "generation", not you or me or our company, because that is not representative.

    Try getting your hands on Janos Kornai's autobiography "By Force of Thought". It's really inspiring and well written.

    Kornai is a Hungarian economist who was the first voice in economics heard beyond the iron curtain; his dad died in a concentration camp. He describes the difficulties he faced wrt censorship and the ways he sought to avoid it. He's also got a very non-mainstream approach because of the difficulties he faced with the communist regime.

    He has a famously difficult paper with a Hungarian mathematician where they proved that a centrally planned economy can reach the same sort of equilibrium described by the thoroughly decentralized Arrow-Debreu model. Thus showing how silly that model was. The mathematics in that paper are unbelievably obtuse. I suspect they made it that way to evade suspicion. The mathematician became insane soon after the paper.

    Courtesy that paper, Kornai was invited to Harvard, where Arrow welcomed him with the smile, saying: "So you put general equilibrium theory in its grave." Recommended.

    Btw, this all sounds like some oscar type movie doesn't it? Upstart economist with little training breaks through communist lines, insane mathematicians, challenging the mighty gods of economics etc.

  2. Well it depends on whom you want to impress. Considering that I live in south Bangalore where most folks are engineers or BPO types, there's not too many people I want to impress anyway. Though there is a NIFT down the road from the library, hence the possibility of reaching for Kahlil Gibran.
    Given that Russel Crowe's already played John Nash, maybe they can get DiCaprio to play Kornai, since he seems to be specializing in roles that require him to screw up his face and speak in strange accents.

  3. what's wrong with the engineer or BPO type?

    here's Kornai: http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/kornai

    and the book: http://www.kornai-memoirs.hu/english/english.html

  4. There's nothing wrong with engineers per se. I just don't think I'm going to impress very many of them with the sort of books I typically read.

  5. so do you

    (a) not want to impress


    (b) feel impress-ing is likely to be wasted effort?

    I managed to find bollywood radio on my ipod. so I have bollywood pop songs playing while I write about contractual incompleteness and incentive structure.

  6. aren't (a) and (b) effectively the same?

    Let's say I don't think I'll be able to impress people with what I read, but then if they aren't going to be impressed by what I read, why should I bother impressing them anyway..?

  7. ha this is fun

    for (a) and (b) to be the same each would have to imply each other.

    why wouldn't you think you'd be able to impress?

    what is a more fundamental reason for not making this investment - ex ante investment distortions or ex post lost surplus?

  8. Oye,

    Come for my wedding. Its on the 14th. Bin bin is coming from bang bang too.

    Looking forward to seeing you.



  9. So now I finally get an invite, huh? And that too on my blog! :)
    I'd love to come but I'm going to be in Delhi from the 9th to the 14th, so I'll have to pass, unfortunately.
    Congratulations, and best of luck! One of these days we must meet.

  10. Allright. Hmph.

    Thanks for the good wishes, we'll both see you sometime.