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Fri, May. 23rd, 2008, 05:17 pm
Reading List 2008 (19/126)

This week’s reading:

The Annals of the Heechee, Frederick Pohl
The Boy Who Would Live Forever, Frederick Pohl
Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
More Sex is Safer Sex, Steven E. Landsburg
Angelica, Arthur Phillips
The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis
The Horse and His Boy, C. S. Lewis
Prince Caspian, C. S. Lewis
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis
The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis
The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis
When the Tripods Came, John Christopher
The White Mountains, John Christopher
The City of Lead and Gold, John Christopher
The Pool of Fire, John Christopher
Earthbound, Richard Matheson
Season of the Witch, Natasha Mostert
The Good Guy, Dean Koontz

This week’s reading was an illustrative lesson in “Just because two things seem similar, they are not necessarily both good.”

Take, for example, my little trip down memory lane. I decided to re-read the Narnia books because of the Prince Caspian movie (which, by the way, I very much enjoyed) - and they are largely delightful. The Horse and His Boy, particularly, shaped my ideas of what a good adventure story is, though I could have done with a little less virtuous-white-Christians vs. evil-brown-Muslim subtext. And then you get to the last book, and it’s all “Gee, aren’t you happy to be dead? Let’s stand around and watch while Aslan does a bunch of apparently random things!” Honestly, I’ve always understood why Tolkien found the series morally repugnant, but in the other novels it’s much easier to ignore the propaganda in favor of the great story. The Last Battle? Not so much - although I have always had a terrible crush on Tirian. He’s so heroic! And brave! And doomed! And he has a freaking unicorn!

(In my mind, Tirian looks like a cross between a young Antonio Banderas and my boyfriend. Don’t ask.)

Anyhow, the same thing was at work in the Tripod series - one of my favorite books when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and shelved next to Narnia, so naturally I had to re-read it. The prequel was just … weak. And re-reading the rest of the books, there were a lot of great scenes - but there was also a lot of talk about how “women just aren’t interested in standing up to oppression” that made me want to kick someone in the nuts. YOU ARE THE FUCKING OPPRESSOR, JOHN CHRISTOPHER. See how you like it when I stand up to your misogynistic ass.

The most blatant case, though, of these-things-are-similar-but-by-no-means-equally-good, was the two books on economics I read this week.

Let me pause here to tell you that the Taleb book blew my mind. Blew. My. Mind. I was talking to the boy about this last night, and I think it’s that it was the exact right book at the exact right time to help me solve some of the academic difficulties I’m struggling with - particularly around how we construct creativity. Even better, he’s a wonderful writer. So when I read it, I kept going, “Oh, my god! He just articulated THAT thing I’ve been trying to argue my way around for weeks! And he’s witty while doing it!”

Er, which means you probably want to know what the book is about, right? Well, the short summary is that it’s about how bad people are at understanding statistics and probability. He alternates between taking a philosophical bent (how do we know things? how do we know when we know enough to say we know?), a psychological approach (the standard work on heuristics and bias in decision-making, but well-presented), and an economic approach, which I really appreciated as a multi-disciplinary girl myself. I think my favorite parts, though, were his bits about the stock market specifically, about his own history as a trader, and about the names-carefully-changed stories of others.

Actually, no, my favorite part was the writing. Witty, delightful, eccentric, and a model of clarity. I have to figure out how to write like that - or, better, like myself in a way that is as excellent as his writing is.

(I am going to write this guy a letter telling him how much I loved his book - and I didn’t even write a fan letter to Phillip Pullman. So you should go read it right now.)

This only made it more depressing, of course, when I read Landsburg’s humiliating attempt at economic cleverness. Among other things, Landsburg falls into a number of the specific risk-analysis traps that Taleb points out, which left me snickering at him up my sleeve. Ultimately, though, what killed the book for me was Landsburg’s utter failure to recognize that we are human beings first, and economic actors second. He makes the classic economist mistake of saying, “Now, in a world full of rational consumers ….” at which point I can pretty much stop reading. Because all the research and literature shows that we are not particularly rational! And we are not going to become so just to please Mr. Idiot Economist Landsburg! Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t! We’re just not wired that way!

Grr. Arrgh.

Though I think part of what makes me so angry is that if I hadn’t read Taleb first, I might have been much more seduced by Landsburg. He takes on provocative questions and comes up with some clever ideas based on economic theory. He just forgets that economic theory is a model, and not a particularly good one, for the ways that people behave in reality.

Grrrrrr.

At least Season of the Witch was very good, so that took the bad taste out of my mouth. Alchemy plus sexual tension plus psychics plus detective work equals a very happy girl! My only complaint is that the twist ending is fairly obvious to anyone with a reasonable knowledge of mythology, which means I spent about a hundred pages waiting for the protagonist to clue in. Still, the boy didn’t pick up on it, so maybe I just read too much for my own good - and even having spoiled myself, I read the whole thing in one sitting. Very nice, and I will definitely read more of her work.