Tuesday, January 8, 2008

More Books

Finished a few more over the last few weeks. Here's some quick reviews for you.

1. The Bottom Billion
This is about the poorest billion people on earth - basically the population of sub-Saharan Africa. The author is an economist, and he breaks down the issues into several failures that the countries these people live in succumb to. They involve civil war, ethnic conflict, bad policies, and bad luck. As someone who works on this kind of research, I was probably less excited by the book than others because I've already seen these explanations. If you're curious as to what a smart economist thinks are the major issues keeping one billion people living in squalor, this isn't a bad place to start. However, it is written in a pretty dry manner: "And then in this paper, I showed that X matters. And then in this paper I showed that Y matters." So don't expect a really riveting read.

2. Justinian's Flea
This book, on the other hand, I couldn't put down. It's a historical account of the rise and reign of the Emporer Justinian, of the late Roman Empire (late as in the capital was in Constantinople). At the same time that Justinian was taking charge, the bubonic plague made its way into the Mediterranean basin and killed upwards of 20% of the people. The book delves into the origins of both Justinian and the plague, bouncing between history and biology, but delivering both without seeming like a textbook. The overall thesis is that the impact of the plague shaped how Justinian's reign operated, and that the changes he made to Roman law, boundaries, and politics ended up shaping the course of European history for many centuries afterward. While I'm not sure the author sells this thesis very strongly, the sheer amount of fun facts and engaging writing makes it a great book. This is the one history book that could change your mind about history books in general.

3. The Omnivore's Dilemma
Kirstin wanted me to read this. She enjoyed the revelations it made regarding the true nature of what goes into what you eat. The opening section describes the dominant role that corn plays in your diet. Wait, you think, I have corn on the cob here and there, and maybe some canned corn once in a while, but I don' t each much corn. Except that corn byproducts make up something like 50% of what goes into your system. I can't do justice to the author's detailed list of all the products into which corn goes. It's a fascinating set of information on the modern food industry.

Following this, the book moves to an organic farm, and then onto hunting and gathering wild boar and mushrooms respectively. Throughout it all, the author is trying to trace the origins of a single meal, produced through distinct types of agricultural practice. The idea is sound, the details are riveting at times, and when he's on, the writing is witty and engaging.

Now, for the bad part. The tone. The author of the book spends much of it in an existential angst-fest regarding the ramifications of "our national eating disorder". He laments the carbon footprint of our industrial agriculture, the cramped conditions of our pigs and cows, the skewed government subsidies, the ignorance of the masses as to the origins of their food, and his own complicity in the whole process.

Yet for all that, he never actually appears willing to change anything. He's obviously a gourmet, and for him, none of this information seems to have changed his attitude that a great meal is an end in itself. If he were so moved by the experiences of the book, I would think that his reaction would be to swear off processed foods, meat, and anything else produced by the evil industrial-agricultural complex. I can't imagine that this has occurred. And without that final revelation, he comes off as nothing but uninformed and whiny.

I'll leave out my comments on the sheer laziness and stupidity inherent in several of his analyses. They'll just drive Kirstin nuts, who's had to listen to this a million times in the last few weeks as I read the book. It will suffice to say that in his eagerness to jump into the pool, he forgot to check how deep it was first.

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