Books editor’s blog: tallying emotions and economics

How should we choose which titles to review when recurrent themes arise, and how ought we to feel when strong feelings are used to ‘sell’ academic content?

November 9, 2017
Identical twins
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So many academic books are published today that certain topics keep recurring. I have 
just published a profile of scholar Devorah Baum, who produced an excellent book on Jewish jokes. Even while that was in the pipeline, Jeremy Dauber’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History (Norton) landed on my desk. Last month, I ran a powerful lead review of Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreaming (Allen Lane). Hot on its tail comes another book by another sleep expert and yet another Matthew, namely Matthew Fuller’s How 
to Sleep: The Art, Biology and Culture of Unconsciousness (Bloomsbury). Given the constraints on the space that I have available and the range of topics that I try to feature, I may well not be able to include a review of this title as well.

In cases where I know in advance of two books coming up on very similar themes, it can be difficult to choose which one to “cover”. I am generally unable to determine which is the more “important” or even who is best placed to arbitrate on this. And there are always “important” books that it is very hard to review in ways that non-specialists will find interesting.

It is probably inevitable that, in the case of several books published to coincide with a major anniversary, the first one out of the starting gate gets the lion’s share of the attention. And general publishers can often be more forceful in their marketing than academic presses. Take the case of two recent books about alternatives to capitalism.

Giacomo Corneo’s Is Capitalism Obsolete? (Harvard University Press) takes readers on “a journey through alternative economic systems”. To give the survey a bit of drama, it is presented in the form of a father’s extended answer to a daughter who is keen to replace today’s economic system with something better. But this is in essence just a literary device and the book does not yet seem to have been widely reviewed.

By what is presumably just a coincidence, Yanis Varoufakis – the economics professor who served as Greece’s finance minister during the discussions to renegotiate the nation’s debt – did something similar. His highly successful And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability and Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment have now been followed by the English edition of Talking to My Daughter About the 
Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism (Bodley Head).

This is written as a call to arms, designed to “incite its readers to take the economy in their own hands and make them realize that to understand the economy they also have to understand why the self-appointed experts on the economy, the economists, are almost always wrong”. But Varoufakis also describes how it was written for his daughter Xenia, conceived towards the end of a relationship that was already coming apart, who is “an almost constant absence in my life. Living as she does in Australia and I in Greece, we are either far apart or, when we are together, counting the days until the next separation.”

This feels both touching and emotionally manipulative. In interviews, Varoufakis has spoken even more vividly about how much he misses his daughter. One can sympathise. But isn’t it also somewhat disturbing that a book of largely academic content is being marketed like popular fiction, by playing up the author’s poignant life story?

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Reader's comments (1)

When a book is intended to reach beyond academic audience, why not? Books have to be advertised on the basis of something and publishers (even when they are academic presses) want to sell as much books as possible, and authors (beyond sharing that) want to reach as big an audience as a possible. And it's not like authors' lives wouldn't have been used to sell academic books before. Overall the very segregation of academic fact and popular fiction is very young, and often breached. It's more common in hard and natural sciences (Edwin Abbott, Robert Bakker, George Gamow, Björn Kurtén etc), but also happens in economics. Of course its more often authors who are amateurs in economics using their fiction to sell their economical points (hey there, Ayn Rand), but if economists want to affect also the hoi polloi instead of just the politicians and CEOs, it would make sense.

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