My 2023 Review of Books
Books to Read, Books to Avoid
I set a book target every year and record the titles and authors in an Excel spreadsheet. This satisfies my desire to count things, complements my reading habits, and keeps me on track to learn about new and different topics. Below, I discuss some of the books I’ve read, briefly review and compare them, and include a table of all the books and authors.
My goal for 2023 was to read 60 books cover-to-cover. I started and set aside many books I initially intended to finish without completing them, which means they aren’t included in this list. Most of those books were bad, but many answered my questions upfront and weren’t worth finishing. Table 1 contains the 72 books I read and their authors, including 23 fiction and 49 nonfiction. Fiction is a relaxing break from the heavy nonfiction books I typically read. Science fiction and novels about extreme or radically different circumstances than my own are intriguing.
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I’m not under any illusions that I can learn something real from these novels, but I do enjoy reading about and experiencing the full panoply of human emotions and reactions that fiction can convey. Good novels can present a realistic model of human behavior in specific circumstances that directly impact my economics-addled brain, but I mostly just enjoy the stories.
Peter Toohey’s Boredom: A Lively History was unique and captivating. Many modern commentators complain about ennui gripping the Western world caused by any number of maladies, such as diversity, decline in religiosity, reduced family formation, or other causes. Toohey convincingly argues that ennui is a fancy word that effete intellectuals use in place of “boredom,” sometimes called “existential boredom,” which is “more of an impressive intellectual formation than an actual emotion.” He comments that “[b]oredom is an emotion usually associated with a nourished body; like satiety, it is not normally for the starving.” But why did humans evolve the emotion of boredom? Toohey draws on a wide range of literature to produce several potential explanations. The one that sticks with me is:
boredom may protect [humans] from ‘infectious’ social situations: those that are confined, predictable, too samey for one’s sanity. If all this is true, then it might follow that boredom, like disgust, is good for you—
–I mean good for your health. Both emotions are evolved responses that protect from ‘disease or harm.’
One of the many amazing qualities of caffeine and money is that both relieve boredom, even for student volunteers in interminable psychology experiments. Beyond boredom, Toohey discusses other social crazes like fugue or dromomania, a pathological desire to travel and be a tourist, which usually affects the bored. Spontaneity, especially when it challenges rules (e.g., “I’m going to go drinking with my buddies on a Tuesday night”), relieves boredom.
Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire by Eckhart Frahm is the best history book I read in 2023. The brutality of the Assyrians is well known, but they are far more interesting than their siege tactics. They started with a small commerce-oriented city-state in Northern Iraq with a proto-legislative assembly and a king that evolved into the first world empire with a highly centralized monarchy. Mrs. Howell’s sixth
-grade class at Las Colinas Middle School introduced me to the Assyrians. I vividly remember the limited information on Tiglath-Pileser III, who revived the empire’s fortunes in the 700s BCE. Frahm fills in what Mrs. Howell didn’t.
Frahm is a masterful writer who weaves in enough social science to explain why the Assyrian state behaved as it did combined with enough skepticism about the official justifications. In that way, Frahm is like Mary Beard. They both explain the history in exquisite detail while giving reasonable, ultimate justifications for behavior that rest on a realistic foundation of political incentives. For readers who aren’t as interested in the political economy of ancient Assyria, Frahm supplies fascinating stories of court intrigue, palace coups, archaic religious practices, and wars where historical figures’ motivations, thoughts, and choices are plausibly recounted.
I’m not an Assyriologist, and there would never be a reason for me to read an early draft of Frahm’s book. But if I had, then I would have recommended weaving in more information on trade, inflation, property rights, taxation, and how those policies and economic conditions changed throughout Assyria’s long history. Frahm includes a chapter on the lives of normal people that describes debt instruments, property rights, and the division of labor in the economy of Assyrian cities but it wasn’t enough for me. Readers of Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire who are more interested in economic history should pair the book with this Quarterly Journal of Economics paper, which uses ancient trade records from the Assyrian colony of Kanesh to predict where lost cities with the gravity model of trade.
A charm of Frahm’s work is that he introduces just a touch of archaeology, which can really enliven specific points in a book about ancient history. However, diminishing marginal returns set in early. If you want to read more archaeology about the Old Assyrian period, I recommend this book. If you’re unwilling to read the QJE paper or the book on Assyrian archaeology linked above, this New York Times piece should be enough. Frahm’s deft use of archeology contrasts sharply with John Romer’s A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. Romer’s book has a few good chapters on the construction of the pyramids, but I never want to read about potsherds again. Ever. Just for good measure, I will stay away from archaeology for a while.
C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War is a well-written and entertaining introduction to the relatively opaque war that influenced the modern world. The Lion House by Christopher de Bellaigue is wonderful, but I wish I had read it last year after I read The Sultans by Noel Barber. Why Trust Matters by Benjamin Ho best explains why trust is important, can be well measured, and explains some economic and social outcomes. I still have concerns about the literature that claims trust affects economic growth, but Ho’s book makes a good case for it mattering inside firms and elsewhere. Regardless, anybody interested in the economics of culture should read it.
Word for word, The Pox of Liberty by Werner Troeksen contained more new information than any other book in 2023. I learned so much about how market and government institutions affected vaccination rates and the construction of water and sewer systems—all of which reduced the incidence and severity of illness—that I wish I had read it before COVID. Doing so would have aided me in more accurately predicting how the government and market would respond to the pandemic.
Plagues Upon the Earth by Kyle Harper is masterful, which is what I’ve come to expect from one of the best living historians. The Origins of Woke by Richard Hanania is the best book written on the topic. Those who want to understand how changing legal rules and seemingly small changes in incentives can have large effects should read it, if they can get past the author’s former sordid statements and opinions. It pairs well with David Bernstein’s unique scholarly contribution in Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America. I wish Bernstein’s book had an index, which seems to be a style adopted by Bombardier Books. They should reverse that.
The World For Sale by Javier Blas and Jack Farchy is a rare book that dives into an unpopular industry (commodities traders) and tells its story while also understanding the economics and, ultimately, defending commodity trading even if there are some bad actors.
Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne is about the rise and fall of the Comanches, a subject best read alongside John Man’s excellent The Mongol Empire because both are about tribes of skilled horsemen in conflict with more settled civilizations. Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative by Jennifer Burns is a great biography of Friedman and the economics profession of his times, but you have to get beyond the title—do so; it’s worth it. Here’s my CSPAN Book TV interview with Burns. In preparation for my interview, I reread Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman and am glad I did. We have a long way to go to fulfill Friedman’s vision.
A Story of Us: A New Look at Human Evolution by Lesley Newson and Peter Richardson is a modern explanation of human evolution that includes the most recent findings. Importantly, it’s written for amateurs with an interest in the topic. The authors explain the science for lay readers and expertly weave in fictional narratives of modern people and our hominid ancestors to explain concepts. Humans are a species hopelessly devoted to spreading and absorbing knowledge through narratives, which is mostly a weakness in the contemporary world, but the authors use that peculiarly evolved feature of our psychology to teach valuable insights.
I typically read an economics textbook yearly to refresh myself. I read Chicago Price Theory this year, which was a superb choice. It is a well-written text that covers the basics of price theory and contains problem sets worth working through. Austerity: When It Works and When It Doesn’t by Alberto Alesina, Carlo Favero, and Francesco Giavazzi is a vital book for people who want to understand how the U.S. government should reform its finances when fiscal problems build to crisis levels. At that point, the government must rely on spending cuts, tax increases, or a combination to implement an unavoidable austerity. The main lesson is that governments should enact austerity by cutting spending and avoiding tax increases. Doing so doesn’t reduce economic growth, or at least doesn’t much affect it, and preserves the incentives of market actors to invest and expand output.
Cutting spending and spending growth reassures markets that taxes also won’t increase in the future, while tax increases without spending reforms tell market actors that more tax increases will come, disincentivizing investment. Another lesson is that spending reductions don’t have nearly the negative effect on the political careers of politicians who support cuts that is common wisdom among American political elites. If there is one book that policymakers, pundits, economists, and bureaucrats should read to prepare to grapple with coming problems, this is it. If you need to be scared to appreciate Austerity, George Selgin’s The Menace of Fiscal QE gives you an idea of the worst possible reaction to a fiscal crisis that most American policy makers will initially endorse.
Stephen R. Brown’s Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600 to 1900, covers the most engaging histories and individuals involved in the Dutch East India Company, the Dutch West India Company, the British East India Company, the Russian American Company, the Hudson's Bay Company, and the British South Africa Company. The histories of the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company are so fascinating, bloody, and innovative that the other companies are almost dull by comparison.
The only book about China I read this year was Red Roulette by Desmond Shum, which was a mistake as I should have read more. The author has an axe to grind, but if half of what he says is true, he was justified in sharpening it. You must be cautious about taking everything he writes at face value. While reading the book, I kept asking myself, “What aren’t you telling me?” Still, it doesn’t take much to make me dislike Chinese communists more than I already do, so maybe I’m being too harsh. Shum tells a fascinating story about business, corruption, and political intrigue in modern China.
Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe is a classic of amateur anthropology. The author visits a small English town in the 1960s and talks to people about everything. Tumultuous economic changes were underway with changes in agriculture, new economic opportunities in the city and nearby towns, and migration patterns in the midst of profoundly transforming villages like the pseudonymous Akenfield in southern England at the time. The most interesting part was the nostalgia that people felt for the past, but which many of them realized was based on a false view of the past. Often, a villager would talk about how this or that was better in the past and how the changes were worrying, but then they'd realize during the conversation that people were malnourished, sicker, and that the elderly died lonelier deaths before. Watching people suffer from the brainworm of nostalgia and then cure themselves was gratifying. Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets by David Simon is another work of amateur anthropology focusing on homicide detectives in Baltimore. Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami is another work in this category. The author, a well-known fiction writer, interviews victims and others who were affected by the sarin gas attack committed by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult in 1995. I kept waiting for Murakami to say, “Come on, tell me what you really think?” or “What were you thinking, you moron?” but that would have been very un-Japanese of him. Murakami’s style of questioning taught me as much about Japanese cultural norms as the answers his interviewees gave.
Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson is a wonderful biography of one of today’s most fascinating people. My only complaint with the book is that Isaacson was shadowing Musk during his Twitter era, so too much of the book focuses on that. Twitter isn’t as interesting as SpaceX or Tesla, but I'm probably in the minority here. Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross contains much practical advice and insights that have changed my interviewing strategy, but it could have been half as long.
I don’t recommend Albert O. Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction. My expectations were high since Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty and The Passions and the Interests are brilliant. The former is about how and why people react to different organizations with significant problems, chiefly by leaving, voicing their criticisms, or showing their loyalty. Generally, the types of organizations that thrive are ones where people can leave and feel free to speak up, giving an incentive for the owners or heads of those organizations to reform. The loyalty response is usually a sign of a poor organization playing a fixed pie game. The Passions and the Interests discusses the pre-capitalist arguments in favor of capitalism. Modern online trads dislike capitalism because it mostly replaces the passions of glory, fundamentalism, and lust with the interest in material gain. That was a benefit, according to the pre-capitalist thinkers (they were correct). Many of them sound like libertarian or classical liberal online trolls who infuriate today’s hypocritical online trads.
A Theory of Everyone: The New Science of Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going by Michael Muthukrishna was full of fascinating stories but needed more theory. I didn’t come away with any big lessons or insights. Anansi’s Gold: The Man Who Looted the West, Outfoxed Washington, and Swindled the World by Yepoka Yeebo was a fine tale of corruption, crime, and stupidity in Ghana, but the author didn’t keep a good narrative thread and got distracted by too many side stories that weren’t important. The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell isn’t a serious book, and I should have known that. The Final Pagan Generation by Edward Watts is an impressive scholarly work and has good lessons about the unintended consequences of policy changes, but an article on the subject would have been plenty.
I reread The Iliad by Homer (translated by Stanley Lombardo) as I was way too young the first time I read it and too stubborn the second time in college. It’s a work of epic fiction, even though there was a Trojan War. I reread it because my two boys fell in love with this graphic novel of The Iliad by Gareth Hinds. This was all they wanted me to read to them for two months, and we read it cover-to-cover multiple times and talked about the characters and motivations. A proud father moment for me was prompting an argument between my boys over who the good guy was, where one firmly embraced pagan values by proclaiming Achilles to be the hero, and the other took a modern approach by arguing that Hector is more heroic. I even overheard them explaining to their friends after having a mock battle that, “Now we have to burn the bodies of the dead so their souls will travel to Hades.” Priam would be pleased.
Homer’s epic pushed me to read more fiction set in Ancient Greece. Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is excellent. She interprets the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in a very plausible way that may be too graphic for many squeamish readers. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker tells the story of The Iliad from the female point of view, specifically Briseis, who is the most important female character (sorry Helen, it isn’t close). Some readers may be wary of that, but she pulls it off. After all, it was difficult to explain to my young boys why Briseis was so important to Achilles without exposing them to atrocious patterns of male behavior that were normal in the Bronze Age and, sadly, some places today.
I read four novels by Raymond Chandler. The Long Goodbye is the best. Elliot Gould is the best Philip Marlowe. Sorry, Bogart. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer was forgettable. I made the mistake of reading several mediocre science fiction novels, but it was worth it because they led me to Farnham’s Freehold by Robert Heinlein and One by David Karp, both about dystopias in their own ways. The Postmortal by Drew Magary was entertaining but the economics and psychology were so frequently bad (not entirely, but mostly and on the big points) that I can’t recommend it. Somebody who understands how humans function should have written it. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard convinced me that the movies are bad because they’re based on the stories. R.F. Kuang’s Babel could have been great if the characters weren’t anachronistic decolonization scholars in nineteenth-century Britain.
My goal for 2024 is to read 66 books. What books do you think I’d enjoy? Tell me in the comments.
Books and Authors
Albert O. Hirschman
Javier Blas and Jack Farchy
David E. Bernstein
Thomas A. Birkland
Christopher De Bellaigue
Edward J. Watts
John Kay and Mervyn King
Robert R. Jones
Victor Davis Hanson
Sonia Jaffe, Robert Minton, Casey B. Mulligan, and Kevin H. Murphy
Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross
Robert E. Howard
Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson
Alberto Alesina, Carlo Favero, Francesco Giavazzi
Liran Einav, Amy Finkelstein, and Ray Fisman
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