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Books of the year, part 4

Books of the year, part 4
Published 16 Dec 2013 

In the lead-up to Christmas, we offer Lowy research staff selections for the best book they've read this year. Part 1 is here; part 2 is here; part 3 is here.

Grand Pursuit: The Story of the People Who Made Modern Economics by Sylvia Nasar. Selected by Polling Director Alex Oliver.

I am an economics pygmy. After reading a review of Nasar’s second book (the first was A Beautiful Mind), I took this up as a project to enrich that part of my brain which goes to jelly whenever a number has a $ sign in front of it.

Grand Pursuit is a magisterial account of a century and a half of brilliant people who modernised economics, served up with meticulously researched details of their lives, and an account of their theories which revolutionised ‘the dismal science’. What brought this book alive for me were the accounts of the women who helped shape modern economics. The difficulties they encountered in getting an education, let alone forging academic careers, are beautifully described by Nasar.

And for a book so real it is terrifying, try Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, set in a fictional US in 1940, in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D Roosevelt by peddling fear, isolationism and anti-Semitism.

How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell. Selected by Interpreter editor Sam Roggeveen.

This book has its critics at the Lowy Institute, but I call it my book of the year because it forced me to re-examine a number of assumptions about economics. I now look at the world through a slightly different lens.

My economics is self-taught and has come with a large dose of free-market theory, so I had gotten used to the idea that Asia's development had come in spite of governments 'picking winners' in manufacturing. But Studwell argues that in Japan and Korea in particular, industry policy was a vital tool for modernisation, and that the conventional wisdom about letting markets decide which industries should survive is a strategy best suited to developed economies, not developing ones. Here's my three-part interview with author Joe Studwell from July.

For a great holiday read, I'll pass on a recommendation from the Lowy Institute's first Distinguished International Fellow, Kurt Campbell. It's a murder mystery set in North Korea called A Corpse in the Koryo, written by a former Western intelligence analyst. It has all the trappings (and some of the cliches) of a noirish detective story, but set in an unfamiliar and tragic locale.

Titanic Lives: Migrants and Millionaires, Conmen and Crew, by Richard Davenport-Hines. Selected by Jack Georgieff, Research Associate, International Security Program.

Titanic livesThe Titanic is the most infamous ship arguably of the last 100 years. Many books have been written on the infamously doomed maiden voyage.

So why read another book about the Titanic?

Because Richard Davenport Hines looks at the lives of the people who survived and perished. Through their stories, the politics and international trends of the time come to the fore. The reader learns about what the world was like on the eve of the First World War, the class structure that pervaded western society, how open and free America’s borders were, and how so many aboard that fateful voyage were searching for a new life in the land of promise.

A well written, lucid text brought to life by one of Britain’s top historians of the last decade.

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